Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal

Germany has been persistently contributing towards achieving an enduring peace in Afghanistan since Petersberg conference, 10 years ago. It is refreshing to observe the comments of Germany’s special envoy on Afghanistan, Michael Steiner, that Taliban militia is expected to take part at next month’s international conference on Afghanistan. Earlier this month, German Foreign minister Guido Westerwelle had also left open the possibility of inviting Taliban.

Recent Istanbul conference has set the dice rolling for the forthcoming Bonn II conference on 05 December, where delegations from about 90 countries are expected to formulate a practical roadmap for a post-America Afghanistan. Political pundits had termed the Istanbul Conference as a prelude to the Bonn Conference. The Istanbul conference involved top diplomats from China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The United States, Japan and several European countries and organizations attended as supporters/observers. Delegates focused on international community’s long-term commitments to stabilize Afghanistan. A day earlier, Turkey hosted a trilateral conference to diffuse tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan; this event was a resounding success resulting in concluding important agreements.

However, the lager gathering under the banner of ‘Istanbul Conference’ suffered from serious dilemmas; it reinforced the impression that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’.

Emerging victors of the Afghan conflict, a conglomerate of political resistance groups under various brands, were absent from the scene. The losing parties, America, NATO/ISAF etc were portraying themselves as victors and trying to set the rules of the endgame in Afghanistan. In its arrogance, America had manoeuvred the circulation of a draft declaration through a dubious entity, ‘Heart of Asia Nations’. India, a distant player and a long time spoiler in Afghan settlement’ was seen asserting for its lateral entry as a major stakeholder through additional structures.

The result was obvious, serious disagreements emerged and the text of declaration had to be amended, not going beyond the statements of the obvious. It was pointed out that there is already an unmanageable double digit number of structures related to Afghan conflict, often crisscrossing each other’s mandate and hence, creating more problems than they could resolve. Hence, the Afghan solution and overall security of the region must be found within the existing arrangements. It was stressed that Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) and Shangai Cooperation Organisation need to be strengthened to address security and economic issues of the region.

According to the declaration, the participants signed up to a package of “confidence-building measures” for cooperation in fields including: security, reconstruction, health, fight against terrorism and drug trafficking. They vowed to “respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity…They also discussed guarantees for non-intervention and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.” Indeed previous positions restated!

Political rhetoric and hollow promises of cooperation aside, a much-publicized conference, which was aimed at mapping out Afghanistan’s future after the departure of western forces, failed to achieve a major breakthrough.

During this conference, Americans were seriously questioned about their military intentions beyond 2014, especially regarding their clandestine efforts for acquiring permanent military bases in Afghanistan. A near consensus emerged amongst Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan that there is no need of American military bases in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries sought clarity from the US over its proposed plans. Though officially America denies its seeking of permanent bases, its actions speak otherwise.

Exclusion of Afghan political resistance groups from Istanbul conference reminded of a revisit of ‘Geneva Accord’ that resulted in ‘runaway’ of Soviets without putting in place a sustainable political dispensation. Earlier Turkey had suggested setting up a diplomatic office for Taliban on its soil, but Americans did not agree; Americans want to setup such a facility at a place which is out of Pakistan’s reach of influence over Taliban; Mars could compete as a suitable venue! As a result, no unified representative structure for Taliban has been able to take roots.

As a matter of principle no outsider, least the losing entities, should dictate the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of the future political dispensation in Afghanistan. It is the prerogative of the people of Afghanistan—the victors of the conflict—to decide these issues for themselves. Bonn II would be a non-starter if it does not build on this reality. Pakistan and political resistance groups are a part of the solution, which the Americans tend to ignore, though at their own peril.

Other hazy area marring forward movement is the occupation troops’ murky withdrawal schedule. So far what is certain is the notional date that marked the symbolic start of drawdown. Deliberate ambiguity surrounds as to when the process would end. A decade on, the Taliban insurgents remain a deadly force in Afghanistan, continuing to wage attacks against Afghan and coalition forces.

Pakistan had pinned little hope on the Istanbul Conference because of divergences in the approaches of key participants over certain strategic issues. “We maintained a low profile at the conference. We were there as a listener,” the Pakistani diplomat said. He further revealed that “Pakistan, along with Russia, China and Iran, not only voiced concerns over the US plans for military bases in Afghanistan but also opposed a new regional mechanism for peace and security in the region”.

The strong opposition prompted abandonment of the original Istanbul draft that proposed the formation of a contact group, which comprised, besides other countries, India, which does not share a border with Afghanistan. Main disagreement pegged around the intent to create a regional security structure. Russia, Pakistan, China and Iran among others, objected to establishing any security apparatus or a new regional organisation. Russia tabled its own draft about regional cooperation, which listed a number of political, economic and other measures to build confidence and encourage collaboration. The Russian text won support from the Central Asian states and came closest to Pakistan’s position. Some western diplomats proposed a Helsinki-type process as a framework for regional cooperation entailing a security focused conference leading to a more permanent regional structure to stabilise Afghanistan. A legacy of cold war era to improve relations between the antagonists of yesteryears hardy has any relevance to present day Afghanistan.

Time has come for America to take a backseat in the Afghanistan endgame process. Having missed all opportunities offered to it for an honourable exit, it must prepare its people to embrace the realities of another expensive defeat in Asia. Any solution seen as America sponsored is not likely to be accepted by the Afghan people. America needs to come out of delusion that Present Karzai represents the aspirations of Afghan people.

During these defining moments, Pakistan must find ways to deflect unnecessary American pressure and proactively articulate its point of view. Russia and China need to assume lead role in laying down the rules of the game and offer themselves as the guarantors.

Unless necessary preparatory work is in place, especially in the context of a unified body representing all factions of Afghan political resistance in the status of an ‘Afghan government in waiting’, Bonn II appears a premature event; that may go down in the history as another missed opportunity!

Writer is an analyst of international security and current affairs. He is a former assistant chief of air staff of Pakistan Air Force.

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