BISHKEK, Oct. 8 (The Conway Bulletin) — Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s new president is on a mission to transform his war-torn country with a shredded economy into a regional force.
If he is successful, Central Asia may find in its southern neighbour a strong trading partner and occasional rival rather than the Taliban-tainted bogeyman regional governments have traditionally portrayed it as.
Central Asia’s security-first approach to Afghanistan is understandable. Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have had to deal with Islamic extremists linked to the Taliban and other Afghan militants. Neutral Turkmenistan is also taking a newly assertive stance towards events in Afghanistan. Turkmen forces were reported as entering Afghan territory to beat back Taliban that had settled on the two countries’ border (Sept 17).
But Central Asia’s economic ties to Afghanistan are expanding. The long-stalled Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan rail link, which will eventually connect the country to China, looks increasingly likely to happen, while Turkmen gas may one day transit Afghanistan on its way to China.
Mr Ghani is keen to see Afghanistan as a player.
His stated ambition to turn the country into an exporter of electricity may make Kabul a rival to both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The revival of Afghan agriculture may put pressure on scarce regional energy resources.
It is perhaps noteworthy that upon receiving notes of congratulations from all five Central Asian presidents following his inauguration, Mr Ghani’s warmest words were for Kazakhstan and Nursultan Nazarbayev (Sept.29).
“Kazakhstan is an important friend and positive example,” he told Kazakh foreign minister Erlan Idrissov at his inauguration.
If Mr Ghani can take Afghanistan on a similar journey, then the country will be ready to both compete and cooperate with Central Asia.
This article was first published in issue 203 of the weekly Conway Bulletin, a 6-page newspaper for Central Asia and the South Caucasus. For more information, click here