Envisioning a new Afghanistan

Close on the heels of the fourth ‘Heart of Asia’ Ministerial conference in the framework of the Istanbul Process, hosted for the first time by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the first official visit the Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani paid to Beijing, a regional Track II conference, “Envisioning Afghanistan post-2014” (supported by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung) was held in Istanbul this month. While the West may have expressed a diminishing interest in Afghanistan, 60 experts, from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics, barring Turkmenistan, along with advisers from Iran, Turkey, Russia and China have been meeting regularly over the last three years. This is to monitor events to update and uplink their joint declaration on Afghanistan which has been keenly studied by officials in many countries, including the National Security Council in Washington and the European Commission in Brussels as well as those in leading think tanks.

What is of relevance from the joint declaration are its three key recommendations: establishing a joint special commission of AfPak, holding an India-Pakistan dialogue on Afghanistan, and advocacy that Afghanistan be accepted as a neutral country commencing with a framework for non-interference and non-intervention underwritten by the United Nations.

Neutrality of Afghanistan

Afghans espouse a strong culture and tradition of neutrality which their country enjoyed between 1929 and 1978 and which includes the period of World War II. At the Istanbul meeting, Central Asian policy groups asserted that the Shanghai Six — the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) — Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and China, have been pledging for the last three years at the SCO summit, their commitment for a neutral Afghanistan. Point 7 of the Dushanbe Declaration of September 2014 notes: “Member states of SCO reiterate their support for development of Afghanistan into a democratic, peaceful prosperous and neutral state.” In an interview with Afghan Tolo TV (March 18, 2012), Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that his country supported Afghanistan’s neutrality.

The joint declaration will shortly have an add-on: an Annexure on Enduring Neutrality. Experts who have studied the Austrian and Swiss models say that the neutrality of Afghanistan will mean de facto neutralisation of Pakistan, and so the biggest obstacle in its acceptance will be the Pakistan Army with its gospel of strategic depth. The Pakistan Army has invested precious lives and resources in creating strategic assets through “good terrorists” which has paradoxically led to many of these terrorists securing strategic depth inside Pakistan. Afghans, including the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, say they have never accepted the Durand Line; therefore, its resurrection by Kabul is a big fear in Pakistan. A grand bargain between Afghanistan and Pakistan — Kabul accepting the Durand Line in return for Pakistan ending support to the Afghan Taliban and providing a land corridor through Balochistan to the sea is a deal which has strategic benefit for all in ending external interference in Afghanistan.

A suitable regional organisation

The regional Joint Declaration is Afghan-driven and Afghan-owned. With the power-sharing agreement soon expected to realise a council of ministers, features of this document are likely to transfer from Track II to Track I. An important ongoing search is to find and fix a regional organisation into which the envisaged regional framework can fit. Those available are the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the SCO, and the Istanbul Process, which is not an organisation but has Track I institutions supporting it. The SCO, with its recurring pledges to uphold Afghan neutrality, prima facie, seems most suitable. At a future date, it could be expected to take over “regional responsibility” from the West to transform Afghanistan into a peaceful, prosperous, and possibly neutral state.

India and Pakistan are observers and are expected to attain full membership of the SCO in 2015. Afghanistan and Iran, also observers, are likely to join in 2016. The SCO constitutes the most effective regional organisation from the neighbourhood to gradually replace or supplement the Istanbul Process. Whether this is an idea whose time has come will depend on China as Russia is the key sponsor of Afghanistan’s neutrality.

Will China oblige?

Until last year, China’s Afghanistan policy was characterised by four Nos: No boots on the ground, no interference in internal affairs; no use of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) for the withdrawal of foreign forces, and no criticism of the United States. China has not put out combat troops, even in U.N. peacekeeping, and has publicly shown only commercial interest in Afghanistan. But that could change as it is now politically active in South Asia. A Track II was held recently in Beijing with Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, and where Afghan and Pakistani participants canvassed for the PRC’s deeper political involvement in Afghanistan; unlike western countries, it is not tainted with the brush of intervention. At the recent summit, Presidents Ghani and Xi Jinping of China agreed to establish a forum of Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. Beijing recently appointed its Special Envoy for AfPak and it is no surprise that it is the quintessential Special Councillor, Yang Yiechi.

