Friday May 24, 2024

The sick heart of Asia

By Lt-Gen (r) Raza M Khan
January 08, 2016

In Javid Nama, Allama Iqbal says: “Asia is like a human body, made of Water and Clay, And the Afghan nation in that body is like the heart!” The recently concluded Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad and the four preceding such conferences derive their name from the verse quoted above.

This verse was referred to by the prime minister of Afghanistan as well as the Afghan president in Islamabad. The declaration adopted by the foreign ministers and high-level representatives of the 15 participating countries, supported by 17 other countries acknowledged that the heart of Asia (read: Afghanistan) was sick – though not in these very words.

In his address, the Afghan president mentioned ‘300 years of discord’ in his country and suggested that “politics must become a win-win formula” not a lose-lose proposition, as a panacea for the Afghan imbroglio, without elaborating what this meant or how this could be achieved. He also denied that the militants’ main issue was with the government of Afghanistan or its people.

However, the fact is that many warring factions in Afghanistan have not accepted the present Afghan constitution and consider the current unity government to be unrepresentative of the Afghan people. Independent foreign observers believe that the Afghan Taliban were in control of or were contesting some 70 districts in 2015. Though Pakistan has always unequivocally recognised all governments in power in Afghanistan, including the present one, the prime minister of Pakistan had to reiterate this fact to please the visiting Afghan guests.

President Ashraf Ghani was visibly happy at this reassurance. However, he surprised most Pakistanis when he disclosed that ‘there was considerable uncertainty on whether Pakistan would truly acknowledge a sovereign Afghanistan state, with its legitimate government and its legitimate constitution’.

But militancy and insurgency are not the only ailments from which Afghanistan suffers today. It is the precarious condition of the Afghan economy that is a matter of grave concern. Lamenting this, Ghani revealed that almost 70 percent of Afghans were living below the poverty line.

The World Bank report on Afghanistan, published in October 2015 states that: “The political and security transition has affected Afghanistan’s economy much more deeply than anticipated” and that “the medium-term outlook is unfavourable”. Due to this, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are and will be fully dependent on the US, and other foreign funding for a very long time.

In the same conference, the Indian foreign minister said that: “The heart of Asia cannot function if its arteries are clogged”. She was referring to Pakistan’s reluctance to provide India a land transit route from Atari to entry points in Afghanistan. No one reminded her that Pakistan’s main arteries were already severely congested and damaged due to its own and Nato/Isaf traffic, or the related convoy protection and security concerns if this is allowed.

As in the past, Pakistan received only a pat on the back for hosting over three million Afghan refugees for many decades, with no promise of any aid to lessen the burden of this hospitality on its economy or any indication about their return. When Ghani complained that military actions in Pakistan had pushed militants into Afghanistan, one was immediately reminded of Nato/Isaf repeated demands in favour of such actions and Pakistan’s suggestion that the former act as an anvil for its hammer.

Expectations from this conference were high. But the declaration, though important, is mostly rhetorical, partly repetitious, and closely resembles many such avowals issued on the subject in the past. It is more prominent for what was omitted in it – ie safeguards and alternatives in case the Afghan National Security forces fail to control the insurgency or the present Afghan government collapses due to sharp divisions, discord and constitutional ambiguities, after the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan in 2017. So is there a cure for the sick heart of Asia?

At present, the best hope may reside in the following six remedial measures. One, giving the Afghan Pakhtuns their due representation in the government, including the civil and military bureaucracies. Two, the reconciliation and peace-building role is jointly led by the UN and the OIC with endorsement and support of all the 32 countries and 14 organszations that form part of the Heart of Asia process. Three, reduction of the Indian intelligence footprints in Afghanistan.

Four, recognition of the Pak-Afghan border by the latter and its joint fencing and monitoring. Five, initiation of an Afghan-led and owned dialogue with only those warring factions in Afghanistan that recognise the present Afghan constitution; with Pakistan, China, the OIC and the UN, acting as arbitrators and facilitators. And finally, six: announcement of early fresh elections, that are monitored by neutral international observers, followed by the formation of a new government that has a judicious and appropriate representation of all Afghan factions.

Only bold, tangible and honest actions like these can induce positive and effective outcomes for sustainable peace and prosperity in Afghanistan and South Asia. Let us hope that the sixth Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference that will be hosted and co-chaired by India in the last quarter of this year will take due cognizance of these measures.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s policies towards Afghanistan must be prudently shaped, and guided only by its own national interests.

The writer is a former president of the NDU. Email: