Two Diverging Roads for Afghanistan

US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai are meeting throughout the day at the White House, developing specifics on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the US role in the region. Afghanistan faces two futures. “The direction depends on whether Afghanistan breaks its longstanding lack of economic integration with the outside world,” suggests Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan scholar and anthropology professor at Boston College. Many in the West are pessimistic. Struggles between any troubled parties at home, like tribal groups, or in the neighborhood, like Pakistan and India, could break out into war. Or Afghanistan could prosper, regaining prominence as hub in the Silk Road trade network. Asian neighbors, particularly India and China, are investing more than $20 billion in Afghanistan’s infrastructure, notes Barfield, “motivated not by charity but pursuit of profits and resources.” By comparison, the US has invested $1.6 billion in Afghan infrastructure since 2006. Karzai, widely criticized as weak, cannot run for reelection. Much depends on Afghanistan’s next set of leaders and willingness of neighbors to step up security to protect investments. – YaleGlobal

Two Diverging Roads for Afghanistan

China and India invest billions in Afghan infrastructure, good reason to promote security
Thomas Barfield
Friday, January 11, 2013

BOSTON: As the 2014 date for the withdrawal of most foreign troops from Afghanistan approaches, the country faces two starkly different futures. One is a return to the civil war conditions of the 1990s that brought disaster and disunity. In this scenario Afghanistan is abandoned by the international community before falling prey to the machinations of neighbors who bankroll conflict between rival ethnic groups, potentially bringing about the country's dissolution as a unitary state. The other is the emergence of a stable, prosperous Afghanistan bankrolled by these same neighbors. In this scenario economic self-interests trump old parochial politics.

But how can two such divergent paths proceed from the same Afghan starting point? The neighbors and rivalries are the same, with the Afghans politically fractured and the West marginalized in both cases. The direction depends on whether Afghanistan breaks its longstanding lack of economic integration with the outside world. Growing Asian economies could make life-transforming investments in Afghanistan, restoring its old role as an overland trade entrepôt and ensuring a new role as mineral treasure house. Instability and violence could derail this process, and the short-term thinking of Afghanistan's current political class presents an almost greater challenge.

The pessimistic path has been well trodden over Afghanistan's past 35 years. Over the past century and a half a series of Afghan rulers cultivated economic isolationism and religious xenophobia as a protective survival response to successive “Great Game” rivalries over their country. Indeed, Afghanistan had the almost unique misfortune of attracting new geopolitical conflict whenever a previous one subsided. In the 19th century British India and Czarist Russia both preserved and clashed over Afghanistan as a buffer state between their respective colonial empires. In the 20th century Afghanistan became a proxy battleground in the Cold War. And Afghanistan opened the 21st century under Taliban rule, hosting Osama bin Laden who organized a terrorist attack on the United States. The culmination of each of these geopolitical rivalries was one or more foreign invasions, foreign occupations and foreign withdrawals, of which the 2014 departure will be the fourth for Afghanistan since 1841.

Many analysts assume disorder will ensue with the American withdrawal and predict quick victory for the Taliban over a weak Karzai government in Kabul. Afghan history suggests otherwise. Insurgents do have a splendid track record in getting foreign armies to leave Afghanistan, but tend to struggle in displacing a Kabul government that retains the patronage of a Great Power. Insurgents’ unity against foreigners breaks down when the conflict is only among Afghans. Supporters of Kabul governments also historically replace their feckless, passive rulers with more active ones. Afghan rulers installed by an invading foreign army fail, but those installed by a withdrawing foreign army succeeded. Only in the absence of any Great Power partnership did Afghanistan fall into anarchy, such as the decade-long civil war in the 1990s that brought the Taliban to power. Such devolution into civil war rather than Taliban victory is the more likely scenario if Afghanistan falls into political violence.

