Originally published on June 07, 2016,  Afghan Tribune

 

Abdali: Regional integration can bring enduring peace

abdali-basharmal-afghantribuneThe Afghan Tribune’s Editor-in-Chief Khan Wali Khan Basharmal has arranged an interview with the Ambassador of Afghanistan to India. Ambassador Shaida Mohammad Abdali’s national and international analyses and interviews are noted for their well thought out approach to the diplomatic problems afflicting Afghanistan. He is widely considered to be key in his understanding of the threats to diplomatic and the political, security and strategic stability of Afghanistan. His vital role in signing Chabahar Port project is widely appreciated within and out of Afghanistan.

The Afghan Tribune:

Congratulations are in order for the success of the work you have put in furthering the recently signed trilateral agreement between Afghanistan, India, and Iran to develop the port of Chabahar, which when completed will help to realize the potential of the 218-km Zaranj-Delaram road built by India at great cost in both money and lives in order to link the port with Afghanistan’s 2200-km Ring Road and the 16 provinces it serves.  This ambitious project should vastly improve the movement of goods between Afghanistan and South Asia as well as to the markets of the Middle East and Europe, and has been said to be more important to Afghanistan than to any other nation.  What is your assessment of the project’s implications with respect to the outlook for the Afghan economy in both the near and distant future?

dsc04014Thank you! We are extremely delighted that the Chabahar agreement, after being in the negotiations for more than a decade has been finally signed. It is a momentous feat for not just the three signatory countries, but the entire region.

Due to various reasons, we have not been able to convert proximity into connectivity. As a result, the region is least integrated and an enormous proportion of the South and Central Asia’s trade potential remains unexplored.

We are hopeful, that the Chabahar agreement would act as a game-changer and help to reap benefits of geographical contiguity, scale economies, regional production networks and spur economic growth in the entire region.

The port would provide Afghanistan an alternate access to a sea port and would considerably boost the country’s connectivity with the regional and international markets. As you have rightly mentioned, using the Zaranj – Delaram highway built by India in 2009, the port could be accessed by the major cities of Afghanistan; for instance Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, and Mazar-e-Sharif, via the garland road network.

It would help to build economic stability and generate employment opportunities in Afghanistan and thus, create constituencies of peace.  It would have a spiraling impact on regional trade and commerce, strengthen people-to-people connects in the region.

The Afghan Tribune: 

The Hajigak iron oxide deposit in Bamyan Province is Asia’s largest untapped iron ore resource.  It consists of high-grade ore and includes an unusual component of niobium, a soft metal used in the production of superconducting steel.  In 2011 a consortium of six Indian companies, led by the Steel Authority of India (SAIL), won a concession for three mines in the region.  An Indian investment of some $10.8 billion USD has been envisaged for building steel and power plants to accompany the mining operations, but concerns about security, along with a recession-hit industry, have reportedly put a hitch in the implementation of these plans. The Taliban, possibly incited by Pakistan’s ISI, expressed its opposition to increased Indian influence in Afghanistan in the form of attacks on their highway construction crews in 2009, resulting in the loss of some 130 Indian lives.  Furthermore, it has been reported that the Taliban has taken control of much of the Indian-built Zaranj-Delaram highway.  Yet In a statement you made to The Hindu in February of 2015, you indicated that security concerns should not be a relevant factor when it comes to the Hajigak project.  Can you elucidate?

afganYou would appreciate that a project of the magnitude and scale of Hajigak has to go through several stages. The new Mining law passed by our Government has made easier for the Indian companies to operate. Moreover, we are working on evacuation issues, building rail links, working out logistics and sorting out technical issues.

The Afghan Tribune:  

Do you foresee ways in which the Chabahar project will benefit Afghanistan other than in the obvious economic ones?

Chabahar project would lead to economic prosperity and regional cooperation, which would, in turn, help to build constituencies of peace and would stabilize the region. It would promote deeper people-to-people connects in the region.

It could act as a model for regional cooperation and could help to build larger consensus to cooperate and collaborate on various regional projects, and in the long run, help to realise Afghanistan’s potential not only as a “link” connecting various regions contributing only as a transit route, but also as a possible driver of economic growth in the region by capitalizing on its energy, mineral and the development of its human resources.

The Afghan Tribune:  

Besides access to Afghanistan and Iran, the planned International North-South Transport Corridor road system via the Iranian Balochistan Port of Chabahar will not only connect India to Russia but, passing through Afghanistan, provide an alternative cargo route for the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan that may minimize distances and costs as opposed to their utilizing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to the Pakistani Balochistan Port of Gwadar.  This sets up the potential for a competitive conflict of interests between India and Iran on the one hand and China and Pakistan on the other.  Of course, the initiative for the Chabahar Port project was instanced by Pakistan’s refusal to allow Indian goods transit by land to points north.  Wouldn’t the interests of all parties be better served by mutual cooperation and coordinated economic development?

