Towards a regional solution in Afghanistan

The eminent scholar, Hamid Ansari, and this writer proposed nearly seven years ago ( The Hindu , December 24, 2003) a ‘neutral' status as the best possible solution for Afghanistan's persistent problems. Since then, much water has flowed down the Amu Darya. The country has gone through, and is still experiencing, unending violence, assassinations and instability. The international community, with the United States in the lead, has invested a huge effort in human and material terms to assist Afghanistan over the past 10 years to achieve a degree of calm and security. But the results have been less than hoped for. Now that the bulk of international security forces will pull out of Afghanistan in a little over three years, those best positioned to make a difference to Afghanistan's future seem to have realised that it is futile to seek a purely military solution to the country's miseries and that a political-cum-diplomatic approach is at least as important.

The political aspect is being pursued in the effort to engage the insurgents, i.e. the Taliban, in negotiations with a view to inducing them to give up their militancy, sever links with al-Qaeda and respect the Constitution — the so-called three ‘red lines'. Those involved in the political track do not appear to be particularly optimistic about the chances of bringing a significant number of the Taliban to adopt the approach; they are also diffident about the capacity of the Afghan national forces to assume full responsibility for restoring and maintaining peace and security in the country by 2014. If the drift continues, the threat of Afghanistan descending into a civil war type of situation cannot be ruled out.

Diplomatic surge has not attracted sufficient attention thus far. Perhaps one reason is that the principal external actors have not thought through what exactly the diplomatic approach involves. While there was a general awareness of the fact that Afghanistan's stability was linked in various ways to the behaviour of its neighbours as well as its own, there was no focus, no common ground on which to work. Several observers including Henry Kissinger as well as this writer and Ambassador Karl Inderfurth, former Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, have suggested that perhaps the best way to seek salvation for Afghanistan's difficulties is to strive to restore that country to its traditional stance of neutrality.

In a welcome development, the U.S. has now embraced the idea of seeking a regional solution to Afghanistan. In her significant testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 23, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked by the influential Senator, Richard Lugar, whether the nearly 200-year-old precedent of the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15 could offer a model for Afghanistan today. Ms Clinton's response was positive. She said: “[The] Congress of Vienna is an interesting historical example because there was a pact among regional powers that in effect left the Benelux countries as a free zone, so to speak … Afghanistan is a part of a much larger diplomatic pattern and set of relationships, comparable to the Congress of Vienna.” She went on: “this [Afghanistan] is a regional problem that is going to have that kind of a rather broad diplomatic solution. Certainly, if we could get to that point with the regional powers in South Asia that would be a very worthy outcome”. She added Iran to the names suggested by Senator Lugar — India, Russia, Saudi Arabia. In her words: “you cannot ignore Iran. Iran is a big player in the region and has a long border with Afghanistan and Pakistan.” She concluded: “The only way we are going to get a political solution is through this kind of diplomatic outreach and that is what we are engaged in.”

The Afghan government's views are obviously of paramount importance in this matter. It would wish to pursue a line which, in its judgment, would best protect and further the national interests of its people. The Afghan factions represented at the Bonn Conference in December 2001 were conscious of this responsibility when they unanimously issued an unequivocal call to the international community as represented by the United Nations, to help achieve exactly the kind of solution Ms Clinton seems to seek. Appendix 3 of the Bonn Agreement is clear. It states: “[the participants] request the United Nations and the international community to take the necessary measures to guarantee the national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Afghanistan as well as the non-interference by foreign countries in Afghanistan's internal affairs.” It was, therefore, not much of a surprise when a spokesman of the Afghan Defence Ministry said on June 27, as reported in the Financial Times of June 28: “The government of Afghanistan welcomes the idea of Mrs. Clinton to turn Afghanistan into a neutral zone country and the Ministry of Defence believes that idea will help the peace process a lot. Bringing peace to Afghanistan without the cooperation of regional countries is impossible as they play a major role in conflicts in Afghanistan.” What is important is not the terminology but substance. The word ‘neutral' does not have to be employed but the regional approach is imperative.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has everything that he might need to take the initiative to begin implementing the unanimous appeal by the Afghan parties at Bonn — the mandate, the support of the most important player and the green signal of the Afghan people. He should proceed, without further loss of precious time, to begin consultations on at least the person to whom the difficult task of consulting the regional countries should be entrusted. This also means that at a minimum, some regional powers ought also to help the process, instead of leaving the entire burden on the Americans. India should be more than willing, not so much because Ms Clinton has asked India “to take the lead” but because it is in our interest to do so.

For too long, India has allowed itself to be influenced by Pakistan's possible reaction to whatever it might propose. It is almost axiomatic that Pakistan will oppose anything India proposes. We have also been too solicitous of the American anxiety not to upset Pakistan because of Washington's own vital interests, in the process denying ourselves the opportunity to play any meaningful part in the diplomatic arena. Now, however, an opportunity has opened up for us to join the effort to work towards a regional approach. The U.S. can only welcome such help from us as it prepares to withdraw by 2014.

Pakistan will always be an extremely relevant factor in anything to do with Afghanistan. It has interests and concerns in that country. We in India may not regard Pakistan's concerns as legitimate or well-founded, but much of the international community seems to have bought the Pakistani line vis-à-vis India. There is, therefore, an urgent need for an Afghanistan-specific India-Pakistan dialogue. At track-II level where this writer has been present, the Pakistani delegates were dismissive of the idea of such a dialogue. “Let us first try and reduce our bilateral deficit before we can consider bringing Afghanistan into the dialogue” was their categorical response. We should nonetheless pursue this possibility. It is conceivable that the reaction at the official level might be more encouraging. There is no alternative to our two countries exchanging views on the Afghan situation. It is entirely possible that we might find enough common ground relating to Afghanistan which, in its turn, might help in reducing the bilateral trust deficit.

During her recent visit to Delhi, Ms Clinton seems to have proposed a quadripartite dialogue among the U.S., India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given Pakistan's allergy to India having anything to do with Afghanistan, this idea will not go far. It would be more practical and productive to initiate a trilateral dialogue among the U.S., India and Afghanistan, specifically on Afghanistan. We should give all the encouragement to what Ms Clinton put forward during her testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We should similarly persuade the United Nations Secretary-General to seriously act on the mandate given to him by the Bonn conference 10 years ago. We should certainly engage with Iran on the Afghan situation since we have worked together on it in the past and have common concerns. We should also talk to Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Central Asian states not merely to compare notes but even more on how to initiate and take the regional process forward.

Many observers have suggested that perhaps the best way to seek salvation for Afghanistan's difficulties is to strive to restore that country to its traditional stance of neutrality.

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