Friday, May 25, 2018
By Shoaib A. Rahim
Ultimately, Pakistan loses from its stifling policies as Afghanistan seeks out other partners.
Economics literature insists that trade among nations is beneficial for job creation and fueling economic growth. Trade helps improve living standards and promote better quality products and services at competitive prices. Thus trade remains at the top of agendas when it comes to bilateral relations among countries. However, these benefits aside, trade relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have suffered considerably under turbulent bilateral political ties.
As a landlocked country, Afghanistan has remained dependent on Pakistan for its transit trade while both countries are also immediate markets for each other. Unfortunately, trade relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have remained capricious, following the trajectory of turbulent political relations since the 1947 partition brought independent Pakistan into existence.
Trade restrictions had almost paralyzed the Afghan economy in the 1950s. Afghanistan, along with other landlocked nations like Bolivia and Czechoslovakia, urged the United Nations to ensure that their disadvantaged geographical position was not exploited for political gain. The UN addressed the request through the “UN Convention on Transit Trade of Land-Locked Countries” in 1965 which held that coastal neighbors would not discriminate in transporting goods for the landlocked. The convention was passed despite Pakistan’s stiff opposition at UN where its representative termed it paradoxical, nebulous and tragic to provide free access to a neighboring landlocked country.In the light of international conventions, arrangements like the Afghanistan Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA) 1965 and Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA) 2010 did provide legal frameworks for bilateral trade and transit relations but reality has never matched the paperwork. Even, major changes like the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and later the onset of a new Afghan regime in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks could not influence the bumpy trade relations.
In spite of such major changes in the regional political economy, Pakistan still maintains its 1950s attitude. The sudden closure of border crossing points, superfluous documentation at Pakistani ports, agonies in the name of security checks, and barriers on trade with India have continued to exert serious pressure on the Afghan economy. This strategy has been aimed at slowing down economic growth in Afghanistan to reinforce political pressure exerted through other channels. Pakistani authorities have also assumed that discouraging Afghan transit trade would force Afghan traders to opt for Pakistani products rather than importing them from other countries, like India. Under the same assumption, they proposed a target of $5 billion in bilateral trade. However, this approach has backfired.
These circumstances forced Afghanistan to explore alternative avenues. This shifted Afghanistan’s transit and trade pendulum towards Iran’s Bandar-e-Abbas and Chabahar port. As a result, the volume of trade and transit between Afghanistan and Pakistan has shrunk significantly. The trade volume, which used to stand at $2.7 billion few years back, has now dropped to meager $500 million in the current fiscal year. In the same way, Pakistan’s exports to Afghanistan equalled $1.43 billion in FY16, dropped to $1.27 billion in FY17 and will likely significantly drop in FY 2018 given the dwindling figures in first half of the year. By another measure, the transit trade situation can be assessed from the fact that the number of containers that used to pass into Afghanistan has reduced to 7,000 from a peak of 70,000.
On the other hand, trade figures are on the rise in terms of trade with and via Iran. In the current fiscal year, Iran’s exports to Afghanistan increased by 13.57 percent to reach $2.79 billion. Eighty percent of Afghanistan’s cargo traffic has shifted to Chabahar and Bandar-e-Abbas in Iran. The value of transit goods to Afghanistan via these two ports is anticipated to reach $5 billion in the near future. Bilateral trade with Pakistan has been further dented as Afghan preference India products. Pakistan has reportedly lost its 50 percent share of the Kabul market to India. In June 2017, India and Afghanistan opened an air corridor to link Kabul with Delhi and later with Mumbai. In the first six months, goods worth more than $20 million were exported to India. Apart from this, the hospitals of Peshawar that thousands of Afghan patients visited for treatment are said to be almost empty after Pakistan introduced strict travel measures which forced medical tourism to divert towards Delhi given the ease of travel provided by Indian government.
Pakistan’s policies have not only cost it a sizable share of trade, but also kept it away from potential economic opportunities in the region. Today, Afghanistan is located at the crossroads of major international corridors and in a strategic position to connect the Central Asian republics with rest of the world. India is competing with China for political economic influence in Central Asia via Afghanistan. The Central Asian republics are planning energy, rail and other regional connectivity projects via Afghanistan.
