Central Asia and Talibanisation of Afghanistan -The Express Tribune

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The region, generally referred to as ‘Central Asia’, has been defined by geographers, historians and political scientists in several different ways. The most expansive definition includes the five republics that were once part of the Soviet Union as well as sections of Siberia in the present-day Russia, the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang in China’s northeast, the small states that border Turkey in the country’s north and northeast, and the northeastern part of Turkey itself. Two considerations inform this definition: the religion in which most of the people in these parts believe in and the fact that the region is landlocked. Most of those who live in the area are Muslims although they may belong to religion’s different sects. The Shiite community has a significant presence in the area and was hunted when the Taliban first ruled Afghanistan. And the fact that the region does not have direct access to the sea has impacted its economy as well as its culture. The most commonly used definition of the area includes only the five countries that were once the republics of what was once the Soviet Union. The countries named alphabetically are: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. That is the definition I will use but with one difference: I will include Afghanistan into the collection of countries as belonging to Central Asia.

Including Afghanistan, the region has a population of 106 million, half the size of Pakistan and stretches over an area of 4 million square kilometers. By comparison, the Indian area is 3.3 million square kilometers while Pakistan occupies only 907,000 square kilometers. The main thesis advanced here is that the with the Taliban controlling Afghanistan, the country over which they now have sway, has the potential of remaking Central Asia and bringing it into an active part of the world. Not only will the Central Asian geography be changed but its economy will also be modernised. That said, the political system the Taliban are building in their country is not likely to impact the systems that are evolving in the former republics of the Soviet Union. While Islam will be the basis of governance in Taliban’s governance, it is highly unlikely that religion will be relied upon to determine the direction of political change in Central Asia. For years to come, the five original Central Asian countries are likely to remain authoritarian.

What will bring about economic change in Central Asia is land-based commerce. I made that comment in the opening session of the first meeting of the Astana Club, established by the government of Kazakhstan to introduce its high-level officials to global affairs. Nur Sultan, the then long-serving president of Kazakhstan, took personal interest in the proceedings of the group. His government also took care of the travel and living expenses of the participants who were invited to attend. For the first two meetings, held in 2015 and 2016, I was the only person of South Asian origin to be present.

I was invited to open the meeting by underscoring why it had been summoned. I said that the future of the region lay in developing land-based commerce. What the countries of the region needed to do was to improve connectivity among themselves that would allow freer flow of people and goods across national frontiers. There should be careful planning done by the five countries of the region. The system that emerges should be inked with the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative into the development of which the Chinese government was pouring in a great deal of money in addition to bringing in technical know-how. This is how the Central Asian region will be able to fashion its future.

My thesis was seriously contested by the head of a five-man delegation from Japan who said that no land-based system of commerce had brought about serious development to any part of the world. If it had not worked anywhere else it won’t work in Central Asia. I responded to that assertion by saying that it was not surprising that that was the Japanese point of view. Japan was made up of a series of islands and sea was the only way they could get connected with one another and with the rest of the world. That was the case also with Britain, a nation of islands. It is not surprising that both Britain and Japan were able to use sea-borne trade to develop their economies. The British also used the sea to conquer and rule a good part of the world. The Japanese also tried to do that but failed and were beaten back. I said that I lived in the United States, a country surrounded by sea on its three sides. And yet, some 86 per cent of all that the Americans consumed traveled by land. When we broke up for coffee after the inaugural session, Frederick Starr, an Astana Club participant and an American scholar, walked over to me and said that he had worked for years in Central Asia and written several book on the region. He totally agreed with what I had said. I will have more to say about Starr later in this discussion.

It doesn’t take deep reflection to conclude that three countries have lost as the Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan. They are United States, Britain, and India. We should probably add Japan and Australia to the list since with the global refiguration that is underway, these two along with the United States and India constitute what Shinzo Abe, a former Japanese prime minister, called the ‘quad’. The quad idea was fully embraced by the Biden administration. Three countries have come out on the winning side. They are China, Russia, and Pakistan.

There is no doubt that given Pakistan’s past involvement with the Taliban, the administration led by the group in Kabul would be friendlier towards Islamabad. It would be prepared to work on a series of infrastructure projects that would closely knit Pakistan not with Afghanistan but also with the landlocked countries of Central Asia. If this were to happen, China would be interested in extending CPEC into these landlocked states. In a conversation with me while both of us were attending what was called the ‘Astana Club’, Frederick Starr suggested to me that I should try and convince the authorities in Islamabad to make Gwadar the gateway not only for China but also for Afghanistan and for the Central Asian republics. Were that to happen, the under-development port of Gwadar could become a major port on the Arabian Sea. In fact, with most of Chinese trade carried through the port, Gwadar will be turned into one Asia’s most important gateways.

Working with China, Afghanistan and the five Central Asian republics, Pakistan has the potential of becoming the hub of a transport network that would include not only roads and railways but also gas and oil pipelines and the internet infrastructure. This way a common market could develop to serve a population of more than 400 million people. The area is rich in minerals that are waiting to be tapped. It has rich agricultural base that could be developed to serve the needs of a growing population with steadily increasing income base. With hundreds of small and medium-sized enterprises specialising in wood and metal working, Pakistan and Afghanistan along with the five ‘stans’ in Central Asia could link with the more developed industrial base in China through a system of supply chains. It is not an exaggeration to say the Talibanisation of Afghanistan has opened up new horizons for this part of the world.