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Gwadar port's unrealised potential

Talking to journalists the other day, the Balochistan Chief Minister, Nawab Aslam Raisani, made a strong plea for using the Gwadar Port for Afghan Transit Trade. He said that he had asked the ‘relevant authorities’ to supply fuel to the Nato forces in Afghanistan through this port, and that the provincial government is ready to provide security to Nato supplies.

Mindful of the fact that the roads are in disrepair – according to him, because of heavy Nato containers and oil tankers movement along the route – he said that Nato countries would need to invest $1.5 billion in road construction for easy transportation of oil to Afghanistan via Gwadar.

The Chief Minister obviously is concerned about the underutilisation of the port, which has a great potential to serve as a regional transit hub, creating substantial business and employment opportunities in the province. Unfortunately, the project has failed to take-off in a big way. Two major hurdles have hindered its progress. One is an unsavoury controversy surrounding the awarding of operating rights contract to the Port of Singapore Authority. The other problem, as the CM pointed out, pertains to the poor state of roads connecting the port to the Chaman border crossing into Afghanistan.

Considering that the US and its allies are committed to start troop drawdown in July this year, his suggestion that the Nato countries invest as much as $1.5 billion in the construction of roads sounds rather unrealistic at first. But not so in view of the fact that the US and its allies have to undertake a huge reconstruction and rehabilitation effort to restore a semblance of stability to the war-devastated Afghanistan. The task will take several years to complete, and is likely to go beyond the final withdrawal date of December 2014.

Of course, there is the Torkham border route as well, which Nato has been using more regularly than the Chaman crossing. But the latter route offers a shorter and convenient passage to all parts of Afghanistan, hence the idea may be worth its while for the Nato nations to pursue. The government, nonetheless, must not wait for the Western nations for help to realise the full potential of the port, on which rest its dreams of making Gwadar the gateway to the resource-rich Central Asian Republics.

It is also to serve as an important link for China with West Asia as well as Africa from where it plans to bring oil, drastically reducing the transportation time and cost as compared to the alternative routes. Things being what they are, the government needs to make two quick decisions: one about the port contract, which reports suggest, is about to change hands from Singapore to China; and the other regarding the upgrade of the road system in accord with international standards. Only when these issues are resolved, will the Gwadar Port become truly functional, bringing the much-awaited benefits to all concerned.

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