Stabilizing Afghanistan: Two stirrings in the Heart of Asia conference

The Heart of Asia conference regarding the stabilization of Afghanistan, which is currently under way in Islamabad, provides a reality check on the geopolitics of the region. The salience of the conference lies in regional integration through security, connectivity, infrastructure development and trade and investment.

The Afghan president reached Nur Khan airbase on Wednesday morning for the 'Heart of Asia' conference in Islamabad

The Afghan president reached Nur Khan airbase on Wednesday morning for the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference in Islamabad

The presence of the foreign ministers of ten countries in Islamabad – including from China and India – testifies to the event’s importance in regional politics. Pakistan’s multi-vector foreign policy, attuned to the emergent multipolar world order, aims at transforming the country as the hub of regional integration. Pakistan indeed enjoys a unique role in the search for Afghan settlement, and its cooperation is much sought after by the international community.

Pakistan provides the strategic gateway for both China’s Road and Belt Initiatives and the United States’ New Silk Road strategy. Pakistan’s cooperation becomes vital for the long-term western military presence in Afghanistan, while China’s longstanding relations with Pakistan (which were historically ‘India-centric’) have assumed a global character.

At the same time, Pakistan’s SCO membership impacts the regional strategies of the US, Russia and China alike. The interplay of these multiple factors explains the heightened interest of regional and western countries in the Islamabad conference.

China is robustly pushing for an Afghan peace process since regional security and stability are crucial for the development of Xinjiang as well as for the advancement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in which Beijing has pledged an investment of $46 billion.

China’s proactive role has influenced the Pakistani approach toward the Afghan situation, which in an earlier era used to be riveted on the objective of gaining ‘strategic depth.’

One redeeming feature of the great game is that the dialectics between cooperation and competition seldom degenerates into rivalry and conflict. Thus, the competing big powers also acknowledge the crucial need of Pakistan’s cooperation in the fight against terrorism and extremist groups. China and the US are on the same page in promoting the Afghan peace talks and encouraging Kabul and Islamabad in this regard.

The leitmotif of the conference in Islamabad has been the renewed attempt to bring about a Pakistan-Afghanistan détente that would facilitate the resumption of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Interestingly, the latest rumors regarding the killing of Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour did not prevent President Ashraf Ghani from traveling to Islamabad.

The presence of top Chinese and American diplomats at the Heart of Asia conference may have helped bring about some degree of proximity between Kabul and Islamabad. However, there are question marks about the unity within the Taliban. Up until the rumors appeared regarding the killing of Mansour in a factional fight, the impression was gaining ground that his leadership of the Taliban movement had consolidated.

Equally, the tensions between Pakistan and India and the two countries’ mutual suspicions regarding each other’s intentions pose a major hurdle to political settlement in Afghanistan. Washington hosted the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif recently and held in-depth discussions with them regarding Afghanistan. President Barack Obama personally urged Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at least twice recently to engage Pakistan in dialogue.

The presence of the India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in Islamabad for the Heart of Asia conference signals that Modi is paying heed to Obama’s advice. Without doubt, Modi has held out an olive branch to Prime Minister Sharif. (The two leaders met briefly on the sidelines of the Climate Change Conference in Paris.) The early reports suggest that Swaraj went to Islamabad with a plan of action aimed at resuming the stalled dialogue between the two countries.

Being a shrewd politician, Modi could be anticipating that a historic visit by him to Pakistan in November next year to attend the SAARC summit meeting will have huge resonance in the Hindu heartland of Uttar Pradesh, which has a big Muslim population and is heading for crucial state election in early 2017. However, there is another compelling factor, too, weighing on Modi’s mind – namely, the formal launching of the long-awaited Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project on Saturday. (Sharif – and, possibly, Modi too – will be attending the ceremony in Ashgabat.)

Powerful Indian corporate groups, which finance Modi’s party, hope to generate huge business at the secondary and tertiary level out of TAPI. The infrastructure development happens to be the plank on which Modi’s development agenda rests. Modi faces withering criticism in India that his much-touted development agenda, which helped him secure a big mandate in the 2014 April poll, has not yet seen the light of day. The TAPI opens up seamless opportunities to kickstart a massive program of infrastructure development in India.

It is well-known that the US and Japan are stakeholders in the TAPI. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) on Monday approved $1.2 billion grants to reinforce ongoing energy projects in Afghanistan. In geopolitical terms, TAPI is an American idea within the framework of the so-called New Silk Road strategy that aims at linking the Central Asian region with South Asia as a counter to the Chinese and Russian dominance of the region.

As for Pakistan, TAPI goes a long way to meet the country’s energy needs. Conceivably, Pakistan also hopes that TAPI holds the potential to ‘lock in’ India as a cooperative neighbor.  Thus, from different angles, the TAPI creates an unprecedented ‘win-win’ spirit in the region.

The TAPI promises to be the finest flower of the Heart of Asia process since its inception in Istanbul in November 2011. But then, life is real, and not all flowers bear fruit. Much depends on Mansour and Modi.

Someone must prove quickly that Mullah Mansour is still alive – otherwise the prospect of an early resumption of Afghan peace talks may recede and the newfound bonhomie between Ghani and Sharif will peter out if the locus once again shifts to the battlefield. Put differently, in the absence of an Afghan settlement, the TAPI may remain a pipedream.

Similarly, Modi leads a badly divided India, which today lacks national consensus on any major policy issue. Most certainly, Modi needs to rein in the Hindu zealots who oppose any dialogue with Pakistan. His latest overture to Pakistan is not backed up by any parallel effort to moderate the zero sum mindset of the right wing Hindu nationalists, who, ironically, also happen to be Modi’s natural allies in Indian politics.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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