Pakistan Issues Afghanistan Development RoadMap: Analysis

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The 4th Ministerial Conference of the Neighbours of Afghanistan has just been held. We discuss Pakistan’s position and the potential reconstruction and development solutions. 

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis 

During the 4th Ministerial meeting of the Neighbours of Afghanistan conference that took place in Samarkand last week, the Pakistan Government has issued an effective initiative that both recognizes and provides a roadmap for assistance to the country. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the Pakistan Foreign Minister had this to say concerning the Afghanistan issue. My comments follow in initials.

BBW: “The Neighbours format is grounded in the firm conviction that our region is not only bound by a shared past, but also a common future; our destinies are intertwined, our fortunes interlinked. Guided by these deep-rooted historical and cultural ties, it is but natural that we place such high premium on promoting regional approaches to the situation in Afghanistan. From Islamabad to Tehran, and from Tunxi to Samarkand, a common thread that weaves us together, is our collective commitment to work towards a peaceful, stable and interconnected Afghanistan.”

BBW: “We are meeting at a critical juncture. Afghanistan currently faces multiple and mutually reinforcing challenges: the humanitarian situation in the country remains grim, with a staggering 28 million people – over 2/3rd of the population, requiring urgent humanitarian assistance to survive.

The menace of terrorism continues to blight the lives of Afghan people on a daily basis. The threat posed by terrorist organizations to the neighbouring states and the region, has accentuated. Meanwhile, the Afghan economy continues to operate under the shadow of sanctions and billions of dollars of frozen assets.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have sought refuge in the neighbouring countries, in particular, Pakistan. There are indications that these numbers may swell in the coming days, creating fresh challenges for the neighbouring countries and the host communities.

At a time when the Afghan people need the international community the most, we see the world moving away, closing doors on the common Afghan citizens. Growing voices, especially in the West are advocating a complete break from Afghanistan, to offload its problems to the neighborhood and to walk away. There are clear indications that humanitarian support to Afghanistan will see a significant decline this year. Some are even questioning the utility of engaging the Interim Afghan Government.

We believe that these approaches are misplaced and need to be re-assessed: we must not repeat the mistakes – abandoning the people of Afghanistan is always a bad choice.”

CDE: Zardari makes reference to the United States confiscation of Afghan foreign reserves held overseas and the redistribution of them to American nationals impacted by the 9-11 attacks. That money – an estimated US$7 billion – actually belongs to the Afghani people. About 50% of this – US$3.5 billion – has been transferred to a Swiss designated fund known as the  “Fund for the Afghan People”, being a Geneva-based foundation with its account at the Bank for International Settlements. The Fund will preserve, protect and selectively disburse this money but the capital will not be under Afghan control. More information on this is here.

The remaining US$3.5 billion has been set aside in lieu of US 9/11 compensation awards and will be distributed in the United States to American institutions and individuals. In effect, the US has taken sovereign rights away from Afghanistan’s own reserves. The issue was not debated at the United Nations and has led to mistrust of the US regard for sovereign property and capital.  

DDW: “Regrettably, some of the policies and actions of the Interim Afghan Government, have not helped either. The decision to suspend education for women and girls and to prevent them from working for national and international NGOs, is regrettable, not only that it deprives the enterprising Afghan women and girls their rightful opportunities to progress and advance, and to secure gainful employment, but also restrains the helping hand of many friends and well-wishers of Afghanistan.

Pakistan has voiced its disappointment with this decision. We believe the right to education is not a favour to women, to be dispensed at will; it is a fundamental human right, as enshrined in our noble religion, and the teaching of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

We also believe that more needs to be done to eradicate the foothold of terrorist organizations from Afghanistan, without distinction and in a concerted and uniform manner. Greater cooperation and coordination with the Interim Afghan Government remains critical. We look forward to working closely with the neighbouring states and the international community to this end.

Progress towards the goal of promoting greater political inclusivity in Afghanistan, remains a critical priority.”

CDE: Zardari is detailing the difficulties in bringing the current Taliban interim government into contemporary thinking as concerns societal issues.   

BBW: “​The international community currently finds itself in a ‘standstill’ with Afghanistan. The ‘cascade’ of unmet expectations, has meant that critical support needed by Afghanistan to stave-off a grave humanitarian crisis, prevent an economic meltdown and to combat terrorism, has been withheld.

