Air Corridor Important but we will not give up efforts for rail-road...

Air Corridor Important but we will not give up efforts for rail-road connectivity: Afghan ambassador

Tripti Nath,
Shailda Mohammad Abdali, Afghanistan’s ambassador to India. Credit: Tripti Nath

Afghan ambassador Shaida Abdali discusses the creation of the Afghanistan-India Air Freight corridor, regional connectivity, bilateral trade and more.

Last week, India and Afghanistan established the first direct air freight corridor, with a flight from New Delhi to Kabul carrying 100 tonnes of cargo, mainly pharmaceuticals, water purifiers and medical equipment, marking its inauguration. There have been two flights since then carrying products between the two countries. The creation of the Afghanistan-India air freight corridor is clearly targeting an increase in the annual volume of trade between the two countries, which presently stands at around $700 million.

The connectivity afforded by this corridor is a blessing for Afghanistan, a landlocked country, as it will give it greater access to Indian markets, including for Afghan farmers. Both sides are hopeful that air cargo services will be extended to other cities between the two countries.

Shaida Mohammad Abdali, Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, sees a lot of promise in the Indian market. He says there is a market in India for Afghan goods including dry fruits, fresh fruits, carpets, natural resources for medicines, saffron, semi-precious stones, and does not forget to mention that Afghan carpets are “number one” in the world and Afghan saffron is of “top quality”.

In 2014, Abdali was awarded the high state medal of Wazir Mohammed Akbar Khan by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai for his services as the deputy national security advisor (2009-2012) and special assistant to the president (2001-2008), and for his efforts to further promote and expand Indo-Afghan relations as ambassador to India (2012-present).

Abdali has also received an outstanding achievement award as the ambassador to India from the National Defense University in the US, with his picture even being mounted in the international hall of fame.

Excerpts from an interview with Abdali his New Delhi office.

What would you say about the timing of the air freight corridor between Afghanistan and India?

One initiates something. It takes time to realise it. This issue came up last year in Amritsar during the Heart of Asia conference when our two leaderships agreed on the air corridor between our two countries. It took us almost one year but definitely, Afghanistan is in need of additional routes to meet its internal needs – commercial-wise, trade-wise. You know Afghanistan’s obstacles in terms of regional connectivity.

Therefore, Afghanistan has no choice but to strive for alternative routes to be opened.

This is a historic moment. For the first time, Afghanistan and India will have an air corridor. This does not mean that we will be only focussing or only depending on air corridor.  This is an alternative we created and we will continue to push forward all other alternatives as well- the existing ones and the new ones.

The first cargo from Delhi to Kabul went on June 18. On June 19, an air cargo from Kabul, comprising 60 MT of ‘hing’ arrived here.

On the first air cargo flight from Delhi, we took medicines of all types, footwear, clothing and water purifiers. Each country has its own health needs. This will of course expand to a number of other items as per the needs there.  We want to not only connect the two capitals but also connect Kandahar and Amritsar through air. This is the beginning. We will also explore airport connectivity of Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif. We are going to connect not only our capitals, but also connect our regional centres through air. It is a very big moment for the two countries to expand trade links but that does not mean that we will give up our efforts on rail-road connectivity. We will continue to focus on that. For trade links through air, this is the first time.

We have five flights a day between Delhi and Kabul going back and forth. That is the kind of traffic we have between the two countries. We are looking for a special Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to be signed which will include capacity building, creation of special zones at airports where you offload and on load all the items that are being imported or exported into our capitals. That MoU is under process. It has been given to the Indian government.

In future, we will have full system in place where Afghanistan will have all the required needs in this area which includes capacity in packages of items. Afghanistan lacks that. The standardisation of items – Afghanistan has fruits and number of items but the price is not as good as it is because of lack of value addition capabilities. India would be helping in that regard once we sign that MoU.  That MoU will create commitments between our two countries in terms of fee and airport special zones where plane comes and goes to a special zone allocated for Afghanistan specific commodities.

What is the current volume of trade between Afghanistan and India?

The current volume of trade between Afghanistan and India both ways is $700 million annually. It was earlier $300 million something. The target is ultimately $10 billion in the years to come. A $1 billion target is what we are looking at in the immediate future.

What will be the frequency of these freight flights?

As of now, it is just the beginning. Perhaps, for some time, it will be two flights a month, but I am sure it will be increased depending on the items, the preparation for the air cargo. Currently, it is once in two weeks. I am sure, this will be taken to a flight a week and then again a number of flights a week and so on.

Part of the current plan is Kabul-Delhi and Kandahar-Amritsar and the next step would be to other centres in Afghanistan like Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad.

When will Kandahar and Amritsar get linked?

That is part of the current initiative. They are right now working on that to happen as well. Of course, the date and time would be known before too long.

On the ground, you keep seeking some routes, but a news report mentioned a $90 million loss due to blockage by Pakistan. Is that true?

I have heard of the 27% decline recently in the trade volume that we have with Pakistan, which is very unfortunate.  This is what we have been saying that those who do this blockage will be harmed – whoever they are. The clear example is Pakistan – they are losing 27% because of the blockage they created. We hope that they look at their own loss. We are of course affected for the short term. But definitely Afghanistan cannot be blocked.  Afghanistan has its ways and its regional potential is huge.

We hope that they realise that the dangers are not applied to a country or two but to themselves.

