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    South Asia
     Nov 4, 2011

US's post-2014 Afghan agenda falters
By M K Bhadrakumar

There couldn't have been a more appropriate venue than the old Byzantine capital on the Bosphorus to hold a regional conference on Afghanistan at the present juncture. The conference at Istanbul on Thursday carried an impressive title - "Security and Cooperation in the Heart of Asia". The "heart" had 14 chambers - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The conference was packed with high drama, which was unsurprising, since its "brain" - the United States - acted almost imperviously to the beatings of the heart.

Intrigue and counter-intrigue dogged the conference from the

outset to such an extent that its eventual failure was a forgone conclusion.

The US and its Western allies began with high hopes that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partner Turkey would secure from the conference a declaration - preferably signed by the "14 heartland" states - that would prepare the ground for establishing a regional security and integration mechanism on the pattern of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In turn, this declaration would take wing at the forthcoming Bonn II conference in December (to which Germany has invited 90 countries and 15 international organizations).

In the event, Thursday ended on a somewhat miserable note in Istanbul, the heart of Asia having suffered even a minor rupture. Uzbekistan broke loose and stayed away at the last minute, with the remaining 13 countries finally settling for an anodyne joint statement that will become the latest in a series of platitudes and good intentions since the US invaded Afghanistan.

Bound to crash-land
The conference agenda was lop-sided in the first instance. Instead of focusing on the pivotal issue of a viable Afghan national reconciliation, how to set up such a process and how to secure it as "Afghan-led" and genuinely "Afghan-owned", the masterminds of the conference - the United States in particular - loaded it with geopolitics.

The conference was burdened with an ambitious agenda of imposing on the region under Western leadership a mechanism to mediate in a host of intra-regional disputes and differences which are, arguably, tangential issues that could have a bearing on Afghanistan's stabilization but are not the greatest concern today.
This was, to put mildly, like putting the cart before the horse. The Western masterminds needlessly introduced a controversial template for a new security architecture for Central and South Asia, complete with an institutional mechanism and a "contact group" for monitoring the implementation of a matrix of "confidence-building measures".

This was an idea that was bound to crash-land, given the deep suspicions about the US's intentions in the "war on terror" in Afghanistan and the unwillingness of the regional states to accept the permanent habitation of the West as the arbiter-cum-moderator-cum-mediator in their region.

During the preparatory stages at official meetings in Oslo, Norway and Kabul through September and October, it became evident that there were no takers in the region for a new regional security organization presided over by the West. Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and most of the Central Asian countries demurred on the US proposal for a new regional security architecture. India, which resents outside mediation on its disputes, kept quiet so as not to offend the US, while probably remaining confident that Pakistan would do its job anyway.

Moscow came up with its own counterproposal in the shape of a statement of principles of regional cooperation listing political, economic and other measures to build confidence and encourage cooperation among the countries neighboring Afghanistan. The Russian approach found favor with China, Pakistan and Iran, and being unexceptional in any case, it gained traction and ultimately seems to have paved the way for Thursday's joint statement at Istanbul.

However, Washington (and Ankara) continued efforts until the last minute to somehow institutionalize a regional process through "working groups" and a "structured" form of consultations. But Pakistan would appear to have put its foot firmly down on these ideas, pointing out that an OSCE-type security related conference or a full-fledged security apparatus would be completely unacceptable since there was a world of difference between the Cold-War compulsions which initiated the Helsinki process and the prevailing Afghan situation.

Pakistan's contention is that Afghanistan's neighboring countries could at best have a supportive role in ensuring the peace, security and territorial integrity of that country and instead of proposing new mechanisms, the focus should be on implementation of the existing mechanisms for peace, security and development.

The US game plan served four objectives. One, Washington hoped to "shackle" Pakistan within the four walls of a regional security mechanism dominated by the West so that it becomes one protagonist among equals and its claim to an eminent status in any Afghan peace process gets diluted.

Two, the regional mechanism would give the US and its allies a handle to retain the lead role in the search for an Afghan settlement and also beyond during the post 2014 period. Three, Washington estimated that the regional security apparatus would inevitably come to overshadow the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as the number one regional security process in Central Asia and South Asia which, in turn, would erode the dominant influence of Russia and China in Central Asia.

Finally, the US envisaged the regional mechanism to provide the security underpinning for its "New Silk Road" project, which is running on a parallel track - quintessentially a modern version of its "Greater Central Asia strategy" dating back to the George W Bush presidency. The New Silk Road proposes Afghanistan as a regional hub to bring Central Asia and South Asia closer together under the garb of regional development and integration.

Its real intent, however, is to roll back the pre-eminent position of Russia and China in Central Asia and to gain direct access to the vast mineral resources of the region through communication links that bypass Russia and Iran. The US's agenda included gaining for NATO some sort of formal, institutional role in regional security in Central Asia. (Safeguarding the energy pipelines is a newfound 21st century "challenge" that NATO proposes to assume.)

