Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

Will the ‘Heart of Asia’ start beating? A review of the regional co-operation process

S Reza Kazemi 10 min

The dragging-on of the presidential election has also affected regional co-operation on Afghanistan. The Afghan government, supported by the international community, has been attempting to work with regional states towards co-operation on security and development in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood under what is called the ‘Heart of Asia’ or Istanbul process since November 2011. Scheduled for today, 29 August in China, its fourth ministerial conference has now been delayed. AAN’s guest author Said Reza Kazemi* reviews what progress has been made over the past years, particularly looking at issues of governance, such as organisation and funding. He also discusses the possibility of Afghanistan-focused regional co-operation as such – and argues that despite its limitations, the Heart of Asia process remains useful encouraging dialogue in a region where states do not talk to one another often.

At the heart of Asia? Since 2011, Afghanistan attempts to cooperate with regional powers. As the lead country for the process, it struggles with partners who are hesitant to take action. Photo: Heart of Asia/Istanbul Process FB page

When members of the Heart of Asia process met the last time in Beijing on 10 July, they talked more about the protracted presidential election in Afghanistan than about co-operation in the region. Clearly, the election has influenced not only local  (1) and national but also regional and international layers of political decision making. The meeting’s consensus and request was, as their joint press statement reads

… to conclude the electoral process in a timely manner and in accordance with the established constitutional mechanisms and legal frameworks. We are confident that the candidates will be able to resolve their current differences through political dialogue and in the interest of unity and stability of Afghanistan.

Another, more concrete, result was to indefinitely delay the fourth ministerial conference of the Heart of Asia process although the agenda had already been prepared; the conference had initially been scheduled to take place today, 29 August, in Tianjin, China.

More talk, less action, still

The regional Afghan-led initiative was launched to enhance regional political and economic co-operation on Afghanistan in November 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey. (2) Participating states are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Supporting states are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, European Union, France, Finland, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (for details on the supporting organisations and lead countries for certain tasks within the process, see footnote (3)). Its stated goal is to “achieve regional results co-operating on counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, disaster management, trade, commercial and investment opportunities, regional infrastructure and education.” So far, 19 meetings have taken place at the technical level, nine at the ambassadorial level in Kabul, nine across the region at senior-official level with one meeting in New York, and three meetings at ministerial level in Istanbul, Kabul and Almaty (for details see here). In a region characterised by a multiplicity of inter-state conflicts (e.g. over terrorism or water-sharing), maintaining a platform for regional dialogue is, indeed, an achievement.

More concrete results, though, are yet to come. One smaller one is the new website, developed since the third Almaty ministerial conference  in April 2013. It is supposed to reach out to the public as well as organise the process’s previously scattered information and documentation in one place. The website is only partly useful so far as it does not yet contain statements by participating and supporting governments or the organisations involved in the various forums of the process. These statements would be helpful to understand how all of these wildly different players view and formulate policies vis-à-vis the regional process – particularly considering the inter-state differences.

However, the website does, for the first time, make publicly accessible implementation plans for the six so called Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) on disaster management, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, trade, commerce and investment, regional infrastructure, and education (see plans here, here, here, here, here and here). The Confidence-Building Measures are aimed at building and bolstering trust between the governments in the Heart of Asia region – a region in which relations have been and still are very problematic. The very idea of implementing Confidence-Building Measures already suggests the lack or low level of trust among states in this region. In order to build this trust and increase regional co-operation, the members of the process have identified a series of projects and activities on the mentioned six priority regional problems.

What these projects and activities will look like in detail is not yet clear as the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process is still in a conceptualisation phase. The progress report since the third Almaty ministerial conference (summary here) hardly contains anything more concrete and practical than discussions and training. The participating states and organisations have, first and foremost, held meetings, workshops, conferences and seminars to discuss, train and plan in the above-mentioned six areas. They, for instance, shared experiences on disaster and crisis management, discussed countering terrorism financing, talked about counter-narcotics, held a conference on doing business with Afghanistan, held book exhibitions in Kabul and talked about road and railway infrastructure development in the region. However, these events often have limited regional coverage – meaning, states report their bilateral activities with Afghanistan as ‘regional’, such as the Iran-organised book exhibitions in Kabul.

