By Rajarshi Chakraborty*
The 6th Heart of Asia (HoA) conference was held on December 3-4 this year in Amritsar, India and was attended by 14 countries and participants from 17 supporting nations to tackle the issue of terrorism in the region along with trade connectivity between South and Central Asian regions.
The meeting, which was co-chaired by India’s Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Deputy Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Hikmat Khaleel Karzai, is likely to bring India-Afghanistan brotherhood closer as Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed Afghan security as a ‘collective responsibility’ of the participating countries in the conference.
The objective of the platform was to bring all the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan together to develop the security, political and economic scenario in the adjacent region.
In the post-2014 period, this is the first time that India is cooperating closely with Afghanistan in countering the security threats in South Asia. The main goal of this conference for India is to revive the trade connectivity between Afghanistan and India, boosting security scenario in Afghanistan and in its neighbourhood and building development cooperation. Significantly, the idea of Heart of Asia conference has not brought any appreciable contribution in counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, and eradication of poverty and extremism in Afghanistan and its neighbouring region since its inception in 2011.
The 4th Heart of Asia – Istanbul Ministerial Process (2014) held in Beijing which was aimed at bringing peace in the war-torn country was participated by Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the United Arab Emirates. But the recent Taliban attacks in Afghanistan are a clear sign of growing extremist movements in the country in the post-transition period. If this trend continues, it is likely to result in deterioration of the whole security scenario in Asia.
The growing need for energy in India led it to pursue another trade linkage with the Central Asian region after the commitment to the Chabahar sea port project in Iran early this year. Both India and Afghanistan are fed up with the cross-border terrorism problem with Pakistan. India also raised the issue of Pakistan-backed terrorism issue in international forum like in G20 summit in September in China.
For India, apart from efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, terrorism is the main issue in organising the conference this year. Terrorism is the biggest security issue in the country and the Indian Prime Minister sought collective action against the terrorists and their masters.
On the developmental front, Prime Minister Modi pointed to the importance of the youth in bringing the two countries together along with the other significant aspects of India-Afghanistan relations. In his address to the conference in Amritsar, he mentioned how India’s attempts in reconstructing Afghanistan would help both Afghanistan and the rest of the world through the Chabahar port in Iran.
As Pakistan is the main barrier between the two countries in having land connectivity, India is also planning to connect through air corridor. Modi also talked about the importance of democracy and pluralism for the peaceful future of Afghanistan.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told the conference that international investment for the longer run can have a great impact on Asia. He observed that the illegal drug economy is destroying his country. The activity is conducted by terrorist groups functioning from Pakistan — as is claimed by a Taliban leader. Pakistan needs to check the cross-border activities to stop such kinds of activities.
The Afghan President even said that the reconstruction aid provided by Pakistan would be better used for tackling terrorism in the region. Pakistan responded to this criticism by proposing a solution in a holistic way.
The Pakistani Prime Minister’s Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz said one should not blame just one country for providing sanctuaries to the terrorist groups. Clearly Pakistan is not ready to be blamed entirely for the terrorism issue. Nevertheless, India-Afghanistan friendship is hoped to take a new turn in the post-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation scenario.
The participation of Sartaj Aziz, who chaired the Heart of Asia Conference last year in Islamabad, was an important aspect of the meeting as this is the first delegation coming to India from Pakistan after the Pathankot attack, Nagota base and Uri attack earlier this year.
Interestingly, last year, Sartaz Aziz’s meeting with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval was cancelled due to Pakistan’s talks with Hurriyat leaders. However, Indian government officials have said that there would be no bilateral meeting between India and Pakistan to discuss the terrorism issue.
The Pak diplomat strongly opposed the blame game at the conference. He said Pakistan tried its best during the peace talks with the Taliban through the Quadrilateral Coordination Group as they think there are no military solutions to the Afghan problem but political negotiation. He also added that the boycott of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit meeting in Islamabad is a serious setback for the regional cooperation of the South Asian countries.
The HoA conference fulfilled two main objectives of India i.e. isolating Pakistan at the diplomatic level and strengthening the bond with its extended neighbour Afghanistan. After boycotting the SAARC summit meeting in Pakistan, this is the second successful attempt this year by India to isolate Pakistan and corner it on the terrorism issue.
As India and Afghanistan are facing similar problem of cross-border terrorism backed by Pakistan, it is needless to say that such meetings for security improvement and development cooperation are bound to bring the two closer in future.
Nevertheless, one could not afford to ignore the major economic player in the region, China, which has been always supportive of Pakistan. But as China is also growing its economic presence — both in Pakistan and Afghanistan – it would likely seek security in its neighbourhood.
*Rajarshi Chakraborty is a research scholar at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]