The New York Times
NEW DELHI — Security chiefs from Iran to Russia met on Wednesday in New Delhi to call for “unimpeded” humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan, where millions face starvation as a harsh winter sets in. On Thursday in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, another set of leaders urged “uninterrupted” aid.
Despite agreeing to help Afghanistan, the souring relationship between India and Pakistan is getting in the way of 50,000 tons of Indian wheat reaching Afghanistan, officials say, in the latest sign that regional rivalries that have haunted the fragile country for decades continue to affect even the delivery of lifesaving assistance.
Indian officials say Pakistan is dragging its feet on approving their request, made seven weeks ago, to move wheat and medicine through 400 miles of its territory to reach Afghans in need.
But Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, in a meeting on Friday with the Taliban’s foreign minister, said his government would “favorably” consider the Afghan request to allow the Indian wheat. Pakistani officials would not comment on why their response to India was taking so long, or when the transit could be granted.
The World Food Program says that only 5 percent of the Afghan population has enough to eat, and that Afghanistan was already short on wheat by 2.5 million tons this year because of drought.
Conflict and an economic collapse after the Taliban took over in August have only aggravated the problem. About 23 million people in Afghanistan face acute food insecurity, and nine million are on the brink of starvation, according to the World Food Program, a United Nations agency.
“The humanitarian imperative must be separated from political discussions for the sake of the millions of Afghans in desperate need of food and emergency assistance as the harsh winter quickly engulfs the country,” said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, who heads the World Food Program’s operations in Afghanistan.
In September, donors pledged more than $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan. But food needs alone require more than $200 million a month, and aid organizations are concerned about a funding shortage in the spring, when the number of people who are affected by hunger is predicted to peak. The wheat donation from India could fulfill 10 percent of the 500,000 tons of wheat the World Food Program requires for the period of January to May.
Over the past two decades, as droughts led to repeated grain shortages in Afghanistan, India, which produces a grain surplus, often came to its aid. But relations between Pakistan and India have been consistently tense including over the disputed Kashmir region, and they plunged to a new low in recent years after deadly militant attacks in India were blamed on support from Pakistan.
India has recently largely used the Chabahar Port in Iran to send wheat shipments to Afghanistan, a longer and costlier route. It has also turned to compacting wheat into high-protein biscuits to significantly reduce the tonnage.
The Taliban’s return to power has further complicated the transit issues. Pakistan, where the Taliban found a haven during their 20-year insurgency, is now in many ways playing gatekeeper for Afghanistan.
While many countries in the region had prepared for the possibility that the Taliban would return to power by hedging their bets with the group before the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, India continued to put its weight only behind the Afghan government. The sudden collapse of that government, with the Afghan president fleeing, left India with little leverage in a country where it had invested heavily over the past two decades.
Even as India struggles to navigate the reality of the new Taliban-led Afghanistan, it responded to the U.N. agency’s appeal for assistance by preparing 50,000 tons of wheat. On Oct. 7, the Indian government delivered a letter to the Pakistani authorities highlighting the urgency of the matter and requesting help in “expeditiously” granting transit for wheat and medicine to go by road to Afghanistan, a senior Indian official said.
Much of India’s grain comes from its north, particularly the state of Punjab, where the border crossing of Wagah is. Afghanistan is just a 400-mile drive across Pakistan from that crossing.
In the seven weeks since India made its request for transit, calls for humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan have escalated, including at forums attended by officials from India and Pakistan. On the sidelines of an event last month in Moscow, Indian envoys met with Taliban representatives, and statements by the Taliban suggested that the offer of humanitarian assistance had been discussed.
But there was no response from Pakistan to India’s request. Pakistani diplomatic officials acknowledged to The New York Times that they had received the request and said that they were considering it, but would not comment on how long it could take.
Pakistan’s first public acknowledgment of the wheat came not in response to India, but to Taliban officials asking Pakistan to allow its transit. The timing spoke only to the region’s divides at a moment of humanitarian crisis.
Pakistan and China had declined to attend the meeting of regional security chiefs in New Delhi on Wednesday. Instead, Pakistan hosted the Taliban foreign minister on the same day, as well as representatives from China, Russia and the United States the next day, for its own talks.
Pakistani officials said the Taliban foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, had asked Mr. Khan to allow transit for the wheat.
In a statement, Mr. Khan’s office said he “would favorably consider the request by Afghan brothers,” but did not make clear when the transit for wheat could be granted.
Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad.