Acrimony at the heart of Asia

Acrimony at the heart of Asia

Zahid Hussain,

SADLY, a forum established to encourage security, political and economic cooperation between Afghanistan and the surrounding nations turned into yet another event of Pakistan-bashing. What happened at the Heart of Asia ministerial meeting at Amritsar recently raises questions about Pakistan being represented at such a high official level, even at multilateral conferences.
It is conduct unbecoming, when the highest-level Pakistani foreign affairs official is not even seated at the centre table at the dinner hosted by the Indian prime minister and is reportedly stopped from a planned visit to the Golden Temple for ‘security reasons’ in violation of basic diplomatic norms. The spectacle of Indian officials stopping our high commissioner from speaking to Pakistani reporters was unprecedented.

Predictably, the Indian prime minister tried to use the Heart of Asia forum, as he did the BRICS summit held in Goa some months ago, to castigate Pakistan. It is part of his policy to discredit Islamabad, to make others see it as a ‘centre of gravity of terrorism’, and to isolate it internationally. The Indian prime minister may not have succeeded in his attempt at BRICS, but at the Amritsar conference he found a strong ally in the Afghan president.

One can understand the frustration of the embattled Ashraf Ghani confronting the rising Taliban insurgency, yet one expected to see a more prudent approach from the suave leader. He ought not to have raised bilateral differences and disputes at a multilateral forum meant to help his country achieve political and economic stability.

While many of his grievances may be valid, his public rejection of Pakistan’s economic aid and cooperation was inappropriate and can only widen the gap between the two countries causing further instability in the region. President Ghani’s comments provided the Modi government with more clout to put pressure on Pakistan. There was only a feeble voice and that too from the Russian delegate against targeting a single country. That also raises serious questions about our own foreign policy problems.

Surely what happened in Amritsar did not come as a surprise. The Pakistani high commission in Delhi has reportedly informed the foreign ministry about the hostile environment. According to a highly placed source, Pakistan’s high commissioner in India, Abdul Basit, had even suggested that the foreign secretary rather than the foreign affairs adviser be sent to the conference.

There may be some weight in the government’s argument that downgrading participation would have sent the wrong message to other member countries, particularly Afghanistan that is the pivot of the Heart of Asia conference, also known as the Istanbul process. But, in hindsight, it might have been more appropriate to send someone other than the adviser to avoid such humiliation.

It is, however, commendable that Sartaj Aziz maintained balance in his speech in the face of provocation. He met the Afghan president on the sidelines of the conference despite Ghani’s outburst. The joint communiqué issued at the conclusion of the proceedings reiterated the main objective behind the regional forum ie developing cooperation among the regional countries surrounding Afghanistan to fight terrorism, extremism and poverty, and expanding connectivity and trade among member countries.

But the escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan and growing antagonism between Afghanistan and Pakistan remain major stumbling blocks in making the forum more effective. Launched in 2011, it has 14 members and 17 observers including the United States and other Western countries. A major reason behind its creation was to help end the Afghan crisis by involving regional countries. The forum has not made much headway given the rising insurgency in Afghanistan and the failure to find a political solution to the civil war there.

That has also been a major cause of tension between Islamabad and Kabul. A record number of Afghan soldiers and civilians have been killed this year in the fighting since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001. The situation also explains President Ghani’s frustration — the Kabul government believes the fighting in Afghanistan could have been stopped had Pakistan reined in the Afghan Taliban leadership operating from the border areas.

Although Kabul’s contention is a bit exaggerated, it is known that Pakistan’s border regions are still being used by some Afghan Taliban insurgents as a safe haven. Indeed, President Ghani did try to build bridges after being elected, but turned to Delhi after Pakistan failed to deliver on its promises to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Islamabad failed to convince Kabul about its limited influence over the insurgent leadership. The issue of the Pakistani Taliban taking sanctuary across the border in Afghanistan has further widened the divide between the two countries.

Surely the growing nexus between Kabul and New Delhi seems to have brought the nightmarish scenario of our security establishment engaging on two fronts closer to reality. Our own flawed policy of looking at Kabul from the Indian policy prism and as a zero-sum game has further complicated matters for us. It may be true that the main base of insurgency lies in Afghanistan but the rising hostility between Kabul and Islamabad has provided greater space to the Afghan Taliban.

There is no likelihood of a de-escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan soon, but we need to work more seriously on improving our relations with Afghanistan. It is true that building bridges is not the sole responsibility of Pakistan, but we need to review our policy of looking at Afghanistan from a purely security-based prism. The Taliban insurgency is as dangerous for Pakistan as it is for Afghanistan.

However, there is also a need for Kabul to change its attitude and cease to blame Pakistan for everything going bad in Afghanistan. President Ghani’s angry outbursts do not provide any solutions to the problem. He needs to maintain the image of the statesman he had presented soon after his election as president. Turning the Heart of Asia into a forum of contention will not help boost the regional cooperation needed to bring peace and economic stability to Afghanistan.

The writer is an author and journalist.
[email protected]