Afghanistan as a landlocked country is crippled by a lack of easy access to regional and global markets. At the same time, the country is centrally located at the heart of Asia, which can potentially connect the whole region for increased transport, transit, and trade, so long as the countries of the region prioritize win-win economic cooperation over confrontation. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan has made notable progress in building soft and hard infrastructure, continually improving internal and external trade and transit connectivity. However, worsening security across the country has hindered efforts by the Afghan government, in cooperation with the international community, to help Afghanistan realize its connectivity potential for easy and secure transit and trade at home and across the region. Despite the security challenge, however, many opportunities and mechanisms of regional cooperation exist, which the Afghan government is promoting to help enhance connectivity in and through Afghanistan.
Landlocked but Roundabout
Landlocked countries like Afghanistan are at a great disadvantage over their littoral neighbors with access to sea for regional and global trade. Naturally, the peace, security, and prosperity of landlocked countries depend on those of their surrounding neighbors. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the Afghan government has repeatedly communicated this fact to Afghanistan’s six neighbors, reaffirming its commitment to non-interference in the affairs of others, as well as allowing no country to use Afghanistan’s soil against its neighbors.
On this basis, on December 22, 2002, Afghanistan and its six neighbors signed the Kabul Declaration on Good Neighborly Relations. The signatories included China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—each of which “determined that the people of Afghanistan should enjoy security, stability, prosperity, territorial integrity, democracy and human rights after so many years of conflict, suffering, and deprivation.” Afghans warmly welcomed the declaration of support from their neighbors, some of which had been directly or indirectly supporting one or more proxy armed groups to fuel war and violence in Afghanistan throughout much of the 1990s, following the fall of the communist regime in 1992.
Even so, however, interstate tensions among Afghanistan’s coastal neighbors or some of these countries’ hostility with countries outside of the region have undermined efforts at stabilizing Afghanistan and giving its people a break from decades of non-stop conflict, displacement, and continued impoverishment. Despite these obstacles, Afghanistan has lost no opportunity to draw the attention of its neighbors and major global powers to the centrality of Afghanistan’s location at the heart of Asia and thus its immense geo-economic importance to regional economic cooperation and integration.
Speaking recently to an audience in Delhi, India, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani remarked, “We have been at the heart of networks: a roundabout, a place of meetings, civilizations, religions, cultures and, of course, armies and traders and pilgrims.” Centuries on, Afghanistan enjoys the same status as the principal connector of the North and South and the East and West. Indeed, Iqbal, the poet laureate of Pakistan, best captured this when he noted:
Asia is a body of water and earth, of which the Afghan nation is the heart
From its discord, the discord of Asia; and from its accord, the accord of Asia.
Cooperation over Confrontation
Afghanistan is concerned about the lingering tensions and hostility between India and Pakistan, and have often encouraged both sides to set aside their differences and focus on win-win cooperation. Their shared experience has demonstrated that confrontation has only bred more violence and deepened hostility, preventing the two resourceful nations from unlocking and harnessing their shared potentials for bilateral and multilateral trade and investment. Academic studies abound on how much India and Pakistan have lost in economic and financial terms each year for many decades.
This counter-productive relationship has rendered ineffective the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). SAARC drives its inspiration from the European Union (EU) and similar entities, which—following decades of pursuit by their future member-states of lose-lose policies against one another—were formed. Indeed, the harsh experiences of European states in the 19th and 20th centuries before the two World Wars are quite instructive for South Asia: Europe learned the hard way the benefits of win-win cooperation against the perils of zero-sum designs and power politics that underpinned interstate relations in pre-war Europe.
In the 18th SAARC Summit in Nepal, member-states debated the many common challenges that confront the nations of South Asia. Extreme poverty, weak governance, a lack of connectivity, a lack of energy, and security threats continue to cause widespread human suffering throughout the SAARC region, a region otherwise richly endowed in nature and civilization. To address the root-causes of these problems and to exploit the region’s vast natural and human potential for the collective security and prosperity of all their nations, President Ghani called on his fellow SAARC leaders to “change the rules of the game and the playing field among the nations from confrontation to cooperation.”
