Renewed attempts are being made for peace and stability in Afghanistan. Representatives of over two dozen countries met in Islamabad earlier this month as part of the Heart of Asia conference. This process was launched in 2011 to promote Afghan peace efforts. The conference ended with calls for the resumption of Afghan Taliban peace talks. A statement at the end of the conference by the Pakistan foreign Ministry said that Pakistan would encourage all types of peaceful negotiations with Taliban. Even the US, China and Pakistan have expressed their willingness to work with Kabul in the peace process. China is concerned that instability from Afghanistan will spill over to its western border. The U.S. wants to avoid an Afghan spiral into the political chaos and violence that has engulfed Iraq, another country in which it has made major military investments.
Turkey was the host country for the first “Heart of Asia” Ministerial Conference back in 2011. The main goal of the Istanbul Process is to promote enduring peace and stability in Afghanistan. The “Heart of Asia” process has 14 member countries, including China, Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and India. The process has also been supported by 17 other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, and 11 regional and international organizations such as the United Nations, NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
The rationale behind establishment of the Istanbul Process had three main elements:
- The withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan and reduced international engagement and aid after 2014 would leave a question mark on the future of Afghanistan. Therefore, there was need to integrate Afghanistan in the regional economy and improve its relations with neighbors and regional powers.
- This conference allowed Afghanistan to lead a process in which it had the authority to set its own agenda in regional perspective. The problems Afghanistan is facing are not exclusively a product of its own and they do not only affect it but also other countries in the region.
In terms of performance, the Process has been very slow and it has not depicted the clout which was expected. This was partly because of unclear foreign policy and lack of political will to improve the process at senior levels. It was further affected by the presidential elections and the post 2014 scenario of the country which raised questions and uncertainty about the future of the Process among participating countries. On the other hand, the nature of the region is complex and some of the key participating countries had conflicting agendas which further slowed down the process.
Significance of this process:
- In spite of the slow process, the Process has had some achievements since its inception. It has served as the only regional forum lead by Afghanistan to set its own agenda.
- It has provided an opportunity to open the gates of interaction for participating countries which found it difficult to do so.
- It has earned regional interest as reflected by decision of China to host the conference in 2014 and participation by all members in the senior official level.
- The Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) which include disaster management, counter terrorism, counter narcotics, trade commerce and investment, regional infrastructure, and education have been established. These CBM’s have served to build trust and allowed people- to- people exchanges at technical level.
Highlights of the recent conference:
One of the main topics of the recently concluded “Heart of Asia” conference was the Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. The hospitality of Pakistan and Iran is highly appreciated since they have been hosting millions of Afghan refugees for the last three decades, despite their own challenges and limitations. There is a huge burden on the Afghan government to enable a safe return and resettlement of Afghan refugees in Afghanistan and it cannot manage this without the help of the international community.
- The recent Conference was held at a crucial juncture following Afghanistan’s political, security, and economic transition. The relations of Pakistan and Afghanistan were in escalated state after the peace talks with Taliban, facilitated by Pakistan, were obstructed. This was followed by back to back deadly attacks which rocked Kabul and other provinces and Afghan government blamed Pakistan for the unrest and providing safe heaven to terrorists.
- This Conference has been an opportunity to melt ice in relations between key regional countries. The dialogue process between Afghanistan and Pakistan which was hindered in the recent past seems to resume after successful talks between the two countries.
- This conference also provided a chance for Afghanistan to reaffirm its role and commitments about regional cooperation and development. After successfully conducting Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) and Senior Officials Meeting (SOM), this was Afghan government’s another good move and progress towards economic integration and cooperation in the region.
Role of Pakistan in Afghan peace process:
- Given, the landlocked position of Afghanistan, Pakistan has an important geopolitical position through which it intends to gain an exceptional trade opportunity. Pakistan is committed to play its role in Afghan reconciliation process for the durable peace in the region and realizes the importance of association of China and the US is instrumental in achieving these goals.
- Through the constant efforts of the US, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and particularly Pakistan, the resumption of the peace process and the consequent stability can become the ray of hope for the enduring peace goals for Afghanistan. And the dream of durable peace can only be achieved through concrete steps to curb the flow of money generated through the drug-trafficking and organized crime.
- Afghan leadership is also ardent on the development of the mechanism of regional cooperation to thwart the means and resources that enable the penetration of the terrorists into the society and believes in the need of a joint move towards the elimination of terrorism and extremism.
India’s activities in Afghanistan, especially its development work has been under the security umbrella of the US-NATO Afghan forces. India has committed $2bn in aid to Kabul and its annual trade is around $680m which can increase manifold if the Afghan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA) is worked out to permit India-Afghan trade through Pakistan. Improved ties with Islamabad can lead to a breakthrough which has the potential of transforming the India-Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship.
The more important issue remain with the question that the initiatives like the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process and the desired development goals can only be achieved through the meaningful negotiation between the regional states in order to settle-down their core issues and long-lasting disputes moreover, the particular focus is needed for Afghanistan and all the developed nations must stand for the industrial development, better education and, social and political coherence particularly through the international scholarships and foreign exposure of the Afghan youth, better training and the peace talks must be expedited. Given the advantage of its strategic location, Afghanistan functions as a land bridge in the “Heart of Asia,” connecting South Asia, Central Asia, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Peace and security in Afghanistan will be vital for broader economic cooperation.