Central Asia-South Asia connectivity may hinge on Pakistan-US relations

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Ousted Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, in a July 21, 2019, file photo.

When the U.S. departed Afghanistan, it took its money with it.

Fortunately, leaders from Central Asia and South Asia — Uzbekistan and Pakistan — had already planned to connect the regions to increase trade and opportunity. In July, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan met in Tashkent where they signed agreements to upgrade their countries’ economic relations.

If NATO had stuck around, Central and South Asia could have planned trade via a semi-stable Afghanistan, which would have made opportunities for Afghans. As it is, it’s now up to local leaders to build trade links across Afghanistan when the governing body, the Taliban, isn’t recognized by any other governments, including theirs (yet). 

Central Asia needs to develop southern trade links to complement existing routes to the north, east, and west. The route to Pakistan has gotten the most notice, but the region’s Plan B is via Iran, which is isolated from many trade partners, but has the advantage of internal stability.

President Mirziyoyev has pledged to work with Prime Minister Khan, so the Afghanistan-Pakistan route is the priority. Neither option is ideal but, for landlocked Central Asia, the only way out is through.

Connectivity between Central Asia and South Asia is needed if the regions are to escape the gravitation pull of Russia and China. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which border Afghanistan, have established relations with the Taliban government as many key economic projects require stability in Afghanistan.

In February 2021, representatives of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan agreed to a roadmap for the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway project, a 600-km track to be built over five years. The rail project will run alongside regional power projects — the 1,000-megawatt Surkhan-Puli-Khumri high-voltage power line and the 1,300-megawatt CASA-1000 energy project — that supply power to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The final key project is the stalled 1,100-mile Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline that can ship 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas annually, and will relieve Ashgabat of Beijing’s leverage as China currently receives 90 percent of Turkmenistan’s gas.

Pakistan has successfully arbitraged its location by supporting the U.S. in two wars in Afghanistan and reaping significant financial benefits in the process. It is a partner with China in the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the largest project in the Belt and Road Initiative. Now Pakistan may be Central Asia’s partner linking the region to maritime trade routes via the ports of Karachi and Gwadar, and Pakistan’s large internal market of over 200 million people, 60 percent of them under the age of 30.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. and Pakistan weren’t even fighting the same war. U.S. officials have accused Pakistan of a “double game,” but Islamabad was eyeing the “next game” — the conflict with India. The U.S. anticipated a formal end of hostilities after it defeated the Taliban and restructured Afghan society, but Pakistan knew even if the U.S. departed in victory, it would still have India to contend with and war in Afghanistan was just a way to position itself for the next phase of the struggle. Pakistan could use the Taliban to build “strategic depth,” recruit fighters it could deploy against India in Kashmir, and be paid for helping Uncle Sam. The Pakistani generals were channeling Paul von Hindenburg who, when he recommended the annexation of the Baltic Provinces into the German Empire said, “I need them for the maneuvering of my left wing in the next war.” 

America sees wars as finite events that end at Appomattox Courthouse or on the battleship Missouri; Pakistan sees war as a process.

U.S. policy in Afghanistan is pretty much now just “women and girls,” which ignores that leaders in Central and South Asia are also responsible for women and girls. The U.S. should not allow its differences with the Taliban to block regional trade arrangements — which will have to include the Kabul government — and thereby hand a political win (and financial windfall) to Russia and China by limiting the region’s trade options.

A bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, the “Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight, and Accountability Act of 2021,” that, among other things, directs the Biden administration to “develop a revised strategy for South and Central Asia,” and also requires an assessment of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban from 2001 to 2021.

There won’t be any revelations in the assessment — of course Pakistan was canoodling with the Taliban — other than the identities of some heretofore unknown Pakistani colonels (whose promotions to brigadier are practically assured if they are publicly condemned by American senators). But, as night follows day, so will sanctions, a labor-saving device for Chinese diplomats in Islamabad.

What should the U.S. do?

Don’t be the spoiler: Blocking projects that may benefit the economies of Afghanistan and Pakistan will push Central and South Asia into the arms of Russia and China.

Think long term: Support regional infrastructure projects now, rather than waiting for supine governments in Islamabad and Kabul.

Walk the walk: If America’s Central Asia policy is really about local “sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity,” putting money in local pockets is the best way to make that happen.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).

Tags Afghanistan Belt and Road initiative Biden foreign policy Central Asia China Great power competition Pakistan Russia South Asia Tajikistan Turkmenistan Uzbekistan

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