Conceivably, Moscow and Beijing spotted a red herring from day one. The most significant outcome of the Istanbul Conference, therefore, might turn out to be that the SCO will hasten its decision-making process and swiftly steer through the applications of Pakistan and India for membership of that organization.

A Russian statement issued on Monday following Foreign Ministry-level political consultations with China in Moscow stated that the two countries discussed the modalities of finalization of the membership of the two South Asian countries in SCO and "spoke of expediting the process" of membership of India and Pakistan (and Afghanistan's status as an SCO "Observer"). The likelihood is that a decision in this regard might even be formalized at the SCO Heads of Governments meeting due in St Petersburg on Monday.

Note of triumphalism
Underlying all this high drama has been the realization in Washington (and the regional capitals) that the political-military situation in Afghanistan is decisively shifting in Pakistan's favor, prompting a desperate Western attempt to ensure the US and NATO's permanent military presence in the strategic Hindu Kush.

Without doubt, a dangerous period lies ahead for the US and its NATO allies with the strong possibility of Mullah Omar's forces and the Haqqani network openly collaborating with a view to intensifying the insurgent activities.

The devastating suicide car bomb attack in Kabul killing 13 American and 3 Australian soldiers may well be the harbinger of a new offensive. Its timing - on the eve of the Istanbul conference - carried a barely-disguised message to the US administration that crunch time has come and the US strategy to degrade the Taliban and force them to come to the negotiating has not only failed, but the Taliban seem more than ever convinced that they are inching toward conclusive victory.

Clearly, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton's visit to Islamabad 10 days ago has not helped reduce the huge trust deficit in the US-Pakistan relationship. The Pakistani military seems amused that Clinton made a virtue out of dire necessity by graciously "offering" to Islamabad the "primacy" to "squeeze" the Haqqanis and bring them to the negotiating table.

Whereas, the heart of the matter is that the US's covert attempts in the recent months to gain direct access to the Taliban leadership and to suo moto initiate a peace process from a position of strength lie in shambles today.

On the other hand, Pakistan's estimation is that US President Barack Obama is going to find himself more and more on the defensive as next year's election approaches, lessening even further the US's capacity to pressure Islamabad. A tone of triumphalism is appearing in the Pakistani discourses.

Indeed, the Obama administration, too, would sense that the factors of advantage are incrementally tilting in Pakistan's favor and that the US lacks any real leverage to influence the Pakistani military. The US roped in Turkey to push the agenda of the Istanbul Conference, given its traditionally warm and friendly relations with Pakistan. The Saudi and United Arab Emirates presence in Istanbul was also expected to influence Pakistan. But the Istanbul Conference may have resulted in causing some injury to Turkish-Pakistani ties. A Turkish observer wrote:
Cold winds have started to blow between the two [Turkey and Pakistan] due to the Afghan problem ... Islamabad is quite annoyed at Turkey for its role in the conference ... Basically, Pakistan is angry at Turkey and the US, which want a result oriented conference. For the conference to bear fruit an institutionalization of the process is a must. In other words in the absence of some kind of a mechanism, to monitor the process that might include implementing confidence-building measures, everything said in Istanbul will stay on paper.

Turkish diplomacy has tried to calm down the Pakistanis, telling them that the presence of Turkey in the regional framework should alleviate the concerns of Pakistanis vis-a-vis other players. After all the Turks do not have a secret agenda of strengthening the hands of India at the expense of Pakistan but I am doubtful that they succeeded in reassuring Pakistan.
All in all, from the Russian and Chinese point of view, it becomes desirable - almost imperative - from now onward while looking ahead, that Pakistan is enabled to have strategic autonomy to withstand the US pressure. Most certainly, they would appreciate Pakistan's steadfast role in frustrating the US design to install a regional security mechanism for continued interference in the Central Asian region.

On balance, the petering out of the Istanbul Conference constitutes a grave setback for the upcoming Bonn Conference II in December. With the Istanbul Conference failing to erect an institutionalized framework of regional cooperation, Bonn Conference II lacks a viable agenda except that 2011 happens to provide a great photo-op, being the 10th anniversary of the first conference in December 2001.

The original intent was to ensure that the Taliban representatives attended the Bonn Conference. But short of a miracle, that is not going to happen. That leaves the US and its NATO allies to work out the planned transition in Afghanistan in 2014 in isolation, as they gather for the alliance's summit in May in Chicago.

In sum, the regional powers are unwilling to collaborate with the US and its allies to choreograph the post-2014 regional security scenario. Russia and China insist that the central role of the international community in Afghanistan should be of the United Nations once the US and NATO's transition is completed in 2014.

Evidently, they would hope for the SCO to take a lead role in the stabilization of Afghanistan. Afghanistan's expeditious admission as an SCO observer alongside Pakistan's induction as a full member conveys a loud message that regional security is best handled by the countries of the region, while extra-regional powers can act as facilitators. That is also the final message of the Istanbul conference.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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