Afghanistan is situated in a particularly tough geo-political and geo-economic environment. This environment is characterized by various state and non-state actors, both regional and trans-regional, that result in the geo-political and security equilibrium in the region to be fragile and prone to disturbance at the slightest of provocations. Perhaps, Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the world with such a difficult geopolitical environment. From the standpoints of security, military, economy, business and trade, politics and diplomacy, the state to state relations in this part of the world, where Afghanistan is located, continues to be under-developed and vulnerable to strains and pressures. Iran, the central Asian region republics, Pakistan, China, Russia and by extension Saudi Arabia and recently Turkey are all in one way or another involved in the immediate vicinity of Afghanistan. Unfortunately enough for Afghanistan, on account of many reasons, dialogue, consultation, cooperation and finding common grounds for collaboration and multi-lateral understanding remain to be alien to these countries. However, the region where Afghanistan is located provides it with many opportunities as well.
In many other parts of the world, countries of a region work towards ever bringing themselves closer to each other by promoting inter-regional trade and business, and signing pacts of cooperation in many areas from economy and politics to joint scientific and medical research. In our region, however, many reasons including lingering historical mistrusts, prevalence of dictatorial and authoritarian rulers, oil-based economies and an entrenched political myopia prevent these countries from setting aside differences and moving closer towards each other. As a result of these countries’ unwillingness to set aside differences and explore common grounds, many valuable opportunities are being wasted. These wasted opportunities are in the areas of combating terrorism and insecurity, increased inter-regional trade and business, economic development and growth and many others. Imagine the kind of advanced scientific expertise and knowledge in the fields of medicine and base sciences that Iran has managed to achieve in recent years. If a climate of multi-lateral trust and greater cooperation prevailed in the region, our country Afghanistan along with the republics of the central Asia could have immensely benefited from joint cooperation with Iran in these fields. You can also think of the great economic and energy hub that the republics in the central Asian region can become in near future as a result of which Afghanistan can benefit handsomely by acting as a major transit route of pipelines and overland transport. Afghanistan can very well become the new “pipelineistan” of the region. You can also imagine the immense joint potential that the two governments in Kabul and Islamabad have in terms of combating and defeating terrorism and sources of instability and insecurity. All these are not mere wishful thinking but possible scenarios that can very well be accomplished over the long run if the right kind of political will is put in place by these countries and if they can set aside differences and distrusts. Examples are abound in other parts of the world such as South East Asia and Latin America where governments and countries have been able to gradually overcome problems and start deepening relations.
The SAARC or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, now comprised of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and Maldives came into being in 1985 with the aim of exactly doing what has been discussed: to explore the common grounds of cooperation among these countries and enabling them to benefit from the strengths of one another and work collectively to overcome problems. Afghanistan joined SAARC in 2005 and thus found a valuable opportunity to benefit from cooperating with other countries that were already members of this regional association. Unfortunately, after more than 25 years of coming into existence, SAARC and its objectives have remained good only on paper. It has been only able to achieve a small fraction of its original objectives due to many problems that have undermined real cooperation among the member countries. SAARC has been overshadowed by other regional problems, hostilities and conflicts and more importantly, heterogeneous and different political, economic and historical structures and realities of each member country. The differentials have so far worked to ground the SAARC and prevent it from becoming a substantive regional platform for dialogue and greater regional cooperation.
If the very idea of SAARC is not practical and doomed to failure in such a geo-political and geo-economic environment, then the way out can be staring bilateral cooperation among those countries which are not hindered by those differences. For instance, Afghanistan and Pakistan can work towards setting aside differences and actually collaborate with one another on many burning issues that have plagued themselves and their bilateral relations. Terrorism and combating the multitude of militant and extremist networks, which operate on both soils, is one of the most important fertile grounds for greater cooperation. It might seem that in the short run, overcoming the many problems that lie in the way is impossible given the differing political and security objectives that each country pursues in relation to the other. But we also should not lose sight of the fact that in the long run, normalizing relations and joint cooperation on the burning issues of the region is the only sustainable alternative. If the countries and governments in the region including Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot amicably find solutions to their problems, problems will only be prolonged and will get more complicated in the process. Therefore, regional relations need to undergo a major overhaul keeping in view the new developments and the urgency of the problems and crises that confront these countries including our country Afghanistan.
On the other hand and on a realistic note, these geo-political realities as discussed also necessitate preparing the country against the threats of external aggressions. Aggressions need not necessarily be of a military nature but can also be economic, environmental and many other. In other words, our region confronts Afghanistan with a mix of both opportunities and challenges. The opportunities are what already discussed but the challenges also are critical and need to be addressed. Strengthening the economy, preparing strong and ready national security forces capable of protecting the territorial integrity of the country and above all crafting an effective diplomatic apparatus for the country are all imperatives without which Afghanistan would continue to titter on the brinks of becoming yet again a failed state.