Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

Afghanistan Conference in Istanbul: The clogged arteries of the ‘Heart of Asia’

Thomas Ruttig 8 min

While governments usually try to keep the mood positive in the run-up to important diplomatic conferences, this time they have not even succeeded in doing this. The title of the upcoming regional conference on Afghanistan in Istanbul on 2 November is ambitious title – ‘Istanbul Conference for Afghanistan: Security and Cooperation in the Heart of Asia’,* but the media have picked up growing pessimism even before it has started. But there is some hope that it can put regional relations on the right – though long and winding – road, argues AAN’s Thomas Ruttig.

It was a Reuters headline that has reflected this tone best and it has subsequently been picked up even in the media of the host country: ‘Expectations low for Istanbul meeting on Afghanistan security’, was the headline in one of Turkey’s leading English-language newspaper, Today’s Zaman (read full article here).

Initially, the Istanbul conference was meant to be mainly a meeting on security, in the broadest sense. The conference’s title, therefore, referred to famous verses by Pakistan’s national poet, Muhammad Iqbal, who called Afghanistan the ‘Heart of Asia’ (writing in Persian) and said that if Asia’s heart was sick, all of Asia would suffer. (Addition on 4 November: President Karzai quoted the poem in his speech in Istanbul. Read the full text here.)  It was meant to be a forum for discussing regional confidence-building measures and there were even hints at hopes that the Taleban might be ready to show a sign of conciliation at this occasion, similar to the Germans’ hopes with regards to their Bonn 2 conference on 5 December. (Turkey was discussed as one possible venue for a Taleban liaison or ‘party’ office that would facilitate talks and take a possible Taleban negotiating team out of the direct control of Pakistan.)

The Afghans, in particular, wanted binding guarantees about mutual non-interference ‘under the aegis of the United Nations that would start the process of shutting down insurgent safe-havens beyond Afghan borders’, as Omar Samad, a former high-ranking Afghan diplomat wrote (read his full article here). And they were hoping to set up what they called a ‘mechanism’ for it, something like a little OSCE. That was a bit ambitious. Of course this is a conference about Afghanistan, but the Kabul government needs to realise that not everything revolves around Afghanistan and its neighbours might have other priorities that stand in the way of its plans. Kristian Berg Harpviken from PRIO describes this in a 2010 paper (find it here):

’[E]ach of Afghanistan‘s three surrounding regions** is characterized by deep security concerns that have little to do with Afghanistan. […] Seen from the regions that surround it, Afghanistan remains at best a secondary concern. One implication is that the post-2001 Afghan government has limited room for manoeuvre in affecting its regional neighbourhood. Not only is the security policies of neighbouring countries anything but Afghanistan-centric, but the country also falls short on institutional and human capacity, and it has little to offer its neighbours.’

The idea of a mechanism was the straw that broke the camel’s back – meaning that it went beyond what some of the participating neighbours and ‘near-neighbours’ were ready for. (The latter term is not our invention but a Kabul government one, along the lines of what Russia calls its ‘near abroad’ – the former non-Russian Soviet republics – and the ‘far abroad’ – everyone else. See the – still growing – list of Istanbul participants below.)

Russia, Pakistan and Iran (read an article with an official statement from Islamabad here) set off to shoot down anything that is called or might look like a ‘mechanism’. Arguing correctly that there are already too many South and Central Asian ‘mechanisms’ that barely work, like ECO (the Central Asian Economic Cooperation Organisation) and SAARC (the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), their argument isn’t an honest one. Pakistan, soured by the latest plunge in its relations both with the US and Afghanistan, simply tries again to show the world that it is able to block anything it doesn’t like when it comes to Afghanistan – this is another shining example of its often destructive policies. Russia is more difficult to understand; maybe, its motive is the phantom pain about its lost superpower role, so closely linked to its fateful Christmas 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. It might also reckon that it can get a bigger piece of the Afghan cake economically by teaming up with China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – which, incidentally excludes the US. On Iran, the Guardian (read full article here) quotes Turkish officials who ‘believe the Iranian delegation will do its utmost to block Ankara’s emergence as a centre of gravity for regional diplomacy’.***

Whatever the case, the ‘diplomatic circles’ in Kabul whisper that both countries are against even setting a date for a follow-up meeting. What realistically remains to be achieved in Istanbul is, as the website of the Afghan foreign ministry puts it now, ‘to move closer to an agreement’ on some type of enhanced regional economic cooperation (go to this website here).

With Turkey and Afghanistan as co-organisers, the conference is naturally tied into the whole enteqal narrative. In the summer, officials in Ankara in the summer had still been defining the conference’s aims a little more broadly: ‘to create synergy in the region for a settlement of a lasting peace that aims to transfer all responsibility to Afghanistan by 2014’ and ‘deepening regional cooperation in South Asia’. This opened up the conference agenda for some pipe-dreams, linked to transition.

This is particularly the case when it comes to Washington’s ‘New Silk Road’ project which is full of romantic but unrealistic Orientalism. Just read what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to say on the latter when giving a speech to a ministerial meeting on the subject in New York in September (full speech here):

‘Afghanistan’s bustling markets sat at the heart of this network. [Proposal to the speech writer: ‘bazaars’ would have sounded more authentic.] Afghan merchants traded their goods from the court of the Pharaohs to the Great Wall of China. As we look to the future of this region, let’s take this precedent as inspiration for a long-term vision for Afghanistan and its neighbours.’

Clinton is expected to promote this project in Istanbul further. It is meant to bait private investors who might not be adverse to engage in building ‘rail lines, highways, and energy infrastructure’ in high-risk areas. These investments are supposed to bring Afghanistan the revenue it needs to guarantee the survival of its Western-designed, unsustainable post-2001 institutions, security forces and all. Or, again in her words, from the meeting in New York:

‘[A]n Afghanistan firmly embedded in the economic life of a thriving South and Central Asia would be better able to attract new sources of foreign investment, connect to markets abroad and provide people with credible alternatives to insurgency’.

