By Matthew Ehret
Nature deplores a vacuum, and one of the largest vacuums in recent history awaits to be filled as the United States departs from Afghanistan after 20 years, millions of lives lost, and over $2.2 trillion spent to send the once proud pearl on the Ancient Silk Road back to the stone age.
The question now stands: What role will China’s ever-growing Belt and Road Initiative play in this region and Western Asia more broadly?
The fact is that of all nations in the world, China wields the most viable weapon in defense of humanity available to carry the emerging Multipolar Alliance, sometimes known as the Greater Eurasian Partnership, to its next phase of evolution.
This new alliance has premised its existence upon the principles of non-interventionism, national sovereignty and the right of all nations to develop as enshrined in the UN Charter, and in total opposition to the ‘rules based order’ ideologues who can only look at the world through the lens of a Hobbesian zero sum game.
This is a creatively growing power bloc of diverse civilizations which are not only capable of resisting the pressures of the supranational Leviathan in the short term, but can also offer the world a comprehensive alternative model capable of becoming the dominant system on the earth.
While the current Taliban government cannot be championed as a ‘progressive’ or ‘tolerant’ group by any measure, it is clear by their recent actions, that today’s Taliban may be a different creature from their 1996–2000 incarnation. This Taliban 2.0 has promised to not only form a coalition government inclusive of Shia and other representations, while defending educational and job opportunities for women, but has also demonstrated a modern view of economic growth and geopolitical savvy.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid reflected this newly acquired wisdom when he stated:
“Chinese assistance will form the foundation of Afghanistan development. One Belt, One Road will revive the ancient Silk Road. China will be our gateway to international markets.”
Prospects for reconstruction
Twenty years of war have wreaked havoc on Afghanistan’s 36 million people, with 73,257 soldier and police casualties and over 270,000 innocent civilian deaths during NATO’s occupation of the country.
While those numbers are staggering, the true number is likely four times higher due to ‘indirect’ deaths caused by lack of food, clean drinking water, appropriate healthcare, etc. Over three million Afghans live as refugees in Pakistan, Iran and Turkey and over 60 percent of the population suffers from various levels of psychological illness.
On the positive side of things, Afghanistan has a young population, with 46 percent of Afghans under 15 years of age, and 80 percent under 30. With proper training and a clear mission, the nation’s youth can easily be put to work reconstructing their society as part of a larger growth initiative.
While copper, rare earth and iron mining operations may not seem terribly revolutionary for many short-sighted individuals, they provide the fuel for any genuine long term development program in an underdeveloped sector of the globe. The only reason why Afghanistan’s resources have seen such little development over the decades is due to the twin evil of living in constant war and terrorism.
With a hopefully stable government in alignment with Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China taking form, it is hoped that such problems as the K variant of ISIS might be kept under control and prevented from unleashing terrorist attacks on Chinese engineers and other Eurasian interests constructing vital infrastructure in the region.
Bursts of terrorism mixed with a lack of water availability, energy and transportation resources have made mining nearly impossible. This is why the Chinese consortium, which won the rights to develop the Mes Aynak mine in 2007, have made very little progress accessing the 10 million tons of copper over the years.
If stability can be maintained in the region going forward, it can be hoped that the new $400 million Chinese-built coal plant that will begin construction this year – doubling the nation’s energy capacity – will result in lower energy costs while increasing reliability and accessibility for both civilian and industrial needs. Another 25-year, $400 million contract to develop the oil fields in Faryab and Sar-i-pul, suspended in 2011, is also expected to be back on track.
Strategically, Afghanistan’s $3 trillion worth of rare earth minerals (lanthanum, lithium, cerium, praseodymium and gadolinium), known to be the largest deposits on the globe, will finally be accessible, giving China the edge in the battle over the means of producing vital electronics, microchips and superconductors that make up the backbone of modern civilization.
The revenue Afghanistan would make through these initiatives would provide it with the necessary income to invest in a broad array of hard and soft infrastructure programs as it industrializes and begins to walk on its own two feet in the 21st century.
