Afghanistan was last month witness to another important milestone in its efforts toward regional economic integration, when the Lapis Lazuli route was inaugurated by President Ashraf Ghani together with the relevant international partners. The corridor links Afghanistan to Turkey via Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and onwards to Europe. The move will enable Afghanistan to export its products to distant locations.
Speaking during the inauguration ceremony, Ghani said: “One of the greatest obstacles to our goal, which is an export-oriented and connected Afghanistan, has been removed.” The new corridor was inaugurated with about 180 tons of Afghan products carried by nine trucks.
The Lapis Lazuli route has a history going back thousands of years, to when precious stones were exported to the Caucasus, Russia, the Balkans, Europe and North Africa. The new move is a revival of the traditional route but uses modern means of transportation and connectivity. It is not only a success for Afghanistan, but also for the rest of the countries along the corridor.
Being a landlocked country, Afghanistan has always had to rely on its neighbors for its trade. In modern times, it has been using next door neighbor Pakistan’s Karachi port for its transit trade with the rest of the world. In 2010, the two countries signed the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) but, due to political tensions, especially regarding Kabul’s bilateral trade with India through Pakistan, Afghanistan has been consistently complaining about its implementation. To seek an alternative route to India, Iran’s Chabahar port will be used by Afghanistan. The port’s operations were recently taken over by New Delhi, which is considered an important development for Afghanistan’s regional connectivity. Although Chabahar offers an alternative route to India, transiting via Pakistan remains a feasible alternative and Afghanistan has the political will for the Karachi route to be operational once stability returns to the region.
In November, Afghanistan inaugurated its air trade corridor with China by dispatching 20 tons of pine nuts on a cargo flight. Both Ghani and Chinese officials hope the air corridor will lead to increased Afghan exports of dry and fresh fruits to Chinese markets. Air corridors with China and other countries may address Afghan trade needs in the short term, but such means of transportation may not be sustainable in the long run. China is Afghanistan’s next door neighbor and our long-term strategy should be to become part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative by building ground transportation routes between Afghanistan and China through our Wakhan Corridor.
Afghanistan’s location has been both a liability and an asset. For centuries, the country has been a victim of international rivalries and geopolitical games. Our government needs to do more on the political front to convince our regional and international partners that the country’s location should be looked at as a win-win situation for all.
As an asset, Afghanistan is a land bridge connecting Central Asia with South Asia, offering the shortest and most economic route. It is also an important energy corridor. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline that was inaugurated last year and the Central Asia South Asia (CASA-1000) electricity transit line are good examples of Afghanistan acting as a transit hub connecting Central Asia to South Asia.
However, if Afghanistan is to really play the role of regional hub for transit and trade, it needs to focus on its domestic infrastructure, particularly in the road and energy sectors, and this may not be possible without support from international financial institutions like the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the recently established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Despite government efforts to enhance Afghanistan’s trade with its neighbors, regional countries and beyond, security remains the biggest obstacle. Deteriorating security across the country will not allow the trade routes to be safe enough to allow the smooth movement of goods to their intended destinations. The proposed trade routes should not remain just symbolic, but be transformed into a tangible means of connectivity for landlocked Afghanistan to the region and beyond. Thus, there is a genuine need for sustainable peace and security in order for Afghanistan’s economic integration to become a reality.
Afghanistan is making good progress as far as its connectivity and economic integration with the region and beyond is concerned. Yet, prosperity cannot be achieved without peace and stability. The ongoing efforts for peace with the Taliban have raised new hopes of a breakthrough like never before. If peace returns to the war-ravaged country, which has been in conflict for decades, good times are ahead.