Changing realities of Afghanistan – Dr Manzur Ejaz

Dr. Manzur Ejaz

Courtesy: Wichaar

It is highly probable that arrests of key Taliban leaders were meant to scuttle a deal being negotiated between Kabul and the insurgents without Pakistan’s involvement. Therefore, Pakistan has established the fact that no deal in Afghanistan can be negotiated without its involvement

Pakistan is going into a strategic dialogue with the US, believing that it has staged a policy coup against India with reference to Afghanistan. There are many versions of the coup, making it hard for commoners like us to believe which one is true. Furthermore, the question arises if Pakistan’s new or rehashed policy is based on emerging economic realities in Afghanistan or the old assumptions.

One version of the policy coup against India tells us that Pakistan has shown the US that it has all the cards to set the future policy in Afghanistan by establishing its writ in Swat, Malakand and South Waziristan and by arresting key Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. It is highly probable that arrests of key Taliban leaders were meant to scuttle a deal being negotiated between Kabul and the insurgents without Pakistan’s involvement. Therefore, Pakistan has established the fact that no deal in Afghanistan can be negotiated without its involvement.

The US may have no better choice but to go along with Islamabad, despite knowing fully well that Pakistan may have nabbed the Taliban and al Qaeda leaders from safe houses. India’s conspicuous exclusion from London talks and the Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s cold reception in Washington this month shows that, for now, Washington has decided to accept Pakistan’s position and ask India to remain low key in Afghanistan.

The second version is rather intriguing, which goes like this: Pakistan’s ISI has won over the Northern Alliance leaders — usually preferring India over Pakistan — and convinced the grandson of king Zahir Shah, Mustafa Zahir Shah, to come together to form the government in Kabul. Proponents of this version claim that Pakistan has made a significant shift from its Pukhtun-Taliban-centric approach to include other nationalities as well.

Whichever version is true, Pakistan seems to be enjoying its newfound power to negotiate with the US. However, the question is that even if the US goes along with its preferences, has Pakistan framed its policies on emerging economic realities of Afghanistan?

Afghanistan’s political economy is drastically changing. The investments by China, India, Central Asian countries and Iran are changing the future prospects of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Afghans’ migration to Western countries and socio-political experiences of millions of refugees in Pakistan, Iran, India and other countries are going to impact the future orientation of the Afghan society.

Expatriate remittances have played a great role in supporting, or some say sustaining, Pakistan’s fledging economy. If this is true, then Afghanistan’s expatriate remittances in 2006, around $ 3.4 billion, are proportionately much higher than Pakistan’s $ 6.4 billion because its population of 28 million is one-sixth of its neighbour’s 180 million: on per capita basis, Afghanistan gets $ 121 against Pakistan’s $ 35 as expatriate remittance. Like Vietnam and South Korea, once occupied by the US, the Afghan expatriate remittances are going to grow much faster than Pakistan. Therefore, the Afghan economy will be helped to sustain itself by a large amount of foreign remittances in difficult times.

Furthermore, several countries are making substantial investments in Afghanistan. For example, China has invested $ 3 billion in the Aynak copper mine and is in the process of constructing of a new railroad between Afghanistan and its Xinjiang province, and an electricity station. The trade linkages are likely to grow and China would like to invest in other key industrial inputs like coal, iron, aluminium and many others that the country is endowed with: Afghanistan has large deposits of natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulphur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, and precious and semiprecious stones. Consequently, to protect its economic interests and control a 1990s-like insurgency in Uighur province, China will be least tolerant of the Taliban in this area.

After the construction of a half-mile long bridge over the Pyanj River, the trade between Tajikistan and Afghanistan has increased by 700 percent. After opening of the Friendship Bridge between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s trade with the Central Asian countries has increased manifold. Russia is also planning to link Afghanistan with Europe through rail, which already goes up to Uzbekistan.

Most of these investments and trade linkages are taking place in northern and western Afghanistan. Eventually, these parts of Afghanistan will become a separate economic unit with new prosperity and fresh world outlook. If religious militancy continues, it will be limited to southern and eastern Afghanistan bordering Pakistan.

Even southern Afghanistan will have a new outlook because of a new trade route to the Arabian Sea. India completed a 135-mile long road from Nimroz to Iran’s Chabahar seaport. This means that landlocked Afghanistan will not be dependent on Karachi’s port. As a matter of fact, Chabahar seaport will much closer to the major Afghan cities than Karachi. Sooner or later, the closer seaport will be preferred over a very long route, resulting in less dependence over Pakistan.

Besides these economic developments, the Afghan society is changing very fast. A very long war has destroyed many traditional professions, forcing the people to change their lifestyles. For example, animal husbandry or herd breeding, once the profession of a large portion of Afghan population, has decreased a whopping 80 percent. Similarly, many other traditional means of living have changed due to continuing war.

The Afghan mindset is in the process of transformation. Many recent visitors to Afghanistan have indicated that refugees who have returned back have brought new sets of ideas that they were exposed to while living abroad. They have picked up experiences of living under relatively modern states where democratic ideals are pursued. For example, the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan have had new experiences of yearning for democratic values, equality and the right to protest even under military dictatorships. Therefore, Taliban or no Taliban, Pakistan has to deal with a changed Afghanistan. Pakistan will remain relevant to Afghanistan only if it becomes a well-governed modern state with an expanding economic potential.

The writer can be reached at

March 25th, 2010

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