It seems to be the hope of the enteqal-driven US government that some of them simply lose sight of Afghan reality with the vision of Afghanistan’s much-touted trillions-worth of minerals – oil and gas, rare earths and uranium – power point-projected to screens in briefing rooms and conference halls. First of all, it can be assumed, this project is meant to produce a silver lining of hope on the Afghan horizon that might serve as a justification for the 2014 withdrawal. (And here I am not talking about a military but a mental one, a withdrawal of attention, general engagement and resources.)

For now, however, the transit roads through Afghanistan that once constituted the Silk Road web of trade routes are blocked by Taleban IEDs and clogged by military convoys that tear up the new post-2001 tarmac. Currently, they are mainly frequented by Afghan lorries whose owners know that the US military procurement office will buy them a new one when the old one is blown up by the Taleban (or set alight by themselves to collect the insurance). With the current military escalation, by both sides, mind you, it looks like a long way until the peace and tranquillity of the good old days of the original Silk Road will return, very likely far beyond 2014.

Will the West be ready to bridge this gap financially? Istanbul, and Bonn 2, for that matter, will surely bring commitments. But what will these commitments be worth, in a world struck by the Euro and the US budgets crises, the bailout of banks and whole national economies, recent and future, nuclear disaster, the rebuilding of (oil-rich) Libya and the challenges of the wider Middle East?

Back to the non-interference commitments: Clinton has also announced that she was ‘working with the Afghan government to help them secure commitments from all of their neighbours to respect Afghan sovereignty and territorial integrity and to support Afghan reconciliation’. Apart from the latter issue which is of newer date, the Afghan government actually has this commitment already – although everyone involved seems to have forgotten – and definitely not done anything – about it.

This document is titled the ‘Kabul Declaration on Good-Neighbourly Relations’, dated 22 December 2002 and endorsed by the UN Security Council. Its seven signatory states – Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that will be in Istanbul again – are committed by this document, amongst other points, to:

‘…constructive and supportive bilateral relationships based on the principles of territorial integrity, mutual respect, friendly relations, co-operation and mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.’

Apart from the Afghanistan mess to which some of them actively contribute, look at the wider region, from Kashmir and Baluchistan to the newly mined borders in former Soviet Central Asia. Then it becomes clear that even bilateral relations in this region have not improved since 2002. The only thing the signatories did with this document was file it away on dusty shelves with little brass signs saying: ‘Empty Words’. As a reminder and daunting example of inconsequentiality, the full declaration can be read here. As can be expected, the draft for a new declaration to be issued in Istanbul is floating through capitals and it can be expected that its fate will be little different from the 2002 one.

The only concrete and immediate outcome of Istanbul will probably be the official announcement of the areas to be transferred to Afghan security responsibility in enteqal Phase 2 by President Hamed Karzai. And even this is not really news, with the list being more or less known already.****

However, there is a chance for something more useful. At the margins of the Istanbul conference, the Ankara government already hosted (on Tuesday) a trilateral Afghan-Pakistani-Turkish meeting. A trilateral Af-Pak-US meeting was also scheduled and President Karzai has already flown to Turkey for this.

If must be hoped that Ankara will be able to again use its growing international weight, as it does in the Middle East, to smooth the rather stormy Af-Pak relations of the past months and help get them back into calmer diplomatic waters, so that the existing problems can be tackled away from the spotlight. Of course one could argue that President Abdullah Gül could have done that in a less cost-intensive way, just inviting his colleagues, Karzai and Zardari (or better Kayani), in low-key fashion to a villa on the Bosphorus. Or even more generally, that such attempts should have been tried years ago. However, the West’s arrogance in believing that it can handle Afghanistan alone, just through NATO, leaving Russia, China, Iran and others (who were still helpful during Bonn 1) behind, has squandered this chance. Well, better late than never – let’s wish the Turks luck for what could be a long and winding road, resembling those leading through the Heart of Asia.

* Participants will be Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Iran, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Observers will be France, Canada, the EU, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, Spain, Norway, the UK, the US and the UN. This group may still be expanded.
(source: Afghan Embassy in Turkey, find the link here)

** South Asia, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia.

*** On the other hand, an Iranian and a US delegation will sit in the same room again for once – a positive symbol.

**** The following list has been announced by IDLG, as reported by Pajhwok News Agency (Kabul, read original here):

Whole provinces: Balkh, Daikundi, Nimruz, Parwan, Samangan, Sar-e Pul, Takhar

Districts: Faizabad, Shahr-e Bozorg, Yaftal-e Sofla, Arghanchkhwah, Teshkan, Baharak, Keshm, Argu (Badakhshan); Qala-ye Naw, Ab Kamari (Badghis); Ghazni city (Ghazni); Chaghcharan town (Ghor); Nawa-e Barakzai (Helmand); all of Herat, except Shindand and Chesht-e Sharif; Sarobi (the remaining district of already-transitioned Kabul province); Qarghayi (Laghman); Jalalabad city, Behsud, Kama, Shewa, Sorkhrud (Nangarhar); Maidan Shahr, Behsud 1 & 2 (Wardak).


Following is the translation of Iqbal’s poem


Asia is a body of water and clay,

Of which the Afghan nation forms the heart.

The whole of Asia is corrupt,

If the heart is corrupt,

Its decline is the decline of Asia;

Its rise is the rise of Asia,

The body is free only as long as the heart is free,

The heart dies with hatred but lives with faith.


Conference International Istanbul