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Five Projects That Can Change Afghan Destiny

Indian Vice President, Hamid Ansari (L), along with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (R), Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (2R) and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif press the button to launch the construction of TAPI gas pipeline in December 2015.

For nearly two centuries, great power interventions and regional and global rivalries have delivered death and destruction to Afghanistan.

But a series of transnational energy and infrastructure projects might transform the landlocked, mountainous country into a hub for energy, trade, and transport.

Lapis Lazuli Corridor

Afghanistan's chamber of commerce bills this project as the "shortest, cheapest and safest" transit route in the country. It's aimed at connecting Afghanistan to the Caspian, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea through Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. It's also strategically geared toward freeing Afghanistan from dependence on Pakistani, Iranian, and Russian ports.

The Lapis Lazuli Corridor
The Lapis Lazuli Corridor

Afghans accuse the three countries of fomenting or participating in various cycles of war in their country, beginning with the April 1978 communist coup and subsequent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979. While Kabul has invested some diplomatic effort in this initiative, it's still unclear whether multilateral institutions, or the states involved, are ready or able to invest in this project.

One Belt, One Road (OBOR)

A pet project of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has already indicated an investment of more than 200 billion dollars in this initiative. It's slated to include transnational road, energy, and rail links connecting China to Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. Currently OBOR has no projects in Afghanistan but China has left the door open.

China's One Belt, One Road Investments on a map.
China's One Belt, One Road Investments on a map.

The future success of one of the showcase OBOR initiatives hinges on Afghan stability. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a $46 billion Chinese investment in creating a 2,500- kilometer trade route connecting western China to Pakistan's Arabian Sea port of Gwadar. A once-uninterested observer of Afghan carnage, Beijing is now taking a leading role in facilitating a negotiated solution to the Afghan conflict through talks between Kabul and Taliban insurgents.

While Beijing has made substantial progress in planning and financing the OBOR, it has yet to resolve domestic rebellions and negotiate many bilateral and regional deals needed to make it a success.

The Wakhan Corridor

High in the Pamir and Karakoram mountains, the Wakhan Corridor is a sliver of northeastern Afghan territory that separates Pakistan from Tajikistan and forms Afghanistan's border with China. Glaciers, high mountains, and sub-zero temperatures have so far prevented the remote region from becoming a hub of connectivity and trade between the four nations.

But renewed Chinese interest, and an almost nine-kilometer tunnel under a giant glacier in northwestern Pakistan, might turn it into an unlikely route for trade between South Asia, China, and Central Asia. The Lowari tunnel is expected to be completed at the end of 2016.​

A view of Lowari Tunnel in Northern Pakistan.
A view of Lowari Tunnel in Northern Pakistan.

"Construction of the Lowari tunnel will turn the Wakhan corridor into an all-weather route for connecting these four nations," former Pakistani lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak says. "Wakhan is a natural connecting point, and India can easily become the fifth country to join this initiative. This will have major long-term stabilizing effects."

The New Silk Road

In 2011, Washington rolled out the New Silk Road strategy to promote joint investments, trade and transport to boost Afghan and Central Asian security. In recently years it seems to have been overshadowed by the Chinese OBOR, which Beijing sees as the revival of its ancient Silk Route. Recently, however, there has been substantial progress on the two major projects this initiative supported.

Map of the CASA-1000 Project
Map of the CASA-1000 Project

Afghanistan might generate some revenue, and benefit from cheap electricity, through the (Central Asia -South Asia) CASA-1000 project. Scheduled to open next year, it's aimed at transporting cheap hydropower from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan through Afghan territory.

Russia's reluctance or inability to pay for Turkmen gas prompted Ashgabat to promise financing for the long-delayed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. On December 13, Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov inaugurated a ceremony to launch the construction of this key energy artery. The 1,841-kilometer pipeline will eventually transport 33 billion cubic meters of gas from southern Turkmenistan to northern India annually.

TAPI pipeline
TAPI pipeline

Last month's inauguration of TAPI was celebrated across Afghanistan, but insecurity in the county's south, and doubt over Ashgabat's ability to finance its estimated $10 billion costs, still clouds the future of TAPI.

India-Iran And Chabahar

Given its rivalry with Pakistan and China, India has invested in Chabahar, an Iranian port on the Gulf of Oman. The investment is apparently aimed at cementing economic ties with Tehran, and eventually linking Chabahar to Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors.

The Chabahar port
The Chabahar port

New Delhi has already built roads inside Afghanistan to connect major cities in the country to Chabahar. It plans to build new road and rail networks to facilitate Afghanistan's trade through Iran and Chabahar. The lifting of U.N. and U.S. sanctions against Iran this month, after it demonstrated its commitment to the nuclear deal, could free up new investments in Chabahar and might also attract investments from the West.

Radio Mashaal correspondent Abdul Hai Kakar contributed reporting to this story.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.