Serious thinking is particularly needed with regard to the endgame in Afghanistan. The Joint Pakistan-Afghanistan Commission and the ‘core group’ defined as the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the two groupings in which we are supposed to play a part in supporting the ‘Afghan-led reconciliation process’. Let us assume that the Americans, anxious to pull out the bulk of their troops by 2014, will agree to a reconciliation that gives the Taliban a share of power in the centre and a dominant administrative role in the south and east of the country. They will also use their influence to prevent the Tajiks and other ethnic minorities from playing a spoiler’s role. We, on our part, will influence the Quetta Shura of Mullah Omar and the Haqqani group to go along with such reconciliation. We will also hold out assurances to Iran and Afghanistan’s other neighbours that we will not seek to dictate policies to Kabul in return for assurances that they, too, will refrain from doing so.
Clearly all this is a tall order but should it be achieved, what would it mean? Let me list some of the things that will need to be thought about.
Today, the Afghan economy is a war economy. The GDP of the country is $14-15 billion. The US military is spending $14 billion a year in construction and other activity within Afghanistan. Even assuming that much of this is spent on consultancies and raw material, it can be estimated that some $4 billion of this amount generates Afghan income, which becomes part of the GDP. Similarly, the US military and civilian structure within Afghanistan spends some $2-3 billion on transportation of the goods that the US forces consume. This, probably, again adds up to a $1-1.5 billion addition to Afghanistan’s GDP. Lastly, the US and its allies are paying the salaries of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). This amounts to at least about $3 billion a year for the force that by the end of this year will be more than 300,000 strong and which by 2014 will be 400,000 strong. While some of these figures may need to be adjusted downwards, there should be no doubt that more than 60 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP is being derived from foreign forces and their activities. It can be assumed that for a few years the US and its allies will financially support the ANSF, but certainly the economic assistance they provide will not make up for what the Afghan economy is deriving today from the presence of the foreign forces.
So, in these circumstances, when the economic downturn comes, where will the Afghan unemployed turn but to the traditional sanctuary — Pakistan. This will also mean that for many years to come there will be little chance of sending back to Afghanistan the five million (my estimate) registered and unregistered Afghans — and the Afghan holders of fraudulent Pakistan documents — that are now sheltering in Pakistan.
When the Haqqani group is given a measure of administrative control of Paktia, Paktika and Khost, as envisaged in the reconciliation, do we believe that they will give up their stronghold in North Waziristan? If not, then should we assume that we will make permanent the current situation where the Pakistan government’s writ in the area is non-existent?
When the ANSF has reached its maximum size of 400,000 and money is not available to maintain a force of this size on salaries that are completely out of line with what the ordinary Afghan is earning, it will have to justify its existence by espousing belligerently a national cause. Is there a cause other than Pakhtunistan? When American financing runs out, to which outside donor will this force look for support?
One of our goals in facilitating reconciliation in Afghanistan would be to get recognition of the Durand Line or, at least, an agreement to control cross-border trafficking in humans and goods by introducing biometric controls on our border and eliminating the current $5 billion-plus smuggling of goods across the border? Would we achieve this? Will we stop being the route by which 33 per cent of Afghan opium is marketed?
With peace in Afghanistan, our strategic location will start paying dividends starting first and foremost with the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. Have we looked at the figures for the construction of this pipeline or are we accepting unquestioningly the figure of $7 billion plus for a 1,000-mile pipeline when the cost of constructing a pipeline of similar size runs at less than $2 billion in the United States? Have we decided how this pipeline will be owned and operated? This can yield transit fees and meet our fuel requirements but will this not require also an opening of our land routes for trade in other goods and services between Central Asia and South Asia? Are we ready for this?
Afghanistan is rich in mineral resources but is Pakistan well placed to help exploit them and, if so, in what time frame? Let us not entertain unrealistic dreams about this.
These are only some of the questions on which we should focus and to which we should seek answers both in the two groups that are working on reconciliation and in the Bonn Conference scheduled for December this year. Our economic planners who know full well the costs that the presence of Afghan refugees and the unbridled smuggling and drug trafficking is imposing on Pakistan should take the lead rather than our military for whom these ‘mundane’ concerns matter little in the face of what they perceive as the security imperative.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 3rd, 2011.