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.
While the developed world rests content with existing forums and consultative groups, the Central Asians themselves—including Afghans—are moving vigorously to create consultative venues of their own. A recent conference convened in Samarkand by Uzbekistan’s new president, Shafkat Mirziyoyev, announced plans for a purely regional forum on water, to be held under UN auspices, as well as regular intraregional consultations at the presidential level. In other words, the Central Asians have moved ahead, while Japan, South Korea, the European Union and United States still drag their feet.
But this paints too dark a picture. In practice, Japan, South Korea, the EU, and the United States are all coming to take a more regional approach to Central Asia, and one that involves Afghanistan. Japan has supported economic and cultural projects on both sides of the Amu Darya since 2002. And the EU’s Central Asia office and the United States recently brought about a Memorandum of Understanding between Siemens Power and Gas, Bayat Power, and the Government of Afghanistan to provide a mobile gas turbine that will, as Bayat’s chairman Dr. Ehsanollah Bayat put it, “help kick-start Afghanistan’s journey towards energy independence.” In other words, all these countries are making progress towards a new Central Asian regionalism that embraces Afghanistan de facto, in spite of the fact that their consultative structures still lag behind reality.
The external powers and international organizations should not take such progress for granted. Water remains a prime source of contention within the region. Soviet-era agreements on the use of the region’s largest river, the Amu Darya, simply excluded Afghanistan, even though 40 percent of the river’s drainage area is in Afghanistan, and even though Afghanistan is alone in being both an upstream and downstream country. Until international actors fully embrace Central Asia as a region that includes Afghanistan, such anomalies will continue and even proliferate.
A further reason for the international actors to embrace Afghanistan as part of Central Asia is that that country will be key to any opening of the other Central Asian countries to trade with the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. For now, Soviet-era transport routes still force Uzbekistan to market its lucrative cotton crop mainly through the Baltic—nearly 3,600 kilometers away. By promoting openings to the south, the new, expanded Central Asia will generate economic opportunities for the entire region that do not now exist. The Asian Development Bank knows this, and has taken practical steps to remove some of the impediments to such commerce. However, it, too, is hampered by an internal structure that places some of the countries under one office and others under another. Happily, these problems can be easily addressed if the bureaucratic will to do so exists.
Moreover, a bigger window to the south will enable all Central Asian countries—including Afghanistan—to balance economic and geopolitical pressures from Russia or China with contacts with the fast-emerging economies of the Indian subcontinent. Given what we know about the sad state of Russia’s economy, the declining number of workers in the Chinese labor force, and the astonishing demographic growth of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, this balancing may occur anyway. But why not be proactive and organize ourselves in a way that smooths and facilitates the transition?
The proposed change will not diminish Afghanistan’s inevitable links with its eastern and western neighbors, Pakistan and Iran. But the proposed reintegration of Afghanistan into a Central Asia that will number some 140 million people will enable it, along with the other five countries, to strike more equitable deals with all neighbors and with economies further afield. Summing up, to embrace Afghanistan as fully a part of Central Asia, not merely as its inconvenient neighbor, is to recognize a reality that has existed through the millennia and is steadily regaining strength today. To acknowledge that Afghanistan is fully a part of Central Asia is not against anyone. It is past time for Japan, South Korea, the European Union, the United States, and all the major international organizations and financial institutions to make this simple but important change.
S. Frederick Starr is the founding chairman of the Central Asia–Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, a joint transatlantic research and policy center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC).