The late February shipment of Afghan goods from Chabahar port to India is doubly significant – it is the first of its kind from the Iranian port, but it is also a sign of Afghanistan rejoining the global supply chain.
The goods – 570 tonnes of fruit, stones, cotton, spices and carpets – were moved from Afghanistan to Iran in a fleet of lorries with Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani among those waving them off. At Chabahar, where India has invested in major port facilities, the goods were loaded onto a ship bound for India.
India is Afghanistan’s largest export destination, with some US$740 million worth of goods sold ton India in 2018. Trade between the two countries has previously had to go via Pakistan, which has tightly-controlled borders with both Afghanistan and India.
Chabahar is Iran’s only oceanic port and is strategic located on both international north-south and east-west transport corridors. India also helped develop a road, the Zaranj-Delaram highway, which connects Afghanistan’s national Highway 1 to the border with Iran.
“The fact that Afghanistan has used the Chabahar Port for the first time to export its goods has opened a new chapter in developing political, economic and commercial relations,” Mohammad Eslami, Iran’s roads and urban development minister, said via the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
It also confirms the precedent of India buying from Central Asia and its supply chain into that region. Since 2017 India has sold over 110,000 tonnes of lentils and wheat to Afghanistan via Chabahar, a place now on the map and with ambitions plans for itself and its hinterland.
“Eight memorandums of understanding and deals were signed with private sector on development of Iran’s southeastern port of Chabahar,” IRNA reported during a late February International Conference on Chabahar Development.
Construction of two multipurpose warehouses and building a specialized container yard at the port were among the projects agreed upon, said Behrouz Aqaei, director general of the ports and maritime department of Sistan-Baluchestan province, according to IRNA.
This is just the beginning with Eslami, who outlined rail, air and road routes connecting Chabahar to Afghanistan and then Central Asia at the same conference.
“He noted that the railway link from Chabahar to Afghanistan and from there to Central Asia as well as another one connecting China to Europe via Iran were among the main programs in Iran’s future railway network development plans,” IRNA reported Eslami as saying, without providing significant detail.
More details on this came from Ghani, in a speech to students at the Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan.
“In four years, two railway terminals from Turkmenistan have reached Afghanistan. Together we have opened the Caucuses and Europe to Afghanistan and together we are in the process of opening South Asia and East Asia to Turkmenistan. This is not a small accomplishment,” he said.
Enhanced connectivity, Ghani went on to say, is marked by two major projects, including the Lapis Lazuli Corridor transit link. Named for the semi-precious stone that used to be transported on it the Lapis Lazuli Corridor connects Afghanistan to Turkey via Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia.)
In practice, this means the ports of Georgia and Turkey are now destinations for imports and exports of Afghanistan and all of the five countries on the corridor.
“Tomorrow, I think, South Asia will be traveling through this corridor to Europe and the Caucuses and not just Central Asia,” said Ghani. He admitted this will take time and effort, but his speech at least signalled government support for what is effectively a new Silk Road and all the work it entails.
“Our first priority is to expand the Lapis Lazuli Corridor. Everything is done. It is now managing it so it becomes a completely reliable just-in-time delivery for every single business, every single government, every single entity along its route, and to expand it from five countries in the future to many more,” he said.
Also in play is the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI), also known as the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline being developed by the Galkynysh – TAPI Pipeline Company and the Asian Development Bank.
“We got a project concept. It said the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India pipeline is a project.”
The pipeline could one day lead a railway link, he said, by increasing the pipeline into a project.
“But how did we change it from a project to corridor? Project is an individual thing, a pipeline, what did we do? First, we said, let’s add a power line to the pipeline,” he said. “Next, if you are having a pipeline and a transmission line, why not add a fiber optic aligned to it. So the fourth we said, does this corridor make sense without a railway?”
Ghani said in his speech that the “first step” of building a railway was agreement, and drew parallels to agreements which had been struck that day between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
“We have just agreed to two new lines of railway from Turkmenistan. One is Aqina to the city of Andkhoi, it is a 30 km line,” Ghani said. “And we agreed and it is going to go towards implementation. The second one is a 120 km railway from Torghundi, our dry port with Turkmenistan to the city of Herat.”
But, Ghani cautioned the students, whether any of these grand plans are ultimately successful boils down to relationships. “Connectivity is not railways. It is not power lines. It is not gas pipelines. Connectivity is human. It is at the human level that we connect deeply together because power lines do not understand mutual respect. They understand system connections, synchronization. Human beings are complex, but human beings are the key agents of change.”
By Michael Mackey
Southeast Asia Correspondent | Bangkok
Afghan goods are taking to the skies
Afghanistan isn’t just reconnecting itself to the global trading system via surface transport. It’s also making inroads back into aviation, with financial help from the government in Kabul.
Last November, president Ashraf Ghani inaugurated a new China air corridor, which will transport a major part of Afghanistan’s pine nuts output, worth US$700-$800 million to China annually, his office said in a statement.
“20 tons of pine nuts per day will be transported to China until the end of the season this year,” the statement said. “Afghanistan’s total pine nuts output is 23,000 metric tons, wherein China is the major importer of the product.”
The first shipment of pine nuts, worth a reported US$500,000, flew from Kabul to Shanghai in November 2018.
The government is committed to bringing out its full potential via trade corridors, the statement added.
“It’s our first air cargo consignment to Shanghai, but soon we will be sending Afghan products to Beijing and Quanzhou,” Naseem Malekzai, chairman of the Afghanistan-China Business Council, told the Reuters news agency.
The China air corridor follows a ‘spice corridor’ linking Kabul to three Indian cities – Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad – and is a key part of a government strategy to boost the exports of niche products moved by air.
This will begin with spices and fruits, which Afghanistan was once known for, but hopes are high that the air export strategy will soon extend to higher-value products such as hand-woven carpets. Since 2017, 153 flights have carried 3,344 metric tonnes of Afghan fresh fruit, dry fruit, medicinal herbs, asafoetida and saffron to India.
Helping out are Afghani government subsidies of US$2 million to exporters, a senior adviser to Ghani told Reuters.
“Afghan businessmen have achieved more than US$10 million in profit by exporting their products through air corridors since 2017,” he said. “China is a great market for our niche products.”
– Michael Mackey