This policy needs an urgent reset; what is required is ‘patience’ and ‘reciprocity’ – the international community should continue to engage with the Interim Afghan Government to take next steps; we need to be flexible; this process should be appropriately incentivized. We need a ‘balanced’ approach based on simultaneous commitments from both sides – a spirit of solidarity and cooperation should underpin international engagement with Afghanistan.

A peaceful and stable Afghanistan is in everyone’s interest. Continued conflict and instability threaten not only Afghanistan and its people but carries adverse implications for the region and beyond. Therefore, we, Afghanistan’s neighbours, all have a vested interest and stake in seeing peace and stability return to Afghanistan.”

CDE: The key word used here is ‘incentivized’ although Zardari didn’t specifically allude to what this meant. He does, however, provide clues in his following Road Map.

BBW: “Pakistan believes that our collective efforts should be guided by the following elements:

One, unity of purpose and a synergy of effort within the region remains imperative. We should not only continue to hold regular consultations but also evolve common strategies and shared perspectives on Afghanistan. Pakistan believes that the three Working Groups, on the political and diplomatic, economic and humanitarian and security and stability dimensions, established during our last meeting, provide a useful framework to follow-up on the decisions taken during our meetings, and should be fully operationalized.”

CDE: Zardari is proposing an institutionalized approach and that the attending members should be contributing to this.

BBW: “Two, connectivity has remained a pipe-dream for far too long. This must change – we must turn this ‘constraint’ into a conduit for regional peace and prosperity. Every big dream has a humble origin – we must adopt a step-by-step approach, identifying projects, consolidating and implementing them, as critical building blocks for a common vision for regional connectivity.

Connectivity projects such as CASA-1000, Trans-Afghan Railways, TAPI and others, are not merely economic undertakings, they are also strategic investments in our shared future – an effective counterpoise to the threat of terrorism, drug trafficking and other challenges confronting Afghanistan. As a first step, a dedicated ‘Connectivity Fund’ to provide priority financing for these projects should be considered.”

CDE: Zardari mentions specific projects, some of which are potentially China BRI funded. The CASA-1000 (Central Asia-South Asia power project) is a US$1.16 billion project currently under construction that will export surplus hydroelectricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and finally to Pakistan.

The TAPI project is a Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline, (also known as Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline), being a natural gas pipeline developed by the Galkynysh – TAPI Pipeline Company Limited with participation of the Asian Development Bank. That will feed gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan with the latter also taking a consumer share and earning transit and maintenance fees. The project has proven difficult to development with slow progress due to local Afghani warlords wanting commissions.  

The Trans-Afghan Railway is intended to bisect Afghanistan north-south from Uzbekistan’s rail network to Pakistan’s Persian Gulf Ports. Again, development progress has been slow due to local Afghan warlords wanting commissions.

An additional railway, extending from Turkmenistan east to Kabul and eventually east to Islamabad and potentially to China is also under discussion.

Zardari obviously has Pakistan’s interests at heart here as well as Afghanistan’s, with these projects fitting in with the overall China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, by far China’s most expensive contribution to Central Asia and Pakistani security. To date, China has spent US$62 billion on CPEC, which is both intended to integrate Pakistan more closely with China and to industrialise Pakistan. Beijing is now starting to show concern about the mounting costs and lack of development cashflow being created as projects are delayed. 

That said, there have been successes with CPEC projects elsewhere such as the Lahore Metro while others, such as the MainLine-1 rail project will still take time and an additional US$10 billion investment to implement.   

Zardari also mentioned a ‘Connectivity Fund’ be established – presumably to take some of the capital expense pressure off China and lay that onto Afghanistan’s neighbours instead. Quite how they feel about that remains unknown, although Uzbekistan will be more receptive as it needs Persian Gulf connectivity.

BBW: “Three, Pakistan firmly believes that humanitarian support should remain delinked from any political considerations. The common Afghan people should not be made victims of political choices made by others. Continued and sustained humanitarian support to the people of Afghanistan must, therefore, be ensured. The international community should also remain cognizant of the pressing needs of the neighbouring countries, hosting millions of Afghan refugees. This is a collective responsibility of the international community; it should be borne collectively.”

