The South Asia Channel

The Silk Road Through Afghanistan

The Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan this week presents opportunities and challenges for the international community -- especially Asian states -- to stabilize Afghanistan.


In the next couple of days, Afghanistan is hosting the sixth Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA VI) in Kabul, where RECCA was first held in 2005. This regional initiative followed the signing by Afghanistan’s neighbors of the Kabul Declaration on Good Neighborly Relations in December 2002, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States to be commemorated soon.

Indeed, the tragedy of 9/11 directly resulted from premature international disengagement from Afghanistan, following the withdrawal of the former Soviet forces from the country in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul in 1992. The ensuing years saw the complete negligence by the United States of the post-Cold War stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan, which subsequently allowed destructive interference by different state actors in Afghan affairs.

The vacuum, which developed due to state collapse, factional infighting, and widespread poverty, provided an enabling environment for transnational terrorist and organized criminal networks, such as al Qaeda and drug traffickers, to operate alongside the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan, with far-reaching spillover effects across the region and the world, with 9/11 as one of its most tragic consequences.

However, thanks to international reengagement in Afghanistan in 2001, the Afghan people have come a long way, making significant progress towards long-term institutionalization of peace, pluralism, and prosperity, in close partnership with the international community. Tangibly speaking, Afghanistan’s ongoing reconstruction includes the building of many schools, universities, health clinics, highways, roads, bridges, irrigation systems, and other socio-economic infrastructure and facilities across the country. As a result, Afghans’ life expectancy has sharply risen, while Afghanistan’s still dismal infant and maternal mortality rates have notably declined due to improved healthcare, better sanitation, balanced nutrition, and increased access to electricity across the country.

Moreover, while Afghanistan’s own forces have replaced their international counterparts to protect Afghan citizens, last year witnessed a peaceful transfer of political power to the National Unity Government led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The Unity Government has appointed a cabinet, which is now busy implementing a robust reforms agenda to consolidate and sustain Afghanistan’s gains made over the past 14 years, with the continued support of the international community.

Indeed, without the ultimate sacrifices made by the Afghan and international forces from more than 40 countries, including NATO, Afghanistan would have hardly reached where the country stands now, soon welcoming to Kabul delegations from more than 70 governments and international organizations to participate in RECCA VI. Recalling the decade of the 1990s when regional state actors undermined their own long-term national security interests by destabilizing Afghanistan, RECCA VI focuses on a substantive agenda with forward-looking, win-win objectives geared towards regional economic integration, with Afghanistan to play her natural role as the Asian transit and trade roundabout, connecting Central Asia to South Asia and East Asia to West Asia through implementation of the following visionary, continental infrastructure projects, which enjoy widespread international, trans-continental support:

  • The Silk Road Economic Belt led by China, involving several countries in the region, including Afghanistan;
  • The Middle Corridor or Modern Silk Road led by Turkey, which also involves Afghanistan;
  • The Silk Wind initiative, involving Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey;
  • The Maritime Silk Road, involving China, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and other Asian countries; and
  • The New Silk Road initiative supported by the United States.

One of Afghanistan’s core foreign policy objectives has been to reduce interstate tensions through creation of regional economic interdependencies for shared sustainable development. In this light, each of the above initiatives is complementary in nature: by connecting the Silk Road’s increasingly vibrant East-West corridors with its traditionally dynamic North-South corridors, the entire region can realize the full potential of a revitalized Silk Road through the transformation of Afghanistan into a regional trade and transport hub.

South Asia, including India and Pakistan, which is one of the least connected regions of the world trading more with countries outside of the region than with those inside, would stand first to reap the benefit of a stable Afghanistan, which can serve as a regional land-bridge, facilitating realization of the above economic corridors.

However, while notable regional infrastructure projects — such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline and the Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission project — have begun building interstate confidence towards a shared economic future, the security threats posed by the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other regional and transnational militants remain a major obstacle to achieving regional economic integration.

The recent summits of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Brazil-Russia-China-South Africa (BRICS) in Ufa, Russia, also discussed the intertwined security threats of radicalism, terrorism, and criminality, and acknowledged the fact that Afghanistan as a frontline state has been fighting these threats alone, on behalf of the whole region. This isn’t sustainable, unless the key regional stakeholders come together in support of Afghanistan, indeed, not just in words but also in well-coordinated action to defeat terrorism as a common regional security threat.

As Ghani said in the BRICS and SCO summits, Afghanistan occupies “a prominent place in the narrative and activities of terrorist organization networks; they are betting on our failure and should we fail, three of our neighbors, China, India, and Russia, out of the big countries, will be in harm’s way, but also all our other neighbors, near and far.” To prevent such a likely scenario from materializing, especially in light of increased presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, the president called on the three key regional players to join in a “forceful and coherent action” against any threats that undermine the security and stability of the region. He strongly recommended that the SCO adopt a comprehensive strategy to overcome terrorism, since international actions have so far been “partial and fragmented,” while terrorists such as the Islamic State have moved “with coherence, determination, and decisiveness.”

Over the past ten months, the Afghan government has doubled their 13-year efforts to provide an enabling regional environment for trade, transit, and investment in and through Afghanistan that would help ensure stability and prosperity across the region. And the Afghan people have sadly paid the heaviest price for doing so, as their forces continue fighting a relentless terror campaign that has found consistent institutional support outside of Afghanistan. Estimated victims of this deadly terror campaign differ, but about 92,000 innocent Afghans have been killed since 2001, while nearly 100,000 others have been injured. Just recently, the United Nations reported that in the first six months of 2015, 5,000 Afghans had been killed by the ongoing imposed conflicts.

All told, the success of RECCA VI, like the many other international conferences on Afghanistan, hinges on whether Afghanistan’s neighbors will do their part in tangible terms to help secure Afghanistan against the same threats that undermine their own security, as well as that of the whole region. It goes without saying that security is a prerequisite for implementation of any infrastructure projects, including the Silk Road economic initiatives. As the host and a primary victim of terrorism, Afghanistan looks forward to an in-depth discussion of what is at stake for the whole region, and how the country-participants of RECCA VI will work together to stabilize Afghanistan for execution of the region’s much needed economic agenda.

Photo by M. Ashraf Haidari for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Afghanistan

M. Ashraf Haidari is a Visiting Fellow at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS) in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is also 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 tweets @MAshrafHaidari.

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