Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani visited Turkmenistan on July 3 upon invitation by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. Oguzkhan Palace complex in Turkmenistan hosted the high-level talks.
Various issues from security and counter-terrorism, economy and trade, energy, education and transportation infrastructure were discussed. Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI), Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP)electricity project, and Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TUTAP) electricity transit project were discussed.
Transportation infrastructure cooperation is a way forward to make Afghanistan less dependent on Pakistan, who routinely closes checkpoints along the Durand line. President Ghani the next day told the visiting U.S. senate delegation that Afghanistan has diversified trade and transit links and is no longer dependent on Pakistan.
These are the main routes of transit to Afghanistan:
- Hairtan->Mazar e Sharif
- Mersin, Turkey-> Baku, Azerbaijan -> via ferry on Caspian Sea->Türkmenbaşy->Aqina->Sheberghan ->Mazar e Sharif
- Mersin, Turkey-> Baku, Azerbaijan -> via ferry on Caspian Sea->Türkmenbaşy-> Mary, Turkmenistan ->Torghundi->Herat-> Lashkargah ->Kandahar->Ghazni->Kabul
- Bandar Abbas ->Islam Qala->Herat-> Lashkargah ->Kandahar->Ghazni->Kabul
Of these, the first route connects to China, the 2nd and 3rd to Europe, the 4th to Iran and the last two to Pakistan. As of now, the last two routes via Pakistan carry the most freight. When the Torkham gate was closed by Pakistan for an indefinite period following a skirmish between the respective armed forces, the other routes effectively neutralised any economic effect on Afghanistan.
Reconstruction and repairing of the Serhedabad (Azerbaijan)– Turghandi (Afghanistan) railroad and also expanding Aqina railroad were on the agenda of today’s meeting. The Asian transnational railway – Atamyrat-Ymamnzar-Akina was quoted as an example of the developing cooperation in the transport sphere between the two nations. In view of the transit and transportation potentials of the both countries, the presidents emphasized on Afghanistan-Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey trade and transit corridor and Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Turkmenistan railway. The trade and transit corridor is also known as the Lapis Lazuli corridor and the nations are due to sign an agreement for transporting goods to European markets. Turkmenistan itself serves as the fourth largest export market for Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has already diversified its trade and is no more heavily dependent on Pakistan. Trade volume between Pakistan and Afghanistan has declined from $3 billion a couple years ago to just $500 million in early 2017. That indicates a drop of more than an 80 percent in commerce between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On the other hand, Afghan-Iran trade volume has increased 25 percent, from $1.5 billion to $2 billion, and now accounts for a quarter of Afghanistan’s total annual trade. The construction of railroad between Iran and Afghanistan and the Zaranj-Delaram Highway in Afghanistan are some factors behind the growth of Afghanistan – Iran trade. Trade with Europe and central Asia accounted for 24% of imports and exports stood at 11.6%.
Cooperation in oil & gas, chemical industry, textile, carpet weaving industry, farming and other sectors was discussed. An MoUs signed between the two nations is for cooperation In the carpet industry. It is worth noting that carpets are among the biggest exports from Afghanistan. Till now most carpets were produced to a pre-final stage and then exported to Pakistan or Iran. This was due to lack of resources like machinery for cutting and edging.
I spoke to the spokesperson of Afghan Chamber Of Commerce & Industries (ACCI) Siamuden Pasarly, who told me, “Till 2013-14, roughly around 80% of the carpets were exported to Pakistan, Iran & final processing done there. Now have our own factories. Industrial parks are under construction in PPP model. At present, 30% of the carpet go to Pakistan and Iran for final processing. We plan to absorb it and sell them under Afghan branding to the west.”
Implemented properly, the agreements at Turkmenistan would lead both to economic prosperity and reduced economic dependency on Pakistan for Afghanistan. It’s still a long way for land-locked Afghanistan to be no longer dependent on Pakistan but it’s a welcome start.
By Aveek Sen – Aveek Sen is an independent journalist working on cyber security and the geopolitics of India’s neighbourhood, focusing on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Bangladesh. He tweets at @aveeksen
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