India Pakistan Enmity Reduces Heart of Asia Meet to Semantics
NEW DELHI: Given that the international flavour of geo-politics has been terrorism, and more so in this region, the Heart of Asia conference at Amritsar had been expected to zoom in on the terrorist groups that have been creating havoc for a while now. But in a region where black and white are often subsumed in shades of grey, to say that Pakistan has been isolated on Afghanistan needs a slight stretch of the imagination although there was enough on the ground that did not fit in with the diplomatic niceties usually evident in some abundance on such occasion.
The muscularity of foreign policy, on display at Amritsar, did manage to give the media headlines to stories that Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz was denied permission to hold a press conference on the sidelines of the Conference; and was not allowed to visit the Golden Temple with the host citing security reasons. The public lambasting that Pakistan received from both India and Afghanistan and the inclusion of Jaish e Mohammad and Lashkar e Tayaba ---both seen as terror groups nurtured by Pakistan with a focus on Kashmir---was most significant as it is not often that a country participating in a conference is singled out for attack.
Despite the embarassment faced by Aziz, all participating know that the real politics of Afghanistan is being played at an entirely different theatre, where the United States still continues to call the shots with Pakistan as its firm ally. And where Russia and China have ambitions, this being the main reason for an important intervention by the former in support of Pakistan at the HoA meet.
Russia's special envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, at a press conference in Amritsar pointed out that the Heart of Asia was not a platform for India and Pakistan to score brownie points. And by praising Sartaj Aziz’s speech as being constructive and friendly, he made it apparent where the fault for allowing bilateral issues to cloud such forums lay insofar as his government was concerned.
Russia has been developing a new relationship with Pakistan, moving away from its earlier India-centric approach for South Asia. Coming as it has on the heels of China, Russia is participating in the Chinese driven economic corridor through Pakistan. Recent media reports suggested that Moscow has been given access to the Gwadar port being developed by China, and although the Russian Foreign Ministry has since denied this, doubts still persist given its growing ties with Pakistan and its strong relations now with China through the Shanghai Corporation Organisation, as well as bilaterally.
Diplomatic experts here pointed out that Russia is also aware, like the US, of Pakistan’s importance in Afghanistan where both are, or at least in the case of Russia want to be, players. It is no secret that the decision to bring Gulbuddin Hekmatyar back at the helm of affairs through a negotiated peace treaty was taken jointly by the US and Pakistan. After the deal was signed through a video conference at the Presidential Palace by Afghan President Abdul Ghani on September 29, the Pakistan Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying, "Pakistan has consistently emphasised that there is no military solution of the conflict in Afghanistan. Politically negotiated settlement through an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process is the most viable option for bringing lasting peace and stability to Afghanistan."
Hekmatyar is now waiting for sanctions against him as a recognised “terrorist” to be lifted before he makes a physical appearance in Kabul. Ghani who has initiated the move to ensure this said, “"This is a chance for the Taliban and other militant groups to show what their decision is: to be with people and join the respected caravan of peace, like Hezb-i-Islami, or confront the people and continue the bloodshed."
As experts here noted, the Heart of Asia Conference one of the many initiatives taken for Afghanistan lost its edge at Amritsar amidst the mutual distrust between India and Pakistan that was very visible to the participants. Five such Conferences have been held till date, since November 2011 when the HoA was first founded. Its meetings have been lost in translation to put it mildly, although sources said that perhaps the Amritsar meet provided the most acrimonious backdrop to the discussions so far. This led the Russians to openly regret that India and Pakistan had allowed their differences to creep into the Conference, and while other participants were more discreet sources here believe that there was consternation all around.
More so as India has a good relationship with the Afghan government and the people and is a leading player insofar as building infrastructure, training Afghan personnel, and other such issues are concerned. Pakistan because of the spread of military and intelligence tentacles through Pakistan remains a valuable ally for the US, and now Russia and China that have developed stakes again in the region as per the economic corridor, the Gwadar port and military to military relations. Both Pakistan and India see themselves as adversaries in Afghanistan, the one accusing the other of meddling. This enmity is seen by the other countries as irksome, as a diplomat said to this writer a couple of years ago, as it prevents a concerted approach to the problem that is Afghanistan.
The Quadrilateral Coordination Group consisting of the US, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan has been more cohesive in its functioning and met for the first time in January this year. It has tried to push through talks with the Taliban but without much success, with the efforts actually being in direct contradiction to the resolutions of the Heart of Asia meetings against terrorism per se. The Amritsar declaration in fact stated in what was seen as a triumph by India, “We remain concerned by the gravity of the security situation in Afghanistan in particular and the region and the high level of violence caused by the Taliban, terrorist groups including ISIL / DAISHand its affiliates, the Haqqani Network, Al Qaida, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, East Turkistan Islamic Movement, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Jundullah and other foreign terrorist fighters. Acknowledging the support that terrorism derives in our region, we demand an immediate end to all forms of terrorism, as well as all support to it, including financing of terrorism.”
Despite the designation of Taliban as terrorist, the high powered Quadrilateral continues the effort to open talks with the Taliban that was resistant to the initiative and rejected the first feelers earlier this year. In June the Afghan government declared there would be no talks with the Taliban. In October foreign media reported that secret talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban had started in Qatar. A more detailed report in The Guardian London stated, “The Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government have restarted secret talks in the Gulf state of Qatar, senior sources within the insurgency and the Kabul government have told the Guardian.
Among those present at the meetings held in September and October was Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund, brother of Mullah Omar, the former Taliban chief who led the movement from its earliest days until his death in 2013.
The two rounds of talks are the first known negotiations to have taken place since a Pakistan-brokered process entirely broke down following the death in a US drone strike of Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
Doha has been a centre for Taliban diplomacy since the movement was granted permission to set up an office in the Qatari capital in 2013, although that initiative became one of the many attempts to start a peace process that ultimately came to nothing following complaints from the Afghan government.
Mullah Omar’s son, Mohammad Yaqoob, is expected to soon join the Doha group, a Taliban source said, in a move that would further bolster the authority of the office.”
The resolution adopted at the Heart of Asia conference seems almost naive in comparison.