Regional Economic Cooperation as a Key to Solve Afghanistan Problem
‘Economics is the key to overcoming all problems,’ observed the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov while articulating the main content of quadrilateral meet of Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan at the Russian Black Sea resort Sochi on 18 August 2010. Though the initial agenda was to focus on terrorism and drug trafficking issues, the summit widened the agenda and included issues of economic cooperation in the areas such as energy, infrastructure, etc. The summit further brought into focus the urgency of regional cooperation in the troubled country. It may be unjust to see the summit as a counter to policies and presence of US led NATO in the region; rather it may be seen as an attempt to widen the cooperative network in the region to bring peace and stability. It assumes significance as the earlier Soviet experience in Afghanistan can be used to fight the Taliban menace and to bring development to the region. Gone are the days of the cold war and ideological rivalry and in the post-cold war relations it is cooperation rather than competition that is the basis for management or resolution of contentious issues including the crisis in Afghanistan.
Russian leadership took the lead to foster the process of regional cooperation in tackling the problems in Afghanistan. This year so far reportedly Russia has trained 225 Afghan personnel to counter the menace of drug trafficking. The drug cartel and illegal business through Afghanistan and Central Asia and further beyond is a concern for Russia and the countries of the Central Eurasian region. Russia has also allowed its territory for transit of certain goods and equipments to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban menace. Somewhere it seems that the old sentiment of rivalry and competition in the style of great game makes the process of friendly cooperation among diverse stakeholders in Afghanistan difficult. But the fact remains without the involvement of powers like Russia and Central Asian countries it will be a difficult enterprise to bring peace and democracy in the region. Though the conferences on Afghanistan, particularly the London Conference of January 2010 and later the Kabul Conference emphasized on regional cooperation, there seems to a lot of divergence among the players towards giving the cooperative format a concrete shape.
Keeping in view the Soviet era cooperation, Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev emphasized on ‘giving additional impetus to the economic development and solve a whole number of urgent tasks, including in energy and social development.’ Some analysts argue that this is the attempt by Russia to regain its lost influence in the region and to assert its power in the trouble torn region. It may be farfetched to argue that Russian involvement in the Afghan peace process will jeopardise the prospects of peace and development in the region. It may be the other way round. Russia has accumulated a lot of Soviet era experience in terms of building energy and transportation infrastructure during its decade long presence in the country, which can be utilised for Afghanistan devastated due to ongoing conflict. Russia has good influence among the Central Asia countries, and along with these countries, it can work with NATO members for stability, and in fighting terrorism and drug trafficking. Any strategy to keep out powers like Russia and Central Asia from the Afghan solution format, as in the past years, will not likely produce enduring results. Despite NATO’s 1,41,000 troops in Afghanistan, it has become unable to control the Taliban menace. This year alone 437 foreign soldiers were killed by the Taliban forces. The likely departure of NATO troops from a fragile Afghanistan after a few years will definitely create a vacuum, inviting the Taliban forces to capture the space. Hence, in this complex situation, the role of powers like Russia and countries of Central Asia comes to picture as they can play a significant role in fostering stability in Afghanistan.
The joint declaration issued after the summit hold many promises for development in the region. Russia will play a role for the development of Salang tunnel linking northern and southern Afghanistan. It will likely play a partnership role in developing oil and gas projects in the north of Afghanistan, besides building fertilizer factory and a power station in Mazar-e-Sharif and a home-building factory in Kabul. It will also cooperate in building and development of railways in Afghanistan and Pakistan and supplying locomotives, and more importantly, to help both the countries meet energy deficiency through the project called CASA-1000. As per this project plan, energy from Central Asian countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will be supplied to Afghanistan and Pakistan. As per the initial plans Pakistan will be supplied 1000 mega watt of electricity and Afghanistan will be supplied 300 mega watt. The regional electricity project is backed by the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the Islamic Development Bank. Russia too has expressed interest to supply helicopters to Afghanistan. Russia will likely play a role in renovating and expanding the Pakistan Steel Mills built by the Soviet Union during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s period in Pakistan. Medvedev offered Russian support for the victims of the devastating flood in Pakistan, which has already displaced more than 20 million people.
From a broader perspective, the meeting of the leaders of the four countries is a step towards fostering regional cooperation to bring development and stability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. In fact, the turmoil in Afghanistan is so deep and entrenched; it necessitates a format in which international, regional and national players can work together to confront myriad challenges in the region ranging from terrorism, drug trafficking, religious fundamentalism, poverty and underdevelopment, corruption, etc. It is comprehensible that the competing interests of nations might collide while confronting the Afghan issue, but as the past experience shows any unilateral or sectarian approach is not going to win in the difficult soil of Afghanistan. Hence, the Russian initiative to foster regional economic cooperation can be considered a step towards bringing stability and development in the region.
Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India. He specialises on the issues of peace and conflict, terrorism, Kashmir and strategic aspects of Central Eurasia.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Aug 2010.
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