Modern Afghanistan has been ravaged and damaged by terrorism as well as regional and external powers’ geopolitical interests, starting in 1979 with the Soviet Union’s intervention. The same problems were further heightened with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)’s post-9/11 war against terrorism in general and al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden (until his death in 2014) in particular. Due to a long war sparked by the ISAF invasion, Afghanistan has become entrapped in myriad political, economic, and security problems. It has also become one of the world’s major refugee-generating countries.
Seeing the gravity of these challenges, external and regional powers have made efforts toward socioeconomic reconstruction, rebuilding, and peacemaking in Afghanistan. However, after the withdrawal of the ISAF in 2014, the Taliban and the other terrorist groups re-emerged, posing an existential threat to Afghanistan. The sixth Heart of Asia (HoA) Ministerial Conference 2016, which recently took place in Amritsar, India, was supposed to provide an opportunity for creating peace and stability not only in Afghanistan, but in the neighboring regions as well. However, given the geopolitical dynamics of the region, there are a serious questions about HoA 2016. How can it be helpful in peacemaking when the participants continue to adopt double standards?
Civil War and Terrorism: Afghanistan’s Major Challenges
Given its strategic location, multicultural and multiethnic make-up, attractive trade background, and abundant natural resources, Afghanistan has been a magnet for external invasions and, consequently, infested with terrorism and fear. However, throughout recorded history, Afghanistan has fought well against such foreign invaders and proved as disastrous for them as they were for Afghanistan — hence the country’s nickname as the “Graveyards of Empires.”
In part, its frequent problems with civil war can be traced to its ethnic composition. It is a nation with many cultures and ethnicities, although Pashtuns have privileged positions in politics, the army, police, and various bureaucratic offices. The others ethnic groups — such as Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaks, Turkmens, and Balochs — often complain of discrimination and feel little connection to their government.
Meanwhile, the roots of terrorism in Afghanistan can be traced to Cold War geopolitics in general and the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89) in particular. Fanaticism, poverty, inequality, and underdevelopment are some other internal factors perceived to be responsible for terrorism in Afghanistan. Active terrorist groups such as Taliban, the Hezb-e-Islami, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Lashkar-i-Jhanghi, and the Haqqani Network have been operating in Afghanistan since the late 1980s.
Peacemaking and Reconciliation in Afghanistan
To bolster mainstream Afghan society and curb terrorism, several efforts have been made to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan, from the Geneva Accord of 1988 to then-President Hamid Karzai’s National Consultative Peace Jirga (NCPJ) talks with the Taliban. The most recent such attempt, formed soon after the withdrawal of the ISAF in December 2014, is the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), consisting of the United States, China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The QCG was designed to jumpstart comprehensive peace talks with the Taliban. However, despite several efforts on the part of the QCG, it has also failed to bring any profound effect in peacemaking and reconciliation. Instead, terrorist attacks, and resulting deaths, have increased.
The HoA is another (thus far fruitless) attempt to forge peace. Five “Heart of Asia” conferences have taken place since its inception in November 2011. These meetings have focused on securing cooperation on major issues such as maintaining peace and stability; curbing terrorism, separatism, and fundamentalism; ending the production, trade and trafficking of drugs; and promoting peace and cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbors. The fifth HoA Conference, held in December 2015 in Islamabad, which adopted the “Islamabad Declaration” to promote peace, security, economic development, and Afghan connectivity with the South and Central Asian region.
The Sixth Heart of Asia
The sixth HoA was held in Amritsar on December 3 and 4. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan jointly inaugurated the sixth HoA Ministerial Conference, focusing on the theme “Addressing Challenges, Achieving Prosperity” on December 4, 2016. On December 3, senior officials of the HoA members had discussed important security and economic issues for finalizing the Amritsar Declaration, including the adoption of the Regional Counterterrorism Framework drafted and chaired by Afghanistan. The 2016 HoA Conference was attended by the senior officials of all 14 countries (including Afghanistan’s neighboring countries India, China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan) and the representatives of 17 supporting nations.
However, the HoA Conference took place at a time when both India and Pakistan are locked in mistrust. The host country, India, has suffered several terrorist attacks, from the attack on Pathankot Air Force Station on January 2, 2016 to attacks in Pampore, Uri, and Baramulla, and the latest attack, on Nagrota Indian Army Base on November 29.
On the other hand, since the ISAF withdrawal, the Taliban has been resurgent in Afghanistan. As a result, both Afghanistan and Pakistan have suffered many terrorist attacks and consequently lost many innocent lives. It’s not only Afghanistan, the focus of the HoA process — its neighbors in South and Central Asian have also been suffering from terrorism. It’s no surprise, then, that security issues (such as the threat of terrorism, radicalization, and extremism) and economic issues (like heightening connectivity with South and Central Asian countries to increase trade) were the lynchpin of the meeting.
Thus, now the question is how, and to what extent, the HoA could help curtail terrorism and bring peace to Afghanistan.
According to Edson Jose Neves Junior and Larlecianne Piccolli, there are two different peacemaking approaches at work in Afghanistan today: interventionist (the United States) and regional institutionalization (China, Russia, and other neighboring countries including India). The QCG and HoA are some of the endeavors that are part of the second strategy, with a focus on strengthening Afghanistan strategically, politically, and economically. Politically and economically, Afghanistan has achieved considerable progress. However, the military solution pursued by the ISAF to achieve peace, stability, and rooting out terrorism had only worsened the security situation in Afghanistan.
A peaceful and stable Afghanistan is not only in the interests of the extra-regional powers, but those of the neighboring countries as well. However, it seems that the QCG and HoA members have not been serious about curbing terrorism. Until sincere efforts are made, peacemaking would remain a distant dream for Afghanistan. China is the dominant power in the region, but it seems that it is not serious about making practical efforts to curb the terrorism. That may be because of its all-weather friendship with Pakistan. Though Pakistan has been suffering from terrorism, at the same time, it is not serious about checking terrorism either.
Pakistan has assured India and Afghanistan several times that it will not allow its land to be used by terrorists, but there seems little question that is exactly what is happening. India had requested Pakistan to ban some terrorist organizations that have been operating from within Pakistani borders. India even raised the same case in the UN, but China, considering its vested geopolitical and geostrategic interests in Pakistan, scuttled the resolution by using its veto power. Recently, during the 2016 BRICS Summit in Goa, India once again China blocked India’s efforts to include the names of terrorist organization such as JeM and LeT in the Goa Declaration.
The most tragic part of the issue is, India has been failed to garner the support of its traditional strategic partner Russia on the same subject in the Goa Declaration 2016, despite the JeM and LeT being the greatest challenges for regional security. Indeed Russia has a large stake in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan but it has yet to play a major role in this regard. Strategic commentator Brahma Chellaney has argued that Russia was interested in accommodating India’s security concerns; however, due to the stiff opposition from China, Moscow shied away from supporting the real cause of regional security.
From these arguments, it seems that only China can call the shots for regional security. Unless, China has the intention to do so, these summits and conferences on Afghanistan will remain meaningless rituals.
Dr. Bawa Singh teaches at the Center for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India.