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Heart of Asia Conference- An Approach to Heal the Regional Heart

Dec 12, 2015 - 15:32
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The Heart of Asia Conference (henceforth the Conference) is part of Heart of Asia- Istanbul Process (henceforth the Process) on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure Afghanistan. It was jointly launched by Afghanistan and Turkey in Istanbul in November 2011 to encourage the countries which are in or adjacent to the Heart of Asia to play a positive role in stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. It was designed to establish a forum for the regional countries to dialogue, address challenges and attempt to find solution to regional problems. The Process has fourteen participating countries including Afghanistan, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and India. After the onset, the four conferences were held in Kabul, Almaty, Beijing, and Islamabad in June 2012, April 2013, October 2014 and December 2015 respectively.  Heart of Asia Conference- An Approach to Heal the Regional Heart

The rationale behind establishment of the Istanbul Process had three main elements. The withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan and reduced international engagement and aid after 2014 would leave a question mark on the future of Afghanistan. Therefore, there was need to integrate Afghanistan in the regional economy and improve its relations with neighbors and regional powers. Secondly, this allowed Afghanistan to lead a process in which it had the authority to set its own agenda in regional perspective. Thirdly, the problems Afghanistan is facing are not exclusively a product of its own and they do not only affect it but also other countries in the region.

In terms of performance, the Process has been very slow and it has not depicted the clout which was expected. This was partly because of unclear foreign policy of Karzai administration and lack of political will to improve the process at senior levels. It was further affected by the presidential elections and the post 2014 scenario of the country which raised questions and uncertainty about the future of the Process among participating countries. On the other hand, the nature of the region is complex and some of the key participating countries had conflicting agendas which further slowed down the process. For instance, Pakistan was not happy with inclusion of India while China, Iran and Russia saw it as a way for the United States (US) to dominate the region.    

In spite of the slow process, the Process has had some achievements since its inception. It has served as the only regional forum lead by Afghanistan to set its own agenda. It has further provided an opportunity to open the gates of interaction for participating countries which found it difficult to do so. It has earned regional interest as reflected by decision of China to host the conference in 2014 and participation by all members in the senior official level. The Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) which include disaster management, counter terrorism, counter narcotics, trade commerce and investment, regional infrastructure, and education have been established. These CBM’s have served to build trust and allowed people- to- people exchanges at technical level.

The recent Conference in Islamabad was held at a crucial juncture following Afghanistan’s political, security, and economic transition. The relations of Pakistan and Afghanistan were in escalated state after the peace talks with Taliban, facilitated by Pakistan, were obstructed as the news surfaced that Mullah Omar had died in Pakistan two years back. This was followed by back to back deadly attacks which rocked Kabul and other provinces and Afghan government blamed Pakistan for the unrest and providing safe heaven to terrorists.  Afghan government was reluctant to attend the event earlier. However, later Afghan President confirmed to attend considering it a crucial conference on Afghanistan.

The Afghan president received unexpected warm welcome and met Pakistani Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff. In his speech, the Afghan President lauded the role of Pakistan to host refugees for years. However, he categorically mentioned the atrocities of Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the shifting of terrorists to Afghanistan after military operation in Pakistan. He added that Afghanistan was fighting on behalf of the region and asked for a coordinated effort for regional security. Further, he signaled the resume of comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan in response to positive notion of Nawaz Sharif about sovereignty of Afghanistan. On part of Afghanistan’s role in regional cooperation and development, he listed the progress on mega projects in 2015 including Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India (TAPI) gas pipeline, the Chabahar port, Turkmen railways, transmission lines and economic zones.    

The second highlight of the conference was   the participation of Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj  in the event. The recent relations between India and Pakistan have been tense due to issues over line of Control (LoC), Kashmir and the disagreements over the work mechanisms. The conference provided a platform for dialogue between the two countries and deescalate the underlying tension. In the bilateral meeting with Nawaz Sharif and his advisor Sartaj Aziz, she agreed to include agendas and proceed according to the proposed plan of Pakistan, to which India had previous disagreed. She made an important announcement that the Prime Minister of India would visit Pakistan in 2016.

On part of Afghanistan, she expressed strong commitment to help Afghanistan in fighting terrorism and strengthening the capabilities of Afghan security forces. She emphasized that the government of India was keen in joining the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) and they had formally shown willingness so that Indian Markets can access to Afghanistan. It is worth mentioning that at the moment Afghanistan’s goods can reach India through Pakistan but not the other way around. She also mentioned the progress on construction of Chahbahar port in South Eastern Iran which will enhance the trade in the region.

The fifth Heart of Asia Conference has been an opportunity to melt ice in relations between key regional countries. The dialogue process between Afghanistan and Pakistan which was hindered in the recent past seems to resume after successful talks between the two countries.  It was a chance for Afghanistan to reaffirm its role and commitments about regional cooperation and development.  After successfully conducting Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) and Senior Officials Meeting (SOM), this was present government’s another good move and progress towards economic integration and cooperation in the region.

View expressed in this article are of the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Pajhwok’s editorial policy.


Author’s brief introduction

Shoaib Ahmad Rahim is a development practitioner and analyst on national and regional political economy. Rahim holds an MSc. Degree in Development Economics from University of Sussex, England. He tweets at @ShoaibBinRahim.

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