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Regional Connectivity Guarantees Lasting Afghan Peace

FILE: Afghan President Ashaf Ghani inaugurated the Lapis Lazuli route in December.
FILE: Afghan President Ashaf Ghani inaugurated the Lapis Lazuli route in December.

For most of the 20th century, Afghanistan was regarded as a global backwater. Geographic isolation in the Asian heartland amid major powers had left the mountainous country with no prospects of playing a regional or global role. It was argued that because of its status as a poor and landlocked country, it must always remain in the stranglehold of superpowers.

In the 21st century, though, that perspective is changing. Afghanistan’s strategic location at the “heart of Asia” is helping transform regional economies from being dependent on aid to reliant on trade. Kabul is also leading the way in materializing the idea of connectivity with a string of trade and diplomatic initiatives.

These are not new ideas, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has repackaged the country’s strategic location in a way that no Afghan leader before him could. He is harnessing regional connectivity projects to boost economic cooperation and opportunities for a post-peace Afghanistan, and at the core of his regional diplomacy and economic projects he plans to encourage incentivized peace for the region and the world.

Known as Afghanistan’s theorist-in-chief because of his academic background, Ghani has set out to test his own theories about transforming failed states into practice in his country. Along this path, he has overcome monumental challenges. Power-sharing in the national unity government threw a wrench into Ghani’s fast-tracked economic and security plans. Earlier in his tenure, he went out on a limb to embrace Pakistan but backtracked after Islamabad showed reluctance. His initiatives to rein in political and economic mafias were met with fierce resistance from the country’s nouveau riche, who have mostly made money in the aftermath of the U.S. military invasion following 9/11.

The cornerstone of this strategy is to use Afghanistan’s location as its main asset. Our country is the only land bridge between South and Central Asia. Regional power transmission lines, gas pipelines, and railway and highway projects -- such as the Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India (TAPI) gas pipeline and (Central Asia – South Asia) CASA 1000 -- are in the implementation phase with tangible outcomes. These projects will fulfill South Asia’s energy needs and bring vital revenues.

Afghanistan is opening up to its Western neighbors in unprecedented ways. Just recently, the government of Afghanistan signed an unremitting Treaty on Strategic Partnership with Turkmenistan, including cooperation on trade, economy, culture, education, and security, among other subjects.

The level of annual trade between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan has reached $350 million, and a joint chamber of commerce has been opened in Kabul. The two countries signed 15 cooperation agreements including one to prevent drug trafficking. They have agreed to raise bilateral trade volume to $1 billion, are constructing the Mazar–Herat railway, and are developing a 500KV transmission line in the central Afghan province of Baghlan.

The latest breakthrough in Afghanistan’s regional connectivity with its Western neighbors was the revitalization of the ancient Lapis Lazuli route in December. This route connects Afghanistan with Europe through Central Asia and the Caucasus. Afghanistan’s first set of cargo trucks arrived in Turkey within two weeks of Lapis Lazuli’s inauguration. Afghanistan’s previously untapped resources like pine nuts, pistachio, pomegranate, and saffron are now hitting the world markets. The route will also help find new markets for Afghan products such as handwoven rugs.

Ghani views information and communication technologies (ICT) as critical to Afghanistan’s long-term economic security. This month, he signed an ICT agreement with Azerbaijan to enhance cooperation in telecommunications and cybersecurity and promote investments in joint ventures. Azerbaijan presented him with the Nizami Ganjavi International Award to acknowledge his leadership in connecting the region.

Before Ghani assumed office, Afghanistan heavily relied on Pakistan for the largest part of its imports. This gave Pakistan a great advantage over landlocked Afghanistan, and Islamabad repeatedly blocked routes to pressure the Afghan government. This is why diversifying trade routes became one of Ghani’s top priorities to counterpoise trade with Pakistan.

One way to reduce dependence on Pakistan was operationalizing the Chabahar port in southeastern Iran, which allows Afghanistan to bypass Pakistan and trade directly with India and the Gulf nations. Chabahar was overshadowed by the U.S.-Iran political upheaval as the United States unleashed economic sanctions on Iran last year. But it was Ghani’s diplomacy, in collaboration with India, that convinced the United States to exempt Chabahar from its sanctions.

In the past four years, Afghanistan’s trade with Pakistan dropped 42 percent. By contrast, imports from Central Asia increased 96 percent. During the same period, Afghan exports have increased 45 percent. Afghanistan’s exports rose to $1 billion last year. By launching the air corridor between India and Afghanistan, bilateral trade could reach $2 billion by 2020. With the operationalization of Chabahar to the fullest extent India could well become Afghanistan’s largest trading partner.

Kabul, however, is keen on normalizing and enhancing trade relations with Pakistan, which Islamabad badly needs. We are laying the infrastructure for transferring energy from Central Asia to South Asia. This will prove a gamechanger in meeting the growing energy needs of Pakistan. We have always sought cooperation with Pakistan, but our neighbor has yet to reciprocate our gestures and goodwill.

Kabul also hopes to tap the vast opportunities offered by one of its other neighbors, China. Beijing has already become a major trading partner for Afghanistan. Our annual trade volume has risen to $900 million. Asia is transforming into a continental economy, and Afghanistan is the main square of this continent. That is the one of the main reasons that archrivals like China and India are coming together to cooperate in Afghanistan.

Ghani’s self-reliance agenda requires continuity. Afghanistan’s partners must endorse his roadmap to peace. The battleground for empires is gradually transforming into a venue for economic exchange that will reduce conflicts for routes and resources and set Afghanistan and the region on a path to development to compete with the developed world and contribute to the global economy.

Ghani’s approach also bodes well for the international community. For decades, Western allies have been fixated on short-term and donor-driven priorities. They now have an opportunity to help build lasting peace, economic prosperity, and regional stability by supporting Ghani’s regional connectivity initiatives.

Samim Arif is a deputy spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.