In an article published in The Hindu on December 24, 2003, co-authored by Hamid Ansari, a respected scholar of West Asia, and this writer, we argued that the only way to attempt to lead Afghanistan out of its present morass was to restore the country to its well-established and widely respected tradition of neutrality. For that country to once again become officially neutral, two things were essential. The Afghans themselves must declare unequivocally that they will follow strict neutrality in their relations with external powers; and the outside powers must commit themselves to respect Afghan neutrality. We suggested that the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos of 1962 could provide a model for Afghanistan. Without in any way committing my fellow co-author, who now occupies the high office of Vice President of India, I have attempted below to elaborate the concept, primarily with a view to generating a focused debate on finding a way out of the Afghan crisis.

The July 1962 Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos 1962 was a two-stage affair. Two weeks before that, the Royal Government of Laos had issued an eight point statement of neutrality. The principal points were these. The Laotian people wished to protect and ensure respect for the sovereignty, independence, neutrality, unity, and territorial integrity of Laos. Secondly, Laos would not resort to the use or threat of force in any way and would not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Thirdly, it would not enter into any agreement inconsistent with its neutrality and would not allow the establishment of any foreign military bases on its territory.

In the second stage, 13 other countries, which included all the neighbours of Laos, the permanent members and three other countries, namely India, Poland and Canada adopted a Declaration that, inter alia, incorporated the Laotian government’s declaration of neutrality, and committed themselves to respect and observer Laos’ sovereignty, independence, neutrality, unity, and territorial integrity. Most importantly, they affirmed that they would not interfere directly or indirectly in the internal affairs of Laos. As a document on neutrality, it was almost impeccable.

There are two Afghan specific precedents that provide important lessons for the present situation. These are the Geneva Agreements of April 14, 1988 on the Settlement of the Situation Relating to Afghanistan; and the Bonn Agreement of December 2001, following the ouster of the Taliban regime in Kabul and the victory of the Northern Alliance.

By 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev had decided to cut his losses and withdraw. He was looking for an honourable way out and was not averse to the initiative of Secretary General Perez de Cuellar. After almost six years of going back and forth, the agreements of April 1988 were worked out.

The 1988 Agreements consisted of four documents. Two of them are relevant for our purpose: a Bilateral Agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan on the Principles of Mutual Relations, in particular on Non-interference and Non-intervention; and the Declaration on International Guarantees signed by the USSR and the USA. In the bilateral agreement on non-interference, the parties undertook, inter alia, to respect the right of the other side to determine its political, social, and cultural system without interference in any form; to refrain from overthrowing or changing the political system of the other side; to ensure that its territory was not used to violate the sovereignty, etc. of the other side; to prevent within its territory the training, etc. of mercenaries from whatever origin for the purpose of hostile activities against the other side. As a document of non-interference and non-intervention, it could hardly be improved upon.

Both the bilateral agreement and the declaration of international guarantees by the Soviet Union and the United States affirmed respect for Afghanistan’s non-alignment. By contrast, the Bonn agreement of 2001 does not contain a single reference to either the neutrality or non-alignment of Afghanistan. There is a request to the United Nations and the international community to take necessary measures to guarantee non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, which has not been acted upon so far.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is not surprising that the Bonn agreement did not succeed in providing stable political governance. Firstly, it was hastily worked out in a few short weeks. Its approach was limited, with a limited objective, namely, to install some governing mechanism to replace the victorious Northern Alliance. Secondly, the process was driven by external players; it was not a solution arrived at by the Afghans for the Afghans. Thirdly, the concepts of democracy embodied in the agreement were foreign-inspired if not imposed. It was not at all clear that the presidential system would work in Afghanistan. No effort was made to create political parties that are the life-sustaining force for democracy anywhere.

After nearly eight years, the Americans do not appear to have reached the stage of frustration and casualties that the Soviets had reached by the time of Geneva agreements of 1988. The Soviets suffered 14,453 dead. The U.S. losses are under 900, but the patience of American public opinion is wearing thin, as is increasingly the case in most troop-contributing countries. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Brown have recently called on the U.N. for help in organising an international conference to, in essence, work out a plan to facilitate early withdrawal of their troops. Zbigniew Brzezinsky has supported the call. The United States now has set for itself a more limited goal of elaborating an exit strategy.

An international conference is the right approach, but its agenda should be more than just to help the NATO forces organise their exit. Its main focus should be to re-place Afghanistan in its traditional and well-respected policy of neutrality — of non-interference by others in its internal affairs and by it in other countries. This can be done in one conference attended by all the neighbours as well by the permanent members and other influential countries. Or it could be a two-conference affair. The first one would be attended only by Afghanistan and its immediate neighbours. It would adopt a declaration of neutrality along the lines of the Laos declaration of 1962 and/or the bilateral agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan of 1988. There would then be a larger conference, attended by the permanent members as well as other influential countries. The second conference would endorse the declaration of neutrality adopted by the smaller conference and would contain a pledge by others to respect that commitment by Afghanistan and its neighbours. Many issues would come up: what kind of mechanism should there be to monitor compliance by parties with their obligations? Should there be peace-keeping of some sort? Who would deal with complaints of violations? All these questions would have to be settled in the course of negotiations.

The proposed conference would have to settle, once and for all, the definitive boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan. An undefined border is a breeding ground for suspicion and temptation for interference and intervention. Questions of regional rivalry must not be allowed to obstruct the search for a lasting peace and stability in the region.

Multilateral approach

Henry Kissinger recalled, in an article published in The Washington Post on February 26, 2009, Afghanistan’s neutrality in the 19th century and advocated a multilateral approach. He said the principal neighbours must agree on a policy of restraint. He suggested that the U.S. should propose a working group of Afghanistan’s neighbours, India, and the permanent members of the UNSC to, inter alia, assist in establishing principles for the country’s international status and obligations to oppose terrorist activities.

The conference or conferences could be convened outside the U.N., for example by the P-5, or could be called by the U.N. The U.N. option might be preferable, although big power manipulation can almost certainly be expected. It would be eminently desirable for the Secretary-General to appoint a special representative to carry out the necessary and difficult consultations with all the parities concerned. Diego Cordovez, the personal representative of Perez de Cuellar, visited the region, including Geneva, as many as 18 times. The Secretary-General must politely but firmly decline the offer by other states to ‘assist’ his special envoy by appointing their own special envoys.

External players must avoid all temptation to influence the outcome of any intra-Afghan process. Indeed, ideally, foreigners should not have any access to the venue of any future Loya Jirga.

Would the Taliban permit such a process to take place? They just might, if they perceived it as a purely Afghan process. It is very likely that they will not win many delegates in a Loya Jirga, just as the extremists failed to win significant seats in the Pakistan elections and the separatists did not even dare to contest elections in Kashmir.

These thoughts are offered with a view to channelling the discussions on the future of Afghanistan into a more purposive, constructive, and result-oriented direction. There might be, must be other ideas out there. Let a serious search begin that would at last restore peace, stability, and, eventually, prosperity to the long-suffering Afghan people.

(The author, a former Permanent Representative of India at the United Nations and a former U.N. Under-Secretary-General, is a commentator on international affairs.)

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