The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
An orderly ‘transition’ in 2014, when American and Nato combat forces pull out from Afghanistan, rests on progress towards a negotiated political settlement. But a serious peace process to advance Afghan national ‘reconciliation’ has yet to get off the ground.
That is why a regional conference that will convene in Istanbul on November 2 will focus less on this pivotal issue than on how regional states will assist Afghanistan’s stabilisation. If the joint hosts of the conference, Turkey and Afghanistan, backed by the US, have their way – as they will – this summit will be as much about the region as about Afghanistan.
The conference marks a curious reversal of the order of business necessary to establish peace and security in Afghanistan. Progress in the process of reconciliation with the insurgency ought to have preceded declarations of support and cooperation by regional states. Instead the Istanbul conference is set to shift the emphasis beyond Afghanistan to the broader region. The region is defined for the purposes of the Istanbul initiative as consisting of fourteen so-called ‘Heart of Asia’ countries. Apart from Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours they include India, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, and the Central Asian republics.
Istanbul is the venue for the first of three conferences intended to erect a framework of international support and cooperation for Afghanistan during and after the planned transition in 2014. The Istanbul conference has been billed as an initiative ‘to promote regional security and cooperation in the heart of Asia for a secure and stable Afghanistan’. The Bonn and Chicago conferences will follow this December and May next year.
Had the Istanbul conference set its sights from the outset on eliciting the endorsement by regional states for the 2014 transition and Afghan reconciliation as well as affirmation of broad principles including mutual undertakings of non-interference, it would have been easy to mobilise a strong consensus and produce a successful outcome with no glitches along the way.
But the initiative’s backers and sponsors started by wanting much more. They sought to establish a new security architecture, complete with an institutional mechanism and a ‘contact group’ charged with implementing an ambitious set of confidence building measures. These were outlined in the draft outcome document originally drawn up for the conference.
This sparked contention rather than help to promote a consensus. The sponsors were urged by this to trim their ambition and give up the idea of having a signed and binding document adopted by the conference. Whether the document under negotiation will now turn out to be a declaration or an undertaking is unclear. More importantly last minute efforts are on to secure agreement on its content.
In two preparatory meetings held in Oslo on September 30 and Kabul on October 22, the main disagreement swirled around the attempt to create a regional security structure. Russia, Pakistan, China and Iran among others, objected to establishing any security apparatus or a new regional organisation. As delegates pointed out at the Kabul meeting, establishing another organisation would duplicate the work of at least ten other existing organisations. Others pointed to the fact that there were several mechanisms and trilateral or bilateral forums already available that could be utilised or strengthened for the same purpose.
Meanwhile the Russians tabled their own draft, essentially a statement of principles of regional cooperation, which listed a number of political, economic and other measures to build confidence and encourage collaboration. The Russian text won support from the Central Asian states and came closest to Pakistan’s position. But lack of agreement at the Kabul meeting meant that contentious issues were referred back to the participating states’ capitals for further consideration. Since then behind-the-scenes consultations have been underway with Washington playing a key role in trying to reconcile differences.
Although Islamabad has not made its reservations public, they were clearly conveyed by its diplomats in the meetings at Oslo and Kabul. They now relate mainly to the operative clauses in the revised Turkish-Afghan draft, which provide for a regional security process. Even though the word ‘mechanism’ has been dropped to meet objections from many countries, the document retains its ingredients. The “follow up” steps specified in these clauses that are to be pursued after the Istanbul conference reflect an effort to institutionalise meetings of “senior officials” from the Heart of Asia countries. They will be expected to start applying CBMs through ‘working groups’, if necessary.
These and other provisions that envisage a ‘structured’ level of regional collaboration are seen by Islamabad and other objecting countries as an effort that continues to aim at a regional security arrangement in all but name. If these clauses are not deleted or significantly modified to accommodate the views of Moscow, Islamabad and Beijing among others, they could be later taken up at Bonn and Chicago and given more concrete shape to eventually set up a full fledged security apparatus.
Some diplomats from certain western countries have invoked a Helsinki-type process as the template for regional cooperation i.e. a security-oriented conference leading to a more permanent regional structure to stabilise Afghanistan. The Helsinki process refers to the multilateral forum that was created in the 1970s to improve relations between the West and Eastern Europe and which eventually transformed, with the end of the cold war, into the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
To apply the Helsinki example to the region is to ignore fundamentally different contexts, issues and realities. The Helsinki process was an arrangement forged between two rival blocs during the cold war. It was aimed at sanctifying the territorial status quo already in existence for four decades. Here that process is being advocated by some as a way of pacifying a country in the throes of a raging insurgency, which is motivated by the presence of foreign ‘occupation’ troops. The contrast between the two situations cannot be starker.
The OSCE in any case took decades to evolve and this evolution was impelled by seminal developments including the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is a profoundly mistaken view that the Istanbul conference could emulate and telescope that process through one document and that too without a buy-in by the major regional states.
With the conference only a day away the draft document will have to be amended to accommodate the views and interests of all the regional countries to ensure that the declaration at Istanbul is backed by consensus. If that is not done and a document is rammed through it will only run aground of complex and fraught regional realities. This will hardly be an auspicious start to an international effort to support and stabilise Afghanistan.
The way forward at Istanbul is to adopt an agreed document that enunciates practical principles to promote Afghanistan’s stability in line with the UN charter and supports a common vision for economic collaboration. The 2002 Kabul declaration on Good-Neighbourly Relations sets out many of these principles including non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and respect for Afghanistan’s territorial integrity. Supplemented by the commitment to support Afghan reconciliation as well as the economic agenda outlined in the ‘New Silk Road’ concept, this can provide a robust foundation for future cooperation.
But participating states at Istanbul will also need to acknowledge that Afghanistan’s stabilisation lies principally and fundamentally in actions taken within that country. That means stepping up efforts to spur the process of reconciliation with the Afghan insurgency and accelerating the search for a political solution to end a war that has brought so much grief to Afghanistan, the region and its people.