India-Afghanistan Convergence at ‘Heart of Asia Summit’
Dr Sitakanta Mishra
To bring peace and stability in Afghanistan, two different peacemaking approaches were adopted: first, the interventionist approach spearheaded by the US; and second the regional institutionalization approach involving China, Russia, and other neighbouring countries including India.
The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), and the Heart of Asia (HoA) are some of the endeavours that are part of the second strategy with a focus on strengthening Afghanistan politically, economically and militarily. During the recently concluded Heart of Asia–Istanbul Process (HoA-IP) ministerial meeting at Amritsar (Punjab) discussions were focused on the need of “resolute action against the growing arc of terrorist violence” that is posing the gravest threat to Afghanistan, and the region.
The Bugs in ‘Heart of Asia’
Launched in November 2011 in Turkey, the HoA-IP initiative aims to promote regional cooperation for peace, security and development in Afghanistan and the entire ‘Heart of Asia’ region. The previous five ministerial meetings (Istanbul-2011, Kabul-2012, Almaty-2013, Beijing-2014, and Islamabad-2015) have succeeded to channelize multilateral support and billions of dollars of aid and assistance for post-conflict reconstruction of Afghanistan.
The HoA-IP is undoubtedly “an important regional platform for political dialogue and close regional cooperation aimed at promoting stability, peace and prosperity in Afghanistan and the entire Heart of Asia region, and for enhancing Afghanistan’s connectivity” with the rest of the region.
The sixth ministerial meeting in Amritsar, attended by 14 partner countries and around 40 supporting countries and organizations, strongly condemned the acts of terrorism in this part of the world, and described by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, as “a regional creation and the nerve centre being Pakistan”.
The Declaration, at the end of the summit, stressed “the need for advancing regional cooperation as an effective means to address common challenges and to promote security, stability and socio-economic development of the Heart of Asia region”. It renewed their “commitment to strengthening enhanced cooperation among member states in a sincere and effective manner.”
But, the entire process remains hostage to “terrorism, violent extremism, radicalization, separatism, and sectarianism and linkages among them.” Especially “the security situation in Afghanistan in particular and the high level of violence caused by the Taliban, terrorist groups including ISIL / DAISH and its affiliates, the Haqqani Network, Al Qaida, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, East Turkistan Islamic Movement, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Jundullah and other foreign terrorist fighters” warrants “early finalization of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism with consensus.”
The summit members also stressed for setting up of an international regime to verify the reality of terrorist attacks along the frontier region. It was emphasized that, unless and until the security of Afghan people and stability of Afghan government is ensured by eradicating terrorism and its sponsors, no amount of aid and assistance can change the face of conflict-torn Afghanistan.
Beside terrorism, the Amritsar Declaration has also raised concerns on the menace of drug production and trafficking, and the nexus between revenue and its financial support for terrorist entities that has adversely affected the HoA region and beyond. The meeting also welcomed and supported Afghanistan’s initiative in taking the lead in exploring a regional counter-terror strategy and called for convening an early meeting of experts to discuss a draft framework strategy.
More importantly, the Declaration urged all Afghan Taliban groups and other armed groups to enter into peace talks with the Government of Afghanistan as it believes that the only means for durable peace in Afghanistan would be established through a negotiated settlement only. Through multilateral energy and connectivity projects like CASA-1000, TUTAP, TAPI, Chabahar Agreement, the Five Nation Railway, TAT linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan by rail, Afghan International Railway Corridor, etc., the HoA-IP strongly believes that Afghanistan will become a natural land bridge in promoting regional connectivity and economic integration in the Heart of Asia region.
The summit took place in the backdrop of rising tension between India and Pakistan in the post-Uri terrorist attack and consequent surgical strike by India. Also it is held when Afghanistan’s ties with Pakistan are slipping on the trust factor.
Moreover, the HoA Amritsar meeting was held in the backdrop of unfolding sensational global power alignments which seem to move in Pakistan’s favour. Russia is now keen on joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and access to Gwader port for exports. China is reportedly deploying its navy to guard Gwader port. Therefore, Russia did not condemn the act of terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil; rather it said Pakistan alone did not deserve all the attack it had come under at Amritsar.
