Reconnecting Afghanistan

This report from the UK think tank Chatham House looks at the lessons learnt from cross-border engagement in Afghanistan.

For centuries, Afghanistan was a hub of connectivity – for goods, religions and culture – both between Asia and Europe, and within Asia itself. Its centrality diminished during the colonial era, and in recent times, four decades of conflict have cemented Afghanistan’s status as peripheral rather than integral. For Afghanistan to be economically sustainable, it will need to regain its status as a hub. Several large-scale infrastructure projects, in varying degrees of development, are now aiming to achieve that – in particular, by making Afghanistan a conduit between energy-surplus countries in Central Asia and energy-deficit states in South Asia. Among Afghanistan’s neighbours there is a re-emerging recognition that their own interests are better served by engaging with Afghanistan than by isolating it. However, there remains a widespread notion of ‘zero-sum connectivity’, whereby cooperation – exporting power, for instance – in one direction is seen to come at the expense of cooperation in another. In addition, there is some justification for viewing cooperation – relying on imports from a particular country, for example – as creating a vulnerability for the recipient rather than leading to a mutually beneficial relationship.

This paper examines several examples of ongoing engagement between Afghanistan and its neighbours, with the intention of: documenting the processes through which engagement took place, to enable potential replication; demonstrating that engagement with Afghanistan can bring positive economic benefits; and exploring whether these examples of ‘local’ cross-border cooperation have implications or learnings for more large-scale infrastructure projects. In many cases, the initial response (whether from government or from local communities) to cross-border initiatives has been sceptical. Yet once in place, these initiatives have created positive sentiment among both officials and communities. The importance of the ‘demonstration effect’ is likely to be as important for large-scale initiatives as for smaller projects. The creation of people-to-people contacts helps to erode stereotypes that have fed into broader narratives regarding Afghanistan. Many of the successful cross-border initiatives have approached Afghans as consumers rather than objects or even victims. Rather than approaching the country solely as a conduit, spreading the benefits (of energy access or goods) within Afghanistan may facilitate greater local ownership for large-scale projects.

There is merit in focusing on the provision of healthcare and energy access in particular as a means of increasing the reach, and thereby entrenching, the Afghan state. The provision of both is largely politically neutral, and difficult for opponents of the state to argue against. Healthcare needs are significant. There is a growing sense in South Asia, and a re-emerging sense in Central Asia, that energy trading is the entry point for regional cooperation. Successful connectivity does not simply arise from building physical infrastructure. It requires legal and regulatory alignment, along with the development of appropriate skills to enable benefits to be spread. Relatively simple logistical issues cause many of the existing barriers. For instance, it is easier to develop border markets if vehicles can drive into those markets, and easier still if they can drive across the border. The need to have passports stamped at the border is a significant deterrent to cross-border interaction: regular traders will frequently need to renew their passports, which is a burdensome activity in Afghanistan and many of its neighbouring states.

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