Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Afghanistan Conference in Kazakhstan: Will the ‘Heart of Asia’ Start Throbbing?

S Reza Kazemi 10 min

The ‘Heart of Asia’ process that was launched in November 2011 in Turkey aims to galvanise regional co-operation for security and development in Afghanistan and its near and extended neighbourhood. Approximately a year and a half has passed, with a hard-to-track number of conferences and meetings. The latest is to take place on 26 April 2013 in Kazakhstan. Said Reza Kazemi reviews the developments and argues that although the initiative that started in Istanbul has led to some practical, albeit patchy, results, it has been overly unrealistic from the outset. Given the region’s current socio-political divergence, the process is likely to need years, if not decades, to come to fruition, if at all. Yet, the upcoming high-level event in Kazakhstan might be a milestone for the regional process as those involved ostensibly move closer to concrete action.

Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, has featured quite prominently in the international arena in recent weeks. After hosting two recent rounds of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) over Iran’s nuclear ambitions that ended in little progress on 5 April 2013, it will now organise the third Afghanistan-focussed ‘Heart of Asia’ ministerial conference on 26 April 2013 (read the Kazakhstani government’s announcement here).(1)
The major outcome that is expected from the Almaty event is that the countries involved move from the purely technical preparatory work to a phase where they get closer to concrete action. While they had identified, and created working groups on, what are called confidence-building measures (CBMs) – which look more like fields on which co-operation is envisaged – at the second ministerial conference in Kabul in June last year, the CBMs will now be officially adopted and underpinned by action plans. This has been confirmed to this author in late March 2013 by a senior Kazakhstani government official, who preferred not to be named. A senior Western diplomat, who closely follows the process but spoke on condition of anonymity, told this author that the CBM implementation plans are ‘only available to officials’ for the time being and will be made public at the coming Almaty conference. All in all, the ‘Heart of Asia’ process is moving towards its crucial test: implementation (or lack or inadequacy of it).

The road from Istanbul in November 2011 to Almaty in April 2013 has been long, chequered and marked by meetings after meetings, involving technical staff, senior officials and foreign ministers from the participating states and supporting countries and organisations.(2) The process began with a ministerial conference on 2 November 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey (read the conference’s final document here and AAN’s blog here). Following two preparatory meetings on 29 February 2012 in Kabul and on 18 April 2012 in Turkmenistan’s capital of Ashgabat, the second ministerial conference was held on 14 June 2012 in Kabul (read the final document here and AAN’s two blogs before and after the event here and here). The co-organisers, Afghanistan and Turkey, and particularly Afghanistan, hailed the conference as a significant achievement in encouraging regional co-operation centred on Afghanistan and its neighbourhood.

The seven confidence-building measures (CBMs) outlined in Kabul, each with one or more leading countries and several implementing and supporting countries and organisations, include disaster management (led by Kazakhstan and Pakistan), counter-terrorism (Afghanistan, Turkey and United Arab Emirates), counter-narcotics (Azerbaijan and Russia), chambers of commerce (India), commercial opportunities (India), regional infrastructure (Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan) and education (Iran). At least four meetings of senior officials followed, including in New York on 24 September 2012, in Ankara on 18 October 2012, in Baku on 6 February 2013 and in Kabul on 25 March 2013, in addition to several technical staff meetings (see herehere and here). The results remained technical: the seven CBMs were reduced to six (chambers of commerce and commercial opportunities merged into one, now called ‘trade, commerce and investment opportunities’), the CBMs were endorsed and it was decided that the coming Almaty conference would adopt ‘CBM implementation plans’ (see here). So far the CBMs look more like fields of co-operation rather than practical, concrete measures aimed at facilitating, securing and sustaining regional political, economic and other forms of co-operation.

