Afghanistan and Turkmenistan: A Model for Regional Economic Cooperation

Published on July 10, 2017 in Eurasianet

The recent emphasis on infrastructure development across Eurasia, underscored by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is creating opportunities for Afghanistan to foster the kind of economic growth that can blunt the appeal of radicalism.

Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government aspires to restore Afghanistan’s former status as the roundabout of the Silk Road. Doing so could place the strife-torn country on a clear road toward stability.

An important economic partner for Afghanistan is Turkmenistan. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, resource-rich Turkmenistan has sometimes been a cautious trade partner. But the global downturn in energy prices is encouraging Ashgabat to explore economic avenues beyond natural gas exports.

President Ghani visited Ashgabat in early July for discussions with his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, with both expressing a desire to foster win-win economic cooperation. Toward that end, the two leaders signed seven bilateral cooperation agreements and MOUs on July 3.

In Turkmenistan, President Ghani emphasized the importance of implementing multilateral energy and transportation projects. An area of particular interest for the Afghan side was electrification.

Afghan leaders have pointed to the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) and Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TUTAP) electricity projects as having great potential to promote stability. Their realization would increase urban and rural access to electricity, benefiting households and small and medium-sized businesses across the region. In short, it is a development project that could have tangible advantages for broad segments of the region’s population, and foster faith among them about a better future.

Electrification of rural Afghanistan and Pakistan could help the two countries improve their dismal social development indicators in such areas as education and healthcare. Electrification can thus drive qualitative and quantitative improvements to drive the two countries’ sustainable development, which is seen by many as the best antidote to extremism.

Other potential projects that were discussed during the Ashgabat talks include the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey (Lapis Lazuli) trade and transit corridor, as well as the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Turkmenistan (TAT) railway, whose implementation would open alternative trade routes for the entire region. In addition, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan remain interested in building the long-discussed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline.

There is lots of will to implement some or all of the above-mentioned projects. But outside assistance will be needed.

An opportunity to discuss financing will come in November, when Ashgabat is scheduled to host the 7th Regional Economic Cooperation on Afghanistan (RECCA VII). The gathering will bring together regional and global stakeholders to discuss investment opportunities.

The expanding economic relationship between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan offers an example that Kabul hopes to emulate with other neighbors, including Pakistan. The National Unity Government realizes that securing Afghanistan’s future is most efficiently achieved via win-win economic deals.

Editor’s Note: A Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS), M. Ashraf Haidari is the Director-General of Policy & Strategy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, and formerly served as the country’s Deputy Chief of Mission to India. Prior to this, he was Afghanistan’s Deputy Assistant National Security Advisor, as well as Afghan Chargé d’Affaires to the United States. He tweets @MAshrafHaidari