As for the few landmark regional co-operation projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas project (TAPI) and the Central Asia-South Asia electricity project (CASA-1000), also framed as part of the Heart of Asia process, plans have been revised time and again, but have failed in generating credible and actionable commitments thus far (particularly for TAPI, as pre-existing electricity export deals have resulted in lines being built and functioning reasonably well, while the far more expensive and dangerous infrastructure of a gas export pipeline transiting southern Afghanistan and Baluchistan is seen by many as unfeasible). However, press statements and reports are released now and then, stating 2014 as the year of implementation for both TAPI and CASA-1000 (on CASA-1000, see, for example, here). So far, by end-August 2014, well into the middle of the deadline year, nothing practical has been done. TAPI shows no signs of being built, while the Afghan Ministry of Energy and Water recently announced that they plan to “launch” CASA-1000 sometime in 2015 (in Russian, here). However, even if one assumes these projects will begin to be built in 2015 or even beyond, it is unlikely that construction and operation will go smoothly, given rising insecurity in project areas, particularly on Afghan territory both in the north and in the south, as well as in Pakistan. (4)

Rejected Afghan proposals

One reason for the sluggish progress is the lack of agreement among participating and supporting states and organisations over how a regional initiative on this scale should be organised and funded. The core of the disagreement is a debate over flexibility versus effectiveness. The consensus so far is that the Heart of Asia is ‘a process[,] not a program,’ and should be organisationally and financially “flexible”, mainly drawing on already existing regional organisation and financial structures and facilities. That is to say, few are expecting immediate concrete results in the form of agreements on – and implementation of – bilateral or multilateral regional economic and military issues, for example. This is also why proposals, mainly put forward by Afghanistan, for the establishment of a formal secretariat and of a regional confidence-building trust fund (to ensure funding for future programs, events and initiatives) have been rejected (here, p. 12). Afghanistan, as the lead country for the process, and a few other members think that this ‘flexibility’ – meaning no clear-cut organisation and earmarked budget – will cost the process its effective implementation and that a regional process without organisation and funding is hardly anything more than a place to talk.

However, the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs has established a Regional Co-operation Directorate (RCD), which acts as a de facto secretariat for the regional process. The directorate sees two major tasks for itself: internally by mobilising the Afghan government and society in support of the regional process through various measures. One such modest example is an eftar dinner [meal to break one’s fast in the month of Ramadan] and information session for Afghan government and civil society representatives (see here). Outside of government, the Regional Co-operation Directorate has worked towards supporting the process by engaging with the various participating and supporting states and organisations (e.g., UN, NATO, SCO, etc.). This, of course, is no easy job, given the fledgling state of Afghan diplomacy and the widespread lack of capacity and of co-ordination within the Afghan government, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (5) This means the Afghan government itself, as the lead country for Heart of Asia, is not entirely informed about and able to provide the necessary support for the regional process to go ahead.

As for financing the Heart of Asia process, with the Afghan proposal for the creation of a regional trust fund rejected, what remains is the necessity to find  bilateral, trilateral and/or multilateral funding for the six Confidence-Building Measures, particularly including landmark projects such as TAPI and CASA-1000 (note: these two projects existed far before the Heart of Asia process and are not currently tied to the process, even if they are a subject that can be discussed and negotiated during the meetings). The funding prospects for the TAPI pipeline still appear bleak, while much of the CASA-1000 funding is in place and future support is far more likely for this project. This type of funding will, however, depend on selective political and other interests of big donors involved in the process (e.g., USA, Asian Development Bank, etc.). As a result, funding for the regional process will be politically motivated and conflictual. Other activities will also just have to wait for a donor to come by to move towards implementation – for example, activity no. 14 under the Counter-Narcotics Confidence-Building Measure: to organise a regional dialogue on counter-narcotics here (see here, p. 4).

Is it anyway possible to regionally work on and for Afghanistan?

On a theoretical level, the possibility of regional co-operation on Afghanistan is still subject to intense debate, too. On the one hand, American scholar Barnett R. Rubin and colleagues have cited the ‘regional conflict formations’ (RCF) theory, arguing in favour of regional approaches addressing regional problems caused by transnational non-state actors such as terrorism and drug trafficking – with Afghanistan and its region as a clear-cut case of a regional conflict formation. (6) On the other hand, in a counter-argument, Norwegian researcher Kristian Berg Harpviken and colleagues, in their interpretation of the ‘regional security complex’ (RSC) theory developed by international relations scholars Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver, de-construct and re-shape Afghanistan’s neighbourhood into Central Asian, South Asian and Persian Gulf regions with separate political and security dynamics of their own. They highlight the state or governmental roots of regional conflicts and give more importance to other politico-security dynamics than just the Afghanistan problem – thereby explaining why states in the region do not really co-operate with one another in a practical and sincere manner. (7) In other words, they argue that everything in the region does not revolve around Afghanistan and that other greater problems and priorities dominate the agendas of the key participating and supporting states (for more on Afghanistan’s relations with the Central Asian region, see this recent paper for AAN here, particularly pp. 9-14). Harpviken’s idea seems closer to realities in the region than Rubin’s, given the current realities in the region, but the theoretical debate still continues inconclusively.

