Flurry of meetings slated to thrash out security structure

The Afghan endgame gets into high-gear from Wednesday with the one-day Istanbul conference of 15 Foreign Ministers, including External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to be the sole Western representative (she has dropped out due to personal reasons) while all the other Foreign Ministers are from Afghanistan's immediate neighbourhood — Pakistan, Iran, China and most Central Asian “stans” — or neighbours of the neighbours, such as India, UAE, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Diplomatic sources pointed out that a few days after the Istanbul meet — the first time the West has assembled major regional players around Afghanistan while keeping a low profile itself — heads of government of the six Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) countries will meet in St. Petersburg. On the agenda for SCO members — Russia, China and four of the five Central Asian “stans” (minus Turkmenistan) — will be upgrading observers India and Pakistan to full members, granting observer status to Afghanistan and making Turkey a dialogue partner. Iran has been left out of the matrix but the SCO's proposed promotions and inclusions make it the most comprehensive set of players with a stake in Afghanistan's stability.

Palliatives

A week after this November 7 SCO meeting, representatives of about 50 countries grouped under the International Contact Group on Afghanistan will meet in the Kazakh capital of Astana. Less than a month after the Astana meet, the all important — from the Western perspective — mega conference on Afghanistan will be held at Bonn, the same venue where the now-failed palliatives were discussed shortly after the Western invasion of Afghanistan 10 years ago.

Regional focus

With the U.S.' military partners, including Japan and the European countries, on the sidelines, the Istanbul conference will work out a declaration focussing on regional security amid reports of various proposals being floated for a new security structure in Afghanistan. The attempt will be to commit the immediate neighbours and their neighbours not to work at cross purposes in Afghanistan.

The West hopes that a declaration emanating from the “Security and Cooperation in the Heart of Asia” conference in Turkey would prepare the ground for the broader theme of economic, regional and political integration at the Bonn meeting, which will be attended by 85 countries and 15 international organisations. The tenor of the declaration at the Bonn conference will be set at Tuesday night's trilateral meeting to be attended by the Presidents of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey.

The Bonn conference — the first time Afghanistan will chair a conference on its own (the Ankara meet will be co-chaired by Turkey and Afghanistan) — is also expected to take a closer look at the security-related commitments made in Turkey. With the West keen to extricate itself from Afghanistan, diplomats here detect an edge to Western exertions as compared to the mega conferences of this scale staged earlier in London, Kabul and Lisbon.

Diplomats do not believe that the conference will go beyond platitudes, given that nothing has changed on the ground for countries to abandon their national interests in Afghanistan and comply with the U.S.-led vision of all nations sinking their differences even before discussions are held on a more inclusive political mosaic in Kabul.

They feel one positive takeaway from the Istanbul conference would be Iran's presence, which the U.S. feels has played a constructive role at previous meetings on Afghanistan. Another would be the U.S. pressing ahead with its New Silk Road vision that stresses on economic cooperation and development to wean off Afghanistan from developmental aid, which is likely to be countered by the SCO's visions of regional economic integration.

Hope

The hope is that the flurry of meetings would provide a clearer vision about the future of Afghanistan when the global community picks up the threads next year with an expanded SCO summit expected in China that could be preceded by the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan in Dushanbe and the NATO summit in Chicago in May.

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