As world leaders flocked to New York City over the weekend to participate in the annual UN General Assembly debate this week, the United States, China, and Afghanistan co-chaired a high-level event on Afghanistan. A senior state department official, giving a background briefing to the media after the event, was asked if it was really just a “let’s pat ourselves on the back kind of meeting.” He replied that it wasn’t, saying in a somewhat convoluted fashion that the parties gathered were still paying attention to Afghanistan.
Remarks from Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi were public, but journalists were not present for statements delivered by Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz, Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, as well as statements from the ministers of foreign affairs of Turkey, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Islamic Republic of Iran, Australia, Kazakhstan, and Norway.
Rabbani opened the event by lavishing praise on Kerry and Wang for their “friendship and continuing commitment to the stabilization, reconstruction, and development of Afghanistan.” The meeting, Rabbani said, “marks a unique opportunity to discuss issues of crucial importance in the context of our continuing efforts to realize an Afghanistan that stands in peace, security, and prosperity.”
The real issue is attention. In 2012, international donors gathered in Tokyo and pledged $16 billion in aid over four years. Next year, donors will gather again–but Afghanistan is buried by a whole host of development and security priorities from Syria to the South China Sea, from Ukraine to Iran. The attention span of world powers and pocketbooks is fickle, especially when it seems few gains have been made and held.
Kerry firmly stated that the U.S. has confidence in the National Unity Government formed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah and although “security remains a grave concern” Kerry reiterated that the U.S. supports an Afghan-led reconciliation process. Developments over the past few months, however, (let alone the news today that the Taliban have taken Kunduz) have certainly thrown into question the future of a reconciliation process. On one hand, Pakistan’s comprehensive commitment to such a process is as much in doubt as it has ever been, but on the other hand, China’s visibility working in concert with the U.S. and the Afghan government is greater than ever before.
“And what can be more inspiring than having two great nations – the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China – co-chairing this event with us,” Rabbani remarked. More than just co-chairing, Kerry and Wang made clear the aims of the U.S. and China to collaborate in Afghanistan. With regard to reconciliation in Afghanistan, Wang commented that “China, United States will each play our part and work with each other to that end.”
Abdullah called for a “paradigm shift” in how the region resolves contentious issues. The recent reopening of Afghanistan’s diplomatic rift with Pakistan–after news broke this summer that the Taliban’s leader Mullah Omar had died two years ago in Pakistan–was evident in Abdullah’s remarks (emphasis added):
The lesson from Afghanistan is that we cannot allow radical (sic) and terrorists to violently impose false brands that deny human rights, a legitimate order, and popular aspirations, in the same manner that no state should tolerate or facilitate the use of terror in the pursuit of foreign and military policy objectives. If we fail to do so, nation-states will have a lot to lose.
Abdullah directly mentioned Pakistan later in his remarks, saying that Afghanistan and its neighbors, “especially Pakistan,” can do more to push back against terrorist groups.
In the background briefing, the senior State Department official said that “it was made clear by all of the participants that reconciliation, establishing a peace process, is very much at the forefront of the agenda.” To which a questioner, replied, “Right. But the agenda that you talked about, the steps going forward, they’re the same as they were yesterday or last week. There isn’t any change of focus coming out of this meeting, or is there?”
“There isn’t a change of focus,” he said, “but I would say there was a reinforcement and underscoring of what the focus is and of the intentions of countries that have the capability to affect events in Afghanistan to work towards those goals.”