On the level of individual CBMs, there have been some practical, but mostly bilateral and haphazard, results that have been ‘linked’ to the broader regional process. The India-led CBM on trade, commerce and investment opportunities is apparently making some progress. The Indian government and industry (the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the Confederation of Indian Industry) convened a major international conference on investment opportunities in Afghanistan on 28 June 2012 in New Delhi, provided training for Afghan businesspeople on international trade and lifted tariffs on most Afghan exports to India, not to mention India’s desire to link to Afghanistan’s central Bamyan province through the Iranian port of Chabahar, thereby accessing Afghanistan’s largest known iron ore mine in Hajigak (where an Indian consortium already has won the extraction contract) and bypassing Pakistan (see herehere and here ). In his November 2012 visit to India, aimed at attracting Indian businesses to Afghanistan, President Hamed Karzai clarified his administration’s special relationship with India by saying, ‘we [Afghanistan] want to welcome you [India] with a red carpet while others will get a grey carpet’. For its part, the Indian government has stressed the need to fill any potential post-2014 vacuum in Afghanistan with ‘greater private investments’. These developments, however, might prove irksome, if not counter-productive, if they potentially disturb the regional trade balance at the expense of, for example, Pakistan. Furthermore, the growing bilateralism may, in the long run, undermine, rather than strengthen, the regional, multilateral approach.

Some bilateral progress was also made with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.(3) Azerbaijan is planning to reciprocate Afghanistan by opening its embassy in Kabul, is helping Afghanistan improve its customs regulations and is gathering, in co-operation with Russia, the counter-narcotics CBM stakeholders, which they co-lead, in a conference in May 2013 (venue unspecified so far) (read herehere and here). Turkmenistan, which co-leads the regional infrastructure CBM, recently hosted the presidents of Afghanistan and Tajikistan on the occasion of this year’s Nowruz (21 March 2013) where the three countries declared a project to start building a trilateral railway in early July 2013.(4) Technical discussions are on-going, but important questions over feasibility (due to lack of clarity about funding and growing insecurity in northern Afghanistan) remain unaddressed. It is also unclear if this tripartite initiative falls within the ambit of the ‘Heart of Asia’ process. What is clear is that this railway, if built, bypasses Uzbekistan, the country with which Tajikistan is already implicated in conflicts over trade, transportation and water-sharing.

As for the host of the coming conference, Kazakhstan has been expanding its political and economic relations with Afghanistan post-2001. It has supported Afghanistan’s involvement in regional structures such as the Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation (CAREC), Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) (whose presidency was held by Kazakhstan in 2010) and Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), where Afghanistan obtained its observer status in June 2012. Kazakhstan has provided economic assistance to Afghanistan (including the reconstruction of Taloqan-Kunduz-Shir Khan Bandar road, construction of a high school in Dar-e Suf, Samangan and a hospital in Waras, Bamyan, and provision of wheat and food aid), financed scholarships for Afghan students to study in Kazakhstan (particularly in Almaty and Astana) and bolstered its trade relations, mainly through its bilateral trade commission with Afghanistan and through around 2,000 Afghans who live in that country and can act as contact points (read here). Kazakhstan intends to further expand its relationship with Afghanistan not only diplomatically and economically but also in the security field by repairing and modernising Afghan military equipment and possibly training Afghan security forces in its military training institutions.

Nevertheless, any sporadic practical results of the initiative – which, so far, to a large extent, remain in the bilateral sphere – fade against the daunting challenges facing Afghanistan and the wider region. First is the growing uncertainty about the future of Afghanistan and perhaps, by extension, its neighbourhood. Afghanistan is bracing itself for its critical transition by 2014, involving the on-going security transition and the related US/NATO drawdown by mid-2013, the already controversial presidential and provincial council elections scheduled for 5 April 2014 and the stalemated ‘peace’ process. The situation can perhaps presently be best described as cloudy and it is extremely difficult and, in many ways, premature to make and stick to any predictions whatsoever, particularly with regard to neighbouring Central Asia.