After the signing of the Afghanistan-China Deepening Strategic and Cooperative Partnership, President Xi said his country would enhance its economic investment as well as enlarge its security assistance, which in the past has included the training of police and providing non-lethal military equipment. Beijing has pledged a $327 million grant over three years, in addition to $200 million given earlier. China’s main fears that stem from AfPak are extremism, separatism and terrorism arising especially from the Uyghurs linked to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Days before the Presidential summit, Afghanistan handed over in Beijing, a dozen suspected Uyghurs trained in Pakistan. Islamabad is known to be advising Beijing to enlarge its profile in Afghanistan, consider replacing the U.S. and expelling India. On its part, China is in dialogue with India over Afghanistan. Will China show and not hide its strength or merely shadow-box in Afghanistan?

As part of a new political initiative at the ministerial conference in Beijing, Premier Le Keqiang suggested the formation of a peace committee comprising regional countries to include Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan (and presumably led by China) to talk to the Afghanistan Taliban. The proposal was shot down by Russia due to its policy of not talking to terrorists. China follows a similar policy.

After China, Mr. Ghani’s second visit outside was to Pakistan, not India. He has established a new High Peace Council led by an uncle, Dr. Kouchai, and has, after talks with the Sharifs — Prime Minister Nawaz and Army Chief Raheel — solicited their support in engaging the Afghan Taliban to restart the process of reconciliation and peace.

Besides neutrality, work on establishing the Afghan-Pakistan Joint Special Commission is likely to begin shortly. The breakthrough in an India-Pakistan resumed dialogue could be expected from the ongoing SAARC summit. Evidently, Tracks I and II feed into each other.

Working the government

The artificial arrangement — a forging of the National Unity Government (NUG) of President Ghani and CEO/PM Abdullah Abdullah — has to be constitutionally legitimised after ratification by a Loya Jirga by the end of 2016. The NUG is yet to be tested as the Council of Ministers, except that of National Security Advisor (NSA), Hanif Atmar, has not been named. While the foreign and defence portfolios are likely to go to Mr. Abdullah, internal and finance will be with Mr. Ghani.

Once adversaries, two five-men teams representing Mr. Abdullah’s Reform and Partnership Team and Mr. Ghani’s Transformation and Continuity Party are working together. They are busy fleshing out institutional arrangements to support the power-sharing arrangement in which the President will define policy and vision and the CEO/PM will execute it and preside over the Council of Ministers. This council has to be presented to Parliament before winter recess next month as most of them are likely to be attending the London conference, in December, where the NUG will be endorsed by the international community.

Two deadlines confront Kabul: legitimising the NUG and assuming full charge of the country by the end of 2016. U.S. President Barack Obama’s stunning political announcement withdrawing troops by the end of 2016 instead of 2024 was shock and awe for the Afghans. According to Operation Resolute Support, it defines the deinduction schedule of the residual 9,800 troops; 4,900 troops by the end of 2015, and zero troops by the end of 2016. NSA Atmar appealed to the U.S., like Prime Minister Narendra Modi did with Mr. Obama, urging him to extend the troop deadline.

The Special Advisor to Mr. Abdullah told me at the Istanbul Conference that the bilateral security arrangement or BSA signed jointly by Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah with the U.S. says: “U.S. forces can stay in Afghanistan until the end of 2024 and beyond” mainly in nominated air and land bases. Still a deviation (and an opening) exists between what was stated by Mr. Obama and the contents of the BSA.

Look out for these straws in the wind: the formation of the Joint Special AfPak Commission; an India-Pakistan dialogue on Afghanistan; a regional organisation to steer Afghanistan towards neutrality. These additional ingredients will ensure a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.

(Gen. Ashok K. Mehta is convenor of Track-II policy groups on Afghanistan and India-Pakistan.)

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 3:26:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/envisioning-a-new-afghanistan/article6637007.ece

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