The Wakhan Corridor is a narrow strip of land in north-eastern Afghanistan separating Pakistan from Tajikistan. This corridor also provides Afghanistan with a tiny border with China. The corridor was part of the ancient Silk Road – the oldest transit route from China to Central Asia. In the 19th century, the corridor became the legacy of a geopolitical contest between British-ruled India and the Russian Empire; known to historians as the “Great Game”.
Such was the importance of this corridor that in 2009, the then US President Barack Obama asked China to open the Corridor in Xinjiang to support the NATO operations in Afghanistan. However, China rejected the proposal for security considerations in its northwest territory.
Additionally, on one hand the Wakhan Corridor provides a route from China to Afghanistan, but on the other, it also creates a barrier between Pakistan and Tajikistan. However, since the need for trade and communication from both Pakistan and Tajikistan has increased in recent times, building a road across Wakhan corridor to connect Pakistan with Tajikistan boats immense potential for regional connectivity.
Pakistan desires to reach out to Central Asia for trade and energy cooperation in order to overcome its energy crisis. Last year, Pakistan’s former PM Nawaz Sharif during a visit to Tajikistan said that the Pak-Tajik relations were crucial for regional integration and promotion of bilateral trade, tourism, and people-to-people contacts. Meanwhile, as a landlocked country, Tajikistan also need accessibility to a seaport for its own imports and exports. During the same visit, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon expressed his desire to “use the opportunities provided by Pakistan’s seaports and existing transit networks to expand trade at the regional level”.
Since there is no direct road between Pakistan and Tajikistan, both countries could use the rebuilt Karakorum highway as a transit route, bypassing Afghanistan. For the purpose of improving regional connectivity, China, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have already signed a Quadrilateral Transit Traffic Agreement (QTTA); a transit trade deal to facilitate logistics, communication and trade. All Tajikistan needs to do, in this case, is to get on board. In fact, Tajikistan has showed interest in joining the QTTA during various diplomatic meetings and Pakistan has showed willingness to back its membership.
However, if Pakistan and Tajikistan manage to build road across the Wakhan Corridor to connect Tajikistan – which could apparently shorten the route between two countries – they must be well prepared to confront various complications in the region.
First, the issue of instability and terrorism must be taken under consideration especially when the Taliban still control most of the Afghan territory. Additionally, local and international terrorist groups still have presence in some areas surrounding Gilgit-Baltistan.
Second, Pakistan would be required to ask Afghanistan to lease at least some part of Afghan land, which, at the moment, seems difficult considering tense ties between both the neighbours. The prospective solution is to make the route under China’s B&R initiative to get support from China. Having said that, it still seems like an uphill task.
Finally, besides border disputes and tense bilateral ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the biggest obstacle that could hinder any Pak-Tajik project is the US presence and influence in Afghanistan. Washington has, on and off, played the role of a regional spoiler due to its “back India and press Pakistan” strategy.
Additionally, Washington is also trying to block China’s ‘West Forward’ strategy, since Beijing is actively pursuing its own economic interests and hence undermining the US influence in the region. China is working with regional partners through diplomatic and economic channels to promote regional connectivity along with making CPEC accessible to Pakistan’s neighbours.
Therefore, even with all its positives in place, it is still not the right time for both Pakistan and Tajikistan to work on the prospect of the Wakhan Corridor. However, if both the countries can enhance their bilateral ties, along with working closely with regional stakeholders, the corridor can certainly become a reality in the near future.
The author Frank Sun is a researcher working at the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), Islamabad. He is also currently enrolled in a PhD program in China.