On Sunday, India sent its first-ever shipment of wheat to Afghanistan through the strategically located Iranian port of Chabahar, which New Delhi has financially backed. The shipment is the first in a series of six shipments that will be delivered to Afghanistan over the “next few months,” according to a statement released by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. The Indian shipment left from Gujarat’s Kandla port for Chabahar.
“The shipment is part of commitment made by the Government of India to supply 1.1 million tonnes of wheat for the people of Afghanistan on grant basis,” the Indian External Affairs Ministry noted in its statement. Indian External Affairs Ministers Sushma Swaraj, along with Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, through a video conference, observed the first shipment.
“The two Foreign Ministers welcomed the fact that this is the first shipment that would be going to Afghanistan through the Chabahar port after Trilateral Agreement on Establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor was signed during the visit of the Prime Minister of India to Iran in May 2016,” the Indian statement noted.
After more than a decade of consideration and negotiation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had signed a trilateral agreement with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani present last year to open the Chabahar route to Iran during his visit to Iran last year. India and Iran first began discussing the prospect of Indian investment in Chabahar in 2003.
“I congratulate Afghanistan & Iran on Indian wheat shipment being flagged off from Kandla to Afghanistan through Chabahar,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted on Twitter. “This development marks a new chapter in regional cooperation & connectivity,” Modi added. India has committed up to $500 million toward the Chabahar trade route, which includes funding for parts of the land-based route that connects the port across Iranian territory to western Afghanistan.
For India, the route represents a strategically attractive opportunity to trade with Afghanistan by bypassing Pakistan. Islamabad does not allow its territory to be used for land-based trade between Afghanistan and India, two countries that maintain poor diplomatic relationships with Pakistan. In addition to Chabahar, India conducts limited air-based trade with Afghanistan via a new air freight corridor.
The first shipment of Indian wheat through Chabahar comes just weeks after U.S. President Donald J. Trump outlined a new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan that welcomed a robust role for India economically in the country. Moreover, during his recent visit to New Delhi, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reinforced U.S. support for a strong Indian economic presence in Afghanistan.
While the strategic benefits of the Chabahar trade route have long been touted by India and Afghanistan, a declining security situation in western Afghanistan could endanger trade convoys, which would have to bypass territory held by Taliban and other militants to reach Kabul and other major Afghan urban centers.
India is Afghanistan’s top export destination. In 2016, $220 million of Afghanistan’s $483 million in total trade went to India, which accounted for 46 percent of Afghan exports. India is a considerably less significant source of imports for Afghanistan, having accounted for just 2.0 percent of Afghanistan’s total imports in 2016. Of $3.77 billion in Afghan imports that year, just $73.6 million came from India. Iran, Pakistan, China, and Kazakhstan were Afghanistan’s top four import origins in 2016.