This last October, I visited the Peshawar Museum to see its exquisite collection of Gandhara art. Gandhara was a mostly Buddhist region, with great Indo-Greek artistic traditions, which existed in parts of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan from approximately 1500 B.C. until 1000 A.D. Seeing how these ancient artifacts depict a lively cultural, political and economic exchange between civilizations in East and West, brought my thoughts to the fact that our lives and destinies are interlinked across the world. The peoples of South, Central and West Asia have enjoyed active exchanges, trade and interaction for many thousands of years. This region has also given birth to a number of thriving empires, which steered the processes of civilization and development, ultimately leading to the creation of nation-states that function as regional neighbours today. Having worked for the UN in Iran, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan over almost three decades, I can personally attest to the interconnectedness and resilience of culture, traditions and human enterprise, in the past as well as today.
Fast forward to this October during the ICC T20 cricket World Cup in Dubai, the Afghanistan team won against Scotland, but later lost a friendly, but very closely fought game against Pakistan. Notwithstanding the traumatic circumstances of Afghanistan, the fact that it has developed such a high-caliber international cricket team, is evidence that human commitment can prevail and give results in the most challenging of situations. The fact that friendly games like these can take place between neighbours despite their mutual issues, is but one example of how people still can, and will come together in peaceful cooperation.
Unfortunately, these are not the sort of headlines on Afghanistan that we have generally seen in the international media on during the past four decades, which have remained focused on an unending cycle of conflict and human suffering. The people of Afghanistan have endured violent conflict more or less continuously since 1978 – for 43 years. The latest developments have brought more uncertainty to the question of how Afghanistan will be governed in future, what opportunities women and men will have to earn a living, get an education, and engage in cultural and civic activities. Today, as much as 97 percent of Afghanistan’s population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line by mid-2022. Afghanistan is ranked 169th out of 189 countries in the human development index of UNDP’s Human Development Report 2020. Coupled with COVID-19’s fallout, rising inflation, food insecurity, the violence continuum, and population displacements, it continues to be threatened by disastrous consequences.
Immediate humanitarian needs are clearly visible in today’s situation and humanitarian assistance is urgently needed. Development assistance needs to continue on an urgent basis. The situation has led to increased development needs for people at grassroots levels, and the response to this should be based on people’s needs, not on politics.
At risk are also Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, notably Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan that have borne the heaviest burdens of conflict-induced regional crises and fragility. Lack of stability and violent conflicts put dimensions of peaceful and constructive engagement at risk. The contentious question of fundamental human rights and gains made in the last 20 years – especially for women and minorities – has remained central not only to Afghanistan’s viability as a nation-state but also to regional stability and development as a whole.
Yet, the challenges represented by conflict can be overcome. We should not make the mistake of believing it will be easy, after so many years of violence and destruction. But the fundamental enablers and building blocks for people to create their livelihoods and to develop as a society, remain in place with natural resources, knowledge and traditions among people, and a strategic geographic position in a dynamic region. People of the countries in the South, West and Central Asian region have a strong wish for peace; thousands of years of their collective engagement and exchanges proves that there is also a strong will and viable business rationale to work with each other across borders.
Migration and trade across borders in the region have been among the important factors bringing development and prosperity for thousands of years. Waterways, roads, airways, trade and commerce, and topography binds countries in the region together with a natural opportunity for cooperation and exchange. A number of initiatives are already in place to create a stronger regional connectivity. Besides the natural migration and people-to-people exchanges, some large-scale schemes include plans for roads, railways, power lines, pipelines, mineral extraction and so on.
Today’s globalized world is increasingly connected, not only across borders, but across the air and cyber spaces as well. More and more, actions taken by one country affect all others. In this interconnected global space, solutions lie in multilateral and regional approaches, in countries coming together for joint action to face off common challenges.
In this issue of Development Advocate Pakistan (DAP), dedicated to the themes of regional connectivity in South and Central Asia, a wide range of national and international contributors are sharing their views and making suggestions related to the challenges and opportunities faced by Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries, and how they might be tackled. Perfect and comprehensive solutions may be difficult to find overnight. But that should not stop us from identifying the building blocks and starting with certain core solutions that bring peoples and countries together, creating a vibrant space where peoples, ideas, goods and services can seamlessly flow and collaborate, thus creating collective hope and progress.