The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, with rising levels of violence marring prospects of peace returning to that country any time soon. The meeting of senior officials from countries in the ‘Heart of Asia’ or Istanbul process on Afghanistan, held in New Delhi on April 26, was significant, coinciding as it did with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s repudiation of the idea of engaging with Pakistan to curb the onslaught of the Taliban.

The ‘Heart of Asia’ or Istanbul Process was established in 2011 to provide a platform to encourage regional collaboration to tackle the issues facing Afghanistan, the ‘heart’ of Asia. A group of 14 countries other than Afghanistan, which form the core regional partnership, discuss regional issues, particularly encouraging security, political, and economic cooperation among Afghanistan and its neighbours. This region-led dialogue aims to expand practical coordination between Afghanistan and its neighbours and regional partners to face urgent common threats, particularly counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, poverty, and extremism.

HoA Consultations

Other than the delegation from Afghanistan, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai, delegations from the 14 other member countries, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan attended the meeting in New Delhi. Also in attendance were representatives of 15 other supporting countries, including the US, and 11 supporting organisations, including the UN, NATO, SCO and OSCE.

After the closed door meeting, a source in the Indian government said, “It was a consultative meeting, the first this year, to discuss priorities and agenda in 2016 leading up to the Ministerial to be hosted by India in December 2016.”

As Co-Chair with Afghanistan, India “put forward certain suggestions to enhance regional cooperation within Heart of Asia (HoA) to enhance stability, security and prosperity in Afghanistan and in the region”, an official source said.

These include six HoA Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) and “augmenting regional connectivity”. Also, there was consensus on condemning the April 19 terrorist attack in Kabul which killed and maimed mover 400 people.

Over 40 participating countries and supporting countries and organisations agreed to continue to contribute to ongoing political, security and economic transformations in Afghanistan.

The April meeting focused on promoting further dialogue and cooperation and produced a declaration in support of Afghanistan’s development. Diplomats and officials spoke of enhancing regional efforts in counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics trafficking, trade promotion, and even the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, and the expansion of the transit corridors under the Asian Development Bank’s Central Asia Regional Economic Corridor (CAREC) Program.

Combating Terrorism

The most serious discussion, the source said, was the issue of combating the spread of Islamic State (IS) terrorists towards the region and checking the Taliban. Mechanisms to improve the quality of intelligence sharing were discussed.

Russian diplomat Albert Khorev, who heads the Afghanistan department in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, provided several concrete suggestions on improved coordination during the HoA meeting, an official source told RIR.

Analysts, observers and officials opine that without major commitments and sustained support from regional neighbours like Iran, Russia, China and India particularly, it is difficult for the Afghan government to endure; economically, politically, or militarily; with the war against a resurgent Taliban at its current pitch and Afghan politics so fractured.

Afghanistan’s neighbours in the region realise this, which is why countries like Iran and Russia have deepened their engagement with the insurgency. Iran has sheltered key Taliban factions in Mashhad, while Russia is increasing its diplomatic contacts with some elements of the Taliban in a bid to counter IS moves toward and gains in Central Asia.

Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, recently acknowledged that “we and the Taliban have channels for exchanging information”. “The Taliban interest,” he said while speaking to Interfax, “objectively coincides with ours.” He was referring to the IS, which is increasingly rivalling the Taliban in eastern parts of Afghanistan. No country wants to see a Taliban takeover.

India, a former senior official said, is stuck in a quandary and is unable to determine its way forward. Among its “red lines” is a refusal to differentiate between “good” Taliban and “bad” Taliban, hence it cannot engage with the insurgent group, certainly not officially.

Resolving Afghan crisis

Shashank Joshi, a Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, London, wrote in an opinion piece in the Hindu newspaper earlier this week that there have been various attempts at various forums to try and restore peace and stability to Afghanistan. Most recently, as violence raged, a Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) of the U.S., China, Pakistan and Afghanistan was convened in January 2016 and met four times over the following month. This diplomatic initiative too has proved ineffective, and India has sought expansion of the quadrilateral to include three more members, Russia, Iran and India.

In his piece, Joshi wrote that the QCG’s efforts to engage the Taliban collapsed when news of their leader Mullah Omar’s death was confirmed by Pakistani authorities. The Pakistan establishment’s “levers” to “pressurise and control” the Taliban have proved increasingly ineffective as incidents of violence escalated, with the Taliban even retaking control of Kunduz town last September and horrific incidents of violence in Kabul, Helmand and Kandahar. Between January and March 2016, civilian deaths rose by 13 per cent compared to the same period in the previous year, while the number of “complex and suicide attacks” rose by over a quarter. As a result of this Pakistani recalcitrance, Afghan President Ghani called off his 18-month-long engagement with Pakistan after the April 19 attack in Kabul.

“The result may be a short-term boost in India-Afghanistan ties, but longer-term trends are bleak. No one,” Joshi wrote, “is fully committed to Afghanistan’s dysfunctional government. Beijing is unwilling to use its leverage over Pakistan, Washington is distracted, while Moscow and Tehran are hedging their bets. The idea of a regional concert of powers to resolve the conflict”, he said, “is implausible today.”

The HoA Process provides a new agenda for regional cooperation by placing Afghanistan at its centre and engaging countries of the region in sincere and result‐oriented cooperation for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, as well as a secure and prosperous region as a whole.