Afghanistan Reconnected: Promoting Regional Stability and Prosperity

News | May 20, 2016

EWI’s Brussels Center hosted a roundtable with H.E. Hekmat Khalil Karzai, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, along with senior diplomats of neighboring countries. Mr. Karzai’s insightful presentation and the subsequent discussion centered on the balance of economic growth and security as well as the continued need for regional cooperation and international engagement in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a country at a crossroads. Fifteen years of social and economic progress and the opportunity to increase the present pace of development are jeopardized by a deteriorating security situation. Bilateral rivalries and regional tensions continue to stall economic and security cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbors, hampering connectivity, and efforts to effectively fight joint threats posed by extremist groups. Continued international engagement in the country, from both its immediate neighbors and the numerous actors with a stake in its welfare, is paramount, as the fate of Afghanistan will impact both the broader region and the international community as a whole.

The necessity of improved regional cooperation was the focus of the roundtable discussion “Promoting Regional Stability and Prosperity,” hosted by the EastWest Institute’s (EWI) Brussels Center on May 17, 2016 in the framework of its Afghanistan Reconnected Process. The roundtable called for continued international engagement in Afghanistan and highlighted the challenges Afghanistan and its neighbors continue to face. EWI was honored to host as keynote speaker H.E. Hekmat Khalil Karzai, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. In a panel moderated by EWI’s Vice President for Regional Security, Ambassador Martin Fleischer, an audience of Ambassadors and representatives from Embassies of other states in the region, as well as interested countries such as the U.S. and China, shared their countries’ perspectives on the region’s development and stability prospects.

Progress Afghanistan has made remarkable progress over the last fifteen years, making significant and tangible advances in education, women’s rights, and the rule of law. A number of important transitions have taken place specifically over the past 2.5 years, since the withdrawal of the majority of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat troops. Politically, the government has seen its first peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. Though the process took longer than anticipated, its completion marked the first successful political transition in the country’s modern history, leading to a modern cabinet including four female ministers. Militarily, the handover of security from international to national forces marked a transition that proved to be more successful than predicted; though many expected the Afghan National Security Forces to crumble, they are now increasingly able to withstand the offensive of violent extremists, despite their increasing hostility.

Economic Struggles Economically, however, the withdrawal of ISAF forces, and with them a great deal of international support, has been met with less success. Coalition members, in particular the United States, poured in excess of $10 billion into Afghanistan’s transport and development sectors. Despite this, significant capital developed in the Afghan economy goes underutilized, and capabilities developed as a result of Coalition support go largely unused due to a lack of political will from players in the region, insufficient connectivity, and nonexistent, exclusive, or ineffective cross-border trade and transit agreements.

A combative dynamic largely based on bilateral rivalries affects bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, as well as the functioning of regional organizations, which are frequently impeded by unnecessary or petty obstructions. This limits the effectiveness of some of these organizations, such as the Economic Cooperation Organization and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Governments in the region must move away from a zero-sum mentality when it comes to trade and transit; the region must begin to work towards developing a cooperative economic mindset rather than a competitive or exclusionary one in order to enhance connectivity and improve economic prospects for Afghanistan, Central and South Asia as a whole.

Regional Security Concerns Afghanistan’s long struggle with the Taliban intensified in 2014 following the withdrawal of the majority of ISAF combat troops. Despite the progress made by Afghan security forces since that time, the Taliban remains a persistent threat, further complicated by the emergence of the Islamic State/Daesh and an Al Qaeda revitalized with new leadership and new contacts. These groups are increasingly worrisome as they compete with both the government and one another for resources and territory, all the while exhibiting a disturbing ability to appeal to disaffected youth. Though the government is engaged in multi-party peace talks with the Taliban through the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, the Afghan perception is that further progress has been impeded by the failure of certain parties to adhere to commitments made; political leverage of influential countries such as China could be helpful in advocating for these commitments to be honored.

While many consider Afghanistan’s security issues to be essentially an Afghan problem, this mindset ignores both the regional issues that enable armed groups to flourish and the impact the security situation in Afghanistan has on its immediate neighbors and the rest of the world. Violent non-state actors are able to capitalize on a lack of trust between countries in the region; this lack of trust hampers vital intelligence-sharing and prevents effective joint counter-extremism efforts while allowing some groups to maintain bases and operations across the region. Some groups, could presumably not operate in Afghanistan without support and resources drawn from the larger region. Despite this, many of Afghanistan’s neighbors do not yet fully recognize the common regional threat posed by new and emerging groups.

To ensure a greater stability for Afghanistan and its neighbors, a regional counterterrorism strategy, including increased information- and intelligence-sharing, must be developed and implemented. Currently-existing bilateral partnerships, such as between Afghanistan and China, must be expanded to include other countries in the region, and constructive, inclusive dialogue must be initiated.

Solutions and Needs The Ghani administration realizes that a mindset that places national needs above those of the region has not been working; rather, priorities must focus on the needs of the region as a whole. With this in mind, regional cooperation has been made a key part of the National Development Strategy, and is a pillar of the Ghani administration’s foreign policy.

To this end, the government of Afghanistan has pursued, participated in, and even initiated a number of regional integration and cooperation efforts. Initiatives spearheaded by Afghanistan include the Heart of Asia Process, of which Afghanistan is the permanent co-chair, and the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA). Both of these initiatives have met multiple times on the ministerial level, and have been largely successful, with RECCA in particular driving several regional projects such as the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI) and the Central Asia-South Asia-1000 (CASA-1000) power project. In this vein, the Afghan government is grateful for EWI’s long-term efforts towards fostering cross-border cooperation in the fields of energy, trade and transit.

Geography is a challenge but also a key asset of Afghanistan; its location places it at the nexus of transit for the region and affords it the potential to facilitate and benefit from trade and commerce between all its neighbors. However, instability and a lack of regional cooperation and connectivity prevent it from fully capitalizing on this opportunity. An increase in regional cooperation and a continuation of international commitments are necessary to ensure the economic progress of Afghanistan in the face of pressing challenges.

For more photos from the event, click here.