The above-mentioned organisational and funding challenges mean that the Heart of Asia or Istanbul process will continue to act only as a discussion platform for regional political consultation as opposed to a forum that determines concrete courses of action. That is unless the existing style of governance is revised. That revision will, however, be difficult, given the idea that process should be consensus-based, and it is very hard, if not impossible, to achieve consensus in a regional process as heterogeneous in membership as the Heart of Asia process. The continued lack of organisational and funding mechanisms for the six adopted implementation plans on counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, disaster management, trade, commercial and investment opportunities, regional infrastructure, and education will prevent the process from becoming truly effective. The participants have failed to overcome this problem since the process was launched in late 2011, and there seems to be no serious determination to put much effort into yet another regional organisation in an area where several already existing South Asian, Central Asian and Eurasian organisations barely function, and where bilateral relations are the norm.

However, despite its shortcomings, the Afghanistan-focused Heart of Asia regional co-operation process remains helpful – at least in terms of sustaining dialogue, backed by its key supporters such as Turkey, Kazakhstan and, with the postponed but still planned fourth ministerial conference, China. This is particularly so in a region where states do not talk to one another much.  As time goes by, if the Afghan election is concluded without serious incident and Afghanistan is able to continue forming its foreign relations, one might see the Heart of Asia begin beating not only in terms of on-going dialogue, but also for action beyond words.


* Said Reza Kazemi is a PhD student (2013-2016) at the University of Heidelberg’s Cluster ‘Asia and Europe in a Global Context’. Among his research interests are the local, regional and global dimensions of Afghanistan’s problems, particularly how these aspects get or get not inter-connected in society and politics in the country and beyond. He has previously worked as a researcher for the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN).

(1) At a very local level, in Herat suburbs, for instance, the land and housing market has come to a halt, the construction sector has almost completely stopped, unemployment has risen and people are increasingly uncertain about what might happen to them and the country if the election eventually fails somehow. At the same time, there are some people who are hopeful that the election will get concluded in a peaceful and constitutional manner. “I am waiting for the election to be over before I decide to change the old and worn-out curtains of my house”, a woman told this author in her house in a Herat township. A similar situation exists in Mazar-e Sharif outskirts.

(2) AAN has been analysing Heart of Asia/Istanbul process-related developments from the beginning. See here, here, here, here and here.

(3) Supporting organisations and lead countries for CBMs

Supporting organisations

United Nations (UN), Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation (CAREC)/Asian Development Bank (ADB), Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Economic Co-operation Organisation (ECO), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO)

Lead countries for the six so called Confidence Building Measures:

Disaster Management Confidence-Building Measure (DM-CBM): Pakistan and Kazakhstan

Counter-Terrorism Confidence-Building Measure (CT-CBM): Afghanistan, Turkey, the UAE, Russia and Azerbaijan

Counter-Narcotics Confidence-Building Measure (CN-CBM): Russia and Azerbaijan

Trade, Commerce and Investment Confidence-Building Measure (TCI-CBM): India

Regional Infrastructure Confidence-Building Measure (RI-CBM): Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan

Education Confidence-Building Measure (E-CBM): Iran

(4) In Herat province, for example, where the TAPI project is planned to pass through, recent weeks have seen an increasing number of targeted killings and reports suggest the armed opposition in the province’s outlying districts is getting stronger.

For a list of recent security incidents in Herat, see, for example, Pajhwok Afghan News (PAN) here.

(5) Source: author’s interviews with two Afghan MFA staff members, July 2014, Kabul.

(6) For further reading, see Barnett R. Rubin and Andrea Armstrong (2002), ‘Conference Summary: Policy Approaches to Regional Conflict Formations’, New York (find it here); Barnett R. Rubin and Andrea Armstrong (2003) ‘Regional Issues in the Reconstruction of Afghanistan’, World Policy Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 31-40; and Barnett R. Rubin (2006) ‘Central Asia and Central Africa: Transnational Wars and Ethnic Conflicts’, Journal of Human Development, Vol. 7, Issue 1, pp. 5-22.

(7) For further reading, see Kristian Berg Harpviken (2010), ‘Caught in the middle? Regional perspectives on Afghanistan’, in Troubled Regions and Failing States: The Clustering and Contagion of Armed Conflicts, ed. by Kristian Berg Harpviken, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 277-305; Kristian Berg Harpviken (2010), ‘Afghanistan in a Neighborhood Perspective: General Overview and Conceptualization’, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Paper (read it here); and Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver (2003) Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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