Delivering On The New Silk Road Initiative Amidst Regional Political Rivalries

By Mansoor Saadat
April 16, 2017

 The end of 2014 brought Afghanistan to a crossroad, as the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) withdraw their combat forces from Afghanistan. The presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan played a significant role in its economy that plummet with the sudden decline of military spending. In 2011, the United States government adopted the New Silk Road initiative which aims at developing Afghanistan’s economy by developing energy, trade and infrastructure projects. It aims to improve regional trade between Central and South Asia – through the Afghanistan land-bridge – and thus allow for greater economic integration, peace and prosperity in the Afghan region.

This initiative is a unique opportunity for promoting regional peace and prosperity through economic cooperation. However, among a diverse set of challenges, unresolved political tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in particular, vis-à-vis India, remains one major obstacle that can delay the realisation of this initiative. Given the urgency for an economic alternative in the face of the withdrawal of foreign troops and reduced international aid for Afghanistan, regional political cooperation is more pressing. Therefore, in order to ensure timely delivery on the New Silk Road initiative in Afghanistan, the U.S. will need to provide greater incentives and confidence building measures for improving the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) relations. Hence, the core question of this research in Washington will be: 

What are achievable policy options that the U.S. government can undertake to improve AfPak relations in a way that serves the timely realization of the New Silk Road initiative? 

 

1. AfPak relations: Why a significant challenge?  

 Under the New Silk Road initiative, one objective is to overcome Afghanistan’s geographical isolation from its region and the rest of the world. This isolation was and still is the main cause of Afghanistan protracted poverty and underdevelopment. The neighbouring countries of Afghanistan play an important role in overcoming this isolation and in the realization of the New Silk Road initiative. The southeastern neighbour, Pakistan, is of critical significance for: a) it has enormous sway on the Afghan Taliban insurgency; and b) it geographically stands on Afghanistan’s main gateway to South Asia. The two factors are intertwined and further complicated by Pakistan-India dispute over Afghanistan. Therefore, given political tensions in the AfPak relations, Pakistan can use these two factors as leverage over Afghanistan in the realization of its regional plans, particularly the New Silk Road initiative. 

a. Pakistan: Sway on Taliban 

 Pakistan’s complex relationship with the Afghan Taliban has puzzled and challenged the international community’s efforts in Afghanistan ever since the aftermath of 9/11. The Taliban insurgency has been and still is having sanctuary in Pakistan and is growing in size, tactics and political clout, posing serious security and political challenges to the economic transition in Afghanistan. Taliban’s current political 

clout and sophisticated insurgency operations – despite a 12-year-long war against the group – is a strong indication of the level of external influence and support to Taliban insurgency. The Afghan government and the international community have continuously requested Pakistan’s support for the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban insurgency and its security implication on regional economic cooperation can stall economic cooperation over Afghanistan. 

b. Pakistan: Gateway to South Asia 

 In addition to Afghanistan’s dependency on Pakistan for an end to its Taliban insurgency and insecurity, it also geographically depends on Pakistan for access to South Asia. A major corridor under the New Silk Road initiative is: the Central Asia to South Asia routes that pass through Afghanistan into Pakistan leading to India and the wider South Asia region. This corridor connects South Asia’s vast energy market to the energy riches of Central Asia, and opens the markets of Central Asia and South Asia for greater flow of goods and products in an increased trade volume. On the longer term, it allows South Asian products to reach beyond Central Asia, to the Middle East and Europe and vice versa. India has estimated that if the Afghan routes open and only 20% of western trade is sent by roads, about $100 billion worth of goods will pass through Afghanistan by 2016.

 Therefore, standing on such an important and critical route of the New Silk Road initiative, Pakistan can impede regional economic cooperation by closing or complicating its border crossing points with Afghanistan. Trade and transit has always been a political instrument for Pakistan to insert pressure on Afghanistan when needed. The Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA) have never been fully implemented. As recent as 22nd of January 2013, the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry announced that it will close all trading ties with Pakistan in protest for the release of more than three thousand containers belonging to Afghan traders, stalled in Karachi Port by Pakistani authorities for months.

c. Why would Pakistan be an obstacle? 

 Skeptics will argue that why would Pakistan delay regional economic cooperation over Afghanistan, given that it too will benefit from the cooperation? It is true that Pakistan will benefit; but regional cooperation over Afghanistan will give a greater role to other neighbours, in particular India, who is in dire need of access to central Asia. Pakistan is strategically concerned with increasing Indian presence in Afghanistan; and the development of regional trade routes with an increased Indian activity in the region can present a strategic threat to Pakistan. This is one reason, many believe, why Pakistan has been reluctant to cooperate in the fight against the Taliban. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) oil and gas pipeline has been pending – with some progress in recent years – for more than a decade for political reasons, despite its enormous economic incentive for the countries involved. 

 

Why is this research necessary in the U.S. and particularly in Washington D.C.? 

 The New Silk Road initiative is at the heart of the post-withdrawal-policy of the U.S. towards not only Afghanistan but the region. This initiative is important not only for the region’s economic prosperity but also for the continuity of U.S. presence in the region. Given the intensity of regional political rivalry and economic disparity, – the region is home to both world’s booming and poorest economies – the success of the New Silk Road initiative highly depends on continued U.S. presence in the region and on its role in addressing the political challenges to it. The unresolved AfPak tensions and its complicated Indian 

 Dimension remains a major obstacle. Therefore, as this research aims to study the post 2014 U.S. role in the region, it is necessary for this research to be conducted in the United States, particularly in Washington D.C., among leading U.S. policy makers and analysts. The Rumsfeld Fellowship program presents an opportunity for this research to provide concrete results and have valued impact. It will provide interaction with relevant leading U.S. think tanks, regional experts and leading academics, and most importantly U.S. officials. In addition, conducting this research in Washington D.C. will give more credibility and accuracy to its findings and therefore increase its chances of having an impact.

 Finish the Job: Jump-Start Afghanistan’s Economy, Frederick Starr & Adib Farhadi, 2012, p.13. 

2 We Will End Trade Relations With Pakistan: ACCI, ToloNews, 2013: http://www.tolonews.com/en/afghanistan/9168

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