With Afghan security forces suffering casualty rates 50% higher during the first half of 2015 than in the same period a year earlier, one could argue that the recently completed security and political transitions in Afghanistan are failing to deliver durable peace, just as Western-led forces and donors pull back their assistance. Equally problematic is that Afghanistan’s third critical economic transition has yet to be fulfilled. Without it, the growth, jobs, and public revenue so essential to successful state- and peacebuilding—by creating unique incentives for the currently stalled political reconciliation effort necessary to end the conflict—will, indeed, remain elusive.
Two major international forums—the Sixth Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA-VI) from 3-4 September 2015 in Kabul and the next Istanbul Process “Heart of Asia” Ministerial in December 2015 in Islamabad—present timely opportunities to accelerate regional economic integration—and by association, Afghan economic transition—as a means of building greater confidence, trust, and mutual dependency between Afghanistan and its neighbors. Earlier (click here and here), I have expounded on the inherent economic and social benefits of connecting Central, South, and Southwest Asia through new transit, energy, and communications corridors in Afghanistan. Binding Afghanistan’s economic future ever closer to its Eurasian neighbors might also be the best chance for a political breakthrough to the country’s decades-long conflict.
Beginning in December 2005, successive rounds of RECCA have provided a regional platform for Central, South, and Southwest Asian Foreign and Economic Ministers to engage their counterparts in Kabul in forging consensus around concrete policies and investment project opportunities—such as the CASA-1000 regional energy project and new road and rail connections—to deepen cross-border economic relations centering on Afghanistan. Donor countries and organizations have provided technical and financial assistance to priorities identified by RECCA since the first meeting in Kabul. With subsequent gatherings in New Delhi, Islamabad, Istanbul, and Dushanbe, private sector representatives and scholars have further grown in influence vis-à-vis this regional economic cooperation agenda.
Since November 2011, the Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan, also known as “The Heart of Asia”, has sought to combine a focus on regional political dialogue, security, and economic cooperation—among fourteen Eurasian countries with “supporting” countries and donor organizations assuming observer status—to address several of the most fundamental threats and challenges facing Afghanistan and its wider region. With the introduction of two confidence-building measures (CBMs) on Trade, Commerce & Investment and Regional Infrastructure in 2012, the Istanbul Process has built directly on progress achieved by the series of RECCA forums since 2005.
Regrettably, diplomats with a natural predilection toward political and security goals have tended to dominate Heart of Asia proceedings, often missing out on important connections achieved through a more holistic perspective on regional cooperation. Without a serious investment in the time, analytical skills, and public-private partnership building required to advance major regional economic investment opportunities, near-term political and security concerns will continue to sidestep innovative economic initiatives that can genuinely help to unite the region. With RECCA determined to garner support over the next year for a select group of viable, financially attractive, and much-needed regional investment projects, an opportunity arises to achieve a more integrated approach to regional cooperation, thereby aiding fundamental peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts.
Combining the strengths of both the RECCA and Heart of Asia Ministerial forums, four concrete ways through which the two regional platforms can inject new energy, vision, and practical incentives into the currently stalled talks toward a lasting political settlement are:
- Underscore Unifying Issues: Constantly remind governments, businesses, and people in Central, South, and Southwest Asia that the issues they have in common—near, medium, and long-term economic interests, a shared history (including along the ancient and now re-emerging Silk Roads), and an increasingly shared identity thanks to modern communications and cultural exchanges—are far greater than what divides them; conversely, violence and other tensions in one country adversely affects everyone in the wider region.
- Boost Bilateral Relations: Capitalize on the decision to convene the two respective high-level and high-profile forums this year in Kabul and Islamabad to underscore the importance of Afghan-Pakistani relations as the lynchpin to wider regional economic cooperation and fundamental to mitigating regional tensions andaddressing the root sources of both countries’ unceasing violence.
- Creatively Confront Militancy: Offer a “new pull factor” to steer younger generation and would-be Taliban fighters away from violence and other criminal forms of behavior towards new, economically viable livelihood opportunities that benefit themselves, their families, and their communities.
- Improve Economic-Political-Security Coordination: Demarcate clearly a “division of comparative advantages”, whereby RECCA leads on purely economic and technical discussions (underpinned by rigorous research and continuous dialogue with prospective private investors and sovereign wealth funds) and the Istanbul Process translates the concrete economic incentives, good-will, and trust generated from RECCA facilitated cross-border commercial cooperation into tangible political and security-building outcomes for the region.
Though far from acting as silver bullet solutions, these steps, taken together with an unwavering commitment from the region’s leaders, can help to create a new political dynamic for dialogue among the warring parties and their foreign backers. They offer improved conditions for bringing the Taliban back to the negotiating table following the confusion stemming from the recent confirmation of the death of their leader Mullah Omar. With a favorable Pakistani leadership on one hand, and the threat of the Islamic State making inroads among a militant hardcore within the Taliban movement on the other, the decisions made in the coming four months to bind Afghanistan and its region’s future for the coming forty years and beyond may prove decisive to averting yet further bloodshed and untold sorrow within a resilient people with much to offer to their neighbors and the wider world.