Dr Muhammad Munir
Many believe that Afghanistan’s involvement in CPEC, even if only modest, can be a big confidence-building measure for an Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship which has been tense for quite some time now. In the long run, through Afghanistan, China is planning to gradually connect the CPEC with the China-Central and Western Asia Economic Corridor. China is confident about Afghanistan’s joining CPEC. According to Chinese Foreign Minister, as an important neighbour of China and Pakistan, Afghanistan has an urgent desire to develop its economy and improve people’s livelihood and it is willing to integrate itself into the process of regional interconnection.
On February 28, 2018, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani while speaking at a peace conference in Kabul offered peace talks “without preconditions” to the Taliban after 16 years of war. He also declared that his government wants to make a fresh start as far as relations with Pakistan are concerned. The offer called for a ceasefire, an exchange of prisoners and included a promise to extend official recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political group as well as including the group in the political process and review of the country’s Constitution. What Afghan President has offered can form a basis of significant and substantive peace process that could lead to restoration of durable peace and stability to war-torn Afghanistan. It is, perhaps, for the first time that no pre-conditions have been attached to talks with the Taliban. From Pakistan’s perspective peace in Afghanistan is very important for smooth regional connectivity of CPEC.
China has played a critical role in bringing a change in Afghanistan’s attitude towards Pakistan and the Taliban. On December 26, 2017, the first China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue was held in Beijing. The two most important takeaways from this trilateral dialogue were Beijing’s readiness to play a constructive role in improving Afghanistan-Pakistan relations and decision on extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan.
One of the main objectives of China to extend CPEC connectivity to Afghanistan is to create conducive environment for regional connectivity in the broader perspective of its Belt and Road Initiative. The CPEC could help Afghanistan reduce its dependence on foreign aid as well as provide both Kabul and Islamabad with an opportunity to improve ties. Trilateral cooperation between Pakistan, Afghanistan and China on Belt and Road would benefit all three countries. Pakistan considers China’s enhanced involvement in Afghanistan as a stabilising factor to counter the negative fallout of Indian influence in Afghanistan. On the contrary, India might be alarmed by the extension of CPEC to Afghanistan.
For a landlocked country like Afghanistan, CPEC is of vital importance in geo-strategic sense. With the extension of CPEC to Afghanistan, the country can become a major beneficiary of this project as in future the corridor will contribute to the economic development of this brittle country by enhancing economic activities in the area which can put the fragile economy of Afghanistan on a sound footing.
There are several connectivity projects that Pakistan, China and Afghanistan can undertake. The important road projects that may be included in the CPEC connectivity to Afghanistan are: 265 km Peshawar to Kabul motorway and the road link connecting western alignment of CPEC to Afghanistan by linking Chaman to Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif to Termez near the border of Central Asian countries. This route will provide an easy and short access to Afghanistan to reach the sea port of Gwadar which is almost 600 kilometres shorter than the existing transit route being used by the traders and people of Afghanistan This connection will integrate Afghanistan with other regions and also allow her to start commercial activities through the Indian Ocean.
CPEC is bringing industrialization and investment to Pakistan, the carry-over effects of which will benefit Afghanistan as well. Pakistan has already undertaken the building of several roads to improve connectivity between the two countries. The 75 km Torkham-Jalalabad road is one of them while the Peshawar-Torkham road is another. These developments have faced considerable completion challenges; they are a step toward increasing connectivity with Pakistan and, in turn, gaining Afghan access to CPEC. A railway track may be built between Torkham and Jalalabad in Afghanistan to facilitate China to use the Pakistan Railways network to transport goods and equipment for the development of copper mines and various other projects in Afghanistan. Separately, Pakistan Railways has completed a feasibility study for a rail section between Chaman and Kandahar, a part of a proposed link across Afghanistan to Turkmenistan.
China can expect a lot of economic benefits by investing in Afghanistan. Such investments will strengthen Chinese projects in Pakistan, and also help China to access natural resources in Afghanistan. Afghanistan also has the abundant potential of hydroelectricity which Chinese companies can tap and sell in Pakistan. For instance Pakistan and Afghanistan are moving towards the joint management of common rivers starting with construction of a 1,500MW hydropower project on Kunar River — a major tributary of Kabul River contributing almost 13 million acres feet (MAF) annually to Pakistan. China may help them in completing this project. Further the extension of CPEC to Afghanistan may help in identifying projects relating to communications, railways, transit trade and the power sector.
Central Asian Region being physically attached to Wakhan Corridor, Pakistan can utilise its value by linking the corridor with its northern highlands most suitably along the Chitral River and improvement of existing route from Chitral to Afghanistan. This 250 km long route should start from Broghal Pass linking Mastuj, Booni, and Chitral and should link Afghanistan. The proposed route will serve as subsidiary to Karakorum Highway for China and Pakistan as an instrument re-driving influence of India in Afghanistan.
The northeastern Badakhshan province of Afghanistan is bordering China, Pakistan and Tajikistan through Wakhan Corridor. The province has large scale natural resources such as Azure, Gold, Ruby and Diamond mines in addition to Copper and Iron. Pakistan and China can help Afghanistan in exploring these natural resources. Construction of the Lowari tunnel will turn the Wakhan corridor into an all-weather route for connecting Pakistan with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
China is keen on accessing Afghanistan’s large reserves through its state-owned enterprises (SOE), and has the monetary resources to invest in developing the infrastructure for procurement. As such, Afghanistan should be open to such investments and operating deals, which will benefit the country in the long run. In addition, such a move will bring forth much needed foreign direct investment (FDI) to the cash-strapped country.
There are already some investments from Pakistan to build connecting roads, as mentioned above. Afghanistan should focus its attention on finishing the stalled projects and building confidence in the country’s ability to complete existing infrastructure undertakings. To develop the small-scale energy and transportation industries that could easily fit into the CPEC structure once Afghanistan joins. In this respect the government of Afghanistan has taken a right step of offering peace talks to the Taliban. Any positive development in Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan and initiation of peace talks with the Taliban may create a favourable environment for investment in CPEC connectivity projects in Afghanistan.