India-Afghanistan Trade Via ‘Air Corridor’ Takes a Big Hit With Pakistan Airspace Closure

The Closure of Pakistan Airspace has hit the India-Afghanistan Air Corridor severely. The Pakistani airspace first shut when the IAF breached Pakistan borders into Balakot and attacked Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camps. Its been closed ever since!

The closure of Pakistan airspace has severely affected the India-Afghanistan Air Corridor. It all started when the Indian air force attacked the terror camps in Balakot in Pakistan. To maintain face and to position its sovereignty, Islamabad hit back with the closure of Pakistan airspace and ban all carriers to and from India. The trade via India Afghanistan Air Corridor has taken badly affected with this closure. 

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The closure of Pakistan airspace has become a big headache for commercial and trade passage between India and Afghanistan. A large number of commercial flights have been exponentially curtailed and the pathway for cargo and freight transport between the two nations has been heavily impacted by the Pakistani airspace closure.

The Pakistani airspace first shut when the IAF breached Pakistan borders into Balakot and attacked the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camps. The Pakistani airspace was completely shut from February 2019 after the attack.

The ban on all flights from and through India had been restricted within the Pakistani airspace which led to flights having to take longer routes to enter India. Flights from Europe to South-East Asia that were heavily affected along with European and American flight coming in and out of New Delhi.

Islamabad did open its airspace to Indian Prime Minister Modi’s VVIP flight to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The gesture was appreciated but not adhered as the PM’s flight chose an alternate route avoiding Pakistani airspace.

The Indian government and the IAF recently issued a statement publicly announcing that the Indian airspace has been opened and fully operational on all routes. Islamabad continued to maintain its airspace ban with little to no alteration.

The CAA notice issued to airmen (NOTAM) on Thursday said: “Pakistani airspace will be closed until June 28 along its eastern border with India. The Panjgoor airspace will remain open for overflying transit flights from the western side as Air India had already been using that airspace.” Presently, only 2 routes out of the 11 have been operational and both are located in Southern Pakistan.

India-Afghanistan Air Corridor Takes a Hit

The closure of Pakistan airspace has affected the trade and commercial prospects of many adjoining nations as well. Afghanistan has been one of the nations affected by the recent closure of airspace. With India being one of Afghanistan’s major assistance in restructuring, the move to prohibit freight movement between the two nations have been particularly problematic.

“The bilateral trade between India and Afghanistan is USD 900 million and with the opening of air corridor our target to take it to USD 2 billion by 2020,” Afghanistan Ambassador to India, Sahida Mohammad Abdali stated USAID-FICCI event.

India-Afghanistan Air Corridor was increasingly used to ferry trade materials like dry fruits and many such products of value from various Afghan cities to the markets of Delhi and Mumbai. This has been suspended as a result of the closure of the Pakistani airspace.

Flights transiting the two nations has been reduced from five a day to just two, which has widely affected the commercial air traffic in the region. Pakistan is said to have extensively prevented the passage of India’s SpiceJet cargo bound for Kabul. The aircraft carrier works in coordinated efforts to help trade in Afghanistan.

SpiceJet Cargo works in coordination with the Indian government and the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (ACCI). “This is affecting not only Afghanistan, and it is a bit hard to get to India. A flight from Delhi to Kabul that used to take one-and-a-half hours now takes five hours,” said Afghan chargé d’affaires Tahir Qadiry.

India-Afghanistan Air Corridor – Connecting Delhi With Kabul 

The India-Afghanistan Air Corridor, which is a direct and dedicated trade route designed to promote trade relations between the two nations. This ‘Air Corridor’ helps promote not just international trade relations but also regional economic development. India-Afghanistan Air Corridor connects Herat and New Delhi bypassing Pakistan in bilateral.

The first flight between the two points carried 200 kgs of saffron and 1600 kg of pistachio from New Delhi to Herat. The decision to construct the India-Afghanistan air corridor was made in 2016 when PM Modi met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. With the trade relations between the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) and Pakistan gone down, the Indo-Afghan air corridor initiative with India is a healthy and robust alternative.