As far as Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbourhood is concerned, some of the direct and immediate Central Asian countries (particularly Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) and the Eurasian regional treaty organisations, particularly the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), have been building an almost apocalyptic narrative about post-2014 Afghanistan – a situation that will ‘cause’, in their view, a considerable flow of terrorists, Islamist extremists and drug traffickers northwards that can seriously threaten stability in an already volatile Central Asian region (for two recent examples, watch and listen to CSTO’s Russian head Nikolay Bordyuzha’s speech in the Russian embassy in the UK here and read the exchange between Presidents Islam Karimov and Vladimir Putin of respectively Uzbekistan and Russia here). This is, however, largely exaggerated and politico-economically motivated (for extensive reporting, read this author’s previous blog here; read also here).

Moreover, Afghan-Central Asian trade, particularly through Hairatan, seen as a key element of the US-touted New Silk Road initiative, has reportedly ‘depressed’ mainly due to corruption. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which have both mined parts of their shared border, are, meanwhile, competing for Afghan and South Asian electricity markets in a way that has worsened their broader conflict over water resources in Central Asia (particularly when it comes to Tajikistan’s intention to continue constructing its contentious Rogun dam). It is unclear, however, if these and other countries in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood will increasingly resort to hedging behaviour in the near future by fortifying their borders, limiting already restricted interactions with Afghanistan and its people and protecting themselves in all possible ways at Afghanistan’s cost, instead of practically co-operating bilaterally and/or multilaterally.

Perhaps more importantly, one wonders if and how the contradictory socio-politico-economic objectives of Afghanistan’s near and extended neighbours can be balanced within the ‘Heart of Asia’ process. Putting aside for a moment Iran’s disputed nuclear programme and its larger conflict with the West – particularly the US, the external state actor currently most heavily involved in Afghanistan – Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan, as what is sometimes called the ‘Union of Dari/Farsi/Persian/Tajiki-Speaking Countries’, have so far failed to launch the common TV channel that was announced in Dushanbe in 2006, let alone engage in greater politico-economic co-operation and integration. Abdul Ghafur Arezu, the Afghan ambassador in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe has linked this to a ‘difference in political systems’, which obliquely refers to Iran’s clerical stance, Tajikistan’s secular stance and Afghanistan’s mixed, if any, stance. Furthermore, Iranian policy-makers and experts have told the Delhi Policy Group, an Indian think-tank, that Iran is being side-lined in the ‘Heart of Asia’ process (particularly in the Iran-led education CBM) in favour of pro-US ‘players’ and that Iran is watching the ideological Saudi-Pakistani-Taleban nexus in Afghanistan (read the report here).

Afghan-Pakistani relations, which should be seen in the broader context of Pakistani-Indian relations, have recently plunged into a new low. Both countries have strongly accused each other of supporting violence on each other’s soil and Afghanistan has announced that it will go to talk with the Taleban, if it can, without the involvement of Pakistan – the country widely believed to have the access key to the Taleban’s leadership (read a recent AAN blog here). Pakistan has made it clear, at least implicitly, that it demands to have continued influential stake in Afghanistan’s future, thereby forestalling what it views as the threat of Indian encirclement. At the same time, India, Pakistan’s traditional arch-rival, has stated that it also does not want to be a mere spectator in Afghanistan’s evolving situation. On 8 April 2013, Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid remarked:

India has not and must not be a bystander and aloof of what is happening in Afghanistan. India wants to be part of the solution and not part of problem in Afghanistan, some people want to see us as part of problem… we don’t want to give them a chance.

Finally, there are larger geopolitical considerations at play. A basic question is whether the West-led international community is really withdrawing from Afghanistan and using the ‘Heart of Asia’ process as part of a nice cover for leaving Afghanistan to its fate and to its region within the broader enteqal, or transition, narrative; or whether, alternatively, it intends to stay in the country in the long run, perhaps for reasons larger than Afghanistan. The Afghan and US governments have been negotiating a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) since at least mid-November 2012, inconclusively so far, and NATO has already decided to replace ISAF by a post-2014 mission dubbed ‘Resolute Support’ (read here and here). There are also reports that the US is not only eyeing but also building and strengthening five ‘super bases’ in Bagram, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif and Shindand across Afghanistan (see, for example, p 1 here). This has alarmed Russia in the neighbouring Central Asian region, viewed by Russia as part of its traditional ‘near abroad’ with Russia demanding that any US/NATO military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 needs an authorisation from the UN Security Council.

