The post-2014 Afghan scenario is the outcome of two interrelated trends: reduced attention to Afghanistan by world powers, and as a consequence, its transition into a regional channel. The vacuum formed after the withdrawal of the main US/NATO coalition forces is giving impetus to regional states, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian Republics, to speed up their exposure in that country. This, in turn, increases competition between them for spheres of influence in Kabul, with each side seeking to advance its own national interests.
The narrative is quite clear. Stability in Afghanistan will also be very significant for stabilization and enrichment of the whole region. Afghanistan has huge potential, rich resources and has location advantages. The past years have reflected the courage and determination of the Afghan people. Post-2014, Afghanistan is facing and will face monumental internal and external challenges, such as security, political and economic. Moreover, it is an onerous task for Afghanistan’s future business development, attempting to integrate the economy in the region and harnessing her inherent potential.
The post-Karzai government set-up has ensued into a new cooperation matrix where Pakistan is attempting to bring about a fresh and positive approach in the bilateral relationship with Afghanistan. The encouraging response by President Ashraf Gani, especially during his historic visit across the Durand Line in November, further emboldened this relationship. The highly publicized role of Pakistan Army COAS General Raheel Sharif and the frequent visits of DG ISI Lt. Gen Rizwan Akhtar are manifestations of this new thinking. Recently, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took a high-powered delegation to Kabul that has further reinforced the relationship.
The feel-good signals emanating out of these interactions, although reflecting hope, are still dependant on the future course of actions of both the governments and should be planned in view of the events, policies and strategies of other regional countries that are eagerly in a rush to enhance their connections in Afghanistan. Hence, Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral relations now encompass various regional and global factors that must be judiciously addressed by both countries.
To ensure a win-win situation, to facilitate extensive and favorable cooperation, and to take maximum advantage of the new regional dynamics, it is imperative that Kabul and Islamabad develop a broad-based strategy and trust so that both nations and their citizens enjoy the dividends of political, diplomatic, military, energy, trade, investment and, most importantly, peace initiatives. Therefore, for Pakistan, the new paradigm entails a holistic approach rather than addressing these from an individualistic neighbor-to-neighbor position. Thus relations with Afghanistan are now at a crucial stage because this paradigm would be the catalyst for regional cooperation, trade facilitation and national security.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have to tackle the issue of terrorism and extremism. The launching of the Zarb-e-Azb operation by Pakistan Army and the huge success of this operation has also improved the trust factor that haunts both the countries. Consequently, it has given impetus to Kabul to intensify its own efforts to deal with terrorists and extremists in Afghanistan. However, these terrorists are well-entrenched and continue to have a powerful presence in many areas of Afghanistan. In fact, terrorism on both sides has been a millstone around the necks of the two governments.
Moreover, the economies of both the countries are feeling the negative impact of fighting the war against terrorists. Both countries are dependent on massive injection of considerable foreign financial resources for their budgetary support, more so at the cost of allocation of funds for the welfare of the populace. The macro-economic fundamentals of Afghanistan are fragile, and Kabul would need in excess of $15 billion annually for implementation of its various programs. All in all, both countries have to strategize their survival policies through prudent utilization of financial resources.
Ashraf Gani is a respected economist and his foremost plan is focused on maintaining and improving the status of the country through an economy-led strategy. His first foreign visit was to China before he landed in Pakistan and then India. The easy access accorded by him to Pakistani businessmen and his standing invitation to businessmen to visit Kabul and interact with their counterparts as well as government personalities, including him, is proof positive that he has his priorities chalked out.
Ashraf Gani has to ensure that his government continues depending upon support from Washington, albeit a substantially reduced amount. The over-arching concern is that the withdrawal of NATO/ISAF forces would drastically reduce financial inflows hence depending on foreign loans and assistance would be a tall order. It is therefore, in his scheme of things to look for external sources to run his government. He is looking for heavy investments from China, India, Japan and Turkey to rebuild his nation. Pakistani construction companies lack the critical mass to undertake such projects as well as arrange financing. It would be a pragmatic approach to dovetail on Turkish construction companies as sub-contractors. This is the prime reason why Gani has embarked upon a process to attract massive Chinese and Indian investment in the minerals sector. Chinese companies have a $4.4 billion contract to mine the Aynak copper mines and would be investing around half a billion dollars in the oil sector. Kabul has awarded India mining rights for the country’s biggest iron deposits. Afghanistan expects $25 billion in foreign investment over 30 years in mining and energy with over $10 billion from India. An Indian investment consortium is negotiating the building of Afghanistan’s first steel mill costing $8 billion, plus a power plant and facilities for ore extraction and processing. Once the process is put in motion, Afghanistan is placed to receive huge investments and the accruing royalties. Afghanistan is loaded with minerals such as lithium, chrome ore, iron ore, coal, soapstone, copper, and gold, to name a few. China has a huge appetite for such minerals. The Japanese battery industry requires lithium and is keen to invest in this field.
A worrying factor is the lucrative narcotics sector. Afghanistan cultivates 95% of the total opium poppy crop and is a major producer of narcotics where illegal profits run into billions of dollars annually. The influence of the militias of the warlords cannot be easily discounted. The margin of profit is enormous and it is for this reason that many are demanding the legalization of narcotics. Another detrimental factor is the shortage of educational institutions. Thousands of schools and colleges are immediately required to bring about an education revolution. The youth bulge is intimidating too, especially when there is scarcity of meaningful employment. Denial of job opportunities could lead the youth into camps of terrorists and extremists. A fact of immediate consternation is food security since Afghanistan is importing most of its food requirements such as rice, wheat and tea. Notwithstanding the challenges, the Gani government has already won kudos for handling the affairs of the state. An air of optimism for a better future is pervasive despite the arduous task at hand. As Chairman Mao Zedong once said, “There is great disorder under the heavens, but the situation is interesting.”
In the past, Afghanistan stressed the distrust viewpoint but is today cautiously warming up to Pakistan’s overtures. Pakistan has suffered the blowback of a long, devastating Global War on Terror. The motivating factor that can play a vital role to achieve a huge peace dividend is if trade relations are strengthened. When countries trade with each other, people develop an interest in maintaining peace, so that the flow of goods and services is not disrupted. When countries are trading with each other, they tend to avoid conflicts. If there are any disputes, as is likely to happen, they use dialogue to resolve them.
While people in the corridors of power are involved in enhancing the efforts on the diplomatic front, the business community is making its own strides. A game changer has been Pakistan Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry, comprising of Chambers of Karachi, Sarhad, Chaman and all the Afghanistan Chambers. The personal rapport developed between PAJCCI and President Ashraf Gani has been very encouraging.
The priority accorded by Ashraf Gani to Pakistan over India is a manifestation of the new thinking in Kabul. Ashraf Ghani very confidently remarked after his visit to Pakistan: “We have a shared vision to serve as the heart of Asia, ensuring economic integration by enhancing connectivity between South and Central Asia through energy, gas and oil pipelines becoming a reality, and not remaining a dream. The narrative for the future must include the most neglected of our people to become stakeholders in a prosperous economy in stable and peaceful countries as our faiths are linked because terror knows no boundaries. We have overcome obstacles of thirteen years in three days and we will not permit the past to destroy the future.” Both countries must realize that and move beyond the negativity towards a promising future that is crucial and important for their citizens.