Conflict and peace cannot co-exist. When there is conflict, peace is far away. By the same corollary, conflict has no place where there is peace. Perhaps no region in the world manifests this truth more than the present-day Afghanistan. Even after three decades of war in Afghanistan, no force, internal or external, can claim victory—be it former Soviet forces or the present US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces.
Due to the prolonged stalemate the US along with its NATO allies have been forced to declare pull out of their armies from Afghanistan in 2014. They made this epoch-making decision not of their will but out of economic, political and military compulsions. However, there are still doubts in some quarters if the armed forces would completely evacuate Afghanistan after 2014.
It is not without reason the world community has doubts about the intention of NATO allies. Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s advantages can also work to its disadvantage. It’s location at the heart of South Asia, Middle East and Central Asia makes it strategically important. Any power that holds control of this land has influence in all these regions, hence the numerous attempts in the past to control this land.
Even after 2014 the role of external support cannot be negated if the war-torn economy is to be brought on track. In South Asia, India is undisputedly politically most stable and economically and militarily the strongest, well capable of filling the vacuum created by the pull-out of foreign forces in Afghanistan. India has always had friendly relations with Afghanistan except during the Taliban rule in 1990s and that too when it was provoked by its support to the hijackers of the Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Kandahar on Dec. 24, 1999. After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 India has again maintained best of relations with Afghanistan. By providing US $1.2 billion worth of aid and assistance for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development, India has emerged as its fifth largest donor and its role is widely recognized by the international community.
However, India to its disadvantage, does not share a border with Afghanistan. Besides, certain power in South Asia is not comfortable with finding long-term solution to the Afghan problem. As such, the role of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)—the regional grouping of eight member countries with a combined population of 1.47 billion—automatically enters into picture. As Afghanistan is a SAARC member state, this regional body can do a lot for the improvement of situation in the country. But is SAARC in a position to restore peace in Afghanistan after 2014? Unfortunately, SAARC has neither the mandate nor the resources. SAARC or any of its member countries cannot even think of supporting 350,000-strong Afghan army whose expenses amount to nearly US $12 billion a year.
Yet SAARC´s role in facilitating transition from military to civilian rule in Afghanistan cannot be ruled out. Despite its limitations, SAARC can, at the least, draft a Master Plan for the reconstruction and development efforts, much like the one prepared by the US for the war-ravaged Europe after the Second World War. Once the plan is prepared, SAARC could develop further plans to create special fund for investment in projects meant partly for the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan and partly for the development of SAARC member countries through regional development projects.
The pull out of NATO forces from Afghanistan will offer great hope for regional development.
Most importantly, investment in today´s war-ravaged Afghanistan is more promising than investment in any other South Asian country, though the risks are certainly greater. South Asia can immensely benefit by importing surplus electricity generated in Central Asia through transmission lines in Afghanistan. Similarly, development projects like construction of world-class railways, roads, oil pipelines and even transmission line in Afghanistan and linking them to Central Asia will bring immense opportunity for the growth of trade and other economic activities in South Asia. All the youth involved in the armed conflict in Afghanistan could be engaged in such development activities, not only increasing their employment opportunities but also enhancing their purchasing power and bringing about massive transformation in their socio-economic and cultural status.
But who will fund the construction of these infrastructures in Afghanistan? The money could be generated mostly from the US-led NATO coalition. Since the entry of international forces in Afghanistan in 2001 nearly US 1 trillion has been spent on war efforts (nearly $2 billion a week). So, once the US-led NATO forces pull out in 2014, one of the options could be to let the warring forces in Afghanistan take the responsibility for the reconstruction and development with generous contribution from the SAARC fund for Afghanistan. Since all the South Asian, Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries would benefit from infrastructures in Afghanistan, such an investment makes sense.
Besides, SAARC can push its member countries including Afghanistan towards greater integration through the establishment of a free-trade regime. The costs involved will be minimal. If Afghanistan is economically integrated into SAARC, it can expedite the development of the whole region through the resultant growth in trade and enhanced economic activities.
If the idea of regional economic integration in South Asia does not materialize, Afghanistan will not keep waiting. It is rather likely to explore the possibility of bilateral free trade arrangement with India given that India is the most developed and by far the largest market in South Asia. Afghanistan might benefit from a free trade arrangement with India much like Sri Lanka does with a similar arrangement. But for this Pakistan would have to avail transit route for movement of goods between the two countries. Significantly, the prospect of transit economy is growing in South Asia. Pakistan could be a potential transit country for trade between Afghanistan and India; whereas Afghanistan itself might emerge as a transit country between South Asia and Middle East/Central Asia.
Most importantly, Afghanistan will need support in improving its state machinery and governance post-2014 in order to expand its ambit beyond Kabul. For this, it would be important to strengthen police, army and security agencies, including intelligence. Besides, Afghanistan would also need support in health and education and also in areas like combating terrorism, narcotics, organized crimes and illegal weapon trafficking. Remarkably, the South Asian countries have the talent pool to help Afghanistan with this effort.
Even individually, India could extend much support for administrative reforms in Afghanistan. India might also train its security agencies. During Hamid Karzai’s visit to India in October 2011, there was an agreement on a strategic partnership between Afghanistan and India. Accordingly, India is expected to help Afghanistan in rebuilding its institutions and train its security agencies.
Moreover, Sri Lanka has fair experience of fighting counter-insurgency movement against LTTE. Nepal has gained some experience in mainstreaming the rebel forces. Even Bhutan has to tell a lot about its experience of harnessing hydro-power through enhanced cooperation with India. Bangladesh, for its part, could share its experiences with Afghanistan in sectors like micro-financing and sanitation.
The US and NATO member countries too could benefit if they can divert even a part of their resources from war to reconstruction and development projects as per the SAARC Master Plan. This gives them a chance of a tidy exit from the region. Additionally, a world-class standard Peace Study Centre can be established in Kabul to disseminate the message of peace instead of war. Thus, the vacuum created by the pull out of the US-led NATO forces might not only invite challenges, but also create opportunities for re-establishment of peace, stability, prosperity and herald a shift from military to civilian power in the beleaguered nation.
The author is Executive Director, Centre for Economic and Technical Studies, Lalitpur