Changing the rules of the Great Game
Dynamic game-changing megaprojects are now unfolding on all sides of Afghanistan which offer bountiful opportunities for the reconstruction of the region.
North of Afghanistan’s border, an emerging rail and road system is under construction stretching from China to Central Asia, Iran, Turkey and Europe. This system runs in tandem with the Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor Initiative (aka: Middle Corridor) which unites two continents, starting in Ankara and proceeding onward to Georgia, Azerbaijan and thence to China via Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Erdogan, who has at various times, attempted to foolishly straddle two worlds, has rightly called this project “the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative.”
Turkey has found itself increasingly moving away from its NATO affiliates in recent years. It did so by turning its economic ambitions away from the quickly collapsing European Monetary Union which it once aspired to join, by purchasing Russian-built $400 radar systems and looking, sometimes grudgingly, toward the east, where Turkey–China trade has skyrocketed from a meagre $270 million in 1990 to over $29 billion in 2019.
The 20-year-old International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) is another project taking on new life, and one which profoundly affects Afghanistan and the surrounding region.
Stretching 7200 km from St. Petersburg through Eastern Europe and Southwest Asian nations to Iran’s Chabahar Port and thence to India, the INSTC – which started as a Russian-Iranian-Indian initiative – has grown to include Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Syria, Belarus and Oman (with Bulgaria having recently joined as an observer).
Additional corridors have been designed along the INSTC that move through the landlocked nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. One particularly interesting INSTC rail link can be constructed into Kabul which links easily to the Trans Afghanistan Railway stretching from Uzbekistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan, and which saw a major agreement signed in February this year.
While western geopoliticians have spent years trying to convince themselves that the INSTC is a rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the new post-regime change reality now emerging – premised as it is on a win-win conception of cooperation – has demonstrated that this project is in total harmony with the east-west New Silk Road.
India and Pakistan’s participation as full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017 and Iran’s imminent full membership this year, also lends itself toward an incremental resolution of past disputes between the two neighboring states, who have everything to gain by cooperation and everything to lose by continuing to fall prey to the Anglo-American Great Game.
At the last major SCO meeting on 14 July, the foreign ministers of all member states emphasized that all priorities should “continue to contribute to peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan. The SCO should make active use of existing cooperation mechanisms in economy, trade, culture, and other fields to support Afghanistan in enhancing its capacity for independent development and achieving genuine and sustainable development,” while integrating the nation “into regional economic development.”
Moving across Afghanistan’s southern border, we find the $60 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Although the concept is replete with potential, the budget-cutting fetish in Pakistan (which slashed over 50 percent from its Public Sector Development Program this year) has caused the dozens of CPEC-affiliated programs to proceed at a snail’s pace and at a fraction of their funding potential. Despite that lack of momentum, the times are changing and an acceleration of a crash investment via the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or Chinese state banks, like the China Development Bank or Export Import Bank of China, could easily see it grow in leaps and bounds.
The two latter state banks currently specialize in international infrastructure investment including 777 major energy projects outside of China, accounting for over 186 Gigawatts to be brought online mostly across the global south. As far as the AIIB is concerned, Afghanistan became a full member in 2017 and it may soon become a driver of investment into the nation’s reconstruction. According to former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev, “China is ready to invest about $62 billion in the development of Afghanistan.”
In a July 2021 China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers Summit, a joint statement read: “The three sides reaffirmed that they will deepen cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, Regional Economic Cooperation Conference (RECCA), Heart of Asia Istanbul Process (HoA-IP) and other regional economic initiatives.”
The Regional Economic Cooperation Conference is an initiative set up by the Afghan government which has promoted such major projects as the Ring Around Afghanistan Railway to accompany the already existent ring of highway surrounding the nation.
In order to achieve their fullest effect, these programs must not be seen as disconnected elements, but as parts of a unified dynamic whole.
In recent months, these projects and more have taken on a new life, and leading officials from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and many other Arab States have made their intention to join the BRI on various levels. This should come as no surprise to anyone seeking genuine solutions to ending the plague of terrorism, drugs, war and famine, and the multipolar alliance must be recognized as the only pathway to a safe and stable future.
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