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Another approach to Afghanistan

By Chinmaya R. Gharekhan & Hamid Ansari

Afghanistan could be better off adopting a policy of neutrality.

THE CENTRALITY of Afghanistan to the Asian landmass bestowed on its immediate and proximate neighbours, and on many others, the curse of desire. This in the 19th century went by the name of the Great Game. Its terminological variants in more recent years are reflective of the continuity of interests and perceptions.

For the greater part of the 20th century the rulers of Afghanistan took considerable care to highlight, in regard to their foreign relations, a policy of neutrality. King Nadir Shah expressed it clearly in 1931: "In my opinion the best and most fruitful policy that one can imagine for Afghanistan is a policy of neutrality. Afghanistan must always entertain good relations with its neighbours as well as all the friendly powers that are not opposed to the national interest of the country. Afghanistan must give its neighbours assurances of its friendly attitudes while safeguarding the right of reciprocity. Such a line of conduct is the best one for the interests of Afghanistan." This approach did not hamper the quest for developmental assistance from all available sources.

The Bonn Agreement of December 2001 on the re-establishment of the Afghan state institutions contains in Annex III, paragraph 1, a request from the conference participants to the United Nations and the international community "to take necessary measures to guarantee national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Afghanistan as well as the non-interference by foreign countries in Afghanistan's internal affairs." This, interestingly enough, has yet to be acted upon despite the fact that the Security Council has adopted eight resolutions pertaining to Afghanistan since the signing of the Agreement and has given practical shape to the requirements of Annexes I and II.

Despite statements of good intentions, the ground reality is perceived to be different and evidence of it is found in the pronouncements of the Afghan Government from time to time. These are taken note of by the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, in a recent report prepared for it by an Independent Task Force. The Report proposes that the United States should undertake "a major diplomatic initiative" to follow up on the Kabul Declaration of December 2002: "This was a useful step but should be buttressed by a far broader and more ambitious international undertaking the purpose of which would be to reaffirm and strengthen the pledges of non-interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs, to agree on banning the supply of arms and other military equipment to local Afghan groups, and to accept current Afghan borders, including the Durand Line frontier with Pakistan." Such an initiative to be effective must involve, in addition to the immediate neighbours, the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, the European Union and Japan: "For the agreement to have maximum impact, its signing should coincide with the assumption of power by the new Afghan government in 2004."

The task force proposal is timely but one-sided. It makes no mention of the desirability of the Afghan state reverting to its traditional policy of neutrality. It is only the combination of the two that would negate both the desire to interfere from without and the impulse to seek it from within.

A number of neutrality models can be looked at. Each is a product of specific circumstances. Switzerland's neutrality — self-imposed, permanent, and armed — was designed to ensure external security. Austria's purpose was to maintain external independence and inviolability of borders. More recently, Turkmenistan declared its permanent neutrality and had it formally recognised by the U.N. A possible model for Afghanistan probably exists in the shape of the International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos that was signed in Geneva on July 23, 1962, by 14 states that included the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5), the neighbours of Laos, as well as India and Canada. The agreement spelt out the reciprocal commitments of the Laotian Government on the one side and of the 14 co-signatories on the other. The Laotian part of the commitments, it said, "shall be promulgated constitutionally and shall have the force of law." The other signatories pledged to respect Laotian neutrality, to refrain from interference — direct or indirect — in the internal affairs of Laos, and to refrain from drawing Laos into military alliance or to establish military bases in Laotian territory. This format, suitably adapted, could include (a) a formal Afghan proclamation of neutrality, (b) its endorsement by the U.N. Security Council, and (c) the acceptance of reciprocal obligations by the Afghan state on the one side and the neighbours of Afghanistan and other relevant countries on the other. These elements could provide the framework for a comprehensive arrangement. A settlement of the Pakistan-Afghan border, and a commitment for structured reduction and eventual elimination of foreign forces now in Afghanistan would need to be incorporated in the package.

It has been said, in relation to Afghanistan, that everyone's first desire is to influence and the second to assist. A uniform denial of the first would thus enhance the capacity for the second and respond to what the Afghan poet, Khalilullah Khaleeli, poignantly described as the "promise of tomorrow." Would not such an outcome enhance regional security and also correspond to the wishes of the people of Afghanistan?

(The writers are former Permanent Representatives of India to the United Nations)

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