Afghanistan Reconnected: Sustaining Regional Cooperation in an Insecure Environment

News | March 21, 2016

Following the conclusion of the ISAF mission, in the wake of an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency and amid fears of a growing Islamic State presence, 2015 has seen a worsening security situation. However, the renewed international commitments expected from the 2016 Warsaw NATO summit and the Brussels Ministerial Conference on Afghanistan should be motivated not solely by security concerns, but also by what the region and the world could gain from a more stable Afghanistan. A draining of international support to Afghanistan risks jeopardizing the sustainability of local institutions.

Against this background, the EastWest Institute (EWI) convened a roundtable discussion “Sustaining Regional Cooperation in an Insecure Environment,” on March 10, 2016, in Brussels. The event, held in the framework of EWI’s “Afghanistan Reconnected Process,” aimed at discussing with Brussels-based practitioners and interested organizations the perspectives developed by participants in the Afghanistan Reconnected Process since its inception. For the occasion, EWI brought to Brussels a number of active participants in the Process from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, who shared their direct experience dealing with energy, trade and transit issues in Greater Central Asia.

Main findings were:

  • Ghani’s Challenges: Over the course of 2015, Afghanistan underwent political, military, and economic transitions. Many changes have taken place since the formation of the National Unity Government, and still more reforms need to be implemented at a subnational level to ensure local development and effective administration. The Ghani administration has already implemented a number of initiatives to revive the country’s economy; these include combatting endemic corruption, and taking steps towards empowering Afghan women, recognizing their fundamental role in long-term economic growth. The administration is also working to foster much-needed cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbors. Despite having relatively effective people-to-people connectivity, the region remains—in terms of trade—the least connected area in the world.
  • Relations with Pakistan: Participants in the event recognized that a stable Pakistan is in the long term impossible without a stable Afghanistan; however, the two neighbors have yet to find common approach to regional security challenges. They are intertwined in many ways, including common development and energy needs. However, despite the 20,000 individuals who cross the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan on a daily basis, the countries’ respective bureaucracies are reluctant to adopt more liberal business visa policies, which would help bring the existing trade and transit between the neighbors into the formal economy.
  • Energy: As both Pakistan and Afghanistan are energy-hungry, they both stand to benefit from the progress in regional transmission projects such as the Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA-1000) and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. Pakistan in particular depends on Afghanistan to meet its energy needs, as most of its energy imports will have to come through its neighbor. However, regional energy transmission projects should not be stalled in the face of a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. Rather, the costs of providing security to power supply lines and pipelines should be factored into the energy costs.
  • The China Factor: The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has the potential to be a game-changer for the prosperity of the region. In fact, the 44 billion USD investment in power production, industrial parks and private sector development committed to the project by Chinese president Xi Jinping will have positive repercussions on Pakistan’s neighbors as well (including Afghanistan), even if neither the corridor nor the projected east-west axis (“One Belt, One Road”) will cross Afghanistan directly. In return, China is increasingly recognizing that instability in Afghanistan constitutes a risk for its ambitions, hence China’s engagement in the quadrilateral peace process.
  • India’s Interests: The country is currently the one of the largest investors in Afghanistan, and has focused its commitments to practical, tangible contributions, such as the construction of the Salma dam and other infrastructure projects. New Delhi’s interests in Afghanistan are greatly influenced by India’s future economic growth prospects, which will require better connectivity to reach foreign markets for its exports. In addition, regional energy projects such as CASA-1000 could work as a two-way street by not only bringing hydro-energy southward but eventually give India the possibility to export energy towards its northern neighborhood.
  • A Unifying Threat: The region as a whole currently faces two unprecedented opportunities for enhanced regional cooperation. The first unifying aspect is the increasingly shared perspective of common security risks stemming from Islamic extremism. Regional bodies such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) are all engaged in discussions on how to address the risks related to the return from Syria and Iraq of fighters of Central Asian origin. The perception of this as a common threat could become a rallying point to further a joint security vision across the region.
  • Iran: The second opportunity for enhanced cooperation lies in Iran’s expected opening to the outside following the progressive lifting of international sanctions. For Afghanistan and its northern neighbors, this entails a variety of opportunities, e.g. easier access to maritime transport through the port of Chabahar, which offers a transit alternative to the Pakistani ports of Karachi and Gwadar. Furthermore, the Iranian market will offer an additional outlet and transit corridor for Central Asian energy exports, leaving room for optimism for the region’s connectivity prospects.