After a promising start in Bonn 2001 but almost a decade with this idea falling dormant again, a regional approach has been identified as an essential element for a peaceful and sustainable solution for Afghanistan’s problems. Turkey had given this idea a new start in November last year with a summit meeting in Istanbul. Now, this has been follow-up with a first ministerial meeting in Kabul Our guest blogger Niamatullah Ibrahimi(*) thinks that this approach is easier formulated than practically done. He looks at the outcome of the Kabul meeting and the vast challenges for the ‘Heart of Asia’ approach.
On 14 June, the Government of Afghanistan hosted ‘The Heart of Asia Regional Meeting’ in Kabul. In a follow-up to the November 2011 Istanbul summit, the event brought together 14 ministerial and high-level delegations from the ‘Heart of Asia’ countries, 15 from supporting countries and 12 delegations from regional and international organisations(1).
The Kabul conference’s final declaration listed three areas of follow-up to the Istanbul Process: 1) political consultation involving Afghanistan and its near and extended neighbors; 2) sustained and incremental approach to implementation of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) identified in the Istanbul Process Document and 3) ‘seeking to contribute and bring greater coherence to the work of various regional processes and organizations, particularly as they relate to Afghanistan’. However, before the Istanbul meeting already, Russia, Pakistan and Iran shot down any practical idea that might look like a ‘mechanism’, arguing that there are already too many South and Central Asian ‘mechanisms’ that barely work (read an article with an official statement from Islamabad here).
Beneath the surface of all the nice but inconsequential statements, the concept of Afghanistan as the heart of Asia and a ‘land-bridge’ between the troubled regions of Central, South and Western Asia faces formidable challenges. Afghanistan’s ‘near and extended neighbourhood’, as the conference declaration describes, is one of the most challenging regions of the world for regional cooperation. Such description of Afghanistan’s neighbourhood also revealed the complexity of the search for a regional solution to the problem of Afghanistan. The speeches delivered during the Kabul conference, cloaked in diplomatic niceties as they were, also point to differing views and, as a consequence, different proposals for solutions for the problem of Afghanistan.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi reiterated his country’s concerns and suspicions over a long-term foreign military presence in Afghanistan. Obviously referring to the US, he said that a ‘particular country intends to prolong its military presence in pursuit of its extra regional objectives’. S.M. Krishna, Indian Minister for External Affairs, stressed that the principal problem of Afghanistan is ‘terrorism drawing upon ideological, financial and logistical support from beyond its borders’; he was referring, as it can be guessed easily, to Pakistan. Hina Rabbani Khar, that country’s Foreign Minister, began by stressing that the concept of Afghanistan as ‘heart of Asia’ was first coined by Allama Iqbal, the Pakistani poet-philosopher and is therefore close the to the hearts of Pakistanis. She said that Kabul is ‘the most important capital’ for Pakistan and that Afghanistan’s long-term stability ‘is a matter of Pakistan’s core national interest’. Interestingly enough, she made no reference to her country’s usual concerns and suspicions about Indian activities or long-term western military presence in Afghanistan. Such broad and diplomatic statement, however, hides a lot more than it reveals the undercurrents of policy direction towards Afghanistan in the country’s political and military circles.
Western countries, obviously desperate to make the transition process by 2014 a success, have chosen to be in the list of ‘supporting countries’. They probably want to indicate that they are neither in the near nor in the extended neighbourhood of Afghanistan and that they can extend their friendly support from the distant west only. William Burns, the US Deputy Secretary of State, again referred to the vision of a ‘New Silk Road’ in which a ‘secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan’ would happily sit in the middle of revived historical trade routes reconnected with ‘21sth-century technology’.
Future stability in Afghanistan undoubtedly requires a careful balancing between the country’s relations with its neighbours and its continued dependence on long-term US and western support. It also requires both regional and global powers, such as the US, to find and agree on a shared interest in the stability of the country.
The stability of the first few years after the fall of the Taleban in 2001 was largely a result of a common understanding between regional and western powers on the need to stabilise Afghanistan. Despite tensions between the west and Iran already then, the latter country played an important role in the initial success of the post-Taleban political process. Similarly, Russia, India and the Central Asian republics that, like Iran, had backed the anti-Taleban alliance (or components of it) in the 1990s, threw their support behind the western-led stabilisation efforts or quietly disengaged from factional politics with respect to Afghanistan. The position of Pakistan has, however, at best been dubious. Having been the main supporter of the Taleban in the 1990s, its government and military joined the ‘war on terror’ in 2001 under immense US pressure but have continued to be accused of giving the Taleban militants ‘safe havens’ on its own territory.
In more recent years, the implicit and explicit understanding between regional and western countries that was crucial for the success of the immediate post-Taleban political process has been gradually fracturing. Relations between Afghanistan’s neighbours and the west are also restrained by geo-strategic rivalries and divergent interests that have no direct link to Afghanistan. This includes the tensions between Iran and the west that have been constantly escalating over Tehran’s nuclear program and potential geo-political changes resulting from revolutionary upheavals in the Middle East such as the present crisis in Syria.
Similarly, relations between Pakistan and the west are perhaps at the lowest level in the past decade. The stalemate over the re-opening of the NATO supply route through Pakistan is only a consequence and indication of a broader divergence of interests between the US and Pakistan. In what appears to be a significant realignment of policy in the region, last week the US announced trilateral consultations with India on Afghanistan. (Such a mechanism has been in place with Pakistan as well but has been frequently interrupted.) Earlier, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged India during a visit in the country to play a more active role in Afghanistan. Both countries have signed strategic partnership agreements with Afghanistan. While it is unclear what a more active Indian involvement in Afghanistan would look like, these announcements will certainly stir up suspicions and nervousness in the Pakistani military and political establishment.
This regional and global context needs to be figured into the Afghan equation. However, this is easier said than done.
In view of the fragility and uncertainty of the political and security environment in Afghanistan and the fear of regional rivalry over influence flaring up again in the aftermath of international exit, or drawdown, after 2014, the successful holding of the Kabul ‘Heart of Asia’ can certainly be hailed as a success story for the Afghan government. But in an environment of distrust and of conflicting and divergent political and economic interests, the challenges facing the leadership of Afghanistan remain enormous. Long-term US and western support and regional cooperation are essential for Afghanistan to avoid descending back into the chaos and proxy wars of the 1990s. The key question remains how the country attracts and maintains long-term support from the west without antagonising Pakistan and Iran, with their increasingly divergent and conflicting interests with the west and between themselves.
(*) The author is Co-Director of Afghanistan Watch, a non-governmental organisation based in Kabul.
(1) List of participating delegations:
Neighbouring and regional countries:
Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan
Australia, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Germany, UK, US
Agha Khan Development Network (AKDN), Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC), Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), EU, NATO, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and UN.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020