In a measure to sidestep Pakistan’s dominance of trade routes to Afghanistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has negotiated a deal with Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee that will see India ship goods to land-locked Afghanistan via Iran.
The 220-kilometer road in the southwest Afghan province of Nimroz is the centerpiece of a $1.1 billion Indian reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. It has drawn sniping from Pakistan, worried about its rival’s growing influence there. India, denied access through Pakistan, hopes to be able to deliver goods to Afghanistan through the Iranian port of Chahbahar, and this has triggered fears in Pakistan it is being encircled.
The road, which costs $150 million and was entirely funded by India, runs from Delaram in Nimroz to Zaranj on the Iranian border, which connects to the Iranian port of Chahbahar. It opens up an alternate route into Afghanistan, which now relies mostly on goods transported overland from ports in Pakistan.
Tensions between India and Pakistan have often flared as a result of violence in Afghanistan:
A suicide bombing at the Indian Embassy in Kabul last year killed at least 58 people, including two Indian diplomats. India and Afghanistan blamed Pakistani intelligence for the blast, an allegation backed by the United States, which said there was evidence of involvement. Pakistan angrily rejected the charges.
The attack also stirred fears South Asia’s nuclear armed neighbors had taken their rivalry to Afghanistan in a proxy war. Tensions are running high between the two countries since the November attacks in Mumbai, which killed 179 people. India has blamed those attacks on Pakistani militants and is frustrated at what it sees as Pakistan’s slowness at arresting the planners.
Although the Afghan government will likely welcome alternative shipping routes, the India-Iran corridor creates new variables as well. In addition to the very real possibility of further strained relations between Pakistan and India, Iran’s reliability and any efforts to increase its influence in Afghanistan may become issues as well.
Peter Cassata is associate editor of the Atlantic Council.