Two Diverging Roads for Afghanistan

By Thomas Barfield
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Few in the West give this possibility much credence, but they have not been following the moves of Afghanistan's neighbors. With the exception of Pakistan, all have already committed large investments and infrastructure that integrate Afghanistan into their economies, motivated not by charity but pursuit of profits and resources.

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The list of projects is impressive. In 2008 India completed construction of a 220-kilometer road connecting the Iranian port Chahbahar with Afghanistan's Nimroz Province. As part of a larger billion-dollar-plus Indian-financed transportation network within Afghanistan, the new road ended Pakistan's former monopoly on seaborne transit trade to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia. India has also taken a large role in constructing $500 million project financed by the Asian Development Bank to build a 1300-megawatt, high-voltage transmission power line through Afghanistan, across the Khyber Pass into Pakistan. Despite its suspicion of India, Pakistan is poised to be the greatest beneficiary of a new Central Asia/South Asia Regional Electricity Market. In 2008 China signed a $3 billion mining agreement for a 30-year lease on the rich Aynak copper deposit south of Kabul with an estimated value of $88 billion. China has already begun preliminary site development and announced plans to finance and construct a rail line north to its western province of Xinjiang through the Hindu Kush Mountains. Other mining projects include an Indian-financed agreement to mine 1.8 billion tons of iron ore from the Hajigak deposit west of Kabul, a $14 billion investment that also includes a steel-mill complex and transport links.

Even the long stalled Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Natural Gas Pipeline (TAPI) no longer seems like a pipe dream. Designed to carry up to 33 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually, the 1,800-kilometer long pipeline, at a cost of $7.6 billion, would make Afghanistan the primary export corridor for Turkmenistan's enormous surplus of natural gas desperately in demand by energy-poor South Asia.

By way of comparison, the United States has funded $1.6 billion in infrastructure projects since 2006.

Significantly, the many projects span multiple economic sectors and Asia's largest emerging economic powers play key roles. The projects do not demand Western financing, nor do all need to succeed for Afghanistan to prosper. As each comes online the risk/reward calculation of making trouble in Afghanistan changes. Pakistan might think twice about supporting attacks in Kabul if the Afghans can turn off the lights in Islamabad. China is unlikely to sit idly by if its investments and engineers are attacked by insurgents. As Afghanistan's neighbors become more dependent on transportation, minerals and energy flows within a common regional market, preserving Afghanistan's peace and stability moves from the realm of goodwill into the matrix of self-interest. For those that think any stability is impossible to achieve in Afghanistan, a similar growing economic interdependence in Western Europe after 1945 proved more successful in preserving peace than any set of political treaties.

The Afghan government plays only a passive role in these developments. Other than balancing out its mineral contracts with both India and China, it has displayed no strategic vision. If Afghanistan wishes to become another Dubai rather than another Somalia, it needs imaginative leaders who offer an economic vision that offers hope to people who have already suffered too much.

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Thomas Barfield's current research focuses on problems of political development in Afghanistan, particularly on systems of local governance and dispute resolution. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship that led to the publication of his newest book, Afghanistan: A Political and Cultural History (2010). He is director of Boston University's Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilization and currently serves as president of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies. © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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