Istanbul Regional Conference – Setting The Stage For Political Reconciliation In Afghanistan

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Context

On November 2, 2011 a daylong conference on the future of Afghanistan was held in Istanbul. The conference was titled “Security and Cooperation in the Heart of Asia” and was attended by 17 countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Russia and the US, among others. While there was a lot of positive rhetoric coming out of the conference, there was little in the way of concrete steps forward for resolving the sticking-points of achieving a stable and prosperous Afghanistan and Central Asian region.

The most significant aspect of the Istanbul Conference, and subsequently of the Bonn Conference scheduled for December is that there are no representatives of the Taliban or other non-government Afghan parties attending. The absence of key players from Afghanistan means that there is a sense of a top-down approach being adopted at these conferences. This could potentially become another road block point in the path towards political reconciliation.

Analysis

There was never any doubt that the Istanbul Regional Conference would produce few tangible advances in the road toward peace and stability in Afghanistan. One day, after all, is not enough to resolve over a decade of violence, nor was it expected to. So what was expected from the November 2 meeting?

The main issues on the agenda of the conference were to discuss the options for the three areas that are considered paramount for transition to a stable and peaceful Afghanistan after the US and NATO troops withdraw in 2014. These are the Afghan security handover, which necessitates the capacity building of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and police forces; Political reconciliation and thirdly economic independence and prosperity.

The conference adopted a declaration that addresses issues related to these three key areas, as well as in the fields of education and cultural exchanges. A great many Confidence Building Measures (CBM) were agreed upon in the declaration, including:

A regional Preferential Trade Agreement to encourage the flow of goods within the Central Asian region — termed at the conference “The Heart of Asia.” The declaration called on a number of CMBs and initiatives to be investigated, including: hydroelectric power options and cooperative water management; cooperation on energy flow within the region; increased agricultural cooperation and infrastructure development within the region; expanding the connections between educational facilities within the region as well as a number of CBMs on cultural exchanges, promoting intercultural understanding and removal of prejudices.

Aside from the numerous CBMs agreed upon in the conference declaration, there was also a lengthy section detailing the support from conference members for Afghanistan, especially in the realm of counter-terrorism efforts and efforts to root out narcotics production, highlighting Afghanistan’s prominent geo-strategic position as a “land bridge” connecting South and Central Asia and the Middle East.

On top of this, the conference declaration included a number of statements regarding Afghanistan’s position in the region:

– It recognized Afghanistan as a sovereign, democratic state with inviolable borders.
– It recognized Afghanistan’s commitment to not let its territory be used as a safe haven for terrorists
– It recognized Afghanistan’s commitment to respect the territory of its neighbors
– It recognized that any Afghan dealings with a state are not directed against a third party

These last statements from the declaration are the closest we can find to censure and warning in the declaration, even worded so cautiously. There seem to be specific messages in these passages of the declaration that deal with the recent tensions between Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Reservations

While the official line from Pakistan is that the Istanbul Regional Conference is viewed with a great deal of positivity, unofficial statements from anonymous members of the conference delegation have painted a slightly more skeptical picture.

The anonymous diplomat told the Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune that the main issue of concern for Pakistan was the push by the United States to seek permanent bases in Afghanistan once the 2014 pull-out date had passed. The diplomat further stated that Pakistan had gone into the conference with low expectations due to the divergent approaches of key players on a number of important strategic issues.

While Washington denies that it is pursuing permanent military bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan was joined by Russia, China and Iran at the conference pressing for clarity over the issue. They all also rebuffed the need for a new ‘regional mechanism’ to deal with the Afghan endgame, with Pakistan officially stating that the mechanisms already in place were sufficient to deal with the problems the region faced.

The strong opposition to the formation of a new regional mechanism in the form of a contact group that included non-neighboring countries to Afghanistan – India among them – saw the proposal dropped from the conference declaration.

Iran and US

The conference was an unusual platform for the United States and Iran. The Iranian delegation, headed by Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, decided to attend at the last moment despite reservations over an “absence of honesty” from the United States. While there were no direct meetings between Iran and the US delegation, they are both party to the declaration adopted by the conference, which gives them a modicum of common interest, and thus is being heralded as a baby step down the long road of normalization between the US and Iran.

More importantly it paves the way for Iran to take a more central role at the Bonn Conference in December, which will carry on from where the Istanbul conference left off in many regards. Iran played a significant part in the first Bonn ten years before, where a smooth transition of power in Kabul was achieved after the fall of the Taliban. There are still strong feelings in Tehran that Iran’s role in this regard was greatly overlooked and even dismissed, with the US shortly afterward placing Iran on the notorious “Axis of Evil” list. Leading up to this year’s Bonn conference, Iran is willing to take a central role again, but is anxious that its position not be overlooked, and any contribution it makes acknowledged in full.

For the US this requires a thorough streamlining of its foreign policy toward Iran, which has been schizophrenic of late, oscillating between wanting dialogue, to coercive diplomacy to outright hostility.

No Taliban?

The most significant aspect of the Istanbul Conference, and subsequently of the Bonn Conference scheduled for December is that there are no representatives of the Taliban or other non-government Afghan parties attending. The absence of key players from Afghanistan means that there is a sense of a top-down approach being adopted at these conferences.

The approach being favored by US is to involve the regional stakeholders first and then deal with forces in Afghanistan. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger best described this model on Tuesday. Kissinger in a panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars told audience that “I have no [objection] in principle of negotiating with the Taliban, but for the purpose of ending the war, it’s the wrong sequence of events. The first negotiation in my view ought to be with surrounding countries.” He also urged the US to reach an agreement before troops are withdrawn from the country. Kissinger also suggested that troops should be pulled out at the end of the process, and not the beginning, so as to maintain influence in the region.

Pakistan, on the other hand, realizes that peace and stability in Afghanistan, and hence the region, is contingent on the reconciliation process within Afghanistan, without which no other effort will bear fruit.

The past decade of war is clear proof that the Taliban is not an insignificant force in Afghanistan, and cannot be overcome by force alone. Their absence at the conference almost undermines the whole premise of the conference, because before the internal dysfunction of Afghanistan is healed, other initiatives will likely make little headway.

A Taliban spokesman has dismissed the declaration adopted by the Istanbul conference because it “did not call for withdrawal of invaders.” This is consistent with the longstanding stance of the Taliban that it will not participate in talks until a tangible framework for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan is announced.

Conclusions

While the Istanbul conference was important for diplomatic reasons, and was a platform for the region to test out the waters of cooperation, there was little achieved at the conference that will translate into concrete outcomes.

This is due largely to the fact that there is a lot of hope being pinned on the Bonn conference, and indeed many are regarding the Istanbul conference as an agenda-setter for Bonn, rather than a vehicle of success itself. Also, without the participation of key groups in Afghanistan, the Istanbul conference is an exercise in rhetoric, given that the main causes of continued trouble in the country cannot be overcome without their involvement.

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