CDE: A general discontent of the West’s increasing decoupling from its Afghanistan adventures and especially the United States.

BBW: “Four, beyond the confines of humanitarian assistance, we should focus on generating economic activity within Afghanistan to ensure a sustainable future, avoid economic meltdown and prevent exodus of refugees. Exploring realistic pathways towards unfreezing Afghanistan’s financial assets would be a key first step. A roadmap for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Afghanistan is equally important. Since peace and stability is a strategic imperative for the region, we, as key stakeholders in a stable Afghanistan, should remain at the forefront of this effort.”

CDE: To some extent this implies the onus of Afghanistan’s redevelopment and economy as being the responsibility of the regional players. He mentions the unfreezing of Afghan assets, although neither the US or Swiss authorities are likely to want to give this up. He doesn’t mention details as regards developing economic activity or reconstruction, meaning his ability to present ideas here remains limited. Again, Pakistan’s concerns are raised as concerns migrants and refugees. Zardari wants Afghans to stay in Afghanistan but appears not to know how to develop the economy to allow them to do so. This is a gap that will need filling.

BBW: “Five, we should devise a roadmap of cooperation with the Afghan authorities based on a ‘hierarchy of priorities’, especially where the Interim Afghan Government has shown a commitment to act. We particularly welcome the renewed emphasis placed during this meeting on strengthening counter-terrorism cooperation between Afghanistan and the neighboring countries. Training and capacity building programmes in other avenues should also be devised.”

CDE: This is a sound initiative, although it is unknown where Taliban authorities have shown any initiatives. Much appears related to the drugs trade, whereas real training should be in light industry – a point related to developing economic activity.

BBW: “Six, greater coordination between regional and international efforts on Afghanistan remain equally important. As representative voice of over 1.8 billion Muslims across the world, the OIC enjoys a unique stature and standing within Afghanistan unmatched by other international organizations. The OIC has taken a number of initiatives including establishment of the Humanitarian Trust Fund and the Afghan Food Security programme. Building synergies with the OIC, including the OIC Trust Fund, would amplify our collective efforts to help and assist the Afghan people.”

CDE: Here, Zardari is referring to the wider Islamic world for assistance and specifically the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). That includes 57 different nations, including a number of very wealthy Middle Eastern states. He also mentions the OIC Trust Fund, implying the members could create a fund to assist with Afghanistan’s reconstruction. 

There will be interest in this, as countries such as the UAE have shown specific interest in developing trade with Central Asia. Clearly, Beijing has indicated it now expects additional funding assistance to deal with the Afghanistan issue. 

There is also a measure of leverage here as China has stated it is prepared to spend US$400 billion on Islamic BRI projects. It would appear that unlocking that commitment may in part be conditional on the OIC making some investment capital available as well.

BBW: “Seven, we cannot talk of the Afghan people without talking to them. Constructive engagement with the Interim Afghan Government remains imperative. As friends and neighbours, we don’t have the luxury to disengage with Afghanistan.”


Zardari’s Afghanistan Road Map also contains much that will be of benefit to Pakistan, itself a measure of how much Islamabad has made Afghanistan a Pakistani problem that also needs to be solved with Chinese investments. China, for its part, wishes to secure its Xinjiang borders and ensure that Islamic fundamentalism is kept at bay and peace remains on Chinese territory, while at the same time attempting to develop cities such as Urumqi as a Central Asian regional financial and development hub. China has the capability to raise investment capital into the city, while Urumqi is Central Asia’s most populous city after Kabul.

Clearly, raising the capital is going to be the toughest task, in addition to persuading the Taliban that real economic development is the way to go. The Pashtun’s however, in their own tribal disagreements have already wiped out the more foreign-minded and entrepreneurial of the Afghan population, with the remainder significantly indoctrinated into radicalism. While the OIC will be pushed to contribute and would do if sufficiently impressed by the Afghanistan and regional potential, the tough part will be to persuade a new generation of Afghani men that the way forward is not towards Islamic isolationism – a tough call when the United States behaved so badly towards them.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates. He has travelled extensively in Xinjiang in addition to Central Asia and Afghanistan and has contributed to the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies concerning Afghanistan’s connectivity. He can be contacted at  

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