The focus on energy and transportation reflects the concerns of both countries (Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan) — Uzbekistan’s desire to access markets and need for outwardly branching infrastructure to do so and Turkmenistan’s overwhelming need for any kind of cash flow. While Uzbekistan’s active participation in regional affairs is welcome, it will not necessarily move all the initiatives mentioned along. One project highlighted by the presidents — a scheme to deliver electricity from Central Asia to South Asia (no, not CASA-1000 but a similar project, the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan, or TUTAP, project) — demonstrates this point.
TUTAP made Central and South Asian headlines in 2016, but not for good reasons. As with other trans-regional projects — like CASA-1000 and TAPI — the TUTAP project is envisioned to cross Afghanistan. Last Spring, Hazaras in Afghanistan protested in response to announced changes to the TUTAP route moving the line out of Bamyan and to the Salang Pass. Many among the Hazaras, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan who live predominantly in the central regions like Bamyan, viewed the path change as a deliberate move to cut them out of the promised energy supply and accompanying prosperity.
Renewed enthusiasm for the project on the part of Uzbekistan will not solve the project’s political problems in Afghanistan. Still, emphasizing TUTAP’s potential with Ashgabat may take some of the stings off recent news regarding another energy project.
“Richard Boucher the then Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs noted that “South and Central Asia belong together” by virtue of Afghanistan, which lies at the center of the region and can be a bridge that links the two regions rather than a barrier that divides them.
In the 21st century, the function of the pivot area has been described as ensuring sustainable land contacts along the parallels (West-East) and the meridians (North-South) thereby contributing to the consistent geopolitical and economic integration of large and isolated areas of the Asian continent. There are today connectivity protects that reflect this geopolitical thinking.
TUTAP (Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan) electricity transmission lines. Initiatives for integrating the South and Central Asian markets include common Central Asia – South Asia Regional Electricity Market (CASAREM) which includes projects like CASA 1000, TAPI, TUTAP.
This leaves Afghanistan sitting in a favorable position to play a natural economic nexus role between the two emerging economic powers (Central Asia and South Asia). It is this nexus role that could, one day, and soon, if all parties align, allow Afghanistan to finally rise and consolidate against its historical fragility.
Other initiatives have served to create an environment for economic cooperation between the two markets. Out of these has emerged a strategic framework for linking the energy sectors and economies of the region’s countries. One initiative set up a common Central Asia-South Asia Regional Electricity Market (CASAREM), whereby Afghanistan effectively operates under the strictures of 10 or more separate energy projects, including CASA-1000, TAPI, and TUTAP, among others.
These Central Asia and South Asia energy projects provide a reliable income stream for Afghanistan, and new revenues for the Afghan government will be generated from the associated duties and transit fees levied on the roads, railways, pipelines, and electric transmission lines.
These projects are bound to increase the GDP of all Eurasian countries. A recent United Nations report estimated that, within a decade, these regional trade projects, the creation of new energy transmission markets, bolstered by the necessary construction of transnational infrastructure, will increase the GDP of Afghanistan and Central Asian countries by 50 percent. On the ground, this will translate into reliable employment, a more secure job market, new energy and construction-related business enterprise — factors that will further increase the country’s annual GDP growth, while providing increased stability.
Governments of the wider Central Asia region could be encouraged to cooperate toward spreading awareness of the utility of these important new sector linkages as it weighs against the political constraints, they all face. Therefore, meeting cooperative success will require a careful sequencing of key energy development measures in order to maximize impact and maintain steady progress over time.
It is still true that Afghanistan’s fraught security situation, current Taliban political takeover, and devastating physical infrastructure remain prominent obstacles to all of this, primarily because these assertive projects intend to pass through insecure and infrastructurally unsound areas.
Consequently, Kabul’s Taliban leadership needs to demonstrate improvement in its security and infrastructure — factors that will prove either catalysts or deal breakers for any future regional development projects, whether energy, transportation, or otherwise.
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan government must also send its regional partners the strong, unified message that it is fully committed to the realization and stewardship of these projects.
Successful, secure connectivity of the transnational links among South and Central Asia, and China, via Afghanistan, would revive the country’s historical and natural hub position in the region. The sooner this happens, the better for the country.
Written by Hon’ Executive Board Member of AISSC – Syed Shah Fahad Hussain
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