The implications of NATO drawdown from Afghanistan continues to generate vigorous debate in South Asia. At a recently concluded international conference, "NATO drawdown from Afghanistan: Challenges and Opportunities" organized by the Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan), academics and policy makers debated on the potential benefits and challenges of this diminishing international footprints for the region. The conclusion was somber: International intervention of the last decade marked largely by uncoordinated military action and aid delivery has done little to build institutions essential for providing better services and governance to the Afghan people. Hasty announcements of exit and dwindling financial assistance have heightened anxieties inside Afghanistan. Peace and stability in the long term, as a consequence, remains an elusive goal. The major takeaway from the conference was that normalization of relationship between Pakistan, Afghanistan and India is a sine qua non for long term stability in the region.
Contrary to pessimistic projections, the drawdown indeed provides an opportune moment for Afghanistan to pursue the goal of achieving long-term economic stability through the mechanism of regional cooperation. The role and support of India and Pakistan, will be critical to achieve this objective. While Afghanistan has been largely perceived as an arena of zero-sum competition between India and Pakistan, given the tremendous dividends of increased trade and transit, the building of energy pipelines and regional connectivity, the uncertainties associated with the drawdown could, in fact, generate real and tangible opportunities for promoting cooperation between the two neighbours and transforming Afghanistan as a zone of opportunity. Increased South Asian contribution in the reconstruction and economic development of the Afghanistan has potential to set in a mutually beneficial process creating a web of interdependency. If the economic dividends of regional cooperation are accompanied by incremental steps in confidence building on security issues, these could contribute to long-term peace building in South Asia and the extended region.
In April, during his India visit, President Ashraf Ghani called for regional cooperation to fight terror. He said "We are determined to change the regional nature of cooperation. Against all forms of violence, what is essential is that the state system in the region rises to a new understanding." Afghanistan's long-term development and stability requires an inter-locking of interests and commitment on the part of all stakeholders. Afghanistan's South Asian neighbours are natural and important partners in realizing this project. By restoring Afghanistan's historic, cultural and economic linkages with South Asia the probability of stability is the highest. In the previous decade, Afghanistan has made regional cooperation as the lynchpin of its foreign and economic policy and also a tool of balancing competing powers and interests. In 2002, under the 'Kabul Declaration on Good-Neighbourly Relations' , China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan declared their commitment to constructive and supportive bilateral relationships. Since then, a number of international conferences and initiatives (the Regional Economic Cooperation Conferences on Afghanistan , the Istanbul-Heart of Asia Conference , New Silk Road initiative and so on) have made numerous pledges and commitments to Afghanistan. The teeth for their implementation, however, are lacking.
"Afghanistan's long-term development and stability requires an inter-locking of interests and commitment on the part of all stakeholders."
Afghanistan was added as the eighth member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in 2007. Its trade agreements presently limited to Pakistan and India, Afghanistan stands to gain tremendously by economically integrating itself with rest of South Asia. Agriculture remains the predominant sector of the Afghan economy, accounting for nearly half of GDP . The sector, however, needs revitalisation, crucial for the Afghan Government's objective of reducing poverty, eradicating poppy cultivation and providing alternate livelihoods. Afghanistan's unexplored minerals and natural gas can find markets in South Asia and beyond, if conflict subsides. Collaborative mineral and resource extraction strategies could be a useful tool of conflict management. Being a landlocked country, Afghanistan requires low-cost transit routes and trade facilitation mechanisms to help exporters take advantage of trade agreements such as the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), and to be able to capitalize on its strategic position as a land bridge between Central and South Asia. In addition to building greater economic ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the extension of Afghanistan Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement to India, could be a force multiplier for implementation of SAFTA.
While India has pledged more than US$2 billion to be used in various reconstruction, humanitarian, capacity building and infrastructure development projects in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan's largest trading partner has built schools, hospitals and provided aid to universities in Afghanistan. Islamabad's financial assistance, to the tune of US$330 million as of 2012 , remains an important contribution. Despite differences on the method of dealing with the Taliban insurgency, both countries have made some progress in joint management of common rivers. Construction of a 1,500MW hydropower project on Kunar River remains one of the major proposed projects, for which China has voiced its support , between the two.
"Increased South Asian contribution in the reconstruction and economic development of the Afghanistan has potential to set in a mutually beneficial process creating a web of interdependency. "
While the prospect of India and Pakistan working together in Afghanistan may sound preposterous to many, as a counter to the not-so-improbable scenario of instability emanating from greater radicalization, terrorism, narcotics, refugee flows, a regime of enhanced joint counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and greater information sharing mechanism would benefit both. To begin with, joint projects in the education, health and service sector could be the initial steps of working together. As the economy spirals downward in Pakistan, benefits from regional trade and energy pipelines is propelling the Pakistani business community to push for a change in the government policies of opening up the border as a counter-narrative to the protectionism espoused by radical organisations. In my discussions with the academia, business groups, media and person on the street narratives in Pakistan, what was striking was the need for greater cooperation with India. In Peshawar and Mardan, the cradle of Gandhara civilization, symbols of the common historical and cultural heritage of the two countries are evident. Restoring these linkages and building on the economic narrative of opportunity and cooperation could be a game changer for the entire region.