What to expect from Heart of Asia Conference
Lt General S A Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM (Bar), VSM (Bar) (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Few people are aware why Foreign Minister (FM) Sushma Swaraj is likely to be going to Islamabad on 9 Dec 2015. Indeed it’s a follow up to the Prime Minister’sbrief chat with Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Prime Minister during the Climate Conference at Paris. However, the occasion is not about Indo Pakistan rapprochement; that is a sub agenda for the sidelines. The main event is the Heart of Asia Conference which is a part of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan. A timely and very sensible decision to have the FM’s attendance, along with the Foreign Secretary (FS) because this Conference is all about the management of post withdrawal Afghanistan. India was being accused by many of having abdicated its interests in Afghanistan after much investment in goodwill and being a significant part of the stakeholders. The coming of Ashraf Ghani in 2014 saw a fresh Afghan approach to the process with Pakistan and China. This was the key to the process of stabilization post withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force(ISAF) led by the US. Ghani’s strategy was to exclude India in order to give Pakistan the pride of place and a chance to bring the undefeated Taliban on board without whom the future of Afghanistan cannot really be decided. Ashraf Ghani’s strategy was to persuade Pakistan to influence the Taliban not to launch its expected Spring and Summer offensives in order for peace to prevail, a chance be given to negotiations and enable the Afghan economy to develop. The Afghan President went to such an extent to promote his agenda for peace that he did the unthinkable of paying a visit to the Pakistan Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif at Rawalpindi to request for the above. All this came to an end with a frustrated reproach by President Ghani when a couple of things happened. First, the provocation for the reproach was the attacks that the Taliban unleashed in Afghanistan in Aug 2015, beginning with the three suicide blasts in Kabul on August 7, which killed more than 60 people and injured over 300 others. Second was the Kunduz offensive that the Taliban launched against the Afghan National Army (ANA). The ANA is believed to have lost over 8000 men killed and wounded in operations against the Taliban this year itself. The Afghan President was also upset enough to tweet six times his disgust about being let down by Pakistan including the issue of keeping secret Mullah Omar’s death believed to have occurred two years ago and of which Pakistan was obviously aware. All this brought Ashraf Ghani back to India’s doorstep with much regret about having detached it from the stabilization process. India handled the events and responses with maturity despite much criticism early on about having thrown away all gains of the last few years. The Istanbul Process on ‘Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan’ was adopted on 02 Nov 2011 at Istanbul. India was very much a part of it as much as it was right through to the fourth Heart of Asia Conference in Beijing on 31 Oct 2014. The invite from Pakistan is a formality and India is to attend the fifth Conference at Islamabad on 8-10 Dec 2015.

A bit about the Istanbul Process itself is necessary. The Istanbul Process provides an agenda for regional cooperation in the ‘Heart of Asia’ by placing Afghanistan at its center and engaging the ‘Heart of Asia’ countries in result‐oriented cooperation for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, as well as a secure and prosperous region as a whole. The countries participating in the Istanbul Process have agreed on the following three elements for the follow-up to the Istanbul Process:

  • Political consultation involving Afghanistan and its near and extended neighbours.
  • A sustained incremental approach to implementation of the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) identified in the Istanbul Process document.
  • Seeking to contribute and bring greater coherence to the work of various regional processes and organizations, particularly as they relate to Afghanistan.

There are 14 countries involved as core stakeholders in the Heart of Asia engagement. The participating countries include Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. In addition there are 17 countries from European, US, Canada, Japan and Iraq which form the Support Group. Nineteen principles were adopted by the Istanbul meeting on 2 Nov 2011. Primary themes which are to be addressed as a part of the process revolve around the restoration of stability, end to terror, denial of sanctuaries to terrorists and terrorist leaders, reconstruction of the Afghanistan economy, facilitation of the process of national reconciliation which should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-driven, prevention of proliferation of narcotics, peaceful resolution of disputes under the UN charter and respect for international law.

Considering the aims and principles of the Istanbul Process the Islamabad Conference is likely to concentrate on a few core concerns. These are likely to be the recommencement of the dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan and talks with Taliban. In addition the pressing need to develop the economy of Afghanistan will have to be discussed as the turbulent conditions existing within and the offensive of the Taliban have disallowed any resumption of normal economic activity. It is likely that Afghanistan will place its need for aid and loans at the conference since the drawdown has led to reduction in aid (the typical aid fade syndrome). Without this governance will become increasingly difficult for the current government. Issues related to security and the situation arising from the death of the Taliban Chief, Mullah Omar and the tenuous hold of his successor Mullah Mansour, are also likely to be discussed. The status of the new Taliban leader and the divisions within the Taliban are not fully known to the outside world. Most importantly, the issue most likely to dominate the discussions will probably revolve around the presence and aims of Daesh in Afghanistan. Opinion on the presence differs across observers and knowledgeable analysts while early reports spoke of Daesh’s aim of garnering a part of the lucrative illegal narcotics trade. The Central Asian states believe that Daesh is present in strength and looking towards spreading its activities towards the north in their territory. A remote possibility of tie ups between Islamic State and the ISI has also been spoken of although there is yet no proof to substantiate this.

The status of the ANA may also draw attention as the force is suffering heavy casualties and lacks force multipliers as well as non-lethal support such as casualty management and anti-IED equipment.The reluctance to equip the ANA has arisen due to perception about lethal equipment likely falling in Taliban hands. However, a serious call has to be taken on this otherwise higher casualties may lead to mass desertions which will be most undesirable.

For India the Conference can spell only gains. The loss of influence ever since the coming to power of President Ashraf Ghani seems to be getting offset by the subsequent overtures that are being made by Afghanistan with the recent visit of the Deputy Foreign Minister and statements emanating from Kabul. India’s mature stance towards the awkward loss of leading status and its willingness to allow others such as Pakistan and China to occupy the strategic space must be recognized. It now needs to re-seek its legitimate role in the consultative process and live up to the respect with which it viewed among the common Afghan people; that is its greatest strength which India must endeavor to leverage to advantage.

Lastly, presence of a large and high level Indian delegation in Islamabad is a rarity. Now that the NSAs have met at Bangkok for at least one session and perhaps more, the pressure for any formal talks on the sidelines would ease. Too much expectation should be avoided and the delegation’s focus must remain on Afghanistan; we should be seen to be interested in regaining lost ground; that we have in the eyes of the Afghanistan leadership but we must in the eyes of the international leadership which is looking at the region. This is a very important conference and it’s good that the Prime Minister has taken the load of expectation about India-Pak dialogue away from the FM, through a deft decision to allow the NSAs to meet in a third location. That way, he has also got the inconvenient Hurriyat out of the way.

Published in IBN LIVE on 7th December 2015
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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