Pieces from the Afghan puzzle are still missing

One major problem is fitting Afghanistan into an effective regional framework. Neither the SAARC nor the SCO nor the Istanbul Process is willing to assume a leadership role

At last count, there were some 1,365 policy papers on Afghanistan produced worldwide by recognized think-tanks and NGOs in the past five years. Here is one more, but substantially different paper, called Envisioning Afghanistan post- 2014: Joint Declaration on Regional Peace and Stability, produced by Friedrich-Ebert- Stiftung.

Why is it different? It is truly regional, emanating from policy groups and 60 experts from the neighborhood who reconcile their national interests, through compromise, in seeking consensus to arrive at a common minimum interest paper, scripted, owned and driven by the Afghans. It took 18 months to produce. It was launched in Kabul, Istanbul, Islamabad, Brussels, Berlin, New York and Washington, DC – and will be launched in Central Asia and New Delhi later this year.

The Regional Declaration seeks to make Afghanistan an asset for all, through actions at national, regional and international levels, encompassing the period of transition and transformation ending in 2025. The ultimate goal is to secure enduring neutrality for Afghanistan which it enjoyed for a 100 years, especially in the period between 1929 to 1978 which was the most prosperous. The paper on neutrality is a work-in-progress.

If neutrality is accepted by the Pakistani Army, a grand bargain could follow. Pakistan agreeing to end its support for the Afghan Taliban in return for Afghanistan accepting the Durand Line as its international border. For Pakistan and the region there are a number of other benefits including reducing security concerns from two hostile fronts to one. The Regional Declaration recognizes a serious trust deficit between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and therefore, anoints Pakistan as the pivotal player – both as a spoiler and an enabler. The recommendations call for inclusive, transparent and democratic presidential and parliamentary polls, which are the conditions set by the international community for keeping their financial commitments.

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A National Transition Strategy coupled with a National Development Strategy constitutes Afghanistan’s national agenda. This agenda also includes capacity-building of Afghan National Security Forces to prevent civil war, the return of Al Qaeda and effectively combat the Afghan Taliban and other armed opposition. To put it mildly, the Declaration encourages all entities in Pakistan to genuinely cooperate in fighting cross-border threats and pursue its legitimate interests through peaceful means. It calls for the establishing of an Afghanistan-Pakistan Joint Experts’ Working Group to overcome historic bottlenecks and improve bilateral relations. Pakistan’s help is also sought for reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban in a dialogue with the High Peace Council. What emerges are two reconciliation processes: One with Pakistan, and the other with Afghan Taliban entities in Pakistan.

The importance of Pakistan implementing the Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement is emphasized, as also its extension to India. Recognizing that India and Pakistan seem to be working at crosspurposes in Afghanistan, the Declaration encourages the two to end differences and tensions, and commence dialogue on Afghanistan. It also advocates a trilateral dialogue between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. A bigger role is suggested for the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative in Afghanistan, and also the appointment of a dedicated UN Special Coordinator to assist in the peace dialogues. The Regional Declaration reminds the international community, the US and NATO in particular, of their commitment towards a responsible drawdown and to keep their pledges on funding the process of transformation.

A key pillar of the Declaration is a noninterference mechanism which includes codification of ‘interference’ – what neighbors should and should not do. This has been pledged by regional players at Bonn I and II, the Istanbul Process and Geneva but never been implemented in letter and spirit. The UN Special Envoy, with endorsement of P5 countries, is recommended to observe, monitor and investigate any breach of the Code of Conduct (most recently the UN brokered a similar ‘Good Neighborliness’ code for neighbors of the Democratic Republic of Congo). However, noninterference is not about intent, but conduct. The Regional Declaration is thin on the vital aspect of transferring responsibility from international powers to a regional compact for the purpose of preserving the gains in Afghanistan.

One of the key problems is fitting Afghanistan to an effective regional organization. Between the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Istanbul Process (which is not an organization), none is willing or able to take charge since there is no one to assume leadership. Neither China, nor Russia, nor even India is willing to bell the cat. Instead, the region has sought collective leadership based on the Istanbul Process which has Track I institutions. At the very least, Afghanistan requires an active regional coordinator to channels the regional compact.

With the US and West fast losing interest in Afghanistan, and India and Afghanistan both being in election mode, Pakistan appears to have assumed the role of a regional coordinator, at least to monitor inflow of funds and financial commitments made at Chicago, Tokyo, Brussels and by other international monetary institutions. The World Bank office in Islamabad is setting up a team, mainly of economists, to study the fallout of a shortfall in funds and drawdown of the economy in Afghanistan. Frequently, Afghans remind you of the fate suffered by President Mohammad Najibullah, after the Soviet Union switched off the money tap.

Pakistan has rightly prioritized Afghanistan as its most important foreign policy issue, and also identified ‘a peaceful neighborhood for revival of its economic agenda’. The big concern is the likely increase in the burden of refugees (already three million) inside Pakistan, in the event of anarchy and civil war. In the last six months, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have held three meetings. President Karzai has had meetings with former Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and his Director-General at the ISI on bringing the Afghan Taliban for talks to the table. Pakistan is seen as the most decisive player in the Afghan imbroglio.

How is it that 30 million Afghans with the help of 2,00,000 US and ISAF troops, 3,50,000 ANSF personnel, supported by US air and drone power as well as Indian assistance, have not been able to disarm 20,000 Afghan Taliban? The reason is that instead of Pakistan acquiring strategic depth in Afghanistan, the Taliban have secured it inside Pakistan. Only Pakistan can rein in the Afghan Taliban but it says this is beyond its means. Pakistan has to make the right choice. Returning to the Regional Declaration, prospects of regionalization do not appear bright. Finding a regional political mechanism to address reconciliation among stakeholders in Afghanistan is also not bright, in the absence of any regional leadership. The Declaration has offered some ideas like neutrality and non-interference which are do-able. But let the Afghans decide.

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