Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif embarked on a tour of Central Asian countries in a belated effort to make up for all the lost time, opportunity, etc, that had presented itself after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. In that sense, welcome as this belated attention is, the tour seems more an afterthought rather than one aforethought, with the necessary preparation before hand to make the PM’s time and effort worth it in terms of results. So far at least, the visit to Turkmenistan yielded little apart from homilies about friendship, cooperation and acceleration of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project that has lain in cold storage for many years. And not solely because of the slow pace of doing things at our (and arguably their) end. Rather, there are inherent difficulties in the path of getting the project off and running. Turkmenistan has the world’s largest gas reserves but is not able to take full advantage of this bounty of nature so far because of infrastructural blockages to getting this gas out of the country and to the world. Attempts in the past to avoid the troubled soil of Afghanistan and use the Iranian route have fallen foul of the sanctions in place against Iran over its nuclear programme (just as our Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline is frozen at the Iranian side of the common border). Traversing Afghanistan in the midst of the war going on in that country poses formidable obstacles and offers no guarantee of safety of the pipeline even if it is somehow built through what is essentially a war zone. Although the joint communiqué from Ashkabad was long on rhetoric in this regard, giving these wishes concrete existence in reality never was and is still doubtful until and unless Afghanistan settles down.
If a tour of Turkmenistan seems a waste of time, the visit to Kyrgyzstan that followed makes even less sense. Apart from clichés about political relations being excellent and enhanced cooperation in curbing extremism, drug trafficking, energy, connectivity, trade, the economy, people-to-people contact and tourism, there seemed hardly anything that could even remotely be described as having set the house on fire. Kyrgyzstan has underlined its desire to be linked with the economic corridor being planned for Pakistan with Chinese investment, given its advantage of accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (the alternative developed by Russia and the Central Asian states to the by now fraught relations with the European Union over Ukraine) and therefore the opportunity to act as a bridge between North and South in what would become a breathtaking revolution in the contemporary world’s affairs. However, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Take for example CASA-1000, the electricity export project being touted for long now. Kyrgyzstan’s neighbour Tajikistan is said to possess enormous potential in hydel power, surplus to its needs and therefore available for transmission to South Asia. However, this project too has been in the doldrums for so long that only a miracle could revive hopes in it seeing the light of day any time soon. It too suffers from the same drawback as TAPI, i.e. the need to traverse troubled Afghan territory to get anywhere in South Asia. In the absence of movement on these two critical energy projects, PM Nawaz Sharif had to fall back on our modest help to Kyrgyzstan in training their diplomats and offering training in the banking, postal and other fields. Good, but again, not about to make anyone sit up on the edge of their seats.
While any tour by a Pakistani PM, belated or not, is welcome as it signals the seeming ‘lapse’ in attention to Central Asia may be about to be overcome, one cannot but help reflect on what could have been. Had Pakistan not been so deeply involved in and committed to its adventures in Afghanistan, it may have had the spare mind and time to focus on what was tipped at the time as the great opportunity presented to neighbouring countries vis-à-vis the landlocked Central Asian states after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Instead, while our Afghan policy of long standing has finally yielded up its chickens that have come home to roost in the shape of terrorism, the opportunity lost in terms of offering Central Asia a route out to the world through Pakistan must count as one of the monumental follies of our sorry track record in the region and beyond.