Afghanistan, a country in the heart of Asia, is still characterized by conflict. For half of century, various disagreements have played out in Afghanistan between numerous actors ranging from foreign-backed guerilla groups to figures and interests in the national governments. The latter has historically found it very difficult to change the political and economic fortunes of the country substantially. The aftermath of 9/11 saw the opening of a new chapter in Afghanistan with the consequent U.S.-led intervention. Many Afghans and members of the international community expected that the U.S. intervention would usher in the dawn of a new era of peace and stability in Afghanistan. However, uncertainty still looms large on the Afghan horizon, and there is still no peace in sight.
The conflict has inflicted tremendous human and economic costs on Afghanistan. The single most important source of hope for the future for Afghans lies in the new economic opportunities that have surfaced as a result of the consistent efforts of the National Unity Government. However, it seems that chaos is burying the economic opportunities. The expanding scope of war can also be construed as a blow to the hopes of economic integration of Afghanistan with the region.
The hard-earned gains in Afghanistan have been slipping through the cracks and it seems that Washington has been squandering once more the opportunity to set Afghanistan on the right course. Domestically, a threatening space is developing for confrontational politics, which seems to be challenging the legitimacy of the state, and testing the fragility of the edifice that has been founded at the turn of the twenty first century. Internationally, the curiosity about Afghanistan is on the wane.
Fine-tuning the choices
The persistent reiteration about honoring the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed between the US and the Afghan government has practically fallen on deaf years. Since the US intervention in Afghanistan, the reality on the ground and the narrative about it has arguably increasingly diverged. This is creating great complication for efforts to bring peace and security in Afghanistan. The apparent indecisiveness in the US strategic approach towards Afghanistan and the strategic silence about the disappointing role of the neighboring countries has caused much frustration. Some would even claim that the US attitude and the tacit acknowledgement of the neighboring countries for maintaining the status quo in Afghanistan has undermined the progress and has led to excessive sufferings for Afghans.
There is a need for fine-tuning the choices and recognizing that, instead of political face-offs in Afghanistan, cooperation and economic peace building will create a win-win situation for all.
For breaking the economic logjam, there is a need for employing economic tools and instruments rather than pursuing geopolitical games, with devastating consequences for Afghanistan. In this context, regional integration, which is the main driver of economic development and peace, should dominate a high position. Also, progress and solution to the Afghan conflict depend on recognizing the centrality of soft power and patching up regional economic ties.
Keeping in view the importance of stability and development to one another, real development will only take palace if there is stability, which appears that, the international community so far could not deliver. Regional countries and Central Asian states simplistically believe that containing terrorism in Afghanistan will save them from their infiltration— a notion which Afghans have rationally complained against. Nonetheless, a strategic reluctance towards the conflict in Afghanistan will sooner or later render the death of zero-sum game imminent, which will descend the entire region into chaos.
The mantra that Afghanistan should not become a safe haven for terrorists still occupies the central part of the US approach. However, the secret to a safe, prosper and terror-free Afghanistan lies in making it the safe haven for Afghans. The strategic reflection and recalibration of the US approach vis-à-vis Afghanistan is therefore the need of the hour.
Growing Regional Mistrust
The region is increasingly adhering to the belief that through its long term presence in Afghanistan, the US is eying at establishing its permanent footprint in Afghanistan, in order to counter the rise of regional powers. This has generated a lot of bad blood between the regional powers and the US. Resultantly, this has pushed the regional countries into a vertex of permanent cynicism that is leading to the clash of geopolitical interests at the cost of Afghan lives.
The fragmented belief that Taliban are primarily focused on the domestic conflict inside Afghanistan, whereas ISIS is a transnational threat endangering regional stability further complicates the situations and highlights the fundamental contradiction between the rhetorical support for stability in Afghanistan and ambitions for stability. This has even endangered the possibility of adopting a unified approach towards creating a lasting counter terrorism partnership for peace in Afghanistan, and for the region.
Due to the ensuing accumulation of doubts and anxiety about the Afghan disorder, the strategic calculations in the region are changing after two decades. In this backdrop, in a turnaround, Moscow and Islamabad are all set to become part of a possible alliance. A recent joint military exercise is a manifestation of their possible potential convergence in the foreseeable future.
Compact of Economic Solidarity for Afghanistan?
The secret to finding the wisdom and devising a winning formula for Afghanistan lies in economics. For the road to sustainable peace is through sustainable development, only stationing soldiers will not pacify the situation and help the impoverished, and desperate Afghans. The wounds that Afghanistan had suffered in the last four decades cannot be nursed by Afghans alone. Hence, the moral imperative calls for creating the bonds of solidarity with Afghanistan in the area of economic cooperation and reconstruction. So far, the US administration’s campaign for stability in Afghanistan has outspent the most celebrated American Marshall Plan for European recovery after the World War II. In the 1950s, the US administration in its Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe had appropriated $13 billion dollars ($103 billion in current dollar value), while since 2001 an amount of $104 billion dollars is spent on Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, the US generosity for Europe and Afghanistan massively differs in context. The Marshal plan has successfully defeated Nazism, the spread of communism in Europe, and most importantly elevated the general masses from economic desperation. But the story is still in progress in Afghanistan. Economically, within the span of six years, it had erected a bulwark against the forces that gave rise to violence through effectively addressing the problems of poverty, massive unemployment and rejuvenating the arteries of European trade and commerce. On 12th March, 1947 speech, Truman so eloquently laid out his American design for the reconstruction of Europe: “I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. This support should come, first and foremost, in the form of “economic and financial aid”, this being essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.”
This assertion greatly elevated the role of economic intervention in the American diplomatic arsenal- something still missing for getting the things right in Afghanistan.” However, in Afghanistan, the aim is far from achieving. Neither terrorism has been defeated, nor has a solid ground been made against the lethal poverty and other destabilizing forces
The economic recovery of the Western Europe consequent to the plan provides us a fascinating example of how we can put an end to conflict in Afghanistan. The US project for European reconstruction had ended the historical animosity among the European states and changed the destiny of the whole continent in an unprecedented manner. It is therefore not difficult to comprehend that Afghanistan, as an ally of the US and other powers, too deserves to use the their economic largesse for its internal stability and economic development.
Consequences and Implications of the Afghan Conflict
The US Department of Energy has anticipated that in the first quarter of the 21st century, demand for energy consumption will increase by more than 50%. In his book, Grand Chessboard, Zbigniev Brzezinski argues that feeding this consumer demand calls for the creation of new supply lines through regions which can avoid a potential energy security situation. Afghanistan can function as a natural conduit at the heart of this supply and demand equation among Central Asia-South Asia, and Europe. Therefore, economic and political stability of Afghanistan is paramount to regional and global markets. Afghanistan is the linchpin that can alter the political and economic outcome for the region significantly. An Afghanistan firmly embedded in the economic life of South and Central Asia will play a supporting role for peace and stability throughout the region and across the globe.
The Afghan conflict could inspire and compound more challenges for the region with the potential threat to the progress of integration between Central Asia and major economic centers. Political tensions and instability in the region has already unleashed the growth-limiting substance that pushed the economies to underperformance and restricts states’ capacity to realize each other’s economic value.
The critical mass of unemployment is one of the main economic challenges fraught with strategic and security consequences for the region. To address this specter, South Asia should create 12 million new jobs annually. It is in need of forging cordial economic relations with Central Asia- a potential energy source. As a whole, the region together can take a new tide of economic optimism into another level by breaking through the disintegrating forces that exist for decades.
By targeting vital economic centers, terrorist networks augment the economic consequences of their campaign. The world’s expensive slide into violence and conflict continues, and its cost was 12.6% of global GDP only in 2017. The proliferation of terrorist groups in the region poses a fundamental threat to the regional economic initiatives. As they choked and fully destroyed economic lifelines in the Middle East, sabotaging and undermining the newly reestablished economic links, which are essential for the long term political stability of the entire region will be very much part of their agenda.
In hindsight, after the devastation of Europe, people-centered philosophy of development and economic and social stability financed by US aid was the critical factor in cementing the peace throughout Europe. Afghans, too, have a deep-seated popular desire to disengage from the war that is completely unknown and strange to them. It is time that the powerful inertia be raptured, and address Afghan apprehensions by refashioning the overall security blueprint and employing the economic and diplomatic tools.
Conceiving economic utopia at regional level and pursuing policies detrimental to the prospect of stability in Afghanistan speaks for the futility of the applied politics. The insanity of geopolitical temptations will inflict an incalculable destruction on the economic and social lifelines of the region and the debris may equally fall on all of us.
About the Author:
*The author is pursuing a Master degree in Economic Policy from the University of Central Asia. He is also working as Senior Fellow in the Center for Studies and Research, and also covers politico economic developments in Asia/Central Asia.