CIC's Barnett Rubin Addresses Arria-Formula Meeting on Afghanistan at the Security Council

Meeting Report

At the most recent Arria-formula meeting on Afghanistan on November 27, 2017, Barnett Rubin spoke on the importance of regional approaches in fostering development and peace. In his talk, “Partners for Afghanistan: Linking Security, Development and Peace in the Central Asian Region,” Rubin highlighted how the recent strengthening of trade routes with surrounding countries has had significance beyond its economic impact, as Afghanistan’s prosperity and its resilience to conflict has always benefited from better integration with, rather than isolation from, its neighbors. Read the full text of Rubin’s speech below:

Speech to Arria-Formula Meeting of the UN Security Council on:
Partners for Afghanistan: Linking Security, Development and Peace in the Central Asian Region

Barnett R. Rubin
November 27, 2017

It is an honor to accept the invitation of the Permanent Missions of Kazakhstan, Germany, and Afghanistan to address you today. It is a personal pleasure to speak at the invitation of Mahmoud Saikal, Permanent Representative of Afghanistan.  As he reminded me when we discussed this meeting a few days ago, in December 2005, when Ambassador Saikal was Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister for economic affairs and I was working for the UN in Kabul, I participated in the effort he led to convene the first Regional Economic Cooperation Conference for Afghanistan. RECCA has matured into an institution, and, on November 15, at RECCA’s seventh session, in Ashqabat, Turkmenistan, five states – Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey – signed the Lapis Lazuli Route Agreement. This transport and transit agreement will provide Afghanistan with a new outlet to the international market.

Appropriately enough, given our meeting’s focus on Central Asia, that route starts on Afghanistan’s border with Turkmenistan before crossing the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus on the way to Europe. This route is part of the opening and connection of Afghanistan in all directions, which in turn forms part of a vast, and often underestimated process – the integration of Eurasia, from the Pacific to the Atlantic and from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean.

Let me illustrate this process with a small story. Within the past year I have received two delegations from think tanks of China’s Shandong Province in my office at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. Shandong, the birthplace of Confucius, is southeast of Beijing, on China’s Pacific Coast. At the first meeting, in September 2016, the group asked my opinion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the plan for roads, railroads, pipelines, power generation and transmission, air and maritime links, and fiber optic cables connecting China to Central and South Asia, the Indian Ocean, Europe, and East Africa. I then asked my guests how their province, Shandong, was contributing to the BRI. They said, “We are building a railroad to Amsterdam.”

Less than a month before that visit, on August 25, 2016, a train from China’s Jiangsu province, just south of Shandong, started on that westward route, carrying textiles and other commercial goods. It crossed into Kazakhstan through the Alataw Pass in China’s Xinjang Uyghur Autonomous Region, but, instead of continuing west to Amsterdam, it turned south through Uzbekistan to the city of Termez, where it crossed the bridge over the Amu Darya River to the Afghan port in Hairatan, Balkh province.  The following month, September 2016, following the death of President Islam Karimov, the new Uzbekistan administration of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev began enacting reforms that facilitate this and other transit routes through Uzbekistan – in both directions.

To the country’s West, Afghanistan has signed agreements for both pipelines and transit trade. Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and India have started construction of the TAPI pipeline from Turkmenistan’s gas fields through Western Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Balochistan province and onward toward the energy deficit industrial centers of Western India. In May 2016 Afghanistan, Iran, and India signed an agreement to expand the port of Chabahar in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province and connect it to Afghanistan by road and rail. India and Afghanistan could use this maritime route to evade Pakistan’s closure of the Indo-Pakistan border. In May 2017 Japan, too, agreed to invest in Chabahar. This project is part of the North-South Transport Corridor through Central Asia agreed to by India, Iran, and Russia. By providing Afghanistan with an alternative to the Pakistani port of Karachi, Chabahar is of such strategic importance for Afghanistan that the Iran sanctions legislation passed by the U.S. Congress authorizes the President to exempt investment in Chabahar from anti-Iran sanctions.

Mr. President, Members of the Security Council:

These routes have significance beyond their economic impact. Through most of history, the territory of today’s Afghanistan was open in all directions. The long distance trade routes collectively known as the Silk Route crossed it, from Samarkand to Delhi, from Xi’an to Aleppo. That land trade shrank with the growth of European-based long-distance maritime commerce in the sixteenth century.

As European land empires closed in on Afghanistan, they also closed it off. I hope that the representatives of the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation will not take it amiss if I recall how their imperial predecessors agreed to manage their frontier by making Afghanistan into an isolated buffer state. That was when Afghanistan became part of South Asia, as bureaucracies classify it today, rather than the crossroads it had always been. Afghanistan with hard borders became landlocked, which, together with the loss of access to regions that Afghanistan had to surrender, impoverished the state.

The violent conflict that has wracked Afghanistan for nearly forty years is a result of these historical legacies. At each stage of warfare, the drivers of conflict have appeared to be different – U.S.-Soviet Cold-War competition, ethnic and sectarian conflict fueled by regional rivalries, a war against terrorism and extremism — but these shifting ideological and strategic discourses concealed the structural deep causes of conflict that drove people to fight for the ideologies that shaped it in each period.

Since Afghanistan’s demarcation as an isolated buffer, its economy has never been able to support a state, especially an army, without foreign assistance. Foreign assistance led to foreign presence, which created security dilemmas for Afghanistan’s neighbors. Afghanistan’s isolation from international markets precluded an economic takeoff. Before colonialism, Afghanistan was a hub of world trade. During the colonial period its products still had access to Indian markets through Delhi, 900 km away down the Grand Trunk Road from Kabul. Since the partition and the resulting conflict of India and Pakistan closed off that market, Afghanistan has largely depended on the port of Karachi, 1,400 km away, and hence on cooperation with Pakistan.

