By Syed Mohammed Ali Raza
ON the banks of the Amu Darya, a subtle current leads the waters away; amidst the grazing livestock a boy with a piercing gaze looks on across the Amu and into Uzbekistan. He is an upright, spirited young lad and accomplished at guiding his flock through the thick vegetation.
Almost 500 years ago another upright and spirited young lad, with his destitute flock also looked on across with a piercing gaze from the Uzbek bank of the Amu into the lands beyond. That boy was Babar, the founder of the Mughal Empire, and he is believed to have crossed the Amu Darya, near Termiz, with an under-provisioned band of some 200 followers.
Babar set foot on present-day Afghan soil with two tents, one of which was used by his mother, and a single horse only to see his fortunes change and become the founder of one the richest empires in history.
The Afghan border town of Hairatan is not far from where Babar crossed the Amu. Beyond it, lies Mazar-i-Sharif. Since 2001, the region of Hairatan, Balkh and Mazar-i-Sharif has transformed into Afghanistan’s gateway to its Turkic Central Asian neighbours and is bustling with commercial activity.
The recently completed, donor-funded rail link, highway and electric power transmission line, run side by side from Hairatan into Afghanistan. There is peace in the region, a strong and welcomed Turkish presence and property prices often in the same league as those of developed international cities. There is a sense of optimism and enterprise.
The crossing between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan is via die ironically named Friendship Bridge built by the Soviets and used to launch their ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan. The exit and entry of the border is gated and walled, with documented procedures and transit requirements enforced.
Uzbek trains carrying petroleum and LPG cross into Afghanistan in an orderly fashion unloading at an impressive dry port cum logistical yard, complete with general warehouses, petroleum and LPG storage tanks, on the Afghan side.
At Hairatan, you can see the centuries-old ancient trade route coming back to life, with extensive donor and international assistance. This is in contrast to the Torkham border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where disarray and lack of infrastructure are evident.
The Torkham crossing is probably the most important lifeline for Afghanistan, yet there are no logistical yards, no semblance of an international dry port and no storage tanks for petroleum products. Given that Pakistan was Afghanistan’s primary supplier it is hard to believe that Pak-Afghan trade, which is in the vicinity of $1.7bn annually, was so thoroughly neglected by all the stakeholders concerned. With the rising of Hairatan, Pakistan’s role as the chief supplier and trade artery of Afghanistan is diminishing.
Unfortunately enough, Pakistan does not have the financial resources required to develop Torkham along international standards, or even along the lines of Hairatan, as it struggles with swelling spending on security, natural calamities, incessant international criticism and the resulting negative investor perception, and an incoherent international political will.
The recent overture by US President Obama to his Uzbek counterpart and the expression of die US desire to increase die share of Nato supplies via Hairatan should send a strong signal to Kabul, Islamabad and Washington. Something extremely elementary is wrong and the situation serves the national interests of none of the three major stakeholders involved, especially Afghanistan which stands to gain or lose the most. You cannot possibly replace Torkham with Hairatan, for the Afghan trade and energy corridor needs to meet Wagah in order to succeed, and the solution clearly lies in the transformation of Torkham into a Hairatan.
At the recent meeting of commerce ministers of Pakistan and India, there was talk of Safta having the potential of becoming larger than Asean. That may be true but from Torkham it certainly does not look like anytime in the near future. Compare the optimistic and promising sentiment to the sad state of affairs of the Pakistan Railways track to Torkham; at one point near Landi Kotal in Khyber Agency the track disappears altogether and villagers struggle to remember the last time they saw a train go by.
What exactly do the stakeholders concerned, both international and regional, have in mind for the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan?
History is a witness to how carefully Russia, Britain, France, Austria and other European powers navigated around die Ottoman sultans and the shahs of Persia; none wanted to completely take them out, yet could not see them stand as equals and sovereign. Piece by piece, the sultan and the shah were individually stripped of sovereignty in return for loans and advice on how to run their ‘governments’, so much so that a time came when the postal service was run by one European power and tax receipts collected by another.
Pakistan is facing a similar situation, with a struggling economy, chronic energy deficit and faltering financial health. Regional and international powers appear determined to manipulate Pakistan into such a treacherous depression that none can emerge from it.
In the absence of a coherent Pakistan strategy, the cherished dream of an Afghan energy and trade corridor born at the banks of the Amu Darya at Hairatan shall likely meet the same fate as the Amu Darya itself, which does not make it to the Aral Sea and is instead consumed by the thirsty sands of the Kyzyl Kum desert. If wiser and unprejudiced heads do not prevail, then Torkham may well become another Kyzyl Kum. ?
The writer is a director of an advisory firm focusing on frontier
and emerging markets.