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Afghan Hopes To Provide 'Land Bridge' Still Hampered

  • Abubakar Siddique

An Afghan soldier checks a tractor as it enters Afghanistan from Pakistan's Chaman border crossing in September.

An Afghan soldier checks a tractor as it enters Afghanistan from Pakistan's Chaman border crossing in September.

President Hamid Karzai has been keen, since becoming head of Afghanistan's interim administration in late 2001, to tout his landlocked country's potential as a "land bridge" for regional trade.

The idea entails transforming the mountains of Hindu Kush from a conflict zone into a trade hub between China, Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia -- home to one-third of the world's population.

The realization of such a vision, many Afghans believe, would do more to help restore peace and bring development to their impoverished country than any amount of foreign aid.

But for now, the reality is that extremist violence often attributed to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is targeting trade, contributing to insecurity, and hampering Karzai's effort to see his idea through.

The Afghan president highlighted the problem at an economic-cooperation conference in Islamabad on May 13 that included representatives from countries in the region, Western allies, and international financial organizations.

Specifically referring to incidents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Karzai warned that rising violence targeting trade threatens to harm economic development, noting that "trucks have been burnt, drivers killed, and merchandise has been looted and set on fire."

Karzai listed other issues that could stall progress, such as insufficient infrastructure and inconsistent policies, but said that overcoming the "wildfire of terrorism" was the foremost challenge to regional peace and cooperation.

"Today parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan have fallen victim to the atrocities of militants and terrorists, forcing hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to flee their homes," Karzai said.

Concerted Effort

During the past eight years, the United States and its Western allies have promoted increased regional cooperation as a means of undermining extremism.

As part of President Barack Obama's new strategy for combating extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration has promised more financial aid, troop deployments, societal development, and regional cooperation to address the complex situation in South Asia.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher said in addition to facilitating regional infrastructure projects -- the building of bridges between Afghanistan and Tajikistan serves as one example -- Washington, its allies, and international bodies like the UN are trying to sell countries in the region on the idea of working together to ensure a shared and prosperous future.

"You really now have a highway that goes from Almaty to Karachi, and so what we're trying to do now is work with the countries on the regulations and the trading environments so that people can start using that for trade, give them an outlet to the sea," Boucher said, adding that there are "a lot" of such projects. "We've focused on the trade and investment side; others, the United Nations has worked with them on water issues, and we're always looking for chances to connect them to Afghanistan, with electricity, and make sure that Afghanistan becomes not just a problem, but an opportunity for them."

Aside from violence, regional political rivalries and the lack of a broader strategic agreement on the future of Afghanistan has undermined efforts to promote economic cooperation in a region where, in some cases, traditional divisions have worsened.

But there have been glimmers of progress as well.

In early 2003, Iran concluded a number of trade agreements with Afghanistan, enticing Kabul to use its Chabahar port on Indian Ocean as an alternative to the southern Pakistani port of Karachi, which has served as a traditional transit route for Afghanistan. Islamabad's regional archrival India bankrolled the development of the Chabahar port and major road projects to aid the transformation.

Meanwhile, Pakistan built a new seaport in Gwadar a few hundred kilometers south of Chabahar. Built with major Chinese investment, the port will also serve as a major hub for the rapidly growing trade and industry in western Chinese regions bordering Pakistan.

The U.S. and NATO's reliance on Pakistan as a supply route for the war effort in Afghanistan also keeps infrastructure development on the radar, as Washington looks to ensure security of those routes.

Bilateral Breakthrough?

With regional cooperation a key priority of U.S. President Barack Obama's new "Af-Pak" strategy, Washington is keen on seeing relations between Kabul and Islamabad improve.

The inking of a trade transit agreement -- a sticking point between Pakistan and Afghanistan that has gone unresolved for nearly half a century -- is seen as important step toward that goal.

When the two countries on May 6 signed a memorandum of understanding to work out a long-awaited trade deal, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it "a regional opportunity."

"The Trade Transit Agreement memorandum of understanding that was signed today commits both countries to finalizing a trade transit agreement that deals with all of the obstacles and problems of goods and people crossing borders," Clinton said. "It was started 43 years ago, and we're determined to bring it to a resolution. The kind of economic development that will spring up if we see increased trade and commerce between the two countries is one of the best ways that we can provide alternatives for those who might otherwise be dragged into this conflict."

William Byrd, a World Bank economic expert on countries affected by conflict, sees great potential in Afghanistan's "land bridge" scheme, although he says Kabul's ability to curbs violence and improve governance is key.

"Afghanistan has potentially a very dynamic economy and can make a lot of progress. Even under current situation the economic growth has been pretty high," Byrd said. "What is critical is a minimum degree of security and good governance. And with that, I am very confident that the Afghan economy can grow very rapidly."

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