The third Afghanistan-focussed ‘Heart of Asia’, also known as Istanbul Process, ministerial conference came to an end on 26 April 2013 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. At least three issues stood out: (1) the growing importance the Afghan government attaches to the regional initiative towards and after 2014, (2) the major conflicts involving some of the prominent member countries as these conflicts greatly dim the otherwise promising, although overly unrealistic, hopes for the region and (3) serious questions over the coming implementation phase, particularly with regard to the funding of the six adopted implementation plans. Said Reza Kazemi reviews these problems, but thinks that the ‘over-promising, under-delivering’ event was, nonetheless, an achievement for the burgeoning Afghan diplomacy, backed by its key international supporters.
The recently concluded ‘Heart of Asia’ ministerial conference in Almaty not only quite lacked the high-level profile of its two predecessors but it also was reportedly hectic and contentious (1). According to some media reports (2) (see, for example, here), fewer foreign ministers took part in Almaty (3) than previously in Istanbul and Kabul and the fifth meeting of senior officials, led by Afghan and Kazakh Deputy Foreign Ministers Jawed Ludin and Kairat Sarybay, was apparently lengthy and hectic on 25 April 2013, attempting to dispel controversies over, for example, a funding mechanism for the six implementation plans (more on this below) and preparing the conference’s outcome document to be adopted by the following day on 26 April.
Back in early November 2011, when the regional initiative was launched, it was the very idea of establishing a ‘mechanism’, be it for organisation, funding, implementation or in any other way, that was strongly opposed by some important member countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Russia and was, hence, scrapped (read more on this in our first blog on the regional process here). One reason given was that it was superfluous to create another mechanism while several already existing regional Central Asian/Eurasian and South Asian organisations such as Economic Co-operation Organisation (ECO) and South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) barely function.
Afghan government’s regional hopes during transition
The Afghan government made it clear in Almaty that it is viewing the ‘Heart of Asia’ process as crucial to securing its future and perhaps, by extension, that of its neighbourhood, given the on-going enteqal, or transition, (at its political, economic and security levels) in Afghanistan. Zalmai Rassul, the Afghan foreign minister who led the country’s delegation in the talks, described the regional initiative as ‘by far the most successful attempt of many, many tries to promote regional cooperation over the past decade’ (read his full statement here). He also stressed that Afghanistan was ‘determined to reclaim [its] rightful place as this region’s landbridge and roundabout’ connecting South Asia, Central Asia, Eurasia and the Middle East and that there should be ‘no doubt in any one’s mind about [Afghanistan’s] full commitment to the Istanbul Process as its permanent co-chair’. William Burns, the US deputy secretary of state, urged the participating and supporting countries and organisations to make their contribution by ‘helping to train, finance, and equip the Afghan army and police… expanding [their] coordination with Afghanistan to stem the movement of dangerous material, people, and finances across borders’ (read his statement here). These remarks appear to be yet another corroboration of the view that the ‘Heart of Asia’ process is being promoted as part of the broader enteqalnarrative to gradually leave or delegate, at least partially, to Afghanistan and the region their affairs and thereby ease at all levels the drawdown of the West-led international community from Afghanistan through the southern (Pakistan) and northern (including post-Soviet Central Asian states) routes.
As permanent co-chair, Afghanistan has increasingly been investing in the ‘Heart of Asia’ process. It has created organisational structures, mainly within its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, organising and co-ordinating meetings and other work at least at the three levels of technical staff (at least 10 meetings so far), senior officials (five so far) and foreign ministers (three so far) across the region. A deputy foreign minister (currently Jawed Ludin) who, just after the Almaty conference, announced his decision to resign from the Afghan government due to what he called ‘personal issues’ (see here), is dedicating much of his time to take the regional initiative forward. The overall goal of the Afghan government is to increase its legitimacy and relevance in the region, secure regional co-operation for Afghanistan’s stabilisation and promote the country as a bilaterally and multilaterally beneficial regional economic co-operation hub for the building of infrastructure, the trade of commodities, the intra-regional transit of energy such as gas and electricity and the extraction of mineral resources. Afghanistan would thus ensure the continued viability of its post-2001 state and society in case of any imminent significant reduction in the West-led international community’s engagement by and beyond 2014 (for further detail, read the Afghan government’s previously identified 15 regional investment projects and policy priorities, which are mostly yet to be implemented, here).