It could take a number of forms. Nuclear-armed Pakistan and India could bring their rivalry into Afghanistan to fight a proxy war with Pakistan supporting the Taliban and India backing the Kabul government. Or, Afghanistan regions could revive their militias and turn a two-party war into a free-for-all. Or the Central Asian states, Russia, India and Iran could back a two-state solution that splits the non-Pashtun north, west and center from the Pashtun south and east, leaving Pakistan with a supersized Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

The positive path harks back to long ago when Afghanistan was the prosperous hub of an international overland Eurasian trade network linking China with South Asia and the Middle East. Today's model would have China and India making massive investments in rail systems and processing plants to extract Afghanistan's mineral deposits. Pakistan and India would support construction of pipelines and pylons through Afghan territory to import natural gas from Turkmenistan and hydroelectricity from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Landlocked Central Asian states would transit Afghan roads and new rail lines to reach ocean ports of Iran or Pakistan.

Few in the West give this possibility much credence, but they have not been following the moves of Afghanistan's neighbors. With the exception of Pakistan, all have already committed large investments and infrastructure that integrate Afghanistan into their economies, motivated not by charity but pursuit of profits and resources.

The list of projects is impressive. In 2008 India completed construction of a 220-kilometer road connecting the Iranian port Chahbahar with Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province. As part of a larger billion-dollar-plus Indian-financed transportation network within Afghanistan, the new road ended Pakistan’s former monopoly on seaborne transit trade to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia. India has also taken a large role in constructing $500 million project financed by the Asian Development Bank to build a 1300-megawatt, high-voltage transmission power line through Afghanistan, across the Khyber Pass into Pakistan. Despite its suspicion of India, Pakistan is poised to be the greatest beneficiary of a new Central Asia/South Asia Regional Electricity Market. In 2008 China signed a $3 billion mining agreement for a 30-year lease on the rich Aynak copper deposit south of Kabul with an estimated value of $88 billion. China has already begun preliminary site development and announced plans to finance and construct a rail line north to its western province of Xinjiang through the Hindu Kush Mountains. Other mining projects include an Indian-financed agreement to mine 1.8 billion tons of iron ore from the Hajigak deposit west of Kabul, a $14 billion investment that also includes a steel-mill complex and transport links.

Even the long stalled Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Natural Gas Pipeline (TAPI) no longer seems like a pipe dream. Designed to carry up to 33 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually, the 1,800-kilometer long pipeline, at a cost of $7.6 billion, would make Afghanistan the primary export corridor for Turkmenistan’s enormous surplus of natural gas desperately in demand by energy-poor South Asia.

By way of comparison, the United States has funded $1.6 billion in infrastructure projects since 2006.

Significantly, the many projects span multiple economic sectors and Asia's largest emerging economic powers play key roles. The projects do not demand Western financing, nor do all need to succeed for Afghanistan to prosper. As each comes online the risk/reward calculation of making trouble in Afghanistan changes. Pakistan might think twice about supporting attacks in Kabul if the Afghans can turn off the lights in Islamabad. China is unlikely to sit idly by if its investments and engineers are attacked by insurgents. As Afghanistan's neighbors become more dependent on transportation, minerals and energy flows within a common regional market, preserving Afghanistan’s peace and stability moves from the realm of goodwill into the matrix of self-interest. For those that think any stability is impossible to achieve in Afghanistan, a similar growing economic interdependence in Western Europe after 1945 proved more successful in preserving peace than any set of political treaties. 

The Afghan government plays only a passive role in these developments. Other than balancing out its mineral contracts with both India and China, it has displayed no strategic vision. If Afghanistan wishes to become another Dubai rather than another Somalia, it needs imaginative leaders who offer an economic vision that offers hope to people who have already suffered too much.


Thomas Barfield’s current research focuses on problems of political development in Afghanistan, particularly on systems of local governance and dispute resolution. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship that led to the publication of his newest book, Afghanistan: A Political and Cultural History (2010). He is director of Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilization and currently serves as president of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies.
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