Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Afghanistan surprises most first-time visitors (including many on military transport planes) with stunning natural beauty — there’s little room in column inches taken up with war to describe snow-topped mountains, lush valleys, spring fields scattered with crocus and other pleasures of living here.
The country’s dazzling blue Band-e Amir lakes are almost unique geologically (not the way they are formed, but in their size), there are endangered animals like snow leopards roaming the country’s more remote corners, and now naturalists have discovered one of the world’s largest natural stone arches.
The Hazarchishman arch, which sits over 3,000 metres above sea level, has a span of almost 65 metres, making it the 12th largest known in the world. It has nudged Utah’s Outlaw Arch down one place in the list.
There are also man-made treasures left, despite centuries of war and destruction, and a more recent spasm of archeological looting fueled by the huge market for antiquities, whether legal or not.
Afghan authorities have organised a roadshow in London that opens on Friday aimed at drumming up interest in the country’s mineral wealth variously estimated at anything from $1 trillion to $3 trillion.
India and China, the regional heavyweights, are the top candidates to fight for a piece of the action in their immediate neighbourhood. If there are such large reserves of copper, iron ore and key industrial metals such as lithium lying untapped in their neighbourhood you would expect them to invest heavily in Afghanistan to feed their supercharged economies.
If you have been reading news reports and blogs in recent weeks on Pakistan’s Afghanistan strategy, you would think Islamabad has emerged at the top of the heap, holding all the cards to a possible endgame. Its close ties to the Afghan Taliban put Islamabad in a unique position for a negotiated settlement to the eight-year-war, with little place for arch rival India which has been trying to muscle into its sphere of influence.
But Pakistan must not be taken in by all the hype; it has neither delivered a strategic coup nor has it fully secured its interests, argue two experts in separate pieces that seem to cut through all the noise.
One of the first things that U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates did during his trip to India last week was to assure Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the United States did not intend to cut and run from Afghanistan. America was committed to Afghanistan for the long-term, he said, trying to calm Indian concerns over the Obama administration’s stated plans to begin withdrawing troops from July 2011.
It struck me as quite remarkable that India, long a prickly nation opposed to superpower presence in the region, had so openly pinned its hopes on a prolonged U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Quite a change from the time it would rail against the presence of such “extra-regional” powers.