This piece was originally published by Open Democracy on October 10th, 2010.
Afghanistan was not always the abyss it’s thought to be today; it was once the center of global trade, linking East, West, South, and Central Asia. Asian countries recognize this, and are looking to reconnect the region to the world. Washington, however, has viewed the region from a purely military perspective, relying on the harmful Pakistani routes to Afghanistan, while neglecting the stable and stabilizing Iranian alternatives.
“Afghanistan is the graveyard of Empires,” we’ve all been told. Great Britain couldn’t subdue the wily Pashtuns in the 19th century, and bands of Afghan guerrillas brought the Soviet Empire to its knees in the 20th. At the beginning of the 21st century, the world’s sole superpower will fare no better, and it’s time America recognized this, packed up, and went home before meeting a fate similar to those that came before.
In a recent piece in Foreign Policy, however, Christian Caryl debunks this myth. Great Britain and the Soviet Union were but two of a number of peoples that passed through Afghanistan – and most were there to stay. Afghanistan was a central part of the Persian Empire from the 5th century BC, and Alexander the Great made his way to the region, brought the Afghans into his army, and traveled with them further into north India. The Mongols subdued Afghanistan, and Tamerlane, a descendant of Genghis Khan, established the western Afghan city of Herat as his capital. The Mughals linked Afghanistan to India in the fifteenth century, and less than 200 years ago the Punjabi Maharaja Ranjit Singh drove the Afghans from India and held large parts of Pashtunistan for decades.
The mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border were not the abysses they’re thought to be today. The Swat and Hunza Valleys and Bolan, Gomal, and Khyber passes over the Hindu Kush Mountains facilitated trade, communication and invasions between South and Central Asia. The Kashgar-Karakoram-Kabul trail (in modern Xinjiang, China; Pakistan; and Afghanistan) and the Kuldja-Kokand-Bactria route (through today’s Xinjiang, Uzbekistan, and Central Afghanistan) connected East Asia to Gedrosia (eastern Persia) and today’s Arab world, which later linked to places as far as East Africa, India, and Southeast Asia via the Arabian Sea. Afghanistan was the central hub of the transcontinental Silk Road, and connected South, Central, West, and East Asia – which is why Afghanistan has been a seminal part in so much of history.
In the last few centuries, the West has forgotten Afghanistan’s central role in facilitating communication, and has instead seen it as a strategic buffer. But one of the most important things that many Asian countries are doing these days is recalling this communication potential and reconnecting Afghanistan to the rest of the world. China has developed highways from Kashgar to Karakoram in northern Pakistan (which it aims to extend to the Arabian Sea); constructed energy pipelines from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and China; seeks to complete the Afghan Ring Road, which would traverse the country and even bridge China and Iran; and even has ambitious plans for a multi-continental railway that would link Beijing to London in two days.
Meanwhile, India, Iran, and Russia are looking to reinvigorate regional trade with the North-South Corridor, which would connect Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, with India and Southeast Asia through a mix of road, rail, and sea links. Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan have inaugurated a multi-country railway that would bridge Europe and Central Asia, while the Asian Development Bank is developing a natural gas pipeline across Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. India’s Border Roads Organization has constructed the Zaranj-Dalaram highway in western Afghanistan, which it hopes to connect to Iran’s Chah Bahar port on the Gulf of Oman. This project to reinvigorate the region and bring Afghanistan back to its stable, productive heydays could be a global one. But two hitches remain: in Pakistan and Iran.
Both China and the West have encouraged the development and use of Pakistan’s roads to Afghanistan. Since 2001, more than 70% of NATO’s supplies and 40% of its fuel have passed from Karachi to the mountains of northern Pakistan, the only transport link between the Arabian Sea and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan today. But this precarious supply line and ISAF troops themselves have been targeted repeatedly by the Taliban and other anti-ISAF forces – often with official sanction from Islamabad. And why not? So long as ‘terrorist’ groups are operating from Pakistan, American dollars flow into the military’s coffers. The money is given with the intention of enabling the Pakistani military to destroy these groups. But if these groups are gone, Rawalpindi fears that the US will abandon Pakistan financially; there is an economic incentive not to end them. This dependence on Pakistani geography for western security needs not only harms the west, but Pakistan itself, by bolstering the military-economic complex in which Pakistani development, regional economic integration, and democracy are all suppressed.
Stability would also be easier if the Iranian routes to Central Asia – the cheapest and most efficient, given the geography and existing infrastructure – were opened and encouraged. But since the 1990s, the United States has been doing everything it can to keep Iran out the equation. The US sought (and failed) to construct energy pipelines that would traverse Central Asia, the Caspian, and Turkey at a cost of some billions of dollars, even supporting the Taliban in the process, rather than encourage the stable, three hundred thousand-dollar Iranian alternative. Washington even opposed the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) natural gas pipeline, the “peace pipeline” that would bring India and Pakistan together, on the grounds that it would benefit Iran.
Today the Afghan campaign is reliant on Pakistan’s transit routes, which are subject to repeated attack, and the US allegedly has “no alternatives” to dealing with the anti-ISAF forces in Pakistan on their own terms. A transport link through Iran would reduce this western vulnerability, giving ISAF a freer hand to hold Pakistan accountable, while easing Islamabad’s own security burden and forcing the Pakistani military to take serious action.
Greater coordination with Tehran would also help bring the western Afghan warlords in Iran’s sphere of influence into the political process, counter Sunni extremists like the Taliban, manage Afghan opium cultivation (of which Iran is the greatest victim), and open up a secure trade and transport route to Central Asia – not to mention stabilize Iraq and the Gulf. Though Washington sees Iran through the lens of Israel, Tehran may be a lynchpin to a stable Afghanistan, a prospect that’s otherwise looking bleak.
China, Russia, Turkey, and even India recognize the futility of sanctions on Iran and are working around them to maintain their plans of regional connectivity. Washington’s insistence on isolating Tehran only harms America and its efforts in Afghanistan. With all the bad news we’ve been hearing about the region, Washington should consider where the Afghan campaign could be if it saw the Iranians, Afghans, and even Pakistanis as traders once again, rather than mere militants.