Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

Upcoming Regional Co-operation Conference on Afghanistan: A Primer

S Reza Kazemi 7 min

Regional co-operation on Afghanistan has so far remained by and large confined to meeting rooms and conference halls. One of these gatherings is set to take place in Kabul on 14 June 2012. The ‘Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference in Kabul’ is focused on ‘The Istanbul Process: A New Agenda for Regional Co-operation.’ The Afghan government is inviting what has been named the Heart of Asia group of countries and a number of regional and international organizations (1) to Kabul in an effort to reinvigorate the desirable, but certainly challenging, regional co-operation agenda on Afghanistan. AAN’s S. Reza Kazemi takes a look at the background of post-2001 regional co-operation conferences on Afghanistan and writes that regional co-operation on Afghanistan, particularly focusing on the economy, is both challenging, given the existing serious regional political differences, and hope-giving as a way to overcome political difficulties or not to create further political conflicts in the region.

The regional co-operation agenda on Afghanistan was decided and affirmed in Istanbul, Turkey on 2 November 2011 (read here). Known as the Istanbul Process, this is an optimistic and ambitious agenda aimed at stabilising Afghanistan through regional political co-operation to be cemented by multilaterally beneficial economic ties. It is to cover the political, security, economic, educational, cultural, and legal fields, ranging from fighting terrorism to relaxation of visa regimes. (Read our previous blog on the Istanbul Process)

The list of previous regional co-operation conferences on Afghanistan, particularly those focusing on the economy, is long: conference on good neighborly relations on 24 December 2002 in Kabul (read here), following a declaration of good intentions in Bonn; the Regional Economic Co-operation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA I) on 5 December 2005 in Kabul; RECCA II on 19 November 2006 in Delhi; RECCA III on 14 May 2009 in Islamabad; RECCA IV on 2-3 November 2010 in Istanbul; the above-mentioned conference that started the Istanbul Process on 2 November 2011; and RECCA V on 26-27 March 2012 in Dushanbe. On 14 June 2012, the ministerial-level follow-up conference to Istanbul is coming up in Kabul (read here) and even more are to follow.

These get-togethers have produced few tangible outcomes, if any, so far. For instance, interference in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs by its neighbours, particularly Pakistan and Iran, continues unabated (with the most recent instance being Iran’s ambassador in Kabul Abul Fazal Zahrawand’s pressure on the Afghan parliament not to endorse the Strategic Partnership Agreement with the USA, let alone Pakistan’s double-standard policy and its support for armed opposition groups inside Afghanistan). From their point of view, Iran perceives foreign military presence as the main source of instability in Afghanistan while Pakistan justifies its intervention in Afghanistan in the name of ensuring and protecting its ‘legitimate’ interests in Afghanistan. This is while the so-called Kabul Declaration on Good Neighborly Relations of 24 December 2002, regarded as the founding document for regional co-operation on Afghanistan, stressed:

[Afghanistan and its six neighboring countries, namely China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan] solemnly reaffirm their commitment to constructive and supportive bilateral relationships based on the principles of territorial integrity, mutual respect, friendly relations, co-operation and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.

With continued US military presence in Afghanistan always in its mind and with its disputed nuclear program gaining new critical dimensions, Iran has kept apparently good ties with the Afghan government, but has been not only cautious about but highly critical of international military presence in its eastern backyard. Senior Iranian officials, such as Iran’s deputy foreign minister for the Asia-Pacific region Abbas Araqchi, have stated that the continued presence of international security forces in Afghanistan will have a ‘destructive effect’ on security in Afghanistan and the region (read here). Like some other regional actors, Iran is diversifying its Afghan contacts to ensure its own interests in post-2014 Afghanistan.

Despite being termed as ‘Afghan-owned’ and ‘Afghan-driven,’ the regional co-operation strategy vis-à-vis Afghanistan seems to be generally Western- and specifically US-designed. Unlike the Bush administration that was narrowly focused on Afghanistan (not to mention the sudden shift in its focus from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003), the Obama administration introduced its turn to a regional approach in the stabilisation efforts for Afghanistan as part of a multilateralist, rather than unilateralist, policy on Afghanistan. Announced in March 2009, the new US strategy was designed to ‘disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan’ and use ‘all elements of international power—diplomatic, informational, military and economic—[to create] new diplomatic mechanisms, including establishing a “Contact Group” and a regional and security and economic cooperation forum’ (read here). As the external state actor currently most heavily involved in the country, the US government introduced a revamped regional strategy to address the conflict in Afghanistan (read here), stressed that ‘we have several countries, but we have one theater [Afghan battlefield],’ (read here), and plainly stated that the regional approach will include ‘Pakistan, India, the Central Asian States and even China and Russia along with perhaps at some point Iran’ (read here).

