Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad hosted the ‘Heart of Asia’ Conference on December 8th and 9th. The focus of this annual meeting, 14 countries discussed a range of issues pertaining to Afghanistan including its stability and development.
Here are 5 reasons why Afghanistan is at the ‘Heart of Asia’ and is also crucial to other major world powers.
1. IT IS LOCATED AT THE CROSSROADS OF ASIA
Afghanistan borders the countries of Pakistan, Iran, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and has been historically close to India and location is key to its regional importance. On one side, it has the two regional superpowers of India and China. On the other side, it has Iran, who has always been in the eye of the storm for its nuclear programs and Pakistan, which its grappling with its identity as a ‘terror haven. Finally, there’s Russia, a major military power that’s making a comeback in the international arena under its President, Vladimir Putin. In such a volatile environment, the peace and stability of strategically located Afghanistan is imperative.
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2. MOVE OVER NEIGHBOURS, THE COUNTRY ITSELF IS A POLITICAL ‘HOTCAKE’
Afghanistan has not had a stable political system since its monarchy was overthrown in 1973, after which, it has had communist dictatorship, anarchy, theocracy and democracy. Russia and the United States have taken turns to invade the country, starting with a civil war against the Soviets in the 80s to the US invasion of the country after the 9/11 attacks. From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban was controlling Afghanistan, imposing the Sharia law while supporting and sheltering Al-Qaida Chief Osama bin Laden, after which it began a guerilla war against US troops and Afghan security forces. With the current rise of ISIS, the threat of instability to this landlocked country has become exponential and a Taliban takeover is still looming large.
3. EFFORTS ARE ON TO RE-BUILD THE WAR RAVAGED NATION
As expected, four decades of war devastated Afghanistan and the rebuilding process began after the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. Countries like India have taken the lead by contributing about $2 billion since then, helping them construct their Parliament and the Salma Dam in Herat, which is a major project to provide electricity to the rural areas. The US has contributed more than $ 100 billion since 2002, making it the largest donor, although most of the aid has been routed towards re-arming the military. However, a significant part has also been allotted for developmental purposes through USAID projects. Another major contributor is the European Union which runs an aid program of about €2.5 billion for development. In June 2014, the EU entered into an agreement with the Afghan government to further provide €1.4 billion of development aid by 2021. China is also increasingly becoming a big source of aid for Afghanistan. Between 2001 and 2014, it gave around $ 320 million as aid and pledged to give $ 327 million over the next three years.
This aid has not only helped the country improve its economy but has also improved social indicators like women empowerment, healthcare and educational attainment.
4. IT’S BLESSED WITH NATURE’S BOUNTY
With the potential to be one of the biggest mining countries in the world, Afghanistan is pretty blessed in the natural department. In June 2010, US geologists reportedly discovered approximately $ 3 trillion worth of untapped mineral resources in the country resulting in heavy investments from many countries including India. However, weak central leadership has been detrimental to Afghanistan’s economic progress since most of the mining revenue goes into the pockets of local warlords and the Taliban. The country is believed to be also holding significant amount of oil & gas reserves. American and Afghan geologists have discovered about 1.6 billion barrels of crude oil, 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 500 million barrels of natural gas liquid. Moreover, a significant part of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline passes through the country, linking Turkmenistan’s oil fields with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. With natural resources like minerals and oil becoming the world’s most coveted commodities, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is favorable to all.
5. THE COUNTRY IS A NARCOTICS BACKYARD
Despite the US authorities spending billions to fight the drug menace in Afghanistan, it produces about 90% of the illicit Opium worldwide, making narcotics a major issue in the country. Its Opium is primarily used to produce the highly addictive drug Heroin, along with which, the country is also a leading producer of cannabis or marijuana. The problem is compounded by the fact that most of the opium and marijuana production takes place in areas under minimum government control and helps the Taliban fund its guerilla war against the Kabul government. Afghanistan is part of the ‘Golden Crescent’, one of Asia’s principal areas of illicit opium production, which also includes Pakistan and Iran. Heroin from Afghanistan is increasingly being smuggled to these two countries making drug addiction a major issue in neighbouring Pakistan. This is also having spill over effects in India, especially Punjab. Drug addiction is also ringing the alarm bells in Afghanistan with nearly 11% of the population having tested positive for some or the other drug, raising the world average to about 5.2%.
All these reasons make Afghanistan critical for all surrounding nations as well as superpowers that have invested both time and money in the country. Its important not only in terms of regional diplomacy, but also in terms of trade, defense and security, rightly dubbing it the ‘Heart of Asia’.