Trade Wars

Connectivity between Central Asia and South Asia may depend on relations between Pakistan and the United States

When the United States left Afghanistan, they took their money with them.

Fortunately, the leaders of Central and South Asia – Uzbekistan and Pakistan – had already planned to connect the regions to increase trade and opportunities. In July, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan met in Tashkent where they signed agreements aimed at improving their countries’ economic relations.

Had NATO stuck around, Central and South Asia could have planned trade through semi-stable Afghanistan, which would have created opportunities for the Afghans. As it stands, it is now up to local leaders to forge business ties across Afghanistan when the governing body, the Taliban, is not recognized by any other government, including theirs (yet).

Central Asia needs to develop trade links with the south to complement existing routes to the north, east and west. The route to Pakistan has been the most noticed, but the region’s Plan B goes through Iran, which is isolated from many trading partners, but which has the advantage of internal stability.

President Mirziyoyev has pledged to work with Prime Minister Khan, so the Afghanistan-Pakistan route is the priority. Neither option is ideal, but for landlocked Central Asia the only way out is to cross.

Connectivity between Central Asia and South Asia is necessary if the regions are to escape the gravitational pull of Russia and China. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which border Afghanistan, have established relationships with the Taliban government because many key economic projects require stability in Afghanistan.

In February 2021, representatives from Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed on a roadmap for the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway project, a 600 km track to be built. over five years. The rail project will run alongside regional power projects – the 1,000-megawatt Surkhan-Puli-Khumri high-voltage line and the 1,300-megawatt CASA-1000 power project – which power Afghanistan and Pakistan. The latest key project is the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Stalled Gas Pipeline (TAPI) which can carry 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas per year, and will relieve Ashgabat of Beijing’s influence as China receives currently 90 percent of Turkmenistan’s gas.

Pakistan successfully arbitrated its location by supporting the United States in two wars in Afghanistan and reaping significant financial benefits in the process. It is a partner of China in the $ 62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the largest Belt and Road Initiative project. Today, Pakistan is perhaps the partner of Central Asia connecting the region to maritime trade routes through the ports of Karachi and Gwadar, and Pakistan’s vast domestic market of more than 200 million people, 60% of whom are under 30 years old.

In Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan weren’t even fighting the same war. US officials accused Pakistan of “double playing”, but Islamabad was considering the “next game” – conflict with India. The United States expected an official end to hostilities after defeating the Taliban and restructuring Afghan society, but Pakistan knew that even if the United States came out victorious, it would still have India to face and war in. Afghanistan was only a means of positioning itself for the next phase of the struggle. Pakistan could use the Taliban to build “strategic depth”, recruit fighters it could deploy against India in Kashmir, and be paid to help Uncle Sam. Pakistani generals were channeling Paul von Hindenburg who, when he recommended the annexation of the Baltic provinces to the German Empire, said: “I need them for the maneuvers of my left wing in the next war”.

America views wars as finite events that end in the Appomattox courthouse or on the battleship Missouri; Pakistan sees war as a process.

US policy in Afghanistan is now pretty much “women and girls”, ignoring that Central and South Asian leaders are equally responsible for women and girls. The United States should not let its differences with the Taliban block regional trade agreements – which will have to include the government in Kabul – and thus offer a political victory (and a financial windfall) to Russia and China by limiting options commercial areas of the region.

A bill has been introduced in the US Senate, the “Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight, and Accountability Act of 2021,” which, among other things, directs the Biden administration to “develop a revised strategy for South Asia and Africa. ‘Central Asia’, and also demands an assessment of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban from 2001 to 2021.

There will be no revelations in the evaluation – sure Pakistan mocked the Taliban – aside from the identities of some previously unknown Pakistani colonels (whose promotions to brigadier rank are virtually assured if publicly condemned by US senators). But, as night follows day, sanctions will also follow, a labor-saving device for Chinese diplomats in Islamabad.

What should the United States do?

Don’t be the spoiler: Blocking projects that could benefit the economies of Afghanistan and Pakistan will push Central and South Asia into the arms of Russia and China.

Think long term: support regional infrastructure projects now, rather than waiting for reckless governments in Islamabad and Kabul.

Walk on Foot: If US policy in Central Asia is truly about “local sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity,” putting money in local pockets is the best way to do it.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consulting firm. He was a professional member of the Commission for the Closure and Realignment of Defense Bases in 2005 and the Commission on War Contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a US Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military assignments were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as a supply officer for the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).