Pakistan and Central Asian connectivity: Challenges and opportunities
Developing close ties with the broader Muslim world has remained a key pillar of Pakistan’s foreign policy. In this regard, the former Central Asian Soviet republics hold special significance owing to political, economic and strategic reasons. Since their liberation from the Soviet Union, successive Pakistani governments have laid out initiatives to court these states, yet the story of this engagement has remained rather lacklustre. Projects of strategic significance have been initiated between Pakistan and some of these states and lately the Pakistani government has been upbeat regarding the potential of trade and commerce. However, the volatility in the region particularly in Afghanistan has remained a perennial obstacle in materializing political and economic ties with these Central Asian Republics. With the fall of President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, this uncertainty has only grown, and has direct implications for Pakistan’s ambitions in the Asian heartland.
The Indian subcontinent has maintained historic links with Central Asia. First during the Delhi Sultanate period and later on under the Mughal Empire. South Asia was ruled by Muslims that have arrived from the Central Asian steppe. As these central asian lands came under the control of Czarist Russia and South Asia under the British, the two regions became the frontline of the great game being played between the two empires, with Afghanistan acting as a buffer state and balancing between the two sides. This political wrangling took a new form as the Czarist empire gave way to the Soviet Union and a new political order emerged in South Asia in the form of the independent states of Pakistan and India. A priority for Pakistan was to enhance its engagement with Muslims all over the world and to promote solidarity among these newly independent Muslim nations. However, the country’s alignment with the American bloc during the cold war meant a rupture with Central Asia and its people.
This dynamic only changed with the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Central Asian Republics. Sensing a political opportunity for the extension of Pakistan’s influence in the broader Central Asian region, the country’s policy makers were quick to court the newly independent Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan. Yet gradually this warmth evaporated mainly due to the political chaos that unfolded in Afghanistan and its implications for regional security. Pakistan and the Central Asian states found themselves at opposing ends in this theatre with Pakistan backing mostly Pukhtoon factions particularly the Taliban, while Uzbekistan and Tajikistan backed the Northern Alliance factions that comprised of Tajik and Uzbek Mujahid commanders. Moreover, Pakistan’s relationship with Russia didn’t recover as well and its defence cooperation with India remained a point of concern. With the demise of the Taliban regime, a critical point of divergence between the two sides ended.
The ever-increasing energy needs of both Pakistan and India also compelled them to increasingly engage with the Central Asian states which boasted significant reserves of natural gas. An important initiative in this regard has been the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project which is meant to alleviate the energy needs of Turkmenistan’s South Asian neighbours. However, this project again has been delayed and derailed by the deteriorating law and order situation in Afghanistan at one end and the problematic nature of Pakistan-Afghanistan ties. Owing to these complications, Pakistan has pushed Turkmenistan to ensure the provision of its gas on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan and not its own border with Afghanistan. For Pakistan, owing to the passage of the pipeline, the TAPI project still remains a risky venture.
Recently, the relationship between Pakistan and Uzbekistan has also seen improvement and clearly the Central Asian state is interested in forging close ties with Pakistan. A key development in this regard was the recent Central and South Asia Connectivity Conference held in Uzbekistan. This exhibited an interest on the part of the Uzbek government to engage aggressively with South Asia. Particularly significant was the finalization of a Joint Declaration on the Establishment of Strategic Partnership between the two sides. The agreement between both sides on the construction of a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway line can be a possible game changer not only for regional connectivity and trade but also for the strategic environment. This also fits well with the Pakistan government’s relatively new emphasis on geo-economics which essentially argues for developing economic partnerships rather than alignments based on geopolitical outlooks.
Yet again, all such schemes of regional connectivity and economic partnership are dependent upon political stability and order in Afghanistan. The power grab by the Taliban in Afghanistan has further complicated Pakistan’s ambitions to materialize linkages with Central Asian states, whether in the energy field or the economic domain. However, Pakistan does seem to have gained on the geopolitical front. It will be a challenge for Pakistani decision makers now to convert this newfound geopolitical clout into geo economic opportunities that can make Pakistan a viable partner for Central Asia.