Afghan Hopes To Provide 'Land Bridge'
May 14, 2009
By Abubakar Siddique
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
President Hamid Karzai has been keen, since
becoming head of Afghanistan's interim administration
in late 2001, to tout his landlocked country's
potential as a "land bridge" for regional trade.
The idea entails transforming the mountains of
Hindu Kush from a conflict zone into a trade hub
between China, Middle East, South Asia, and Central
Asia -- home to one-third of the world's population.
The realization of such a vision, many Afghans
believe, would do more to help restore peace and bring
development to their impoverished country than any
amount of foreign aid.
But for now, the reality is that extremist violence
often attributed to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is
targeting trade, contributing to insecurity, and
hampering Karzai's effort to see his idea through.
The Afghan president highlighted the problem at an
economic-cooperation conference in Islamabad on May 13
that included representatives from countries in the
region, Western allies, and international financial
Specifically referring to incidents in Afghanistan
and Pakistan, Karzai warned that rising violence
targeting trade threatens to harm economic
development, noting that "trucks have been burnt,
drivers killed, and merchandise has been looted and
set on fire."
Karzai listed other issues that could stall
progress, such as insufficient infrastructure and
inconsistent policies, but said that overcoming the
"wildfire of terrorism" was the foremost challenge to
regional peace and cooperation.
"Today parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan have
fallen victim to the atrocities of militants and
terrorists, forcing hundreds of thousands of men,
women, and children to flee their homes," Karzai said.
During the past eight years, the United States and
its Western allies have promoted increased regional
cooperation as a means of undermining extremism.
As part of President Barack Obama's new strategy
for combating extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan,
the administration has promised more financial aid,
troop deployments, societal development, and regional
cooperation to address the complex situation in South
In a recent interview with RFE/RL, U.S. Assistant
Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs
Richard Boucher said in addition to facilitating
regional infrastructure projects -- the building of
bridges between Afghanistan and Tajikistan serves as
one example -- Washington, its allies, and
international bodies like the UN are trying to sell
countries in the region on the idea of working
together to ensure a shared and prosperous future.
"You really now have a highway that goes from
Almaty to Karachi, and so what we're trying to do now
is work with the countries on the regulations and the
trading environments so that people can start using
that for trade, give them an outlet to the sea,"
Boucher said, adding that there are "a lot" of such
projects. "We've focused on the trade and investment
side; others, the United Nations has worked with them
on water issues, and we're always looking for chances
to connect them to Afghanistan, with electricity, and
make sure that Afghanistan becomes not just a problem,
but an opportunity for them."
Aside from violence, regional political rivalries
and the lack of a broader strategic agreement on the
future of Afghanistan has undermined efforts to
promote economic cooperation in a region where, in
some cases, traditional divisions have worsened.
But there have been glimmers of progress as well.
In early 2003, Iran concluded a number of trade
agreements with Afghanistan, enticing Kabul to use its
Chabahar port on Indian Ocean as an alternative to the
southern Pakistani port of Karachi, which has served
as a traditional transit route for Afghanistan.
Islamabad's regional archrival India bankrolled the
development of the Chabahar port and major road
projects to aid the transformation.
Meanwhile, Pakistan built a new seaport in Gwadar a
few hundred kilometers south of Chabahar. Built with
major Chinese investment, the port will also serve as
a major hub for the rapidly growing trade and industry
in western Chinese regions bordering Pakistan.
The U.S. and NATO's reliance on Pakistan as a
supply route for the war effort in Afghanistan also
keeps infrastructure development on the radar, as
Washington looks to ensure security of those routes.
With regional cooperation a key priority of U.S.
President Barack Obama's new "Af-Pak" strategy,
Washington is keen on seeing relations between Kabul
and Islamabad improve.
The inking of a trade transit agreement -- a
sticking point between Pakistan and Afghanistan that
has gone unresolved for nearly half a century -- is
seen as important step toward that goal.
When the two countries on May 6 signed a memorandum
of understanding to work out a long-awaited trade
deal, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called
it "a regional opportunity."
"The Trade Transit Agreement memorandum of
understanding that was signed today commits both
countries to finalizing a trade transit agreement that
deals with all of the obstacles and problems of goods
and people crossing borders," Clinton said. "It was
started 43 years ago, and we're determined to bring it
to a resolution. The kind of economic development that
will spring up if we see increased trade and commerce
between the two countries is one of the best ways that
we can provide alternatives for those who might
otherwise be dragged into this conflict."
William Byrd, a World Bank economic expert on
countries affected by conflict, sees great potential
in Afghanistan's "land bridge" scheme, although he
says Kabul's ability to curbs violence and improve
governance is key.
"Afghanistan has potentially a very dynamic economy
and can make a lot of progress. Even under current
situation the economic growth has been pretty high,"
Byrd said. "What is critical is a minimum degree of
security and good governance. And with that, I am very
confident that the Afghan economy can grow very