This strategy was inspired by the case some academics and practitioners made for a regional approach in stabilisation and conflict resolution in Afghanistan (see herehere, and here). Their argument was twofold. First, that Afghanistan has become the epicenter of a regional or global conflict, breeding transnational threats, such as extremism, terrorism, illicit narcotic drugs, and regional rivalry, insecurity, and instability that undermine states in South Asia, Central Asia, and beyond. And second, that the resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan requires a major regional politico-economic initiative. In brief, they argued that threats from al Qaeda and other terrorists and extremists can constitute a ‘common thread,’ which can bring regional actors together. They also reasoned that this political co-operation should be strengthened by economic ties for it to become practicable and sustainable.

This view was later opposed by others who basically said that not everything revolved around the pivot of Afghanistan (read, for example, the following PRIO papers here and here). They questioned why states in Afghanistan’s neighborhood did not practically engage in meaningful and constructive regional security and economic co-operation, why great powers were unable to quickly and positively change the situation in Afghanistan, and why these powers are still struggling to forge long-term sustained consensus and engagement vis-à-vis the Afghan problem. In response, it was argued that Afghanistan is an ‘“insulator” caught between different regional state systems, each with a strong dynamic of their own,’ thereby rejecting the earlier perspective on Afghanistan as the ‘“core’ of a larger conflict formation.’ In other words, they argue that Afghanistan is not a priority for any of the neighboring countries; they all have greater problems themselves.

For example, there are indications that India and Pakistan are practically at war against each other on Afghan soil (attacks against India’s Kabul embassy, accusations against Pakistan, Pakistan’s suspicion about the activities of the Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad, and accusations about Baloch training camps on Afghan soil, for instance). From the perspective of the Pakistani military, Afghanistan offers Pakistan the ‘strategic depth’ the latter would vitally need in case of a confrontation with India, to which Pakistani forces could (theoretically) retreat for repositioning themselves, and which Pakistan can use to train and organize militants for attacking Indian targets in the disputed Kashmir region and elsewhere, although Pakistan officially claims that it has dropped the ‘strategic depth’ issue. At the same time, Pakistan does not want a strong Afghan government that is able to reassert its irredentist claims to territories in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces and support secessionist movements in Pakistan. From an Indian standpoint, Afghanistan should not be allowed to turn into a Pakistan-supported puppet government that provides space for anti-Indian extremism and militancy in the region.

There are other countries in the region, mostly ruled by autocratic governments, including the ones physically bordering Afghanistan (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), which are unwilling or unable (or both) to engage in significant regional political and economic co-operation regarding Afghanistan. Mostly politically inward-looking (Turkmenistan) and economically weak (Tajikistan), they are not likely to play a major role to support regional co-operation initiatives on Afghanistan. For its part, Uzbekistan is using the Afghanistan issue and NATO’s involvement there (in future mainly its need for transit ways out of Afghanistan) as a means to extract both political recognition and financial gain from the international community. Kazakhstan has been cultivating a primarily economic and trade relationship with Afghanistan. Nonetheless, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan have indicated their willingness and are taking steps in providing energy to Afghanistan itself and via Afghanistan to energy-hungry South Asian countries of Pakistan and India under the Central Asia-South Asia (CASA)-1000 electricity and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas projects. Uzbekistan has also increased with bilateral trade with Afghanistan, mainly through Hairatan. But Central Asian governments are particularly apprehensive about post-2014 Afghanistan scenario and its potential spillover effect in the region.

Finally, China has been getting economically involved in Afghanistan by investing in Aynak copper mine in Logar province and in oil and gas reserves in Sar-e Pul and Faryab provinces. On 8 June 2012, Afghanistan and China signed a joint declaration for strategic and cooperative partnership (read here) (2). In the declaration, both sides expressed their intention to ‘explore new channels and methods to expand bilateral trade and investment and deepen economic cooperation,’ including ‘such fields as resources and energy development, infrastructure development, engineering and agriculture.’ The Afghan government also expressed ‘its firm support for China’s positions on the Taiwan, Tibet-related, Xinjiang-related and other major issues concerning China’s core interests.’ The question whether China will significantly increase its presence to protect and/or expand its economic interests in Afghanistan in case Afghanistan goes out of control will only be answered by time. Or maybe, China would have its regional ally Pakistan to look after its interests in Afghanistan even in case of a Taleban takeover. China also appears to activate the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation’s (SCO) role to exert its influence on Afghan affairs, in which Afghanistan recently gained its observer status (read here).

Given the hugely divergent political interests in the region, it is most likely that regional co-operation, be it economic or otherwise, on Afghanistan, will not go very far, unless a number of existing profound bilateral political differences are actively reconciled or at least addressed. From another perspective, enhanced constructive regional co-operation focused on Afghanistan could help reduce political divisions or at least prevent the occurrence of further political crises in the region.

(1) These are: Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and United Arab Emirates (according to the Istanbul Process Declaration); and the United Nations (UN), Economic Co-operation Organization (ECO), Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO), South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and European Union (EU) (according to the Istanbul Process Declaration).

(2) Officially called “Joint Declaration between the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on Establishing Strategic and Cooperative Partnership,” the Declaration was signed by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Hu Jintao of China in Beijing on 8 June 2012.



Conference Government Kabul