Afghanistan is not in the middle of nowhere but in the middle of everywhere. Along a possible New Asian Axis, country-by-country approaches are no more useful than building plans for single stones. The region demands an architectural vision, where separate stones, particularly one irregular piece, are configured into a weight-bearing arch. Afghanistan can be the cornerstone for an overarching regional solution.
Geographically trapped, must Afghanistan be trapped economically? Is Asia’s potential orchard condemned to poverty and paralysis? Its dubious fruit is familiar and unappetising: corruption, misgovernment, challenges proliferating in ungoverned spaces. These include radicalisation, violence, and reinforcing vicious circles — illicit actors and illicit activities. The impending pullout of US troops presents twin dangers: deteriorating security and spending shortfalls. Specific savings may follow, but at what wider cost? Is Afghanistan again at a juncture where all roads lead nowhere? How else might we envision the country — not as a dead end but as a pulsing central hub? A deeper survey of history confirms this.
How might Afghanistan resume its role as a regional roundabout and crucial crossroads? Afghanistan can unlock value within a regional triangle, formed by landlocked but energy and resource-rich central Asian republics, the growing populations of south Asia and Middle Eastern markets with challenges that must be met externally. This regional triangle sits within a larger intercontinental triangle of global economic centres: Europe, the Far East and south Asia. Flows between them will be of unimaginable value. How can Afghanistan facilitate flows to benefit the wider region, its neighbours and itself? Afghanistan might facilitate five distinct flows, from the bulky to the energetic and intangible: extractives and raw materials; goods; foodstuffs, from staple grains to high-value crops; energy, including pipelines and electrical transmission; and telecommunications and data transmission. Not only can Afghanistan facilitate these flows, it can contribute to them as well.
We are aware of strategic imbalances. Afghanistan straddles many gradients with exciting potential: the wealthy Gulf states to the south with food security concerns, versus grain surpluses to the north; its own potential for high-value crops such as soft fruits, pistachios, saffron and cumin versus hungry markets. South Asia has 25 per cent of the world’s population, constrained by 5 per cent of its energy supply — and summer peaking demand. Central Asia has huge hydroelectricity capacity, with excess in summer. Similar patterns recur: cotton production versus textile weaving; construction projects versus construction materials; demand for copper, iron, aluminium and rare strategic metals versus significant untapped supply; energy supply versus energy demands; ports seeking freight versus railways seeking ports. Afghanistan is critical to unlocking flows along Asia’s new axis. Half of internet traffic travels between Europe and Asia, currently via a circuitous, inefficient maritime route. A direct line would generate fees for Afghanistan but unlock value for all.
Why build expensive, dirty coal-fired plants in Pakistan or India when it is so much cheaper to connect transmission lines from Central Asia? A fraction of capital expenditure could initiate one of the world’s most strategic green initiatives. Western Afghanistan has wind speeds with the greatest potential of anywhere between the Sahara and Shanghai. If transmission lines run through Afghanistan, they could be leveraged by plugging in massive green energy capacity to complement the existing baseload.
Rail freight from China to Europe is faster, cheaper and greener than sea routes. Global issues require thinking beyond double glazing in Düsseldorf. Dissenters may highlight dangerous instability as insurmountable obstacles to such grandiose plans. Their circular arguments are easily reversed: when all benefit from prosperity and uninterrupted flows, the incentives for stability follow. Rather than poverty and instability impeding trade flows, we realise that impeded trade flows cause poverty and instability.
Initiatives can be reinforcing, because crucial corridors offer the possibility for bundling. Gas pipelines can sit alongside electricity transmission and data cables. Instead of open-ended and ill-defined attempts to hold terrain, stretching forces to breaking point, clear strategic propositions emerge: defensible crucial corridors. History’s greatest military mind thought so: Alexander named Kandahar, which commands major trade routes between India, the Middle East and central Asia. Can we look beyond narrow country strategies to an enlarged system where vested interests ensure that all benefit not from closed systems with many losers, but from open systems with many winners? The barriers are not physical, but conceptual, particularly a lack of vision.
Seventy years ago, enlightened US self-interest and the catalytic Marshall Plan reactivated a shattered continent. In 1948, implicit fears were poverty and hunger driving desperate populations to extremism or “belly communism”. What is today’s equivalent? Enlightened planners back then addressed practical problems and underlying concerns. The resulting reinforcing circles of inclusive growth led to the coal and steel community, the EU and its single market — underpinning the world’s largest consumer market during decades of peace.
Are there correspondingly farsighted actors today with vision, bold enough to think on this scale? We do not start with nothing. Many components exist or are under construction. Initiatives include CASA 1000, the power transmission from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan; TAPI, the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India; TAP, the transmission line from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, connecting Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and Europe. Often, we need to join up existing infrastructure intelligently.
Perhaps Afghanistan’s new destiny is not as a pawn in other players’ Great Game, but a reversion to its role throughout millennia. Can Afghanistan be the crucial crossroads for a reimagined Eurasia? Great games belong in the past; now is the moment for The Great Connection.