Afghanistan’s quest for strategic autonomy

I collaborated with Mr. Anand Arni (twitter: @anand_arni) to write about the dimensions of economic autonomy for Afghanistan. Given below is the article and a response to the article by someone who has worked on the ground in Afghanistan.

[Full article: Afghanistan’s quest for strategic autonomy, Mint, Dec 24, 2014]

Let no one mistake it, Pakistan has no solutions to offer for Afghanistan. It promises much but the price it is seeking—recognition of the Durand line, a patron-client relationship and containment of India—is structurally against a strong Afghanistan. On the supply side, Pakistan simply cannot deliver. Neither does it have the economic strength to provide Afghanistan any succour, nor is it in a position to rein in the assets it spawned. Moreover, it is abhorred by the bulk of the Afghans, even within the ranks of the Taliban.

What Afghans yearn most for, after decades of strife, is peace and tranquillity to make their own decisions, something that has been denied to them by years of Pakistani interference and perfidy. To bring peace and security to its citizens, a strong Afghanistan is necessary. And this is possible only if it achieves strategic autonomy in its interactions with the world. This goal of a strategically autonomous Afghanistan has multiple dimensions.

The first aspect of strategic autonomy is the multiplicity of accessibility with the world, so that if one path is blocked, the others can be made operational. This is particularly relevant to Afghanistan—a land-locked country overly dependent on Pakistan for accessing the sea trade route in the absence of any dependable Iranian port. Pakistan has exploited this position of being the gateway of Afghanistan to the world with great efficacy.

….

The second aspect of strategic autonomy is a wide economic basket. Afghanistan has large deposits of copper, iron, high-grade chrome ore, uranium, beryl, barite, lead, zinc, fluorspar, bauxite, cobalt, lithium, tantalum, sulphur, mercury, rubies, lapis lazuli, emeralds, gold and silver. According to some estimates, these reserves are so big and include so many minerals essential to modern industry that Afghanistan has the potential to become one of the most important mining centres in the world. The estimated worth of these minerals is in excess of a trillion dollars.

The third aspect of autonomy will be the multiplicity of economic partners. This is again where Chabahar can prove to be a boon. The Iranians have already started the construction of a railway line from Chabahar to Zahedan where it will connect with the Iranian rail network and to Central Asia and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Since the road network between Zahedan and Afghanistan already exists, this connectivity will open up multiple trade possibilities for Afghanistan.

….

From an Indian perspective, this project will also connect it to Central Asia through the 2,000km route linking Chabahar to Asgabat in Turkmenistan. If this were to happen, there is the possibility of a new security architecture evolving. The five party alliance (Iran, India, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) that existed in the 90s and supported the Northern Alliance could find itself converted into a stronger regional bloc with the inclusion of Turkmenistan. The project can trigger a sequence of events that will bring strategic autonomy to Afghanistan and inflict a deadly blow to Pakistan’s “beggar thy neighbour” policy.

[Full article: Afghanistan’s quest for strategic autonomy, Mint, Dec 24, 2014]

Response to the main arguments in the article:

  1. Trade routes/ LOCs are definitely critical for any nation. Do note that there are multiple east-west trade corridors being developed, including the Lapis Lazuli corridor and other east-west railway corridors. Afghanistan is developing into a transit hub between West Asia and China.
  2.  I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on any specific minerals. In fact, investment in precious stones is a very tricky issue given the widespread sensitivity in Afghanistan about foreign exploitation of resources. This will not be resolved easily, certainly not until the locals are assured (and are convinced) of fair distribution of royalties. This will not be easy, and the more precious the extracted mineral, the more will be the sensitivities.
  3. I think balance of trade and the basket of traded commodities is an often overlooked issue. Imbalanced trade impairs autonomy. And export of raw materials is just a recipe for “resource curse”. Therefore, domestic industry needs to be developed and the country must be enabled to become a significant exporter. If not exports, local manufacturing should at least be strong enough and diverse enough to meet domestic consumption needs of consumer goods. As of now, honey, fruits, and maybe some dairy products are among the few goods that are manufactured.

I agree that strategic autonomy is important. I’m sure you agree that strategic autonomy requires confidence.

Politically, such confidence can stem from the stability of the state, including a belief in the strength of the armed forces to protect the country’s sovereignty; economically, confidence stems from a diversified economy with strong fundamentals and at least moderately balanced trade; and socially, this confidence can only stem from the leaders knowing that among the vast majority of the nation’s citizens, patriotism overrides all other loyalties.

 In short, Strategic autonomy in foreign policy, nearly always stems from the leaders’ confidence in the domestic environment. Therefore, support to the building of this “domestic” confidence, arguably from an arm’s length, is probably the best thing any partner nation can do.

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