Pakistan’s game at Heart of Asia meet

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Published: Wednesday, 30th November 2016

It is unfortunate that the “Heart of Asia” Conference on Afghanistan (Amritsar, December 3-4 2016) is getting enmeshed in the present tension between India and Pakistan. More attention is now on whether Sartaj Aziz, the de facto foreign minister of Pakistan, will attend the conference, hold bilateral meetings or raise the Kashmir issue.

The Amritsar meeting is a continuation of the “Istanbul Process” which was initiated on November 2, 2011. It was a special effort for regional security and cooperation for a secure Afghanistan. It was also an advance preparation to encourage regional powers to help ensure Afghanistan’s security and development after the withdrawal of international forces.

The impending visit of Sartaj Aziz, who is advisor to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on national security and foreign affairs, is already shifting the focus from Afghanistan. Foreign Secretary S.Jaishankar’s interview on November 21 which was made in a different context was given a different interpretation with a headline “Pak risks isolation in South Asia”.  As the host India has the responsibility not to dilute the aims of the conference in view of our traditional friendly relations with Afghanistan.

The Amritsar meeting is a continuation of the “Istanbul Process” which was initiated on November 2, 2011. It was a special effort for regional security and cooperation for a secure Afghanistan. It was also an advance preparation to encourage regional powers to help ensure Afghanistan’s security and development after the withdrawal of international forces. After Istanbul, such conferences were held at Kabul, Almaty, Beijing, Islamabad and New Delhi. India is hosting the second conference this year after the Officials’ meeting in April. There are 14 member countries: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and UAE. Seventeen countries including USA support the “Istanbul Process”.

The Istanbul process has not made much headway due to several factors. The political instability in Kabul after the 2014 Presidential elections has affected its foreign and security policies. This is partly because Afghanistan’s security depends upon its relationship with Pakistan and the latter’s links with the Taliban. A new destabilizing development is the possible return of Taliban leaders to Afghanistan as reported by Mirwais Khan and Lynne O’Donnel (AP) on November 26. They say that it is to “build on this year’s gains in the war and to establish a permanent presence”. At the same time it also projects a possibility that this might be the Taliban’s attempt of distancing themselves from Pakistan. While Pakistan continues to be resentful of India’s intentions, China, Iran and Russia grudge US dominance over the Istanbul process. Thus what was achieved through the Istanbul process was a modest progress on disaster management, infrastructure and education.

US as the dominant power would tend to control the process through their policy of “Six step Confidence Building Measures” (CBMs) announced in 2013. In the field of counter-terrorism it seeks to enhance the capabilities of Central Asian States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to resist terrorism. The US offers technical assistance, training and equipment and also fund efforts to support moderate voices through education, sports and media. As a slogan this is impressive; but can this be actually implemented to benefit Afghanistan?

The CBMs under Trade and investment would involve working with regional partners on regional and international trade agreements, accession to the WTO, and private sector investment. It would seek to expand economic opportunities in the “Heart of Asia” region by providing training, credit and networking to build up the capacity of local entrepreneurs for business growth and regional commercial linkages.   An interesting ingredient in this policy is to use more of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) which is already creating economic opportunity in Central Asia. NDN is a bi-directional air, land and sea supply route connecting Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan via Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus which has been developed for the troops supply since 2009. Perhaps this might be a long term US move to depend less on the unreliable supply routes through Pakistan, which they turn off based on their whims.

India has had a historic partnership role in Afghanistan from King Zahir Shah’s time. We had completed several infrastructural projects on a bilateral basis even before the Istanbul Process had started. We supported Afghan education and health care sectors. We trained Afghan teachers and public servants in India.

Then there are other CBMs on education, training on narcotics control and disaster management. The 6th CBM is about regional infrastructure development, production and transport of energy, improvement of their electric grid, cross-border regional energy connections and development of the gas sector.

India has had a historic partnership role in Afghanistan from King Zahir Shah’s time. We had completed several infrastructural projects on a bilateral basis even before the Istanbul Process had started. We supported Afghan education and health care sectors. We trained Afghan teachers and public servants in India. According to our Ministry of External Affairs, India’s pledged assistance was 1.2 billion US dollars. Another 1 billion of economic assistance was announced on September 14, 2016 when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited New Delhi. We built their parliament building as our contribution to their democratic transition. We gifted Afghanistan 400 buses, 200 minibuses and 115 municipal utility vehicles. We have completed 89 projects in agriculture, veterinary, public health, water & sanitation, education, women & family welfare areas and also set up a host of vocational skills and development programmes.

India and United States have agreed to have a Trilateral Dialogue with Afghanistan during the Indo-US Strategic and Commercial Dialogue at New Delhi on August 31, 2016. The joint statement expressing deep concern over growing violence and terrorism in Afghanistan did not mention any concrete steps except involving the international community to work towards “a stable, democratic, united, sovereign, and prosperous Afghanistan” Subsequent to this both sides met on September 21, 2016 on the margins of the UN Assembly and agreed “to coordinate and align their assistance with the priorities of the Afghan government”

The Amritsar meeting is being held in the backdrop of recent sensational international developments which are in Pakistan’s favour. Russia is now keen on joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and making use of Gwader port for exports. China is deploying its navy to guard Gwader port. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made an announcement on November 26 in Turkmenistan of joining the multi-model transport agreements of “Ashgabat and Lapis Lazuli Corridor”. Would Pakistan try to dominate the Amritsar Conference, being buoyed by these new agreements to counter India’s move to isolate it from the SAARC?

[The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat]