From increased trade connectivity with Europe to construction of energy pipelines and some room for political optimism - this is some of the progress in Afghanistan that hasn't been making headlines.
While there remain significant security challenges in Afghanistan there has been some welcome good news when it comes to economic and political challenges facing the country. The peace talks in Abu Dhabi seem to be heading in the right direction. There now seems to be the real possibility of representatives of the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan finally meeting face-to-face, something that would have been unheard of only a year ago.
However, just as important as a political settlement to the long-term viability of Afghanistan is the country’s trade and economic connections to the outside world. This is why recent news of the first Afghan trucks loaded down with more than 175 tons of goods departed for the long journey along the so-called Lapis Lazuli Corridor to Europe is so important.
After three years of planning, the connection of Afghanistan to the heart of Europe is now a reality.
The goal of the Lapis Lazuli Corridor is to transport goods back and forth from Europe to Afghanistan in seven to nine days using a network of rail and ferries. The goods pass through Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey and will cross the Caspian and Black Seas.
According to the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, the transit of 80 percent of goods to Europe will be done by railway and across the Caspian and Black Seas by ship. The corridor connects with Turkey's Middle Corridor Project and should dramatically increase trade between the two countries.
There has been a lot of focus about what Afghanistan is going to be able to sell to Europeans with this new trade route. However, in time the trade will go both directions with Europeans finding new markets along the route to Afghanistan.
Regional infrastructure projects, like the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, also do a great deal in improving regional relations. This is particularly important in a region of the world where trust of one’s neighbor can be low and suspicion high.
And it is not only the Lapis Lazuli Corridor. In recent years, there have been serious efforts by regional countries to boost trade and economic activity with Afghanistan. This is part of Afghanistan’s long-term ticket to prosperity and stability.
There is finally some progress being made on The Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline project, commonly referred to as the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI). The long-delayed construction is finally expected to start the first quarter of 2019 and will take around 3 years to finish. Once completed, this pipeline could fundamentally change the natural gas connectivity of Central Asia.
This proposed 1,700 km pipeline will someday carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to India and help to block Russian and Chinese hegemony over the region’s energy market. Construction of TAPI was delayed by more than a decade due to security concerns in Afghanistan, but work has finally started this year on the Afghan section of the pipeline.
In addition, a fibre optic cable will run alongside the pipeline. The Afghan government has increased security along the route and a Taliban faction operating in western Afghanistan has reportedly voiced support for the project. It will also serve as an important confidence-building measure between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Currently, three rail links are operational in northern Afghanistan: one connecting Afghanistan in Mazar e Sharif with Uzbekistan and two connecting with Turkmenistan. A fourth link is expected to open connecting Afghanistan with Iran.
There is also a plan to connect the Afghan cities of Mazar e Sharif and Herat. These rail links will play a major role in Afghanistan’s participation in future regional transit projects.
Earlier this year Delhi and Tehran signed an agreement allowing Indian access to Chabahar port in southern Iran. This included a $1.6 billion commitment by India to invest in a rail link connecting the port to the Iranian town of Zahedan near the Iranian-Afghan border.
This level of engagement by India with Iran has raised eyebrows in the US. However, Delhi’s investment in Chabahar must be seen in the larger geo-political context facing India in the region, and not just through the narrow lens of Iran’s nefarious activities in the Middle-East or its nuclear program.
Thankfully, the Trump Administration has recognised the importance of Chabahar to Afghanistan’s economic development and has granted India a waiver to continue with the project even with US sanctions against Iran.
There is a lot of focus on the air too. President Ghani recently opened the China-Afghanistan air corridor between Kabul to Shanghai. Afghanistan has similar cargo links with India, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
A quick glance at the map shows how landlocked Afghanistan suffers from a lack of connectivity with its neighbors. Thankfully, this is slowly changing. The best way for Afghanistan to stand on its own two feet is connecting itself to the outside world. It is in the interests of Afghanistan neighbors and its friends further afield to connect it to the outside world.
So far progress has been made, but more can be done.
With all the problems and challenges emitting from Afghanistan it is nice to receive some good news.
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