India wants to send wheat to ease the Afghan famine crisis. Pakistan does not yet have OK transit.

NEW DELHI – Security chiefs from Iran to Russia met on Wednesday in New Delhi to call for “unhindered” humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, where millions face starvation when a severe winter sets in. On Thursday in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, another set of leaders was called for “uninterrupted” assistance.

Despite agreeing to help Afghanistan, the sour relations between India and Pakistan stand in the way of 50,000 tonnes of Indian wheat reaching Afghanistan, officials say, in the latest sign that regional rivalries that have plagued it fragile land for decades, continues to affect even the delivery of life-saving aid.

Indian officials say Pakistan is lagging behind in approving their request, made seven weeks ago, to move wheat and medicine through 400 miles of its territory to reach out to needy Afghans.

But Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan said in a meeting on Friday with the Taliban’s foreign minister that his government would “favorably” consider the Afghan request to allow the Indian wheat. Pakistani officials would not comment on why their response to India took so long or when transit could be granted.

The World Food Program says only 5 percent of the Afghan population has enough to eat and that Afghanistan already lacked wheat by 2.5 million tonnes this year due to drought.

Conflict and an economic collapse following the Taliban’s takeover in August have only exacerbated the problem. About 23 million people in Afghanistan are facing acute food insecurity, and nine million are on the brink of starvation, according to the World Food Program, a UN agency.

“The humanitarian imperative must be separated from political discussions for the sake of the millions of Afghans who are in desperate need of food and relief as the harsh winter quickly engulfs the country,” said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, head of World Food Programs 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 worried about a lack of funding in the spring, when the number of people affected by hunger is expected to peak. The wheat donation from India could meet 10 percent of the 500,000 tons of wheat required by the World Food Program for the period January to May.

During the last two decades, when drought led to repeated grain shortages in Afghanistan, India, which produces a grain surplus, often came to the rescue. But relations between Pakistan and India have been consistently strained, including across the disputed Kashmir region, and they have plunged to a new low in recent years after deadly militant attacks in India were accused of backing Pakistan.

India has recently largely used the Chabahar port in Iran to send wheat shipments to Afghanistan, a longer and more expensive route. It has also been used to compress wheat into biscuits with a high protein content in order to reduce the amount significantly.

The Taliban’s return to power has further complicated the transit issues. Pakistan, where the Taliban found refuge during their 20-year revolt, now plays in many ways the gatekeeper of Afghanistan.

While many countries in the region had prepared for the possibility that the Taliban would return to power by uncovering their bets with the group before the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, India continued to place only its weight behind the Afghan government. The sudden collapse of this government, with the Afghan president on the run, left India with little influence in a country where it had invested heavily over the past two decades.

Although India is struggling to navigate the realities of the new Taliban-led Afghanistan, it responded to the UN agency’s call for help by cooking 50,000 tonnes of wheat. On October 7, the Indian government handed over a letter to the Pakistani authorities highlighting the urgency of the matter and asking for help to “quickly” grant 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, especially the state of Punjab, where the border crossing to Wagah is. Afghanistan is only 400 miles drive across Pakistan from this crossing.

In the seven weeks that have passed since India made its request for transit, calls for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan have escalated, including in forums involving officials from India and Pakistan. On the sidelines of an event in Moscow last month, Indian envoys met with Taliban representatives, and Taliban statements suggested that the offer of humanitarian aid 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 they were considering it, but would not comment on how long it could take.

Pakistan’s initial public recognition of the wheat came not in response to India but to Taliban officials asking Pakistan to allow its transit. The timing only spoke to the region’s divide in a moment of humanitarian crisis.

Pakistan and China had refused to attend the meeting of regional security chiefs in New Delhi on Wednesday. Instead, Pakistan hosted the Taliban’s foreign minister and representatives from China, Russia and the United States the following day for its own talks.

Pakistani officials said Taliban foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi had asked Mr. Khan about allowing transit for the wheat.

In a statement, Mr. Khan’s office said he would “benevolently consider the request of the Afghan brothers” but did not make it clear when transit of wheat could be granted.

Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad.

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