Rising tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan threaten dreams of inter-regional connectivity
Regional connectivity between Pakistan and the land-locked Central Asian Republics (CARs) has remained an age-old dream of Pakistan’s ruling elites and more recently the leadership of these states, in particular Uzbekistan’s, have expressed the desire to connect through Afghanistan. The discourse surrounding the proposed development of energy and economic corridors between the two sides however, misses to take into account the uneasy relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Central Asia remained a politically distant geography for Pakistan during the cold war owing to it being under Soviet control. The demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent independence of these Republics raised hopes within Pakistan’s power corridors regarding the opening of these previously locked markets and the promotion of inter-regional trade. Yet this vision never translated into reality owing to multiple factors. A critical hurdle in the development of these new linkages remained the political instability in Afghanistan. Moreover, Pakistan and the ruling regimes of these newly independent Republics found themselves on opposite sides of the new conflict. These differences on Afghanistan meant that there remained enough daylight between the two sides to develop meaningful political and economic engagement.
These dynamics didn’t change significantly after the American invasion of Afghanistan, although there was some movement in terms of exploring initiatives to link energy rich Central Asia with South Asia particularly in the case of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. Yet sharp differences between the governments in Kabul and Islamabad and the deterioration of the law and order situation in Afghanistan never allowed these projects to move beyond government files.
The return of Taliban into power in 2021 again raised hopes for the realization of regional connectivity. Unlike the 1990s when the Taliban were locked in a civil war against the Northern Alliance which was backed by regimes in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the current Taliban government has managed to develop a working relationship with all its neighbours barring Tajikistan. The decision by these regional actors to allow the Taliban to take over Afghan diplomatic missions in their capitals also suggested willingness on their part to work alongside Taliban. Furthermore, Afghanistan remains dependent upon electricity supplies from its northern neighbours and this arrangement has not been altered by the change of guard in Kabul.
In Pakistan’s drive to woo regional stakeholders to become part of China Pakistan Economic Corridor, Uzbekistan was a success story.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s ties with Uzbekistan, a leading Central Asian state also started to improve with the ascension of President Shawkat Mirziyoyev into power in Tashkent. As opposed to his predecessor Islam Karimov’s inward-looking policies, President Mirziyoyev’s statecraft pushed for the enhancement of inter and intra-regional connectivity to foster trade and commerce. This Uzbek ambition to secure new and shorter trade routes to the Indian Ocean patched well with Pakistan’s own vision of tapping into Central Asian markets and energy resources. Against this backdrop, the signing of a joint protocol between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan to connect Pakistan and Uzbekistan through the Trans-Afghan railway was monumental as it would shorten the delivery time of goods while also reducing the transportation costs.
This also showed that in Pakistan’s drive to woo regional stakeholders to become part of China Pakistan Economic Corridor, Uzbekistan was a success story. Furthermore, another positive development had been the export of LPG containers from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan. These shipments that previously used the rather long Iranian route now have started transiting through Afghanistan making it more viable for importers in energy strapped Pakistan.
These developments indeed signal that regional connectivity between Pakistan and Central Asia has finally started to take shape. However, this uptake in regional connectivity might be hindered by the rising tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) allegedly continues to use Afghan soil to attack law enforcement personnel and security installations in Pakistan. These attacks that had previously remained concentrated in the former FATA region districts have now spread to northern Balochistan province. Pakistan’s civil and military leadership has reacted strongly to these attacks and blamed the Afghan Taliban government for not honouring the Doha Accord whereby the Taliban have given a commitment to not let any group use Afghan soil against its neighbours. In an equally strong reaction, the Taliban spokesperson denied any TTP presence in Pakistan but also stated that the Taliban have not signed the Doha agreement with Pakistan.
This shows that distrust between the Pakistan and Taliban governments has reached new heights and if the current trajectory of TTP violence continues, Pakistan may resort to cross border attacks on TTP targets in Afghanistan which will deteriorate the relationship further. Any such geopolitical wrangling will pose a huge challenge for the geoeconomics-inspired regional connectivity drive, and take it all back to square one.
Afghanistan has always remained the weak link in inter-regional connectivity initiatives and unless an understanding is reached between Islamabad and Kabul over the TTP issue and the security situation improves along the Pak-Afghan border, the dynamic is unlikely to change.
– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.