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A nation must think before it acts.
Afghans celebrated the new access that Iran’s Chabahar port provides the country, but this victory may turn out to be a pyrrhic one. As recent as May 2016, India, Iran, and Afghanistan signed their first-ever trilateral partnership agreement allowing Indian goods to reach Afghanistan and Central Asia via Iran, while also inserting new geopolitically competing players into the region. Over one year later, in October 2017, the first shipment of Indian wheat arrived in Zaranj, Afghanistan, via Chabahar port.
While utilizing Chabahar does fuse common regional and economic interests by allowing an alternate trade route into Afghanistan—and thereby reducing Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistani ports—relying too heavily on Chabahar raises serious security and economic concerns in Kabul because using Chabahar is bound to further fray Afghanistan’s already tenuous relationship with Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s access to Chabahar will have greater implications for the geopolitical situation and for countries in the region, specifically India, Pakistan, and Iran.
India’s development of the Chabahar port is a calculated move granting New Delhi unimpeded access to Afghanistan and thence to wider Central Asia, while summarily bypassing the subcontinent’s archrival, Pakistan.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s mid-February visit to India indicated a new strategic collaboration between India and Iran punctuated by the countries’ signing of nine additional agreements extending Iran’s 2018-19 bilateral energy infusion to India by some half a million barrels per day (25 MT), an increase of 25% over the 2017-18 estimate of 370,000 barrels per day (18.5 MT). Considering India’s lack of oil and natural gas reserves, opening the gates to Iran’s major ones makes perfect sense, and it is specifically Chabahar that has afforded India the opportunity to import even more natural resources from Iran, which will surely add to the port’s already growing geo-economic cachet.
India made this strategic move to compete with China, its main economic rival in Asia, and also the world’s top importer of Iranian oil commodities. However, India’s reaping of its own political and economic benefits via its agreement with Iran is certain to leave Afghanistan as the odd-country-out, standing more unstably vis-à-vis its potential economic threat to Pakistan, due to Afghanistan’s declining resource dependence.
According to the World Bank, Pakistan’s contribution to Afghan trade has declined from 56.5% in 2008 to 38.9% by 2015, with Iran and India now as the largest importers of Afghan goods. The trilateral agreement on Chabahar port between Iran, India, and Afghanistan has allowed Afghanistan to diversify the ways and means by which it distributes goods to and from its provinces. By design, it completely bypasses Pakistan, which could create a new conflict between Kabul and Islamabad, and more so if Afghanistan continues to disentangle its import/export ties. The resulting deeper tensions would certainly result in further adverse effects on Afghanistan’s still fragile security and economy. The potential for such adverse effects has been amplified by the World Bank’s 2016 public recognition of Pakistan’s hostile Afghan intentions, a recognition that sharply indicates that if push comes to shove over Afghanistan’s further utilization of the Chabahar port, Afghanistan would remain defenseless if faced with a threat from Pakistan.
Iran’s February anti-government protests again signaled Tehran’s instability to the region and the world. The West’s frequent imposition of sanctions, coupled with international criticism over Iran’s role in Syria and Yemen, reveals that global mistrust of Iran is still widespread. Furthermore, in March, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran would extend the Chabahar port project to Pakistan and China. The statement may have come as a shock to the region since the sole purpose of the port was to sidestep Islamabad. It is not a concrete partnership and more of a diplomatic declaration to indicate that ties between Tehran and Islamabad are not hurt.
Kabul doesn’t trust Tehran, yet Afghanistan still views Iran as its obligatory, if fickle, diplomatic partner. U.S. intelligence officials have recently revealed that Tehran has gallingly equipped the Taliban with arms, and even deployed Afghan refugees as its foot soldiers in Syria’s bloody civil war. Given these developments notwithstanding the geographic necessity of Iran in the Chabahar agreement, Afghanistan has little say in final trade route decisions; it’s hard not be cynical about the long-term prospects of Afghan international trade. Having such a domineering, frequently disruptive regional power as a neighbor and primary trade partner forces Afghanistan to tacitly accept its severe disadvantage. Another disadvantage is that Afghanistan can’t cut ties with Pakistan because then it would have to rely solely on the already hemmed-in Chabahar route. Were that to occur, Iran would have a leading role in the region not only by establishing Tehran as a major channel of trade entry and exit, but also by potentially giving the Islamic Republic the upper religious and cultural hand in Afghanistan.
History tells us that something deceptively simple and non-political as a trade port can have major security implications both regionally and globally. This is especially true in the Chabahar case, given its natural limitations and the generally fraught state of affairs in Central Asia. The United States remains a strong partner to Afghanistan, both in fighting terrorism and in bolstering Kabul’s overall progress as a governing body, and the Trump administration has (so far) pledged its full support. However, Kabul simply cannot—and should not—rely on a single partner, especially due to its rising tensions with Pakistan. This dynamic makes Afghanistan’s strategic relationships with India and Iran essential, though these relationships are by no means be a perfect one, due to the haranguing influences of Pakistan.
Though Afghanistan is often referred to as the “beating heart” of Central Asia, its distant and isolated geographic position has always left it economically, politically, and militarily vulnerable. There are no easy solutions to the country’s difficult circumstances, but connecting Afghanistan with Chabahar via a calculated geopolitical strategic move with India and Iran could prove a worthwhile gambit, despite its potential for only pyrrhic success.