America, EU, Japan: Time to Reunite Afghanistan with Central Asia

An Afghan man exercises in the early morning on a hilltop in Kabul, Afghanistan December 4, 2017.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Neither the five formerly Soviet states of Central Asia nor Afghanistan is happy with the current setup, and with good reason.

It is not just the two most prosperous countries of Central Asia that favor closer ties with Afghanistan. Thanks to an initiative spearheaded by the World Bank, delayed developers Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are both sending hydroelectric power to Pakistan via Afghanistan. Both view this export of their most valuable commodity as a key source of future income and anticipate its large-scale expansions. Kyrgyzstan also sees itself as a future platform for the development of mining, agriculture and small businesses in Afghanistan. Tajikistan, which shares a common official language with Afghanistan and claims millions of co-nationals there, has embraced its role as a key link in transporting exports from China to Afghanistan.

As to officially nonaligned Turkmenistan, its most important strategic project—the export of Turkmen gas to Pakistan and India via the proposed TAPI pipeline—depends fully on close collaboration with Kabul. Once opened, this mega-project will pump billions into the Afghan economy in the form of transit fees and payments in gas. American energy giants Chevron and Exxon-Mobil both sought a leading role in this project but failed when President Barack Obama refused to place the weight of his office behind it. Now the Turkmen have taken the lead, and are as eager as their neighbors to reintegrate Afghanistan with Central Asia.

But isn’t Afghanistan also the single biggest security threat to all five of these once-Soviet states of Central Asia? Definitely, as they all fully acknowledge in their security doctrines and military practice. But they also see how Russia has manipulated this threat to expand its network of military bases throughout the region and pull its former dependencies back into its orbit. They are stone sober about their security, but have all come to realize that it cannot be achieved without economic development in Afghanistan. They all acknowledge that Afghanistan still poses a serious security challenge but at the same time have come to see that country also as an economic and geopolitical opportunity. It is for this reason that all five of these countries emphatically assert that Afghanistan should henceforth be treated as an essential part of Central Asia.

It is well and good that Afghanistan’s five northern neighbors seek closer ties with Kabul, but how does the Afghan government view this matter? On this point both president Ashraf Ghani and his former electoral opponent Abdullah Abdullah have repeatedly argued that Afghanistan and its five neighboring Central Asian states constitute a single cultural and historical zone and should now draw closer together politically and economically. Ghani stressed this point repeatedly during recent visits to all the other Central Asian capitals.

So how did it happen that Japan, South Korea, the European Union and the United States, as well as international financial institutions, are so out of tune with a region they purport to be aiding? This is not the place to rehash the bureaucratic processes by which all these countries and institutions adopted a backward-looking and counterproductive definition of the region. In each case one can cite practical considerations that justified the decisions at the time. But this does not mean that they should not now change, and bring their structures into line with emerging realities. Specifically, Japan, South Korea, the EU, and the United States should immediately include Afghanistan as a full and equal member of their consultative groups on Central Asia. The World Bank should do so as well, as should the Asia Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Islamic Development Bank, and the United Nations.

How to bring about this change? Since these governmental and intergovernmental entities all created the present situation with scant consultation with those affected, they should feel themselves free to correct past mistakes without engaging in a lengthy consultative process. All the regional governments have long since made clear their positions. Japan, South Korea, the European Union and the United States are in the best position to initiate the change, by recognizing Afghanistan as a full member of their Central Asia consultative processes. The other international institutions will then follow suit.

But, one may object, isn’t this a tempest in a teapot? How will changing a series of organizational arrangements affect a situation which all agree is characterized by continuing instability that threatens all Central Asia with religious extremism and drug trafficking? Over recent decades several consultative forums, among them the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) and the Heart of Asia/Istanbul Process, have held useful discussions on Afghanistan’s future. Both have come up with useful projects for opening Afghanistan’s windows to the world and reengaging the international economy with Afghanistan. But while the former has made progress on such projects as the Lapis Lazuli Corridor connecting Afghanistan with the Caucasus visa Turkmenistan, its main focus is on the much larger region of which Afghanistan is a part, while the latter does not include all Central Asian countries among it fifteen members. What is missing are forums where the Central Asians themselves can discuss their common interests and promote mutual economic interaction.