A common adage asserts that the effectiveness of resources hinges on the ability to utilize them. This principle is particularly salient in international relations, where strategic diplomacy surpasses mere possession of resources, requiring astute management for strategic advantage. Against this backdrop, recent events between Pakistan and Afghanistan, such as the reopening of a vital border crossing after a temporary closure, underscore the critical role of resource management in diplomacy.

Looming threats from Taliban authorities to permanently shutter key border points if unresolved issues persist raise apprehensions. Such a scenario could have dire economic consequences for both nations.

Delving into history unveils the significance of the historic Khyber Pass as a pivotal trade route between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Established in 1965, the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement aimed to facilitate mutual trade flows. Subsequent revisions in 2010 expanded its scope with the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, fostering regional economic cooperation. However, despite these agreements, tensions persist, exacerbated by bureaucratic hurdles and unresolved trade issues, casting shadows over the potential for economic cooperation.

On the other hand, the dynamics between Iran and Afghanistan have undergone notable shifts over time. Despite historical animosities, Iran emerged as a cautious ally to the Taliban post-2001, marking a shift in relations. The relationship changed post-invasion, with Iran becoming a cautious benefactor to the Taliban, particularly establishing ties with the Haqqani network. Iran even hosted talks on Afghanistan’s future post-American withdrawal. Welcoming the Taliban’s takeover, Iran celebrated the removal of American troops along its northwestern border.

In November 2023, a meeting took place between delegates of Afghanistan and Iran in Tehran. The Afghan Taliban government proposed discounted Iranian electricity exports, seeking an end to supply outages. Talks included extending an electricity deal and securing a favorable tariff. Further, economic agreements were signed, targeting a $10 billion trade volume. Joint working groups in trade, transit, transportation, customs, and the environment were discussed. Iran assured unrestricted access to Chabahar Port for Afghanistan, enhancing import/export capabilities.

In terms of connectivity, Pakistan and Iran offer distinct entry routes to Afghanistan. Pakistan provides shorter transit distances to Afghan hubs but faces hurdles like border closures and tariffs. Conversely, Iran’s Chabahar Port offers access to warm waters and links to Central Asian Republics, serving as an alternative trade route. Pakistan boasts eight border crossings, with Chaman, Torkham, and Ghulam Khan as key operational points, open 24/6. Iran has three border crossings operational during daylight hours. Despite the diplomatic emphasis on economic integration, trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan has declined. In 2021, Pakistan’s trade with Afghanistan was $1.43B, while Iran’s stood at approximately $1.85B.

When comparing land transit distances to Kabul and Kandahar, Pakistan provides a shorter and more cost-effective route than Iran, assuming other factors remain constant. The distances from Karachi to Kandahar and Gwadar to Kabul range from 918 km to 1748 km, respectively, whereas distances from Chabahar range from 1342 km to 1848 km. On the Iranian side, Chabahar Port offers a viable alternative, granting access to the Indian Ocean. Utilizing Iran’s road network to Zahedan and India’s Zaranj-Delaram Road, Afghanistan gains direct access to major cities.

India’s ongoing rail construction from Chabahar to Zahedan boosts corridor capacity, while Iran’s road network to Mashhad connects Central Asian Republics via Turkmenistan, offering Afghanistan increased connectivity and transit options.

Conclusively, on the eastern side of Pakistan, despite its shorter and historic road infrastructure, the trade relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan faces numerous challenges. These include prolonged waiting times for clearances, sudden border closures, and a threefold tariff increase imposed by Pakistan in 2017. Additionally, the closure of major crossing points and unpredictable trade relations pose significant obstacles, adversely affecting farmers’ livelihoods and contributing to humanitarian crises during border shutdowns.

When coming to the comparison between Gwadar with Chabahar, Gwadar boasts significant infrastructure capabilities, with the potential for 88 berths and the capacity to accommodate mother ships weighing between 100,000 to 200,000 DWT (Dead Weight Tonnage). Three multi-purpose berths have been designed to handle an annual output of 100,000 TEUs (TEU stands for “Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit” and is a standard unit of measurement in the shipping industry used to quantify cargo capacity) of containers, 270,000 tons of general cargo, and 450,000 tons of bulk cargo.

Additionally, Gwadar International Airport is allocated 3000 acres of land along the port. The Gwadar port project encompasses various sub-projects, including transportation routes, daily production of over 12,500 tons of raw copper, power generation, and railways. Its annual capacity ranges between 300 to 400 million tons of cargo, nearly equivalent to India’s entire annual port volume.

In contrast, the planned capacity of Chabahar is limited to only 10-12 million tons of cargo per year, significantly lower than Gwadar. While Gwadar features 12 berths, Chabahar has only four. Moreover, Gwadar’s status as a natural deep-sea port entails relatively lower maintenance costs compared to Chabahar. Gwadar stands out as the region’s sole port capable of receiving supertankers weighing up to 200,000 tons, while Chabahar can only accommodate vessels of up to 20,000 tons.

In light of Afghanistan’s potential estrangement from Pakistan, Kabul and Tehran may forge closer ties due to their mutual opposition to ISIS and anti-US sentiment.

India’s involvement, exemplified by its decision to send aid via Chabahar amid failed talks with Pakistan, signals a shift toward fostering unity between Afghanistan and Iran, potentially alienating the Taliban from Pakistan. India’s portrayal of the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) as a more promising alternative to CPEC further underscores efforts to capitalize on this opportunity, despite American sanctions on Iran.

Reflecting on future possibilities, the convergence of interests between Kabul and Tehran against common threats could foster closer ties, potentially marginalizing Pakistan’s influence. Additionally, India’s involvement in Afghanistan, including aid delivery via Chabahar Port, underscores the evolving geopolitical landscape. Amidst these shifts, effective resource management and diplomatic maneuvering will be crucial in navigating the complex dynamics of regional relations.

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