The air corridor would be used as a medium of dialogue between the two nations. There is proactive participation of civil aviation authorities, freight and other aviation companies India and Central Asia utilising the India- Afghanistan air corridor as a quick and efficient transport of perishable goods. From India’s perspective, the establishment of the India-Afghanistan air corridor has helped make a bigger splash in the influencing other adjoining nations including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Dubai.

This corridor has helped establish alternative routes with Jeddah and many other such neighbouring countries. The ascent of Afghan exports with India, Turkey and Kazakhstan stood to 2,600 tons through air corridor route.

The Kabul-Mumbai corridor which is a much nascent initiative has bumped export evaluations by 44%. The Kabul-Delhi corridor is a massive trade impetus for Afghanistan. With the Kabul-Amritsar air cargo to open soon, the India-Afghanistan air corridor has had a positive impact on the war-torn region.

The success of the exhibition “Made in Afghanistan: Nature’s Best” by the ACCI held in New Delhi in July has led to increased gains. The exhibition is tipped to have led to more than 70 million USD trade agreements sanctioned between traders of the two countries. Since the inception of the air corridor between Afghanistan and India around 125 flights have transited exporting fresh and dried fruits, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, spices.

India remains an important market for Afghanistan until now more than 2500 metric tons of fresh and dried fruits have been exported from Afghanistan to India through air freight cargo. Trade through the India-Afghanistan air corridor was found to be 230-357 million USD in 2016-17. An agreement of a Joint Chamber of Commerce between Afghanistan and India signed in 2015 need to be operationalised to enhance trade of the two nations.

Indian Interest in Afghanistan

India has been particularly helpful in bringing about a more positive change to the war-torn country which is now rebuilding itself after years of siege. With the announcement of US troops being pulled out of the Afghan region after 18 years, the Afghan government has been taking proactive steps to maintain order and protect the region from the rampant terrorist insurgency.

India has provided the Afghanistan government with restructuring support by helping with projects like rebuilding the Salma Dam (now known as the Afghan-India Friendship Dam); providing relief in the form for grants-in-aid through educational scholarships to premier Indian universities. There have been structural aspects as well which India has involved with, which includes: providing upgraded telecom systems; expanding national television services and enabling sanitation facilities in Kabul.

India most definitely has high stakes in Afghanistan and these measures are simply mutually beneficial. The establishment of the Zaranj-Delaram Road is a strategic manoeuvre that helps not only Kabul but also New Delhi’s vested interest in the region. The Zaranj-Delaram Road helps connect the Iranian border town of Delaram, thus allowing higher communication.

The infrastructure chain will connect a larger chain by joining with Iranian ports in the process. India has also been strong-arming Pakistan by engaging with Afghanistan. The support of rebuilding the Shahtoot Dam project can, at its fruition, help in reducing the downstream flow of the Kabul river into Pakistan. Kabul has largely had a very negative relationship with Pakistan. Islamabad has been the breeding ground of terrorist organisations which have for most parts seeped into the Afghan borders and afflict the local populous. The amicable friendship between New Delhi and Kabul has irked Islamabad.

Besides these, the vested community interests that New Delhi is engaged in with Afghanistan has endeared the nation to the local community in the region and with the Ghani-led government. New Delhi even helped with the enrollment and development of the Afghan National Cricket team which is currently participating in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019. Though the relationship between India and Afghanistan is not only based on humanitarian reasons but on India’s attempt to limit Islamabad’s influence on Afghanistan.

With the impact of Pakistani influence reducing in the region, India can help contain the chances of any terrorist activity that could be driven on anti-Indian sentiments. This is largely done to reduce the Pulwama-like attack on Indian soil as New Delhi feels India might be the first and prime target when the US troops leave Afghanistan.

With trade at an almost standstill, India and Afghanistan have to circumvent the situation to reach a tangible conclusion. Islamabad shows no signs of budging having now extended the closure of Pakistani Airspace into July. The Afghani insiders suggest that there must be a proactive conversation between the two loggerheaded neighbours, India and Pakistan. The perpetual acceptance of the status quo seems to have far-reaching effects within the region which won’t be solved by such a hard-line approach by Islamabad.

By Rahul Mahesh