Of course, we will continue to seek connectivity through Pakistan but that does not mean that Afghanistan does not have other options. One of the other options in Chabahar.

We in fact strongly encourage Japan to come and invest in Chabahar because this is not bilateral or trilateral initiative.  This is a regional initiative which will benefit the entire region-economically speaking. You know that Afghanistan, India and Iran have made significant progress in that as well. The transit and trade agreement has been signed.

We are currently focusing on the infrastructure to come into being for the businesses to start. There are number of other efforts in the pipeline. We continue to insist on initiatives under SAARC. In fact, we advocate united approach when it comes to connectivity. We see our prosperity in the prosperity of the whole region.

We have over $5 billion trade with Pakistan. If you deduct 27% from there, it is a much bigger amount than what you have heard of. It is a large reduction. To our belief, it is suicidal. We are really surprised that there is no recognition of this fact – that a country that can be bridged and the bridging country always benefits.

We are trying to now fully realise this bridging status of Afghanistan to connect Central Asia with South Asia and Afghanistan is in the centre of connecting those regions. We are ready to offer Afghanistan to anyone including Pakistan to use for connectivity but we hope that is reciprocated for their own cause not necessarily for us, for India or for anyone else because we clearly see the negative impact of the blockage by the figure of 27% reduction in trade that we see in news reports.

Our highest trade volume has always been with Pakistan but now there is 27% reduction. And this definitely goes to other countries we trade with including Iran and India. And we hope that this is considered as suicidal  as you referred to – that blocking Afghanistan or India or another country is harming the one who does it.

When and why did they start the blockage?

On and off. Since last year, it has been more. Nowadays, because of the tension, they do it more than they did in the past. I would simply be looking at this as a big mistake on their part because common sense says that that you get damaged yourself economically. Blocking Afghanistan or anyone else will not benefit anybody. And we can do the same.  You are isolated not the country you think of isolating. You cannot create a barrier. There is always a way one can seek. Today, we have proved that we can find if someone blocks our route. We always try to convince everyone, mainly Pakistan – that let us remove trade issues from Politics and from other tensions that we have. That we separate economic issues from political issues and that is why we have offered India’s inclusion in Afghanistan Pakistan Trade Transit Agreement and in exchange we offered Pakistan that you will have access through central Asia to Pakistan. Very beneficial and extremely potentially important business for Pakistan. We keep trying but ultimately if Afghanistan is cornered, then Afghanistan will have to do what President [Ashraf] Ghani has said that Afghanistan will have to block Pakistan from accessing Central Asia through Afghanistan.

Pakistan may see the futility of blocking the land route as the air freight service has started.

The businesses will have to find their way. If tomorrow the road connectivity happens through Pakistan, you won’t see that much air traffic than you see today.

It has been reported that that the air cargo flight will use the Pakistan air space. They can create hurdles there also.

Well, I am not a technical expert on this, but if one resorts to that, then we have a much bigger space to do business. The question is who is losing here – Is it only Afghanistan? No.

I hope they realise that everybody loses in this. But the air corridor is not entirely referring to Pakistan. We are looking for alternatives. Today, we have started this and the precious or costly items may already be coming through air cargo because it is expensive and may be beneficial for businesses to use through short cut and as fastest route. We are doing our business through various ways, through various routes but if the route through Pakistan is opened, many traders may not be more interested in this – there may be some but today there would be more and we are facilitating that new route for them.

You can see how insecurity has increased. Everyone suffers because of terrorism, cross border terrorism and because of safe sanctuaries. Today, Afghanistan may be losing more than the others but ultimately, everybody is going to be loser. So, we hope that Pakistan, the international community will be united on this common approach – let us help each other, let us bring peace to each and every one, let us not allow terrorism to be used against a neighbour, let us not allow anyone to block a neighbour.

We are part of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The WTO charter says that all parties to WTO cannot stop transit, trade but we are clearly seeing violation of trade rules and trade laws in context of organisations like WTO. We hope justice is done.

President Trump declared recently that they will prepare to despatch 4000 more troops to Afghanistan? Do you welcome it?

Certainly, the situation of Afghanistan is not stable. We still suffer from terrorism but the solution of Afghanistan is not only military. Yes, it is part of the contribution we need.

We are in touch with the US government. We also have a strategic partnership with them. We have signed bilateral security agreement with US. Under that, there is a continued engagement in various ways. Security is a part of it.

The US is helping us in a number of areas – development activity, security, training – not merely for combat. We have about 350,000 police and Army – that means that the country is protected mainly by the Afghan security forces. They are in the frontline. The troops that are from foreign countries including US are more like enablers – they enable the Afghan security forces for a number of capacities needed to be generated for Afghanistan which includes air power. These troops train our soldiers, they give us airpower. So, the 4000 troops are welcome but with a caveat that Afghanistan situation cannot only be healed by troops presence. Terrorism has to be dealt with a comprehensive approach which means political, security, economic cooperation from the US mainly addressing the roots of the problem.

That needs to be dealt with. That needs strong pressure on the use of terrorism not to be there for political goals. So, we hope that the new US administration’s strategy will be a comprehensive one- not focussed on military but other segments of the approach which will include diplomatic efforts to convince Pakistan to be cooperative with Afghanistan.

Tripti Nath is a Delhi-based journalist, who covers foreign affairs, politics and the social sector.