How Afghanistan Could Benefit From Better Relations With Its Neighbors – Analysis


After 20 years of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Central Asia is increasingly connected to the Islamic Emirate and is building the foundation for sustained economic growth. But first, NATO had to abandon its war to “liberate” Afghanistan that saw over 240,000 deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2001 to 2021.

In February, Afghanistan’s foreign minister led a delegation to Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, for talks that centered on completing the 1,600-kilometer Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline. Though Afghanistan will take only five percent of the annual 33 billion cubic meters flow, completion of the project will be a political win for the country’s ruling Taliban.

The two sides also discussed the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) high-voltage power transmission line, and the construction of railways from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan. In January, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan agreed on the sale of 1.8 billion kilowatt-hours of energy to Kabul for 2024, and the completion of a power transmission line.

And Tajikistan plans to increase electricity sales to Afghanistan by 17% despite domestic  rationing of power. The countries have an electricity supply agreement that runs to 2028. 

The agreements with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan will supplement electricity imports from Uzbekistan, which were interrupted in January 2022 due to a technical fault.

Reliable electricity supplies will strengthen the Taliban’s claim to govern the country and will make it more attractive as a partner in projects like TAPI. The negotiations will also enmesh the Taliban in the region’s governance structures, teach it the local “rules of the road,” and give it an opportunity to demonstrate it can be a good neighbor.

And Kabul recently showed it could be a good neighbor in the best way possible: by paying its bills. In February, U.S.-funded Voice of America reported Kabul satisfied its outstanding debt for power, about $40 to $50 million USD, not the eye-popping $627 million USD reported earlier.

The TAPI pipeline has suffered numerous delays, the latest being the Taliban victory in August 2021. The Americans will frown at any project that benefits the Islamic Emirate, but Washington and Ashgabat are in discussions on possible easing of sanctions on the Islamic Emirate so the project may finally get underway.

A bonus for the U.S. is that TAPI will reduce Turkmenistan’s reliance on gas sales to China, its top trade partner (Turkmenistan is the largest supplier if pipeline gas to China), though ongoing tension between Pakistan and India may make Delhi doubt Islamabad’s willingness to keep the line open during a crisis. An additional concern is the Taliban’s ability to secure the pipeline against attacks by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – Khorasan Province.

The CASA-1000 International Energy Project aims to provide 1,300 megawatts of hydropower-produced surplus electricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the summer months through new energy infrastructure running 1,300 km. The $1.2 billion project was to be complete by 2024 but may be delayed if U.S. government sanctions waivers are needed to complete the Afghanistan leg of the project. 

And Tashkent recently secured Qatar’s support for the 573 kilometer Trans-Afghan Railway to connect Uzbekistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. Though the project will mostly support Pakistan – Central Asian trade, Afghanistan will also benefit.

And Iran, which has increased trade with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, is formalizing relations with the Islamic Emirate. Iran’s policy is that Afghanistan needs an inclusive government and the countries have clashed over Iran’s access to waters of the Helmand River, but Tehran welcomed Kabul’s $35 million USD investment in the Chabahar port and turned over Afghanistan’s embassy to the Taliban government.

Afghanistan’s neighbors all support a more representative government and rights for women but will work those issues in parallel with increased economic ties that will create mutual dependencies as they work towards greater trust. Washington, still smarting over its defeat, will be dubious about any effort that normalizes the Islamic Emirate but Iran, Pakistan, and the Central Asian republics don’t have that luxury: they are “neighbors forever” and need to recover from the “lost decades” of 2001 to 2021. Efforts by Washington and Brussels to stifle trade with Afghanistan is a tax on the region to assuage hurt feelings in NATO capitals.

If getting women into the work force is a priority the best way may be creating demand for workers so that the Emirate is forced to relax its restrictions on women. More sanctions and speeches by American and European politicians haven’t made a difference so far.

Kabul’s key asset is its location but it needs to make a positive contribution to the region by being a good neighbor. Paying bills on time is a start, but so is abiding to the U.S.-Taliban Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, especially its obligation that it “will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” 

The Emirate can’t push the Islamic State or al-Qaeda over its borders as that will doom relations with Iran, Pakistan, China, or the Central Asian republics. And a civil war between the Taliban and the trans-national Islamists will warm hearts in Washington and Brussels but will continue the over 40 years of violence that has blighted Afghanistan since the Saur Revolution in 1978.

The best way forward is to keep the Islamic State et al. boxed in, which may require intelligence sharing and cooperation with the neighbors and the U.S. to secure the country for pipelines, powerlines, irrigation canals, and railroads. And if Afghanistan is secure internally against groups like al-Qaeda, so much the better for the region.

Afghanistan, the “heart of Asia,” may become a security provider of sorts for the region if it succeeds in stifling groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. But real progress will follow when it constructively engages with Central Asia republics, Iran, and Pakistan on critical concerns such as climate change and water management. Afghanistan is claiming a larger share of the waters that originate in its territory by building the Qosh Tepa canal, which has raised concerns in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan which are plagued by water scarcity.

In March, Foreign Minister Bakhtiyor Saidov of Uzbekistan led a delegation to Kabul to meet the Emirate’s leaders. According to the Emirate, the Uzbek side pledged support for Qosh Tepa and agreed to send a technical team to support the project, and agreed to accept the Emirate’s ambassador. (The Qosh Tepa canal recently suffered a leak reportedly due to a failure of the canal walls that resulted in flooding of a 30 square kilometer area.)

Kabul’s key asset is its location but it needs to make a positive contribution to the region by being a good neighbor. The Emirate can signal its good intentions by supporting the Uzbek technical team and petitioning to join the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination of Central Asia so it can join part the region’s governance structures. 

This article was published at

James Durso

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Central Asia.

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