Building Roads of Peace

Afghanistan, whose warlords think only of war, is being now ruled by an ex-World Bank economist who will plump for trade even if he sees Pakistan wedded to its India-centrism in foreign policy writes Khaled Ahmad.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi delays peace talks with Pakistan and the LoC heats up, another meeting of SAARC looms this month, barring South Asian leaders from talking war and persuading them to focus on the more modern concept of “connectivity”. Modi is the man of “connectivity” when he is not being warlike and knows more about it than Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who thinks connectivity with India is the way to go for Pakistan.

Connectivity is another way of saying “no war”, but in our parts “no war” is considered a cowardly thing. Today, the world thinks if two warrior states become interdependent they will find it hard to go to war. Connectivity is achieved through free trade and you need roads to get your goods across borders. If Pakistan is sensitive to self-interest, it should truly exploit the “edge” of strategic physical location that makes neighbours interdependent with it. That edge is called transit trade and Pakistan and Afghanistan have that advantage.

Pakistani-American scholar Mahnaz Z. Ispahani wrote in her seminal book on the issue of routes and anti-routes, Roads and Rivals: The Politics of Access in the Borderlands of Asia (1989), and remains the best source on South Asia’s attitudes towards “regional connectivity”. She concluded that roads were essential to a country’s internal cohesion; cross-border roads tended to be seen as breaching security and imposing cohesion where it was not required by states before they could reconcile with each other as friendly states. There were states that sought access and there were others that denied access and established anti-routes. Borders were the first natural anti-routes. At the risk of committing heresy in Pakistan, I will repeat the well-worn adage: nothing destroys frontiers as free trade.

As Ispahani predicted, the “anti-route stage” has passed. Warriors don’t like trade because it prevents war. In Pakistan, the Pakistan army decides how to make Pakistan secure. Security today is mostly seen as an economic attribute, but Pakistan’s agenda is not overtly economic, no matter that two political parties serially ruling the country have come to grief pushing free trade with India.

Is “connectivity” a leveraging instrument for the transit state if it is denied to neighbours, or does it start leveraging after you have allowed it? Pakistan thinks denying “connectivity” makes it powerful; Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai thought on the same lines. For some in Pakistan, it is not trade-first but Kashmir-first.

Cross-border trade has its problems, however. A report in Dawn says: “As the Indians seek permission to export over a million tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan through Pakistan’s land route, the flour milling industry here is up in arms, threatening protests and warning of the adverse impact that it would have on its business.” After reckoning that the ever-looming war will likely never allow transit through Pakistan, India has developed an alternative route through Iran and can send its goods to Afghanistan and Central Asia on the Chabahar port route, but the preference for the shorter Pakistani route is understandable. The flour-millers of Pakistan, who export to Afghanistan, have raised an issue that India and Pakistan have to resolve if they choose to “normalise” through trade.

Pakistan has to ensure regular passage and India has to rationalise its hidden and not-so-hidden subsidies to the agricultural sector. Pakistan has learned its bitter lessons after stopping the Nato supply in a fit of military dudgeon, which also stopped the Afghan transit trade, alienating Afghanistan and causing curtailment of incomes in Pakistan. Many Indians rightly think India has to sort out its tiff with the WTO on subsidies.

Things will move in the right direction sooner or later because war is no solution. Free market becoming regional is also unavoidable, which means India and Pakistan have to adjust their markets too. Automobile and agricultural lobbies in Pakistan resist free trade with India, which means India has to recalibrate subsidies or compensate Pakistan; and Pakistan has to finally allow Pakistanis to buy cheaper cars from India — or Indian cars made in Pakistan — and allow capitalism’s “creative destruction” of its protected sectors.

Pakistan’s “security” concerns are not greatly aroused by the north-south trade corridor it is building with China mainly because it is seen as a move against India and, in the larger global perspective, against the US. China has the money and the road-building technology, and Pakistan needs infrastructure to allow its economy to expand.

Earlier, Pakistan stubbed its toe on the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline because of the new global cold war and Iran’s perceived aggression by Pakistan’s other friends. Like China, Iran had the money and the pipe-laying expertise. It is hard to believe that a similar pipeline from Turkmenistan will go through Pakistan to India any time soon, when Afghanistan is about to tilt into its next bout of civil war. Starting late, China has already taken the Turkmen gas through a 1,000-mile pipeline to its western provinces.

Ironies abound in our parts. Afghanistan, whose warlords think only of war, is being ruled by an ex-World Bank economist who will plump for trade even if he sees Pakistan wedded to its India-centrism in foreign policy. But Nato helicopters earlier this month crossed into Pakistan’s Khyber tribal agency as Afghan officials complained of Pakistani interference in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many non-state actors in Pakistan run their own foreign policy, as was signalled by Iran’s cross-border assault in October on Pakistan’s western frontier because Pakistan-based Jandullah does mischief inside Iran, and another banned outfit called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi kills Pakistani Shias going to Iran.

Pakistan is more used to being the spoiler, but China’s pragmatism might dissuade it from thinking war while its economy is in a nosedive. An enlightened ex-foreign secretary of Pakistan, Riaz Mohammad Khan, refuses to think of Afghanistan as a potential Indian base for a strategic “encirclement” of Pakistan. He wrote in a recent paper about the Pakistani posture of using its geostrategic importance to thwart regional trade by linking it to Kashmir: “A case can be made that Pakistan should fully exploit [its] negative potential to serve its interests.

This is a self-negating argument as has been obvious from Pakistan’s experience with the Afghan conflict and extremist militancy… There is a similar parallel in the self-inflicted harm caused by defining national identity in quasi-ideological and narrow nationalistic terms by placing Pakistan in an antithetical juxtaposition with India. There is need for a clear and constructive narrative on several fundamentals, including, national identity, the challenges we face and national aspirations that must resonate with present-day imperatives of progress, modernity and welfare of the people.”

Prime Minister Modi should take a close look at Pakistan’s new “revisionism” of old policies and not seek to appease “justified” public outrage in India over cross-border acts of terror by Pakistani proxies by acting tough on the LoC. In the long run, it is his thinking of frontloading strategy with trade which will prevail in South Asia. This is what he should also speak about at the coming SAARC summit in Kathmandu.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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