Conflicting agendas continuing to overshadow hopes for the region
However, it was the diplomatically and thinly veiled conflicts involving some of the most important member countries of the ‘Heart of Asia’ process that eclipsed regional aspirations in Kazakhstan’s former capital city. Most prominently, the Afghan and Indian governments made explicit and implicit references to Pakistan as the source of instability in Afghanistan and of terrorism and extremism in the region, something which was more broadly covered by local Afghan media than the conference itself (Tolo TV, 26 April 2013). Referring to ‘a clear fact that the vast majority of the Afghan people strongly support a political solution’ to Afghanistan’s protracted armed conflict, Afghan Foreign Minister Rassul asked for ‘honest and practical support of outside stakeholders, particularly the Islamic Republic of Pakistan… in the interest of peace and security in both countries’ (read here). Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid went further by remarking (find his statement here):
Afghanistan will experience lasting peace only if short-sighted perceptions of competition and strategic depth are replaced by collaboration and economic investment in Afghanistan by countries of the region and the rest of the world… We have no doubt that the greatest challenge posed to vision of Afghanistan is the persistent threat of terrorism that emanates from beyond its borders. Other countries of the region, especially India, are not immune to this threat (emphasis added).
Pakistan’s response was evasive, terse and characteristically diplomatic. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani said that ‘a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan is in our vital national interest’ and that ‘Pakistan is committed to provide its fullest cooperation to Afghanistan to help it steer through the transition period and beyond’ (see here). He also referred to Pakistan’s co-leadership (together with Kazakhstan) in the development of the Disaster Management Confidence-Building Measure (DM-CBM) and to its participation in the five remaining CBMs as ‘a manifestation of result oriented cooperation to promote security and prosperity in Afghanistan and the region’. Mired in accusations and counter-accusations, the Afghan-Pakistani ties, which are inextricably linked to India’s involvement in Afghanistan, have hit a recent low (read our previous blog here).
As for the host Kazakhstan, the country’s political leaders, particularly President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov, used the event, among other things, to demonstrate Kazakhstan’s rising regional leadership role in post-Soviet Central Asia and perhaps beyond. In remarks that can be indicative of regional competition (in this case with Turkmenistan, which already hosts the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia), Nazarbayev raised the idea of the establishment of a ‘UN regional centre’ in Almaty, which is closer to Afghanistan than the current capital Astana, to address regional conflicts, particularly the ‘stabilisation of the situation in Afghanistan’ (read three brief reports on the meeting between Nazarbayev and Rassul here, here and here; read also here). Rassul’s statement that ‘Kazakhstan is demonstrating its leadership role by hosting this third ministerial meeting and being such a dedicated participant of the Istanbul Process’ has been quite extensively covered by Kazakhstani media, at least on the Internet.
More interestingly, Nazarbayev said that ‘Afghanistan continues, unfortunately, to be a source of terrorist and extremist activities, including in neighbouring countries’ (see here). If he was referring to October and November 2011 bombings in the western and southern Kazakhstani towns of Atyrau and Taraz, which were reportedly claimed by what is called Jund al-Khilafa (Arabic, meaning ‘Soldiers of the Caliphate’) (read here and here), the little-known group actually has its roots in the north Caucasus, if it is not home-grown in Kazakhstan itself, rather than along the porous Afghan-Pakistan border, according to this author’s previous research and communications with at least two Central Asian experts who requested not to be named (4).
Furthermore, it was undoubtedly Iran that let out the most dramatic rhetoric in Almaty. This is not, however, surprising because Iran is, after all, participating in a regional process that has been designed, or at least encouraged, by the US. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi regarded almost all of the region’s problems such as ‘inability of parts of the region’s authorities in restoring law and order, terrorism, drug addiction, drug trafficking, organised crime and other illegal activities’ as the results of what he called dekhalat-e nezami-ye begana (‘alien military interference’) and said that the solution for these problems was the ‘exit of alien military forces’ (read the press release on the website of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs here). This refers – not so obliquely – to the international military coalition led by the US and its allies in Afghanistan, with which Iran is implicated in a dispute over its nuclear programme and broader political conflicts. Moreover, Salehi warned of a ‘tsunami of narcotics’ next year as he said there was evidence to suggest that drug cultivation would triple in Afghanistan with repercussions for the region and the wider world (see here and here) (5). Rassul reportedly stated that drug cultivation has decreased in areas under the control of the Afghan government, while it has increased in areas outside the government’s authority (see here).
Finally, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov warned against ‘threat to Russia and its allies’ due to what he called Afghanistan’s ‘degrading political and military situation’, the stalled peace process and the spill-over of instability from Afghanistan into neighbouring Central Asia (see here and here). Furthermore, in a statement with geopolitical underpinnings, Morgulov opposed ‘reformatting the International Security Assistance Force into a long-term foreign military presence in Afghanistan under a different signboard and without a corresponding UN mandate’, which would ‘not bring stability to Afghanistan and [would] increase tension in the region’ (Source: BBC Monitoring Afghanistan, 27 April 2013).
One wonders if and how the rather fundamentally different and divergent socio-political objectives shown by some of the most significant participants and supporters of the ‘Heart of Asia’ process can be bridged and balanced with a view to promoting genuine multilateral, regional co-operation in political, economic, social and other spheres. However, there were some other countries, particularly Turkey, that were by far less controversial and confrontational in their statements and generally argued that challenges such as terrorism, extremism and drug and other forms of trafficking are regional in nature and need regional responses to be addressed and overcome (read Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s statement here and a related media report here).
