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Istanbul Conference on Afghanistan: A Feeble Attempt at a Regional Solution

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 04, 2011

    The international conference on Afghanistan held in Istanbul on November 2, 2011 was meant to be a conference of regional countries having a stake in security, economic development and stability of Afghanistan and of the region. It was first in the series of conferences planned for the next few months. Another conference will be held in Bonn on December 5, 2011 and one in Chicago in May 2012.

    The Istanbul Conference was preceded by two preparatory meetings. One was held in Oslo in September and another in Kabul in October. 29 countries including the US and European countries participated in the conference. A joint declaration was adopted. The next meeting is scheduled to take place at Bonn which is likely to build upon the issues outlined in Istanbul. The participating countries are expected to announce specific pledges to help Afghanistan as transition is made to a situation when Afghan forces will take responsibility for the security of the country by 2014.

    The effort at the conference and in the preparatory meetings was to explore how regional counties can cooperate in securing stability and security in Afghanistan. For a change, the US and NATO counties were in the background. The joint declaration was singed by 12 countries - Afghanistan and its immediate neighbours, India, China, Turkey, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

    Security issues will remain at the heart of any effort to stabilise Afghanistan. Recognising this reality, President Karzai in his address appealed to Pakistan to cooperate in Afghanistan’s reconciliation process with Taliban. His remarks were significant as the top leadership of Taliban with whom Afghanistan is seeking reconciliation resides in Pakistan although Pakistan denies this. Among the principles adopted in the Istanbul Conference were non-interference, respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, and support for an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-driven reconciliation process. Nothing concrete was achieved by way of setting up regional security architecture in the joint declaration. The original Istanbul draft that intended to establish a contact group was shelved at the last minute because of opposition from some countries. Pakistan foreign Minister had argued during her speech that existing regional mechanisms can be used to resolve the Afghan problem and a new mechanism was unnecessary.

    The centre piece of the outcome of the Conference was the integrated economic development of Afghanistan around the focal idea of a New Silk Road that has been put forward by Afghanistan. The new project envisages railway lines to connect Afghanistan with the existing rail networks of Central Asia and Iran. The Joint Declaration also mentions TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) and CASA-1000 project (Central Asia and South Asia Regional Energy and Trade project). Infrastructure would be developed around the main ports of the region with a view to providing Afghanistan with access to the sea. Afghanistan sees itself as a land bridge in the ‘Heart of Asia’ that would connect it with South Asia, West Asia and Central Asia. The New Silk route proposes integrated trade and transportation network. A number of Confidence Building Measures (CBM) in the political and security field were announced. Need for greater economic cooperation, infrastructure construction, developing health and education sector, enhancing cultural relations etc were also discussed.

    In the political and security fields, the Joint Declaration talks about cooperation in fighting terrorism, strengthening border controls, return of refugees, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and disaster management. These initiatives are likely to be developed further in the forthcoming conferences. A follow up meeting of the Istanbul process will be held in Kabul in June 2012.

    The success of these initiatives will depend upon the security situation in Afghanistan which has worsened in recent months. The key to stability in Afghanistan lies in taking action against the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. After the assassination of the High Peace Council chairman Rabbani, Karzai appealed to Pakistan for cooperation in reconciliation while maintaining at the same time that Pakistan must stop helping the Taliban. Deep differences between the two countries continue to exist. Turkey attempted to build trust and bridge the gap between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the trilateral summit preceding the regional conference which was hosted by Turkey. To make regional cooperation on Afghanistan a success, Kabul assured its neighbours that its relations with any state would be transparent and would not be directed against any third party.

    India had been marginalised at earlier conferences. At this conference, India was prominent after having signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan. But, India’s growing profile is resented by Pakistan that rejected any more regional mechanism that may give India a prominent role in Afghanistan. Without naming Pakistan, the Indian External Affairs Minister stressed on ending the safe havens and sanctuaries for Taliban in that country. India is already contributing to the issues mentioned in the Istanbul declaration. It is cooperating in strengthening Afghanistan’s security, is deeply engaged in economic reconstruction and restoration of communication networks, and is providing scholarship to the Afghan students.

    Without security, the socio-economic initiatives announced at the Conference would not materialise. Also, vast amount of resources will be required to fulfil those pledges. No regional country has the clout and resources to take on the burden of developing Afghanistan. The Western interest in Afghanistan is declining as the deadline of 2014 for troop withdrawal approaches.

    Istanbul Conference was a step in the process of stabilising Afghanistan. Several more meetings are likely to be held in future. It will not be fair to assess the success or failure of the Conference at this stage. The fact that there was an attempt to forge regional cooperation on Afghanistan was a positive but feeble step. To expect a breakthrough on security matters in one conference would be unrealistic. Such meetings would need to work towards reducing mutual mistrust and suspicion among the countries of the region. In the long run, a regional consensus on Afghanistan is a pre-requisite for peace.