While continuing to advocate for cooperation against confrontation among its neighbors, Afghanistan has consistently pursued a foreign policy, which promotes regional economic cooperation against zero-sum hedging strategies pursued by some of its neighbors. It strongly believes that the replacement of confrontational policies at the regional level with those of cooperative, win-win partnerships would gradually minimize Indo-Pakistan tensions. This is premised on the fact that South Asia is an extremely young region where the youth demand jobs and a secure future. And this wouldn’t come by, unless South Asian governments make tough choices against the status quo to help ensure shared prosperity and security throughout the region.
Even before the advent of destructive conflicts, Afghanistan as a landlocked and mountainous country had been one of the poorest in the region. It hardly ever had a productive economy since the formation of the Afghan nation-state. Its rentier economy mostly depended on foreign aid and subsidies, which helped maintain the country’s quasi independence. Hence, a lack of sustainable economic growth and development left the country least connected internally and with its surrounding region.
Although Afghanistan’s transport infrastructure underwent some building and maintenance during the 1980s, thanks to the former Soviet Union, it was completely undone in the 1990s. Shortly after the fall of the communist regime, former resistance factions began jockeying over control of power in Kabul and were effectively exploited by regional states as proxies to battle their conflicts on the Afghan soil. In the process, much of what Afghanistan had minimally developed over decades was destroyed.
By contrast, however, since the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan’s basic transport infrastructure in urban and rural areas has seen a makeover, which needs to be maintained and improved upon. Most notably, the Afghan National Ring Road, which connects the center with periphery and the periphery with Afghanistan’s neighbors, has been completed. A number of countries, including India, contributed resources and financial assistance to build the National Ring Road. This has enabled Afghanistan to take initial steps towards achieving economic self-reliance through increased trade and investment internally and throughout its wider region.
On the soft side, the Afghan government has made monumental gains in building the military and civilian institutions of the state, based on one of the most progressive constitutions in the region, which provides for a private sector-led economy. The World Bank’s 2013 Doing Business Index ranked Afghanistan 28 out of 185 countries when it comes to establishing a business in the country. This was made possible by the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency (AISA), which has now integrated with the Ministry of Commerce, and serves as a one-stop-shop for investors, foreign and domestic, enabling them to register and establish a business in Afghanistan within a couple of weeks.
And over the past 16 years, the Afghan government has enacted a number of commercial and investment laws, including a company law, consumer protection law, competition law, partnership law, and arbitration law, among others. This legislation has streamlined many of the problems associated with Afghanistan’s former centrally planned economy. However, while these laws meet international business and investment standards, there are times when a lack of institutional capacity prevents implementation and enforcement. In an effort to attract, facilitate, and retain long-term investment, the reforms agenda of the new National Unity Government of Afghanistan has prioritized the resolution of existing bottlenecks to ensure a business-friendly environment across Afghanistan.
Challenges to Connectivity
The principal challenge to building in and utilizing connectivity through Afghanistan is manufactured insecurity in the form of a well-resourced terror campaign imposed on Afghanistan. Soon after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the then Bush Administration shifted its focus from addressing Afghanistan’s long-term sustainable state-building and development needs.
While former President Bush promised to implement a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan as early as 2003, he had already been short-changing the country, as his Administration was preparing to invade and occupy Iraq. But the promised Marhsall Plan never materialized, as Afghanistan became “a war of what we can do” versus Iraq, “a war of what we must do,” in the words of former United States Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen.
Hence, as the United States was increasingly bogged down in Iraq, certain state and non-state actors noticed that Afghanistan remained vulnerable to their exploitation. Pakistan effectively reconstituted the Taliban on its soil and deployed them to prosecute a terror campaign that still continues but with increased intensity and brutality in killing and maiming innocent Afghans, as well as destroying the physical infrastructure—including schools, bridges, roads, and power grids—which the country has built with aid from the international community, including India.
At the same time, The Taliban-led terror campaign has provided an enabling operational space for over a dozen other terrorist networks, including ISIS. Fighting this scourge of regional and transnational terrorism has not only undermined the security needed for the implementation of many ongoing and proposed connectivity projects but also sapped Afghanistan’s few precious resources to finance its planned connectivity projects.
Opportunities for Connectivity
Despite the imposed challenges to connectivity, opportunities for building connectivity through Afghanistan and across its wider region abound. Indeed, the best way to fight poverty that feeds terrorism is to foster political and security confidence-building through regional economic cooperation. The latter can serve as an important enabler in deepening connectivity, enhancing competitiveness and productivity, lowering transaction costs, and expanding markets in any region.
Afghanistan has put forth a strategic solution for adoption and implementation by its near and far neighbors: The Heart of Asia–Istanbul Process (HOA-IP) and the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA). These Afghanistan-led processes were established to help secure regional cooperation for the country’s stabilization and sustainable development, thereby ensuring stability and prosperity throughout its surrounding regions.
Even though they remain underutilized so far, it is in the best short- and long-term interests of the countries—including India and Pakistan—that participate in the two processes to double and triple their efforts to achieve the shared goals of the two platforms. Of course, every tangible step they take to utilize these interconnected processes will help minimize these and other nations’ security and socioeconomic vulnerabilities against the terrorist-extremist predators and their state-sponsors. That is why time is of essence and they must reaffirm their often-pledged commitments to the implementation of the projects and programs, proposed under the two processes.
On November 14-15, the 7th Meeting of RECCA took place in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. The meeting focused on “Deepening Connectivity and Expanding Trade through Investment Infrastructure and Improving Synergy.” This was a timely opportunity for Afghanistan’s near and far neighbors to take stock of the progress made since RECCA VI in Kabul. The meeting, with many side events, allowed the country-participants to discuss the challenges and bottlenecks, as well as financing and investment needs with respect to the priority projects in the key areas of energy; transport networks; trade and transit facilitation; communications; and business to business and labor support.
More specifically, of the 18 regional cooperation and investment projects discussed at the RECCA-VII, the following stand out as major opportunities for further strengthening connectivity across South Asia, Central Asia, and South West Asia: TAPI Pipeline; CASA-1000; TAP-500; Belt-and-Road Initiative; Lapis Lazuli Transit, Trade and Transport Route; Chabahar International Transport and Transit Corridor; Five-Nation Railway Corridor; Afghanistan Rail Network; Trans-Hindukush Road Connectivity Project; and Digital Silk Road.
Moreover, this past December, the 7th Ministerial Conference of HOA-IP with its political, security, and economic confidence building measures (CBMs) implementation mechanism took place in Baku, Azerbaijan. Afghanistan has aimed at deepening synergies and complementarities among the interconnected projects of the RECCA and HOA-IP, maximizing their impact on sustainable development not only in Afghanistan but also throughout its surrounding regions. This should encourage the country-participants, including India and Pakistan, to assess their shared security and development needs and to bolster their engagement with Afghanistan accordingly, in order to initiate the implementation of the proposed projects with win-win benefits.
Considering the aforementioned opportunities for increased regional connectivity across the Heart of Asia region, the center of which is Afghanistan, the Afghan government has welcomed the new South Asia strategy of the United States. The strategy promises to remove the principal obstacle that sits in the way of building the necessary connectivity infrastructure in energy, transport, and communications, which South Asia, Central Asia, and South West Asia need, in order to integrate for trade, investment and tourism, the benefits of which should help Afghanistan and its neighbors prosper together in peace and harmony.
In this light, the Afghan government renews its firm commitment to addressing the state-to-state tensions that exist between Afghanistan and Pakistan. An end to this undeclared hostility should lead to closure by Pakistan of all safe sanctuaries and related support infrastructure, which the Taliban and their affiliated networks have enjoyed using to terrorize Afghanistan, thereby undermining regional stability and international peace. Indeed, it is in the best long-term interest of Pakistan to disengage from state-sponsorship of terrorism at the cost its sustainable security and development in a region of much potential and promise.
*M. Ashraf Haidari is the Director-General of Policy & Strategy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, and formerly served as the country’s Deputy Chief of Mission to India. Prior to this, he was Afghanistan’s Deputy Assistant National Security Advisor, as well as Afghan Chargé d’Affaires to the United States. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and a Research Fellow at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS). He tweets @MAshrafHaidari.