While the realization that economic imperatives should drive foreign policy and internal security has been present among Pakistan’s policymaking elite for some time, the current government has a rare chance to make the transition from “geo-politics to geo-economics”. Security is means to an end, and not an end in itself. The end goal is to raise living standards of the citizens. So what exactly is that opportunity?
As the US-led NATO forces are on the brink of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, the region surrounding Pakistan is undergoing perhaps the most significant shift since the US invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11. The security hook over the past two decades hasn’t really worked so far; it’s time for Pakistan to try an economic tether.
To be clear, there will be security implications for Pakistan in the near term. American withdrawal, which has been dubbed “irresponsible” and “disorderly” by some foreign analysts, is already sowing chaos next door. Managing the influx of refugees, and the specter of militant violence, will test Pakistan’s security apparatus. It will also be a challenge to assuage Biden administration that seems to have gone sour.
Dealing with the post-US dispensation in Kabul will be tricky, regardless of whether the Taliban get to rule most of the country in coming months. However, Pakistan can ensure a degree of peace by maintaining a neutral foreign policy (no favorites in Afghanistan) and making serious efforts to create mutual economic stakes in each other’s future.
Considering both Pakistan and Afghanistan have a key role in linking South Asia with Central Asia, there is much to be gained by both transit countries if mega regional projects in transportation corridors, electricity supply, and oil/gas pipelines are put into motion. Pakistan may not be able to invest billions in Afghanistan reconstruction, but its firms are ideally placed to supply raw materials and expertise.
Both countries will find willing multilateral development banks, who have previously championed projects like the CASA-1000 power transmission project, TAPI natural gas pipeline and CAREC transport corridors. Perhaps those project files will be dusted off, or there could be new or different projects. Expect China to also play a role in bridging connectivity. The US may also feel excited about the potential of regional connectivity projects as a means to pacify a war-torn country.
Such projects will benefit Afghanistan disproportionately, as infrastructure development will create jobs and provide budgetary resources to a cash-strapped government that will inevitably see international economic assistance dry up after international forces leave the country. Transit fees will become a sustainable source of income, through which public spending can be funded.
The above-scenario may seem hunky-dory, and it is likely that optimistic ideations will be put out to pasture once the fog of the looming civil war across Afghanistan envelopes the region. Already, hardly a day goes by without ministers up and down the rank ringing security alarm over the worsening situation in Afghanistan, a sensitive issue on which a comprehensive official narrative needs to emerge soon.
With economy in focus, Pakistani policymakers need to publicly highlight the fruits of long-term economic engagement in the region. And while they are at it, there is also a need to reassure the local business community, which is reportedly in a state of confusion as to how things will pan out in the near future. The country has gone through a wave of violence before. One hopes the right lessons have been learnt.