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Regional Ties Are Key To Stability In South, Central Asia


For now, regional ties are hampered by security failings, such as the attacks along the main supply route through the Khyber Pass

For now, regional ties are hampered by security failings, such as the attacks along the main supply route through the Khyber Pass

It is a pet peeve of many a "Eurasianist" geopolitical analyst that the U.S. State Department groups Central and South Asia together in its organizational structure. There may be historical links across Afghanistan, they argue, but these pale in comparison to the Caspian-Central Asia region's links to Russia, the West, and even China. Indeed, the geopolitics of energy, security, and development across Eurasia are usually put in terms of east-west (Western-oriented) and north-south (Russia-oriented) links.

The State Department's organizational grouping, however, reflects a long-term policy of promoting ties between U.S.-friendly states such as India and Kazakhstan, allowing for an alternative to Russian economic and security dominance in the post-Soviet space. That vision seems to be approaching realization -- and not just because of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration's renewed focus on stabilization and development in Afghanistan. Regional actors are increasingly taking the lead.

An Indian delegation was in Kazakhstan last week to discuss joint ventures in utilities, textiles, information technologies, agriculture, food processing, and pharmaceuticals. The door to such wide-ranging talks was opened when Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited India in January for the country's Republic Day. That visit was immediately followed by major agreements that will see Kazakhstan providing uranium for India's expanding nuclear-power projects and India's ONGC-Mittal Energy investing heavily in the development of Kazakhstan's Satpaev oil field in the Caspian.

As Tajikistan offers its airspace and transport infrastructure for the transit of NATO supplies to Afghanistan, India's growing air base at Farkhor, south of Dushanbe, is once again in the spotlight. When it began full operation in 2006, Farkhor became India's first -- and still only -- military base outside India. If Kyrgyzstan evicts U.S. forces from their base at Manas, an expanded Farkhor may well serve as a focal point for U.S.-Tajik-Indian cooperation in stabilizing Afghanistan.

India has also emerged as the most active backer of a project that could facilitate development in Afghanistan: the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline. Revived by the Asian Development Bank after the fall of the Taliban, this ambitious endeavor is only now gaining momentum, with the four countries signing an agreement on prospective development last year.

Even with doubts about the speed at which Turkmen resources can be brought on line, Indian investors are seeking to bridge the significant gaps in relations with Pakistan to realize what would be a strategic coup for India's energy security.

This month, a Kazakh envoy in Islamabad discussed plans for road development between the two countries. But increasingly, events in Pakistan impede serious north-south economic and geo-strategic ties. Not only do the long-standing roadblocks of Kashmir and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) stand in the way of trade and infrastructural ties, but as last week's attack on Sri Lanka's cricket team in Lahore demonstrated, Pakistan's internal strife can quickly send regional relations into a tailspin.

Burgeoning links between the countries of Central and South Asia are impeded by the security vacuum in large swaths of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but at the same time, those ties would seem to hold the key to ameliorating the situation.

While increased U.S. efforts to foster such links should only be welcomed, it is, in the end, regional players that will have to take the initiative.

The fact remains that Pakistan and India desperately need the natural resources available in the broader Caspian region. And the states of Central Asia stand to benefit not only from the investment, but also the geopolitical alternative that South Asian links provide.

Kazakhstan's upcoming chairmanship of the OSCE, which will focus on regional cooperation on border security, and India's increasing drive to access Central Asian markets may well go a long way toward realizing the State Department's organizational vision.

Alexandros Petersen is Dinu Patriciu fellow for Transatlantic Energy Security and associate director of the Eurasia Energy Center at the Atlantic Council of the United States. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
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