India turns down Pak. offer of talks on transit trade to Afghanistan


India has rejected an offer from Pakistan for talks on transit trade to Afghanistan, diplomats and officials in New Delhi and Kabul have confirmed to The Hindu.

According to sources, the offer was made by the Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed when he met President Ashraf Ghani on October 1 in Kabul. During discussions on the renewal of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), that lapsed in 2015, President Ghani repeated concerns that trade with India over the Wagah border had been blocked by Pakistan, despite being agreed to in the APTTA.

“At this, the Pakistani Army Chief offered to talk about the transit trade issues with Indian officials,” said a diplomat privy to the talks, adding that General Bajwa reportedly said, “Ask the Indian side to speak to us and we will try and sort it out.”

President Ghani is understood to have conveyed the conversation to New Delhi through the Indian Embassy in Kabul. However, days later, Indian officials at the SCO Afghanistan-Contact group meeting in Moscow, told the Afghan delegation that it would not take up the offer for talks.

“It wasn’t a real offer, as far as India sees it,” an MEA official, who asked not to be named, told The Hindu, confirming the government decision.

“The APTTA is a bilateral agreement. It is not working because of unilateral decisions by Pakistan not to honour it. So how can India-Pakistan talks fix that?” he said.

Pakistan has consistently refused to allow any Indian goods to travel over land Afghanistan, insisting that India use the sea-route via Karachi. Exasperated by Pakistan’s refusal to allow the truck trade, President Ghani has said repeatedly that he would cut off Pakistan’s access to Central Asia and issued a decree last week cancelling permission for Pakistani trucks to transit through Afghanistan.The Pakistani gambit on APTTA made little headway as a result, especially as

India and Afghanistan are now working on strengthening alternative routes, including the air cargo corridor launched in June this year, and the Chabahar sea route. While the development of Chabahar will take at least another year, India’s first major shipment of 1,30,000 tonnes of wheat via Chabahar will be dispatched on Sunday. Officials The Hindu spoke to said although General Bajwa’s offer was only made orally, and not followed up with a direct offer to India, it was considered significant for a number reasons. To begin with, the offer was made by the Pakistan Army Chief, considered to have a stronger mandate to implement such an offer than his civilian counterparts.

U.S. nudge

In addition, the conversation was held in the backdrop of the U.S.’s newly announced South Asia Policy for Afghanistan, where the Trump administration has committed to ensuring greater Indian involvement in development projects in Afghanistan, while also pushing to “ease tensions” along the India-Pakistan border. It also had come just as preparations had begun for U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to visit Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, a visit he concluded this week.

“Frankly, we hoped that the offer by General Bajwa would be taken up by the Indian side, or would open a small window for talks, but obviously, it was India’s decision to accept or not,” a U.S. official involved in the planning of the Tillerson visit said.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva on Thursday, Mr. Tillerson said he had told the Pakistani Prime Minister Abbasi and General Bajwa, that his trip was also to “talk about how can we lower the tensions on the border with India,” in an indication that the U.S. still hopes to nudge New Delhi and Islamabad to talks.

The Hindu