There is no duality of opinion that the security concerns of India and Afghanistan converge significantly. At the outset, Pakistan-sponsored terrorism not only targets Afghanistan but also India, thereby necessitates a common counter-terror strategy. Secondly, as Afghanistan’s security perimeter intersects with India’s, New Delhi has legitimate security interests in Afghanistan. Thirdly, as India’s contribution to the comprehensive development of Afghanistan outweighs that of other neighbours it has a moral responsibility to see its contribution and assets are intact. Fourthly, to neutralize Pakistan’s ‘nuclear brinkmanship’ based on the notion of “strategic depth” extending deep into Afghanistan, India needs to ensure the strategic autonomy and stability of Kabul.
Lastly, a strong and stable Afghanistan, and prosperous Indo-Afghan relations is not in Pakistan’s interests, for obvious reasons. The Durand Line and Waziristan as Pakistan territory is not formally accepted by any Afghan government. Even the Wazirs in the bordering region have more affinity with Afghans than the Pakistanis. Pakistan’s worst fear is that, a stable and strong Afghanistan would like abrogation of Durand Line, discarding Pakistani desire to convert it into international border. Also, Pakistan would not like to be exposed on its disputed border issues with Afghanistan drawing world attention diverted from its false claim over Kashmir.
Brutalization of Kabul
The blatant condemnation of Pakistan by Afghan President Ghani for nurturing Afghan Taliban by providing sanctuary, and his refusal of Pakistani pledge to provide $500 million in development funds, should not be viewed in isolation or in the context of India-Afghanistan bonhomie. Afghanistan’s insecurity emanates significantly from its relationship with Pakistan and the latter’s links with the Taliban and other extremist groups. As per the UN estimates, 30 terrorist groups, having their links with Pakistani soil, were trying to establish bases in Afghanistan. Reportedly, there is the possibility of shift of Taliban leaders to Afghanistan soon.
Global power rivalry has its cast in the Afghanistan imbroglio. While Pakistan continues to be resentful of India’s intentions, China, Iran and Russia grudge US dominance over Afghanistan settlement process. In addition, both Turkey and China remain backers of Pakistan. Therefore, Prime Minister Modi called for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process to bring stability to the country.”
Moreover, the political instability in Kabul post-2014 presidential election has affected its foreign and security policies; especially during President Ghani’s early years in power.
Will Pakistan Learn?
The HoA-IP Amritsar meeting is definitely a strong lesson for Pakistan to realize that terrorism cannot be a state policy, and it can draw zero sympathy for its extremist ideology in the post-9/11 world order. Its flawed policy of looking at Kabul from Indian policy prism and as zero-sum game has no takers in the world today.
Sartaj Aziz, the National Security Advisor of Pakistan, representing Pakistan in the summit, had no option except to offer New Delhi for peace talks. Also, all speculations on a possible Indo-Pak meeting on the sidelines of HoA summit got cleared when India did heed. Aware of its continued international isolation, Pakistan had to participate in the summit merely to send a sign to international community that it has sufficient stakes, and not sidelined, in the process. Aziz stated that Pakistan is equally a victim of terrorism and had lost 60,000 lives. But he put the blame on Afghanistan saying the fighters of Tehrik-i-Pakistan who carry out attacks inside Pakistan are operating from Afghanistan.
Recognizing Afghanistan as the ‘heart’ of the Heart of Asia initiative, India reiterated its strong commitment to Afghanistan’s transition. Prime Minister Modi said, “On India’s part, our commitment to our brave Afghan brothers and sisters is absolute and unwavering.” He held separate meeting with the Afghan President to enhance cooperation between the two countries including the setting up of air-cargo link bypassing Pakistan. Both countries are also rooting for a regional anti-terrorism framework which has been referred to an expert committee for further contemplation.
The Indo-Afghan strategic partnership would go a long way in establishing lasting peace in the region showcasing the unique model of bilateralism based on enlightened neighbourhood.
(Dr Mishra teaches International Relations at the Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University (PDPU), Gujarat, e-mail: sitakanta.Mishra@ sls.pdpu.ac.in
Views expressed are personal)