Afghanistan has always nurtured the vision that regional integration alone can bring enduring peace, development and prosperity for the region, and stand committed to this goal.

Our Government has taken a slew of measures to create a conducive business environment and promote regional cooperation and integration.

In January 2016, we got accession to WTO, after 11 years of negotiation. We are active members of various regional associations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC), the South Asian Association Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO).

We are working to revive the Silk route and the Lapis Lazulli route and to realise regional projects, among others, such as the Chabahar agreement, the Five Nations Railway; the Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan Railway; the TAPI gas pipeline; CASA-1000 and the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TU-TAP) Energy Project.

Going forth, we intend to develop the Chabahar port as an international trade and transit hub. Far from being a substitute, it would act as a complementing route to other sub-regional networks. Other countries are most welcome to join the pact.

Furthermore, we would like to exploit multimodal linkages along various regional transit and trade corridors, such as the Trans-Asian Railway and the Asian Highway networks and interconnections with International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan (TAT) railway, Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), CAREC, Bangladesh-Bhutan-Indian-Nepal (BBIN) network, India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) highway and other important sub-regional corridors.

The Afghan Tribune:

It has been suggested that a joint India-Pakistan undertaking to improve Afghanistan’s damaged and outdated irrigation systems might not only lead to a possible water-sharing agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan but relieve pressure on the Indus Water Treaty and concomitant friction between India and Pakistan. Since all Pakistan’s major rivers flow from Kashmir, diversification of Pakistan’s water sources would enable it to reduce its reliance on Kashmir, allowing it to approach the issue more flexible and hence pave the way for a resolution of the conflict. What is your take on this suggestion?

Well, it is a very technical issue that needs to be studied thoroughly by technical experts before replying to your question. However, it is indeed a conflict-prone issue.  There are different ways how this issue has been dealt with such as people-centric river basin management and etc. In view of water being vital for our nations due to livelihood and agrarian demands, effective management of this problem requires close cooperation. We need to share experiences, best practices, encourage joint initiatives on watershed management, increasing the efficiency of irrigation and water use, development of technologies, sustainable agriculture practices, and institutional arrangements to manage food shortages as well as natural disasters.

The Afghan Tribune:  

China has made significant investments in Afghanistan.  In 2008 a Chinese mining consortium bought a 30-year lease on the Mes Aynak copper deposits, possibly the largest in the world with a possible $100 billion USD worth of copper, for some $3 billion USD; in 2011 the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) acquired the rights to three oil blocks in northwestern Afghanistan and expects to make an initial investment of $400 million USD to develop them.  Should China continue to invest in Afghanistan’s mineral resources and the roads and railways necessary to extract them, it is reasonable to expect they will enjoin Pakistan to protect these interests and not allow the Taliban to disrupt their operations.  That the Chinese are training a first batch of about 300 Afghan policemen evidences their taking Afghanistan’s security interests to heart.  While this could be a positive impetus for peace prospects in Afghanistan, it is reported that Indian officials view these developments with some foreboding, but also that secret talks have taken place between Indian and Chinese officials to discuss their mutual concerns in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of western forces.  How optimistic are you about such developments?

Beijing and Delhi, being Asia’s emerging superpowers with growing influence in international affairs, could play an imperative role in rebuilding Afghanistan through economic opportunities, foreign investment and transit potential. China has backed India’s membership in SCO. China had hosted the Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference in 2014, while India would be hosting this year’s meeting later this year in December.

We have very intense strategic cooperation and economic ties with both India and China. We should look at trilateral cooperation to stabilize the region and harness the regional economic potential.

The Afghan Tribune:  

Finally, to sound something of a personal note, you earned an M.A. in Strategic Security Studies from the National Defense University of the United States.   Has your experience with the U.S. given you any particular insights into America’s involvement with Afghanistan over the past several decades?  And do you have any suggestions for what role America should play in the South Asian region over the next couple of decades?

  • Curb terrorist outfits in the region
  • Promote regional economic integration by supporting region-wide projects for economic development, energy transfers, and trans-border transportation corridors.
  • Support transregional infrastructure projects
  • Help accelerate the process of regional economic integration by offering preferential tariffs to goods produced across borders in South Asia, and encourage investments by its companies on the Subcontinent

 

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