Now Pakistan wants to reach the lucrative markets of Central Asia via Afghanistan. However, as a reaction to restrictions on trade between India and Afghanistan, the Afghan government has said it would deny it access to Central Asia. Hence, while India would be able to effectively reach Central Asia via Chabahar and Afghanistan, Pakistan would continue to miss out. In the same way, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, which connects Afghanistan with Europe via Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey has been dubbed as a shortest, most cost effective and reliable route to Europe for both countries. Pakistan’s prime minister has already expressed interest to join the initiative.
Pakistan’s restrictions on trade have forced Afghanistan to consider alternative options while hampering the potential gains from trade for the region. In spite of options available to Afghanistan, uninterrupted trade and transit relations between the two countries would enable both to facilitate bilateral as well as regional trade and reap immense economic gains. This would ensure shared prosperity among countries in the region.
BY CAROLINE HOUCK
A damning report on the United States’ attempts to stabilize Afghanistan has two lessons that resonate in the nearly-post-ISISlandscape of Syria and Iraq: Arrogant reconstruction timelines will doom the effort from the start, and meeting the local populations’ expectations about governance and services is key.
More than 17 years into America’s war in Afghanistan, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, released its fourth lessons-learned report, this one on stabilization.
The conclusions are grim: “Despite some very heroic efforts to stabilize insecure and contested areas in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2017, the program was mostly a failure,” SIGAR chief John F. Sopko said Thursday at the Brookings Institution while debuting the report.
The U.S. poured nearly $5 billion into stabilizing Afghanistan, intending to clear territory, hold it, and then build institutions. But by the time President Barack Obama’s administration completed the drawdown in 2014, Afghan forces and civil servants couldn’t compete with “the threats of a resurgent Taliban as the insurgents filled the void in newly vacated territory,” the SIGAR report says.
As America stares at an even more complex stabilization situation in post-ISIS Syria, lessons from its failure in Afghanistan can be of some use, analysts said at the event. Here are two:
Strap in; it’s going to be a long ride.
“Let’s be realists about this,” Sopko said. When the U.S.government is looking at its roles in Syria and Iraq — or any other stabilization effort — they should be looking at it on a long timeline.
Asked what he’d tell a president contemplating another hypothetical intervention overseas, Sopko offered Afghanistan as a warning.
“Despite your inclination to do it quickly, announce a success, and declare victory, sue for peace, go home, it’s going to take a long time,” he said. “Let’s be honest to the American people and to Congress that none of these things can be done quickly and successfully.”
President Donald Trump has repeatedly said he wants to bring U.S. troops home soon. His administration reportedly asked the Pentagon to draft up plans to withdraw from Syria in the next six months, though military officials say there is no plan to do so. “The establishment of a set of unrealistic expectations about what we could do and what would be achieved in just a few years’ time,” doomed America’s efforts in Afghanistan, Sopko said. Aggressive timelines meant agencies “spent far too much money, far too quickly,” and the very programs meant to stabilize the country “often exacerbated conflicts, enabled corruption and boosted support for insurgents,” the report states. The Pentagon has said any withdrawal from Syria would be conditions-based, not tied to a timeline like the one President Barack Obama instituted to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014.
It’s about managing expectations
As the international community works to clear explosives from Raqqa and return basic services like running water to communities freed from ISIS, those efforts must meet residents’ expectations. “Winning hearts and minds requires a close examination of what has won and lost the hearts and minds of that particular population in the recent past,” the report says. That can mean avoiding “unnecessarily ambitious” services that aren’t tailored to the local community’s needs and are beyond the government’s ability to provide, as Sopko said was the case in Afghanistan: “I think in Afghanistan, we decided to duplicate Norway in each one of these districts,” Sopko said. “We tried to provide schools, highways, etc. What we should have looked at is what are the services the Taliban was providing that made people relatively happy? You don’t have to give them everything at the start.”
But it also means being clear about the services promised and not leaving a vacuum that an extremist group can fill, cautioned Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. ISIS, for all its barbarity, provided governance and services that some communities are now having to do without.
“Local people often have far greater expectations of what a government should provide than what an insurgent group should provide,” Felbab-Brown said. “My view is not that we gave [the Afghan people] too much. We gave them actually far less than they got under the Taliban, but we promised them far more.”
A United States-based advocacy group representing various ethnic minorities of Pakistan has formed a joint platform ‘South Asian Minorities Alliance Foundation’ against what they alleged as the massive human rights violation by security forces and ruling establishment of the country.