Additionally, NATO’s November 2012 statement that a UN Security Council approval might not be essential to post-2014 stay but that the stay can merely be based on an invitation from the Afghan government has been widely covered by Chinese media (see, for example, here and here). Most recently, China, Pakistan and Russia specifically held talks on Afghanistan on 3 April 2013 in Beijing, calling for a bigger role for the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), while the 11th meeting of the Chinese, Indian and Russian foreign ministers, held on 13 April in Moscow, partly discussed Afghanistan and ‘called on the international community to deal firmly with terrorist groups to obviate the risk of Afghanistan sliding back to being a safe haven for terrorists and extremists, threatening the region and beyond’ (read their joint statement here). Is this mere rhetoric that is growing in circulation? Are certain regional dynamics evolving around Afghanistan? For now, the former seems to be true as China and Russia are hardly able and/or willing to take a larger stake in Afghanistan’s stabilisation and may actually find greater co-operation with the West-led international community multilaterally beneficial in Afghanistan.

The so-called ‘Heart of Asia’ region is anything but integrated, vision-driven and free of violent resolution of conflicts. With the process set to begin its implementation after the third ministerial conference in Almaty, it remains to be seen how it can practically balance and mediate the divergent socio-political objectives of the participating and supporting states and organisations in the course of years, if not decades. A good measure of success will be if the initiative can really help prevent the escalation of existing violence in Afghanistan and the outbreak of new violent conflicts in the region.

Gathering many different governments, who do not have a tendency to talk much with one another, to discuss the situation in the region, with Afghanistan at its centre, can, indeed, be regarded as a success for fledgling Afghan diplomacy, backed by its international supporters, particularly Turkey and, this time, Kazakhstan. Yet, in the ‘Heart of Asia’ area, the bureaucratic mills grind slowly. For now, it appears that the ‘Heart of Asia’ will barely start throbbing in Almaty.

Said Reza Kazemi has been a researcher with AAN from May to December 2012. Currently he is a visiting researcher in the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).

(1) Kazakhstan’s ‘good offices’ seem to be part of some of its larger plans. The Kazakhstani government has expressed its intention to open what it calls a ‘regional centre of multilateral diplomacy’ in Almaty and establish ‘KazAid’ as its international development assistance agency that will provide aid to countries such as ‘Afghanistan and [those in] the South Caucasus’ (read here and here). There might be regional competition at play: neighbouring Turkmenistan already hosts a UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA) in its capital Ashgabat. That Kazakhstan wants to become a donor country is surprising, though, as an increasing number of (mainly rural) Kazakhstanis are grappling with poor living conditions due to a widening socio-economic gap (for more information, read here and here), not to mention the country’s very poor democratisation and human rights records as seen, most recently, in a heavy-handed clampdown on dissent in December 2011 in Zhanaozen, a town in western Kazakhstan (for extensive reports on Zhanaozen, see here).
(2) Participating Countries
Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and UzbekistanSupporting Countries and Organisations
Australia, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the UK, the US, Agha Khan Development Network (AKDN), Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation (CAREC), Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Economic Co-operation Organisation (ECO), Organisation for Islamic Co-operation (OIC), South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and United Nations (UN)

Source: “Heart of Asia” Ministerial Conference, Kabul, 14 June 2012

(3) Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are, however, hardly socio-political models for Afghanistan. As post-Soviet states, these countries are among the world’s worst in terms of democratisation and human rights, particularly freedom of expression (see, for example, here and here). Although fragile, the media are more vibrant in Afghanistan and the political landscape is much broader and more pluralistic than in these countries.
(4) According to Turkmenistan’s media, which are strictly controlled by the country’s government, Presidents Hamed Karzai and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan also discussed ‘co-operation in the transport, communications, fuel and energy sectors, especially… practical implementation of… Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline [TAPI project]’ (Source: BBC Monitoring Afghanistan, 20 March 2013).


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