By Farhod Mirzabaev
Since the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 the international community has held numerous conferences on Afghanistan in various corners of the world and there is apparently no shortage of countries that are eager to host the next ‘high level’ conference on Afghanistan in their capitals. Even though such enthusiasm to contribute to the international efforts to bring peace and stability to war-torn Afghanistan “whose people deserve peace more than anybody else” is commendable, the various resolutions and joint statements that such international conferences usually end up adopting have rarely translated into real change on improving the safety and security of Afghan people and Afghanistan as a whole.
Earlier this month on 2 November, the Turkish port city of Istanbul was the venue for the latest international conference on Afghanistan. This time representatives of 27 countries including Afghanistan, all of its immediate neighbours, and other countries involved in various capacities in international efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan were in attendance. Bringing together the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of the mutual confidence-building measure in the aftermath of the killing of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani was, on the surface, a positive development, but given the deep-running mistrust between the two countries it will difficult to establish a climate of trust between them. It is therefore too early to say whether the Istanbul meeting achieved a genuine change in the attitudes of the two countries towards each other. Judging by recent history which has seen the easy collapse of such ‘confidence-building measures’, it is easy to presume that it will not be long before both Afghanistan and Pakistan adopt accusatory tones while referring to one another.
What was most significant about the conference deliberations?
What the Istanbul conference really marked was the increasing realization and admission by the US that the solution to the Afghan war should be devised collectively with Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and other regional powers even if that means listening to Iran, or treating other regional powers’ concerns with due respect even if they are not necessarily on the friends list of the US. Most importantly, it showed that the eventual solution to the Afghan war could not be based solely on US terms.
Why this strategy? Why now?
Up until now the attitude of the US to convening such a broad-based forum to develop a regional strategy to resolve the Afghan problem was at best lukewarm and dismissive. However, it seems the twin problems of an astronomical national debt and the upcoming presidential elections in 2012 have forced the US government to reconsider its position and engage the regional countries more robustly in order to find a solution to the Afghan war.
The US government would not have to engage all regional powers through such a forum if the Pakistani government was more pliable, but the recent fall-out in US-Pak relations has shown that Pakistan and the US have divergent strategies towards the end-game in Afghanistan. In such circumstances, the US is forced to engage all of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and other regional countries in order to gain broader support for its new Afghan strategy, attractively packaged in the ‘New Silk Road’ initiative. The idea is to marginalize Pakistan and let it clearly understand that it is not Afghanistan’s only neighbour and therefore cannot hold hostage peace and security in Afghanistan based on its narrow interests, regional ambitions or historical fears.
In addition, the US should also critically analyze its current strategy in Afghanistan which lays emphasis on firepower rather than focusing on rebuilding the Afghan economy and education system, given that the root causes of the continuing war in Afghanistan are widespread poverty and lack of education among the Afghan people.
It remains to be seen whether the recent Istanbul conference has indeed started a long-awaited process of devising a regional strategy towards ending the war in Afghanistan and whether the regional powers and the US will really be able to act in the best interest of Afghanistan, even if that involves compromise and limiting one’s ambitions.
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