Sitting at the intersection of many regions, the location of Afghanistan has exposed it to the tumult of geopolitics as much as it has placed it at the center of flourishing trade routes. Serving as a land-bridge between the present-day regions of Central, South and West Asia, Afghanistan has drawn the interest of regional and global players alike.
Apart from its vital geographical location, its recently discovered mineral riches have made Afghanistan appear to be an even more important proposition for investment. But even as a stable Afghanistan holds a lot of economic promise, the geopolitics of the present, much like the past, have subjected it to regional and global rivalries. These rivalries have in turn created and accentuated fissures within Afghanistan, making stability and security an even more distant dream for this war-afflicted country.
In light of the geopolitical challenges that have beset the restoration of order and security in Afghanistan, it has become imperative to induce impetuses that can enhance its appeal as a roundabout for trading routes. One such recent initiative has been the operationalization of Chabahar Port in Iran. Emerging from trilateral cooperation between India, Iran, and Afghanistan, the rationale behind the establishment of this port is different for each country.
For Afghanistan, the significance of Chabahar Port lies in the potential it has to reduce the country’s dependence on Pakistan for conducting its trade. As a landlocked country, Chabahar Port offers direct access to Indian Ocean for Afghanistan as well as access to the vital sea lanes that give it alternative options to connect to the world. In fact, the port of Chabahar is 800 km closer to the economic center of Afghanistan than both the ports at Karachi (Pakistan) and Bandar Abbas (Iran). Furthermore, the establishment of this port has come along with the development of rail and road networks in the western provinces of Afghanistan. These conjoined national and international infrastructural developments are expected to have positive impacts for the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan.
The building of Chabahar Port has geostrategic importance for India as well. On the one hand, Chabahar Port allows India to bypass Pakistan for trade with Afghanistan, and on the other, Chabahar Port is pitted to compete with Gwadar Port in Pakistan which is being built by China. For Iran, the operationalization of Chabahar Port is expected to increase international interest in its markets. Having been out of the global economic fray for a long time, Iran’s re-integration with this world can be serviced better with this oceanic port that is capable of handling larger cargo ships.
Enhanced connectivity, and the economic interactions that follow, are built on the faith that interdependence can help overcome reasons for conflict. It is precisely this belief that has driven Afghanistan to weave regional dialogues around its own redevelopment, sending out the message that its stability and security hold the key for greater regional prosperity. Positioning itself as a connector between different regions and their respective member-states, Afghanistan’s participation in regional dialogues and infrastructural projects is conveyed as being not only essential for itself but also for the growth and stability of the countries around it.
Given its vital geostrategic location between resource-abundant Central Asia and the blossoming market of South Asia, it would make obvious economic sense to redevelop Afghanistan.
The Heart of Asia — Istanbul Process (HOA-IP) has been an effort in this direction. Established in 2011, HOA-IP is a platform that brings together fourteen participating countries from Central, South, and West Asia, and an equal number of supporting countries and supporting organizations from across the world. The purpose of this initiative is to encourage dialogue between these regional actors on matters concerning security, political, and economic cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbors.
The emphasis of HOA-IP is on the belief that greater regional cooperation lies at the heart of the revival of Afghanistan as a stable and secured land-bridge, and that in doing so, the states in neighboring regions can reap the dividends of greater economic growth. Stressing this idea, the recently-concluded ministerial dialogue in Baku was organized around the theme of “Security and Economic Connectivity towards a Strengthened Heart of Asia Region.” The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, Salahuddin Rabbani, has observed that:
“Connectivity through Afghanistan will facilitate increased trade, transit, and investment, thereby ensuring economic growth throughout the region. In turn, this will help stabilize Afghanistan and the Heart of Asia region against such major common security threats as terrorism, radicalism, and criminality, which hinder our shared prosperity towards regional economic integration.”
Echoing a similar opinion, the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, M. J. Akbar emphasized that a stable, connected Afghanistan is in the interest of all the participating countries alike. Recognizing Afghanistan’s “undeniable potential to emerge as the land-bridge between various parts of the vast and dynamic Eurasian landmass.” Akbar reiterated that, for India, the “issue for connectivity for Afghanistan is not a mere talking point.” However, affected by what he addresses as the “incomprehensible ill-will” of a “certain neighbor,” he observed that the “best benefits will accrue only when trade and transit agreements involving Afghanistan become fully inclusive, comprehensive and, most importantly, are fully activated”.
The importance of regional progress is not lost on any country that — in direct and indirect ways — has been affected by the continuing conflicts and the lack of stability and security in Afghanistan. Given its vital geostrategic location between resource-abundant Central Asia and the blossoming market of South Asia, it would make obvious economic sense to redevelop Afghanistan for its own prosperity and that of the countries in its two immediate regions. To this effect, projects such as CASA-1000, TAPI, Five Nations Railway, and the Asian International Railway Corridor, among others, are expected to facilitate not only the redevelopment of Afghanistan but also ensure greater regional prosperity.
Regional connectivity and the ensuing economic interactions can scatter the apparent political and strategic mistrust that prevails between many countries in the two regions, especially South Asia. The advantages of greater regional cooperation built around the redevelopment of Afghanistan are many. However, the current environment in this part of the world still does not permit its member-states to rise above their short-term and short-sighted goals. The operationalization of a bilateral air freight corridor between India and Afghanistan and the functioning of the trilateral Chabahar Port are certainly happy news.
However, these bilateral and trilateral efforts, loaded as they are with the intent to bypass other nations, will only yield results in a limited manner. For true progress to come to Afghanistan, and through it to the regions it is positioned in-between, it is required that the resistance and roadblocks to a stable and democratic Afghanistan are removed from every quarter.