Afghanistan’s quest for strategic autonomy
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.
A breakthrough that enables other connections to the sea will go a long way in strengthening Afghanistan. This is where the Chabahar port will be a game changer. Not only will it help the country, it will also give Central Asia access to a sea outlet thereby unlocking the considerable energy and mineral wealth of Afghanistan and the other “stans”.
Chabahar is in Sistan and Baluchestan province of Iran, less than 100km from Gwadar, Pakistan’s port being built with China’s assistance. Chabahar will offer an alternative trade route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is only 1,500km from Mumbai, about a day’s sailing time, and another 800km by road to Zaranj in Afghanistan from where the Indian built road will link it to Delaram. Delaram connects to the garland shaped highway linking all major Afghan cities to Kabul. This highway, part of the Asian highway, in turn links up with the road network in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
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.
Out of these, there is a tremendous potential for emerald, which is found in great quantity and quality in Panjshir Valley and the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Besides, India has already shown interest in developing four iron ore blocks and to build a steel plant in Hajigak, 130km west of Kabul in Bamiyan province at an estimated cost of $10 billion. Afghanistan also has rich deposits of rare earth metals, for which it has ready customers in growing powers such as India.
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.
As the world moves towards a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue and the consequent removal of sanctions, Afghanistan will be able to pursue its goal of strategic autonomy aggressively. This will be met with resistance from Pakistan whose dreams of serving as a corridor in the New Silk route will be severely dented if Afghanistan becomes accessible through Iran or Uzbekistan.
Thus, given the externalities of the Chabahar project, the Indian government would do well to take the project to fruition not withstanding some setbacks.
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.
Pranay Kotasthane and Anand Arni are respectively, a policy analyst, and advisor at the Takshashila Institution, an independent and non-partisan think tank.
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