By Salman Bashir
Three developments in recent days are worthy of attention: The ceremony linking up the Turkmen-Afghan segment of the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) gas pipeline; a statement by Pakistan’s National Security Committee (NSC); and a statement by the Afghan Taliban.
At TAPI’s inaugural ceremony in Turkmenistan on Feb. 22, Pakistan’s prime minister said the pipeline is not just a gas transit initiative connecting Central and South Asia, but a project that will lead to greater regional and economic collaboration. He later stressed Afghanistan’s potential to become a regional hub of energy connectivity. On Feb. 27, the NSC reiterated the significance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the benefits it brings to the development of Pakistan, the region and beyond. The committee said Islamabad will launch new initiatives to enhance mutually beneficial economic partnerships with friendly countries in the region and beyond.
On Feb. 28, Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid applauded TAPI as an important regional economic project that will benefit the Afghan people. The Taliban “deems it its responsibility to revive foundational economic and reconstruction work in the country, and asks international construction companies to help the Afghans in this regard,” he said. The Taliban “will in return not withhold any support for them.” The above developments reveal a common denominator for framing a new roadmap for peace and development in Afghanistan and the region.
There are six main observations: There is no military solution in Afghanistan; transforming a war economy to a normal one is the only way to achieve durable stability and peace; mutually beneficial cooperation on development is possible, and the Taliban is amenable to that; the region has enormous resources; the US and Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors have enough capacity to make it happen; and besides Pakistan, Afghanistan could be the biggest beneficiary of CPEC.
Beijing and Islamabad need to give urgent consideration to extending CPEC cooperation to Afghanistan. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has already strongly advocated this. Expressways, rail links and tripartite cooperation would transform the regional environment.
The Pakistani cities of Gwadar and Karachi are natural gateways to Afghanistan and Central Asia. CPEC is the conduit. The US has always supported Central-South Asia cooperation. Pakistan and Afghanistan are geographical pivots for the greater regional economic architecture. The missing link is a viable diplomatic framework to partner with the US. The forthcoming visit of President Xi Jinping to America could be a precursor for Chinese-US partnership for development and peace in Afghanistan. This could be hugely consequential for the whole region. Opening up CPEC to participation by global corporate entities, and extending it to Afghanistan and Central Asia in the first phase, are vital. Regional frameworks exist; US-Chinese collaboration would give them tremendous impetus.
(The author Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as foreign minister and as high commissioner to India.)