My op-ed in Mint: Pomegranates, polls and power

Why India must strengthen its military presence in Afghanistan

In today’s op-ed in Mint Sushant and I call for India to increase its troop levels in Afghanistan. A slightly edited version of the following appeared in print.

Image: Malay Karmakar/Mint
Image: Malay Karmakar/Mint

Afghanistan exported US$1 billion worth of drugs last year. In contrast, its pomegranate exports amounted to only US$1 million. Poppies or pomegranates, the Afghan farmers who grow them earn around the same amount of money—around US$2000 per hectare every year. If somehow they could be made to grow a lot more pomegranates, and a lot less poppy, Afghanistan, India and the world would be a much better place indeed.

That’s because growing pomegranates and other legitimate cash crops requires water, electricity and most importantly access to foreign markets. Now, much of the international assistance flowing into Afghanistan aims to build and repair dams and connect villages to the electricity network. India, for instance, is financing irrigation projects in Northwest Afghanistan and power projects in Herat and Kabul.
But the one Indian project that could transform Afghanistan’s economic landscape is the just completed 218km road link connecting the town of Delaram on the Kandahar-Herat highway to Zaranj adjacent to the border with Iran. From there Iranian roads run to the port of Chabahar on the Persian Gulf. This will be Afghanistan’s fastest overland route to the sea. Last year, because they had to be air-flown, only 1000 of the 40,000 metric tonnes of Afghan pomegranates made it to markets in India, Dubai, Singapore and Pakistan. With the new road, Afghan farmers can export a larger fraction of their produce to the rapidly expanding Indian market. The competition from this route will compel Pakistan to review its policy of throttling the Afghan transit trade. In time, the Zaranj-Delaram road can be expanded into a trade and energy corridor that connects landlocked Central Asia to Indian and global markets.

This sounds wonderful, and it is. The problem, however, is that its success hinges on two key factors: on Afghanistan’s stability and on the nature of relations between India, Iran and the United States.
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