The visit of President Hamid Karzai and the accompanying delegation to neighboring Turkmenistan and the resulting expansion in bilateral cooperation was long overdue. As a result of the visit, which was cut short after the Taliban's massive attack in Takhar, five bilateral documents were signed and the full spectrum of issues concerning both countries was discussed. As anticipated, the peace process in Afghanistan figured prominently in the discussions between the two presidents and the accompanying high-level ministers and officials. President Karzai and the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, discussed in detail a host of bilateral issues and matters pertaining to mutual relations and signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) concerning the two countries' cooperation and friendship.
Turkmenistan has agreed to build a 150-km extension to a railway line which will connect the eastern part of Turkmenistan to Andkhoi border town in Faryab province of Afghanistan. Our country relies on Turkmenistan for meeting a large part of the country's electricity needs. At present, Afghanistan imports more than 320 million kilowatt hours of electricity every year from Turkmenistan. As a result of the agreement between the two countries during President Karzai's visit, this figure will increase by five times over the next 3 years. Media, culture, arts, tourism and education have been among other areas in which MoUs were signed between the two countries, given their shared history, common cultural heritage and the potential that exists for deepening cooperation in these areas. The commerce ministers of both countries signed MoUs for expanding bilateral trade between the two countries by way of establishing greater communication between the chambers of commerce of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
The peace process and attempts at talking with Taliban figured prominently in the talks between the two leaders. President Karzai sought to assure the Turkmen leaders that the talks and negotiations aimed at bringing a settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan will be "Afghan-led" and that no outside power will be allowed to interfere and derail the process. President Karzai explained to his Turkmen counterpart that Afghanistan and Pakistan are serious in seeking a negotiated settlement to the conflict as there is no sole military solution to the situation in Afghanistan. He also reassured Turkmen leaders that the interests of all regional countries will be protected during and in the outcome of the peace process.
In the past, Turkmenistan had voiced its support to seeking a resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan through negotiations and pursuit of an inter-Afghan peace process in which Afghans should take the lead. As far as this is concerned, Kabul and Ashgabat share the same view that is the peace process should be led and steered by the government of Afghanistan away from interference by outside powers. Turkmenistan recently issued a 5-point program detailing its policy towards Afghanistan aimed at helping Afghanistan become a viable state in the region. Training of Afghan bureaucrats and civil servants, providing Afghanistan with transport infrastructure projects such as the extension of its railway lines to northern Afghanistan and taking care of immediate energy and power needs of Afghanistan are at the heart of Turkmenistan's policy of assistance towards Afghanistan.
A great deal of potential has always existed in Afghanistan-Turkmenistan relations. The two countries are very well poised to benefit immensely from greater bilateral relations in the areas of power and energy and its transport networks, trade, business and commerce, education and cultural affairs. The visit by our country's president and the high-level delegation can be a promising first step towards unlocking the great wealth of potential that currently lies dormant in the bilateral relations of both countries. Turkmenistan has the fourth largest gas reserves in the world making it one of the principal energy hubs in the world. Therefore, Afghanistan can be a vital partner to Turkmenistan in helping that country to achieve its goal of diversifying its gas markets and gas transport routes. Traditionally, Turkmen gas has been exported via Russia as Russian pipelines have been the only available transport route for Turkmen gas to reach European markets.
Turkmenistan has been actively on the lookout to build alternate routes and the route through Afghanistan has been the most feasible and economical. The rise of India as an economic giant and its increasing energy needs make Turkmenistan and Central Asia energy markets of choice for that country and also China. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) has been one of the most important regional initiatives to be undertaken by these regional countries. The agreement to build the pipeline to transport Turkmen gas to Afghanistan and Pakistan and thereafter to India was signed in 2010. Security concerns remain a challenge in the operationalization of the pipeline especially in the Afghanistan and Pakistan sectors. However, given the tremendous economic and financial benefits that arise both in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result of the hefty transport fees reaching hundreds of millions of dollars a year and the related employment generation, it is expected that the governments involved will do their utmost in providing security to the pipelines that will be buried deep underground.
The region that Afghanistan is located in its midst comprised of Central Asia and South Asia is set to witness significant economic transformation in the years and decades to come. India, China and to some extent Russia will increasingly act not only as powerful centers of growth and development in the broader region but will also act as engines of growth for the global economy. The nascent process of convergence and integration among Central Asian and South Asian countries will continue unabated and the result will be more opportunities for growth and progressive transformation in the broader region.
Afghanistan is in the middle of this unfolding regional transformation. In the future, a peaceful and progressive Afghanistan, therefore, can benefit immensely from these opportunities. If the agreements inked with Turkmenistan are followed up and acted upon by both countries, the same can be pursued by other countries in Central Asia such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In essence, that will amount to tightening of this web of regional cooperation in an era of globalization where bilateral and multilateral pacts of cooperation are the only way for countries to bring about growth and development and realize the aspirations of their people.