In late August, I was invited to discuss the perspective of Afghanistan as a landlocked country on maritime security at the Indian Ocean Conference 2018: Building Regional Architectures. This theme builds on India’s SAGAR discourse, which is underpinned by the common objective of “security and growth for all in the Indian Ocean region”.
Coming from a landlocked but increasingly land-linked country, Afghanistan, it was quite instructive for me to listen to many distinguished speakers discussing the challenges and opportunities that involve blue oceans. Many of the difficulties facing maritime security are apparently land-based. And their resolution requires an inclusive approach that promotes cooperation and partnership between littoral and landlocked countries to address their shared problems. It goes without saying that maritime security, on which much global economic growth depends, is interconnected with events in landlocked countries.
Afghanistan is a prime example: over the past 40 years, geopolitical tensions have imposed destructive conflicts on what is one of the most naturally endowed countries at the heart of rising Asia. In the absence of peace in Afghanistan to enable sustainable development that secures the future of the country’s youthful population, poverty permeates the Afghan society. And this provides an enabling environment for maritime security challenges such as terrorism, drug trafficking, arms smuggling and human trafficking among others. These threats were thoroughly examined and discussed at the two-day conference.
Over the past 17 years, Afghanistan has been a victim of external aggression in the form of terrorism. As a proxy of a coastal state, the Taliban have killed and maimed innocent Afghans daily, while destroying the infrastructure that should help connect and integrate Afghanistan with her surrounding resourceful regions in the north and south for increased trade, business and investment.
The Taliban insurgency has enabled several terrorist networks with global and regional reach to operate out of Afghanistan. At the same time, this imposed insecurity has enabled a permissive environment for mass drug cultivation and production in Afghanistan, which now provides more than 90 per cent of regional and global demand for drugs. In turn, revenues from the drug trade finance terrorism and fuel dysfunctional corruption that undermines governance and rule of law, which together destabilize drug producing and transit countries alike.
Because of the interconnectedness of these imposed security challenges, Afghanistan is facing a complex humanitarian crisis with diminishing human security. Hence, this makes the country a major source of refugees and asylum seekers, who are often ferried by human smugglers to Europe, Australia and elsewhere. As we see, what is imposed on and happens in countries like Afghanistan directly affects maritime security.
This dangerous situation necessitates that littoral and landlocked states no longer pause but join hands, pool their resources and share intelligence to pursue and implement a common counter-terrorism strategy—one that doesn’t make any distinction between terrorist networks. Alongside this effort, they must work together to free their nations of abject poverty, knowing that lack of human security allows terrorists, extremists, and state-sponsors of terrorism to recruit among the jobless, destitute youth to radicalise, brainwash and exploit them in conflicts of their choice.
Indeed, the best way to fight poverty that feeds terrorism is to foster political and security confidence-building through regional economic cooperation. The latter can serve as an important enabler in deepening connectivity, enhancing competitiveness and productivity, lowering transaction costs and expanding markets in any region.
How can this be done? In fact, Afghanistan has already put forth a number of strategic solutions for adoption and implementation by her coastal and landlocked neighbors; these include:
· The Heart of Asia–Istanbul Process (HOA-IP);
· The Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA);
· The Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation;
· The Joint Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Narcotics Strategy;
· The Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS).
We have worked hard to establish these Afghan-led processes to help secure regional cooperation for Afghanistan’s stability and sustainable development. It goes without saying that a stable Afghanistan at the heart of rising Asia will help ensure stability and prosperity throughout her surrounding regions. That is why it is in the best short- and long-term interests of coastal and non-coastal countries to participate in and to double and triple their efforts to achieve the shared goals of these regional security and development cooperation mechanisms.
Of course, every tangible step these countries take towards using these processes will help minimise their (and other countries’) vulnerability to terrorism and its state sponsors. That is why time is of essence and they must reaffirm their often-pledged commitments to the implementation of the projects, programmes and policies proposed under these mechanisms of regional cooperation.
Last November, the seventh Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) took place in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. The conference focused on “Deepening Connectivity and Expanding Trade through Investment Infrastructure and Improving Synergy”. RECCA remains a major opportunity for Afghanistan’s littoral and landlocked neighbours to take stock of the progress made so far and, besides working together to address the challenges and bottlenecks, they should move on to commit the financing and investment needed with respect to the priority projects in the key areas of energy, transport networks, trade and transit facilitation, communications and business-to-business labour support.
To name a few, the full, unimpeded implementation of the Chabahar Port—which involve Afghanistan, India, and Iran—deserves mention as it will further enhance connectivity through Afghanistan and facilitate her integration with the regional and global markets. As work continues on this and other connectivity land and sea projects, we have launched air-corridors for trade, exporting Afghan products to markets near and far in the region.
Moreover, last December, the seventh Ministerial Conference of HOA-IP, with its political, security, and economic confidence-building measures implementation mechanism, took place in Baku, Azerbaijan. Afghanistan aims at deepening synergies and complementarities among the interconnected projects of RECCA and HOA-IP, maximising their impact on sustainable development not only in Afghanistan but also throughout her surrounding regions. This should encourage the country-participants to assess their shared security and development needs and to bolster their engagement with Afghanistan accordingly to initiate the implementation of the proposed projects with win-win benefits.
Because sustainable development is impossible without durable stability, last year, we re-launched the Kabul Process for Peace and Security in Afghanistan. Through this Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process, a results-oriented peace strategy has been laid out, the key purpose of which is to engage in unconditional, direct talks with the Taliban. The Afghan peace strategy aims at separating reconcilable Taliban insurgents from transnational terrorist networks. But to succeed in this endeavour, we rely on honest and tangible regional cooperation, foremost on the closure of the sanctuaries and other forms of support, which the Taliban enjoy in the region.
In parallel to the peace strategy, we are pursuing a joint counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics strategy. The two strategies reinforce each other as Afghan counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics efforts not only contribute to similar efforts at the regional and global levels but also advance Afghan peace efforts by increasing the number of reconcilable Taliban, who otherwise would refuse to discontinue violence.
In addition, we have striven to engage with Pakistan on a state-to-state basis to secure the country’s cooperation both in fighting terrorism with no distinction and in persuading the Taliban leadership to participate in the intra-Afghan peace process for a political negotiated settlement. In this regard, the inaugural meeting of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS) took place in Kabul in late July as the five working groups discussed issues of counter-terrorism, intelligence-sharing, peace efforts, trade and investment, and refugees.
For our part, the Afghan side is firmly committed to working with relevant Pakistani institutional stakeholders to implement the key goals of the five working groups, in line with the core principles of the APAPPS agreed between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Considering these major opportunities for regional security and development cooperation, we welcome and strongly support the South Asia strategy of the United States. The strategy has followed a conditions-based approach to help stabilise Afghanistan, and its key objective is to help close terrorist safe sanctuaries in Pakistan. Success in this necessary endeavour should help reduce violence across Afghanistan, compelling the Taliban to opt for peace, an outcome desired by every Afghan.
That is why we strongly believe that the full execution of the U.S. strategy, in partnership with coastal and littoral states that share Afghanistan’s security and development interests, will not only help stabilise our country but also ensure security as a precondition for sustainable development across Afghanistan’s surrounding regions in the Asian continent.
(M. Ashraf Haidari is the Ambassador of Afghanistan to Sri Lanka and recently served as the Director-General of Policy & Strategy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and a Research Fellow at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS). He tweets @MAshrafHaidari)
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