Kabul is trying to realize the idea of connectivity through trade and diplomatic initiatives using the geo-strategic location of the country as a main strength. Recently, President Ghani asked the High Economic Council to focus on active economic and trade diplomacy, which could lead the country towards self-reliance--one of President Ashraf Ghani’s top agendas for the country.
At the same time, US President Donald Trump’s administration is under immense pressure from COVID-19, the economic recession, ongoing protests, and the upcoming November election and is reviewing options for a possible pre-election troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to the US-Taliban agreement signed on February 29, the complete troop withdrawal deadline has been scheduled for May 2021. However, President Trump is reportedly considering an early withdrawal before the elections to fulfill his pledge to his voters of bringing troops back home. On May 27, he tweeted that “after 19 years, it is time for them (Afghans) to police their own country.”
With the early withdrawal of troops, President Trump will be criticized for abandoning an ally (Afghanistan) where a huge investment--both in blood and treasure--was made. On top of that, the country remains vulnerable to ISIS and other terrorist networks active in the region. In case he gives up his plan of withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan immediately, his policy will worry his friends and attract derision from his rivals. Both the Taliban and ISIS—which have been looking for a firm foothold in the wake of a US troop withdrawal--must be loving this ambiguous situation.
Currently, President Trump needs a winning deal for Afghanistan for the US 2020 election. Apart from the fragile peace deal, there are win-win opportunities for America and Afghanistan in the form of transition assistance programs. Economic development, effective security and public-private partnerships could form a unique initiative aiming to improve security and stability, boost the economy and advance sustainable self-reliance for Afghanistan. All the while, these programs would be in compliance with US and Afghanistan policy objectives.
In order to defray the cost to donor countries, particularly the US, and to pave the way towards self-sufficiency, the transition public-private partnership programs could have a huge impact on security, economic and energy sectors, particularly mineral resources. These initiatives could help boost the post-peace settlement transition in the economic and security areas, aligning with both the US’s and Afghanistan’s long-term objectives. An Afghan-American strategic supply chain agreement could help the US with rare earths independence.
President Ghani has been successful in repackaging the country’s strategic location through mega regional connectivity projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and the Central Asia-South Asia 1000 (CASA 1000), as well as with establishing the railway lines and the revitalization of the ancient Lapis Lazuli route. Diversifying trade routes has been one of the successful initiatives of the past five years aimed towards reducing Afghanistan’s dependency--especially on Pakistan.
However, the bottom line is that after 20 years of donor assistance, Afghanistan cannot stand on its own economically or militarily. Foreign aid still accounts for more than half of Afghanistan’s budget. In order to stand on its own feet, Afghanistan must stay true to its goals of self-reliance and develop economic-oriented diplomacy to bring about a stable, and enduring peace and stability. Creating a single forum where combatants and key regional stakeholders – Pakistan, India, and Iran – can engage in regional economic diplomacy--with intertwined interests--could result in durable stability.
Currently, Afghanistan is passing through a crucial stage amid a peace process aimed at ending the war and removing foreign troops. The key question is, what is the plan for the Afghanistan-US alliance the day after? The previous rapid drawdown of US forces hit the Afghan economy pretty hard. This time, once again, it could plunge the country into a post-settlement economic crisis, if proper plans are not orchestrated beforehand. US and donor countries should stand ready to help Afghanistan with post-settlement reconstruction and development and should help lead the country to sustainable self-reliance.
Whether peace talks succeed or fail, there must be post-peace security and economic transition plan.
The time has arrived to shift a security-oriented partnership into an economically-driven policy that could benefit both countries. Given Afghanistan’s strategic location as an economic transit hub, and the potential of its existing resources, a partnership between the two countries could be mutually beneficial not only for Afghanistan and the United States but for the whole region. This could lead us to a South Korean model of long-term partnership, where Afghanistan stands on its own, realizing President Ghani’s stated agenda of self-reliance.
Mr. Ahmad Shah Katawazai is a member of the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan and a former diplomat at the Afghan Embassy in Washington D.C. Mr. Katawazai has a masters degree in global security studies from Johns Hopkins University and a master's in international legal studies from American University. Katawazai is a published writer. You can follow him on twitter @askatawazai.
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