Col (R) Muhammad Hanif
AFTER independence of Central Asian Republics (CARs), namely Kirghizstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, in 1991, Pakistan was among the first few countries to recognize these Republics and establish its embassies there. Because of the historic, cultural and religious bonds, CARs were also happy to begin the procedure of developing multidimensional ties with Pakistan. During the 1990s, frequent mutual visits of their leaders and officials had taken place and quite a few agreements were signed in the fields of culture, trade and business. In 1992, Pakistan had signed six Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), with the CARs in areas of economy, culture, trade and banking.
The exuberance of the CARs to conduct their trade through Afghanistan and Pakistan was also there because they envisioned an opportunity to have trade with the nations of South Asia, South East Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa by using sea ports of Pakistan. In view of the possibility of the connectivity of South and Central Asia, through Afghanistan, an MOU for the construction of TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) gas pipeline project was also signed between these countries in 1995 to export gas from Turkmenistan to other three countries. However, for various reasons the speed of advancement in the mutual relations between Pakistan and CARs, remained slow.
In the meantime in 2001, 9/11 terrorist attacks had occurred and the US-led NATO’s military intervention in Afghanistan had overthrown the then Taliban Government. Consequently a long war was being fought in Afghanistan since the Taliban had started guerrilla operations. In view of the withdrawal of the major part of the US/NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014 and the Obama Administration’s announcement of supporting a peace process in Afghanistan, a hope for an early peace in Afghanistan was created. Viewing the possibility of the establishment of peace in Afghanistan, in November 2015, the energy agencies of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a final agreement on the Central Asia, South Asia 1000 (CASA-1000) project to construct a power transmission system to export electricity from Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In 2015, a significant development in the region occurred where China and Pakistan signed an agreement for the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to connect Kashgar city of western China with the Gwadar seaport of Pakistan, involving the construction of a network of roads, railways, fibre optic telephone/internet lines, industrial zones and Gwadar seaport and airport, with China’s investment of over $ 52 billion. The construction of the CPEC, as a flagship project of China’s announced Belt and Road (B&R) Initiative, are in progress, to be completed in phases till Year 2030. This ominous development had also produced a big hope for Afghanistan and CARs for their connectivity through CPEC with China, Pakistan and the southern world to boost their trade using Gwadar seaport. Although, it was believed that to exploit vast economic opportunities associated with the CPEC, establishment of peace in Afghanistan was necessary.
The possibility of establishing an early peace in Afghanistan has again diminished with President Trump’s announcement of the policies of enhancing the troop level in Afghanistan, and setting no timetable for pulling out of US troops from there, as a result of which the war in Afghanistan has intensified. Hence, this long war is likely to stay and there remains a great question mark as to when peace will turn back to Afghanistan to act as a conduit for CAR’s trade with the South and vice-e versa.
In view of this prevailing uncertain geostrategic scenario in the region, the answer to the above question lies in quick implementation of the Quadrilateral Traffic in Transit Agreement (QTTA), which was signed between China, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, that will connect the CARs with the CPEC, bypassing Afghanistan, till peace returns there. This route will create a big opportunity for the CARs to carry out trade with China, Pakistan, South Asia, South East Asia, Middle East and West Asia. For Pakistan also the importance of QTTA has recently increased following frequent border closures with Afghanistan over political hostilities and security matters.
In view of the above, it is strongly felt that the use of the QTTA route to connect Pakistan and CARs through CPEC will rule out the reliance on the traditional perception that all roads from Pakistan into Central Asia and vice-i-versa go through Kabul or Wahkhan. Therefore, QTTA needs to be implemented quickly by completing the construction of this road, for which the CARs, Pakistan and China should make investments. No doubt, an early completion of this road will not only help in advancing mutual trade interests of these countries independent of the security situation in Afghanistan, it will also serve as a catalyst to advance Pakistan-CARs’ relations on a wider scale.