The interactions among Afghanistan’s dependence and claims on Pakistan; Pakistan’s security anxieties about and claims on India; the search by both Kabul and Islamabad for patronage from global or regional powers; and the use by those powers of their positions in Afghanistan for strategic purposes have shaped the environment in which these conflicts have raged for decades.  These conflicts, their corrosive effects on states and societies, and the attempts by some states to defend themselves or press their claims through support for violent non-state actors, generate this region’s enabling environment for international terrorism.

Mr. President and Member of the U.N. Security Council

The current stage of international involvement with Afghanistan began in response to the attacks of 9/11. Official documents – from the recent U.S. strategy, to last week’s General Assembly resolution – identify the principal source of international interest in Afghanistan as the “presence of transnational radical terrorist groups, further aggravated by trafficking of illicit narcotics,” to quote the concept note that the mission of Kazakhstan drafted for this session. But as the counter-terrorist effort largely led by the United States has continued for over 16 years, the region within which it is embedded has changed drastically in ways that the international community’s intervention in Afghanistan has not taken into account.

The most important new conditions are the rapid growth of the economies of the Asian giants, China and India. According to World Bank data on gross domestic product as measured by purchasing power parity, in 2002 the combined economies of China and India amounted to 63 percent of the economy of the United States. In 2016, however, the combined economies of China and India exceeded the total economy of the United States by 61 percent. China and India went from 63 percent of the U.S. economy to 161 percent of the U.S. economy, an increase in relative economic weight by a factor of 2.6.

These changes will not affect peace and security over any short or medium time horizon by the links posited by some between development and peace –providing marginalized populations with education, health, and jobs. The funds to support existing social and economic gains in Afghanistan have made it into one of a handful of the most aid-dependent countries in the world, along with Liberia, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Sierra Leone, and South Sudan, plus a few microstates with populations under 100,000. Aid accounts for 21 percent of Afghanistan’s national income, a higher percentage than South Sudan. In Kyrgyzstan, the second most aid-dependent country in Asia after Afghanistan, that aid dependency ratio is only 12 percent.

Furthermore there are signs that the economic expansion of China and India may become another driver of conflict in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the centerpiece and most advanced portion of BRI, could have the potential of opening Afghanistan’s east and south, but it is caught in disputes related to the Indo-Pakistan conflict. India objects to CPEC’s route through disputed territories, while Afghanistan foresees limited benefits from joining CPEC if Pakistan continues to block transit trade between Afghanistan and India.

In response to BRI the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia say they will establish an alternative source of financing for infrastructure. While healthy competition over the financing of and standards for infrastructure development could be beneficial, it would be unfortunate if the conflicts in the South China Sea were imported into Afghanistan and Central Asia, where China and the U.S. have largely been able to cooperate. Opening of the route through Chabahar, through which India recently sent Afghanistan the first of six shipments of wheat, which will ultimately total 1.1 million tons, shows that the U.S., India, and Iran have common interests in Afghanistan. But the deterioration of U.S.-Iran relations and the possibility of new sanctions puts this route at risk.

It would be pointless and counter-productive to comment on the merits of the claims I have just mentioned. But I would like to point out that the cost of pursing those claims through conflict, by blocking trade and transit, or trying to weaken or undermine others is increasing. Development, once it is a real prospect rather than a theoretical aspiration, can create incentives for states to reorient their policies toward overcoming conflicts.

When I was working for the State Department under the previous administration, I helped organize a series of regional meetings that led up to the Istanbul Conference of November 2011, now also known as the Heart of Asia process. The term “Heart of Asia” for Afghanistan, by the way, comes from a poem in the Persian language by Allama Iqbal, an Indian Muslim who created the concept of Pakistan. That process will have its seventh annual ministerial meeting in Baku next week, on December 1. In one preparatory discussion in 2011, the Turkish representative proposed that the Istanbul conference should coordinate a regional process like the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe. The problem, he said, was that the Balkan Stability Pact used the “power of attraction” of the European Union, offering EU membership as an incentive to take risks to solve longstanding conflicts. The trouble, he lamented, is that the region around Afghanistan has no comparable power of attraction.

Seven years later, the region has changed. The economic integration of Eurasia, powered by the growth of India and China, and supported by the U.S., Russia,  E.U. and Japan around its Central Asian focal point, can become that power of attraction. Imagining such a different future for this region may seem unrealistic. But remember the situation of Southeast Asia forty years ago, in 1977. After the war in Vietnam and the Cambodian genocide, no one would have imagined that the ASEAN region would become one of the world’s success stories. The E.U., with its experience of integration and stabilization from the end of World War II through the end of the Cold War might have lessons on how to utilize the power of attraction to encourage states to take political and security risks.

I have hardly mentioned terrorism and extremism. Afghanistan and its neighbors face the challenge not only of bringing the Taliban into a political negotiation to join the country’s fragile institutions, but also of confronting the amorphous threat of the so-called Islamic State, and potential contagion from sectarian and extremist fighters fleeing the middle east. But Afghanistan is not only a source of threats; it is a focus of opportunity. Allama Iqbal recognized both. Of the threats posed by Afghanistan he wrote: “az fasad-e u, fasad-i Asiya” – from Afghanistan’s disintegration comes the disintegration of Asia. But he also wrote, “Az gashad-i u gashad-i Asiya” – from Afghanistan’s integration comes the integration of Asia, and interested as Iqbal was in dialectical processes, he might have added that the effect can flow in mutually reinforcing directions. Iqbal provides no road map from fasad to gashad. That is up to us if we have the vision. As Iqbal’s near contemporary Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

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