LONDON – All regional players are struggling to come to terms with the withdrawal of NATO-led Western forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Early this month, Istanbul became the latest venue where 12 regional states and the Afghan government came together to try again to agree on ways of bringing some semblance of security and stability to Afghanistan and its surrounding region.
A broader international gathering on Afghanistan will be held in Bonn later this month, followed by a NATO summit next year in Chicago, to assess political progress in Afghanistan.
At the Istanbul conference, regional cooperation was declared the only viable alternative to the festering tensions that have plagued Afghanistan for decades. Various South and Central Asian governments recognized that Afghanistan’s problems of terrorism, narcotics trafficking and corruption affected them all and had to be addressed through cooperative efforts. They adopted the Istanbul Protocol, which commits countries as diverse as China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Russia to cooperate in countering terrorism, drug trafficking and insurgency in Afghanistan and in the neighboring areas.
In this context, Afghanistan’s traditionally divisive neighbors have pledged to support its efforts to reconcile with insurgent groups, and work on joint security and economic initiatives to build long-term stability.
The Istanbul effort has been touted as a regional endeavor to solve a major regional issue. The very fact that so many regional states came together to at least articulate a policy response is indeed a step in the right direction. But as the vision has been laid out in Istanbul, the practical difficulties in implementing the goals remain. Differences among the participating states are strong enough to derail the rhetoric that emerged from the conference.
The role of the United States looms particularly large. Although the U.S. was not mentioned in the declaration, it did attend the conference as a supporter, not as a primary participant. After all, this is the country that spends more than $10 billion a month in Afghanistan and has nearly 100,000 troops there.
Given its reluctance to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, the Obama administration has already heavily promoted the meeting as part of a process that it anticipates will set conditions allowing all U.S. and NATO combat troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The U.S. has reached out to regional powers in order to bring them into Afghanistan more substantively. The special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, was recently in India and China, and held talks with governments in Beijing and New Delhi to assess the role these countries can play in bringing long-term peace to the country.
Meanwhile, regional power struggles continue. Turkey made a public effort to try to mediate differences between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a result of this, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari agreed to a joint inquiry into the assassination last month of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was in charge of negotiations with the Taliban as head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. Rabbani’s killing was part of a series of high-profile attacks in recent months that Afghanistan and the U.S. argue have been carried out by Pakistan-based Afghan insurgents. It remains to be seen if this would lead to normalization of ties between Islamabad and Kabul.
India was prevented from participating this year at Pakistan’s behest. India has growing stakes in peace and stability in Afghanistan, and the recent India-Afghan strategic partnership agreement underscores India’s commitment to ensuring that positive momentum in Delhi-Kabul ties is maintained.
Reports that the Obama administration is relying on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to help organize and kick-start reconciliation talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan — despite having accused the spy agency of secretly supporting the Haqqani terrorist network, which has mounted attacks on Western and Indian targets — should be worrying. ISI has little interest in bringing the Haqqanis to the negotiating table since it continues to view the insurgents as their best bet for keeping its influence in Afghanistan as the U.S. reduces its presence there.
Other regional players have their own interests in the future of Afghanistan. Iran opposes any long-term American presence in Afghanistan under a security agreement being negotiated between Washington and Kabul that would follow the 2014 combat withdrawal. Russia wants to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a source of Islamist instability that can be transported to its territories. China wants to preserve its growing economic profile in Afghanistan, but is not interested in making significant political investment at the moment.
Conflicting interests make Afghanistan’s predicament difficult. It would like to enhance its links with neighboring states to gain economic advantages and tackle common threats to regional security. Yet, such interactions also leave it open to becoming a theater for playing out regional rivalries. These regional rivalries will only intensify if the perception gains ground that the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College, London.