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