What next for the ‘Heart of Asia’ process?
The Almaty conference was not without results, but these are largely declaratory and on paper and serious questions remain, most importantly on the funding for the implementation phase. The conference’s outcome document titled ‘Istanbul Process: Stability and Prosperity in the “Heart of Asia” through Building Confidence and Shared Regional Interests’ is ambitious and emphasises a gradual move from the conceptualisation stage to ‘the delivery of concrete results through implementation of CBMs and the consolidation of common interests through political consultations and dialogue’ (read the outcome document in full here). However, the six adopted CBM implementation plans (on counter-terrorism; counter-narcotics; disaster management; trade, commercial and investment opportunities; regional infrastructure; and education) are yet to be released publicly for reasons that remain unknown, at least for now, against expectations before the conference.
A critical question is how the implementation of the adopted CBM action plans will be funded. The Afghan government’s proposal on the establishment of a trust fund failed to gain consensus and was subordinated to further discussion to take place until the next meeting of senior officials on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September 2013. In the meantime, those involved in the process agreed on ad hoc financing arrangements as is currently the practice (see the outcome document). This is what Rassoul referred to as ‘the compromise language we’ve reached in the final declaration’ (read his statement here). It means actual implementation will have to wait until June 2013 for meetings of the CBM regional technical groups and until September 2013 for the sixth meeting of senior officials. All in all, the ‘Heart of Asia’ process will hardly be anything more than a talking shop, perhaps until the next ministerial conference in China in 2014.
As written here previously, for such a socio-politico-economically diverse region as is the ‘Heart of Asia’, perhaps a good measure of success will be if the initiative can practically help de-escalate existing levels of violence in Afghanistan and prevent the occurrence of new violent conflicts in other parts of the region. At the same time, the fact that the budding Afghan diplomacy, backed by its key international supporters such as the US, Turkey and, this time, Kazakhstan can bring the states of the region, who do not have a tendency to talk much to each other, together to discuss and that it explores ways of bolstering multilateral co-operation can, indeed, be regarded an achievement, not to mention the announcement by Kazakhstan to offer 1,000 scholarships for Afghans to study in that country (mainly in Almaty and Astana) (6). Apart from that, the ‘Heart of Asia’ is unfortunately still barely throbbing, if at all.
Said Reza Kazemi has been a researcher with AAN from May to December 2012. He is currently a visiting researcher in the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).
(1) Read AAN’s previous blogs on all the three ‘Heart of Asia’ ministerial conferences in 2011, 2012 and 2013 here, here, here and here.
(2) Read also here, here, here and here. Furthermore, the conference did not receive wide coverage in local Afghan or Afghanistan-focussed media. Tolo TV, which is the leading TV channel in Afghanistan, for instance, only had a brief report on 26 April 2013, not to mention local Afghan reports (such as the one here titled ‘Central Asian ministers discuss Afghan reconciliation’) that discussed the event as a Central Asian forum on reconciliation in Afghanistan! Several local media reports (such as the one by Tolo TV) only concentrated on and highlighted the statement made by Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid on the foreign roots of terrorism, which obliquely refers to Pakistan, and the continued threat terrorism poses not only to Afghanistan but to the region at large.
(3) Some leading countries such as Azerbaijan and Russia, which co-lead the Counter-Narcotics Confidence-Building Measure (CN-CBM) (Azerbaijan also co-leads the Regional Infrastructure CBM (RI-CBM) together with Turkmenistan), sent their deputy foreign ministers, respectively Araz Azimov and Igor Morgulov (see here and here). Saudi Arabia also sent its Deputy Foreign Minister Abdul Aziz Bin Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz who, in the margins of the conference, signed a ‘General Co-operation Agreement’ with Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassul ‘in the fields of economy, commerce, investment, education, science, technology, culture, information tourism, youth and sports’ (see here).
(4) Kazakhstan even stated in May 2011 that it would send troops to ISAF headquarters in Afghanistan but retracted after two bombing incidents killed at least three people and injured two others in the country and after it reportedly received a warning from the Taleban. The Kazakhstani officials, however, rejected reports that these two developments were inter-related (read also this author’s previous blog on Central Asian concerns about potential overspill of the Afghan conflict here). Most recently, the Kazakhstani parliament entirely removed this topic from its agenda.
(5) On 25 April, Salehi also hoped that Almay would soon hold the next meeting between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) on Iran’s disputed nuclear programme (BBC Afghanistan Monitoring, 26 April 2013).
(6) Kazakhstan has allocated $50 million to the scholarship programme until 2020. Around 500 of the 1,000 scholarships have already been used and the remaining are planned to be used in the future (see here).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020