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HEART OF THE REGION
- The Istanbul process may help resolve Afghanistan’s problems

Many analysts, including this writer, have been arguing for a regional approach as the only means to explore measures to restore stability in Afghanistan. In effect, the search for a regional solution to the Afghan situation has started with the Istanbul conference. The participants have repeatedly affirmed and reaffirmed their ‘commitments’ to a secure and stable Afghanistan in a stable and secure region. Thus, they have recognized that the stability of Afghanistan and of the region of which it is a part are inextricably linked. Paragraphs 11 and 12 of the Istanbul declaration state clearly that the challenges of security, economy and development that Afghanistan faces are interconnected, that no single state or organization can deal with them by itself and that regional and international cooperation are indispensable in addressing them. This is a welcome development.

The declaration is comprehensive and somewhat repetitive, particularly regarding the narcotics issue. This was perhaps inevitable since the core concerns of all the participants as well as ‘witnesses’ had to be accommodated. It has been recognized, however, that peace and stability in the region comprise an essential prerequisite for regional cooperation in every other area, be it drug trafficking, education or culture. While endorsing the regional approach, the conference has also expressed support for the process of reconciliation, in other words, for engaging the Taliban in talks and, implicitly, for the efforts of any party which can help arrange or further this process. The three ‘red lines’ have been reaffirmed: renunciation of violence, severance of links with ‘terrorist groups’, that is, al Qaida, and respect for the Afghan constitution. The ‘mantra’ of the process of being Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-driven has been rightly incorporated, though each party will have its own interpretation of this sentiment.

Terrorism has found mention in numerous places. Perhaps the Indian delegation has had something to do with this. At the same time, Pakistan has succeeded in inserting its oft-stated position that terrorism can only be addressed through the concerted efforts of all countries (and not just all regional countries). Thus, its view that it alone is not responsible for all the terrorism emanating from its territory and that it by itself cannot tackle it has been vindicated in the declaration. The Afghanistan-Pakistan transit trade agreement, which excluded India, has been mentioned as a model of ways in which to expand trade across the region.

Most important, the Istanbul declaration has unequivocally called for respect for the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Afghanistan as well as for the principle of non-interference in its internal affairs. Afghanistan, for its part, has reiterated its commitment to respect the territorial integrity of its neighbours — in other words, non-intervention in the internal affairs of its neighbours. As has been widely acknowledged, the root cause of almost all of Afghanistan’s problems is the propensity of outside powers, especially its neighbours, to seek to influence the character of the government in Kabul. The Afghans themselves, various groups of them, have not been averse to seeking external involvement in their intra-group conflicts. That is why the Bonn declaration of December 2001, in Annex 3, contains a demand by the Afghan parties which signed that declaration that the international community and the United Nations ‘guarantee’ non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

The declaration takes positive note of the various bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral initiatives between Afghanistan and the regional countries. These initiatives have so far excluded India. Since the Istanbul conference was an initiative at the regional level, it is perhaps understandable that no mention is made of the enormous assistance, material and human, expended by extra-regional players to Afghanistan over the past decade; they would no doubt make up for this omission at the Bonn meeting scheduled for December 5, 2011.

Over the past two years, this writer has repeatedly called for a regional approach as the only way in which to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan. It was mentioned time and again to him that Pakistan will never agree to a regional approach or to any meeting or forum to discuss Afghanistan to which India was also invited. It is to the credit of Turkey that it persuaded Pakistan to agree to India’s participation in the Istanbul meeting. It is also to the credit of Pakistan that it so agreed. The civilian authorities in Islamabad could not have agreed to this without clearance from the military. This fact, together with Pakistan’s agreeing to accord most favoured nation status to India and the statement that Pakistan’s military was on board with this decision, needs to be noted in India.

The declaration makes specific what ought to be understood, namely, that decision making in the Istanbul process will be by consensus. Two further steps have been specified: a preparatory meeting at the technical level for which the Afghans will develop a concept paper by the end of January 2012 and a ministerial meeting in Kabul in June next year. It is appropriate that all meetings concerned with Afghanistan’s future should be held on Afghan soil.

This writer has advocated a two-stage approach which would call for a regional compact in the first phase, to be followed, in the second phase, by a wider international gathering which will guarantee the agreement among regional countries. In essence, this is what is happening. The Istanbul conference was substantively the first phase and the Bonn meeting a month later will be the second phase. It has been pointed out by many observers that adopting a declaration by itself will not solve anything. This is no doubt true, but signing on to a declaration is an essential first step. It needs to be followed by others, especially by devising a mechanism to monitor the implementation of the commitments assumed by the signatories. This is where the UN’s role is crucial. It is the only organization with the requisite credentials, experience and expertise that can undertake this task. Turkey and some others have accomplished the goal of bringing the regional parties together and agreeing on a set of mutual obligations and responsibilities, but there is still a lot of work ahead consisting of fleshing out details of what exactly, for example, non-interference implies. Bonn should fill in the gaps.

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