The Heart of Asia

Commentary | December 09, 2015

The Fifth “Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process” Summit jointly inaugurated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Dec 9 in Islamabad counts as a major foreign policy success. 

Given the present situation in the Middle East and the connected problems in adjoining regions, this timely initiative to bring focus firmly on Afghanistan was badly needed. Efforts to revive the stalled Afghan peace talks between the Afghan govt and Taliban group must be encouraged.  

Seven foreign ministers are participants, including all the four neighbouring countries of Pakistan.  Visiting Islamabad for the second time this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, by Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani and unusually upbeat on arrival, India’s Minister for External Affairs Ms Sushma Swaraj with Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif making his third visit in about four months.  High-ranking delegations from 14 participating countries, 17 supporting countries and 12 international and regional organisations included the former US Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson (now US Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan), with senior representatives coming from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the UAE. 

An Afghanistan and Turkey joint initiative, the “Istanbul Process” provides a fresh agenda for regional cooperation by engaging the ‘Heart of Asia’ countries in sincere and result-oriented cooperation to secure a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.  Political initiatives between land-locked Afghanistan and its near and extended neighbours will include a continuous and effective dialogue concerning all issues of common interest and importance. “Confidence Building Measures” (CBMs)  identified in the “Istanbul Process” document enhances the building of trust and confidence among the regional countries.  Existing regional organisations have an important role in strengthening and promoting of economic cooperation and integration, improved security and enhanced people-to-people relations. Not a substitute for existing efforts, this process complements the work of regional organisations, particularly relating to Afghanistan.

Following his inauguration, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani had made a courageous outreach to Pakistan, this included a historic visit to Pakistan’s GHQ.  Hopes were raised very high, to quote my article of Nov 20, 2014, “The Making of History”, “Throwing aside diplomatic norms, the Afghanistan’s President visited GHQ immediately after landing at Islamabad. A foreign Head of State heading straight towards a military HQ on arrival carries a lot more than ceremonial importance, the Afghan President means business because he well understands where the real power concerning national security rests. Subsequently Ashraf Ghani described his discussions the next day with the Pakistani PM as “a shared vision to serve as the heart of Asia, ensuring economic integration by enhancing connectivity between South and Central Asia through energy, gas and oil pipelines becoming a reality and not remaining a dream. The narrative for the future must include the most neglected of our people becoming stakeholders in a prosperous economy in stable and peaceful countries, our faiths are linked because terror knows no boundaries. We have overcome obstacles of 13 years in three days, we will not permit the past to destroy the future,” unquote. 

The past came to haunt us when the last minute news of the death of Mullah Omar, the former spiritual head of the Taliban, was deliberately leaked, motivated by “spoilers” to not only derail the talks but raise serious doubts about Pakistan’s intentions.  With this huge setback the talks failed and Kabul witnessed several major terrorist attacks, forcing Ashraf Ghani to backtrack on his peace initiative, deciding to only resume talks when Pakistan was ready to talk “honestly” about peace in Afghanistan.  This week’s conference is a real opportunity for the two countries to work out their differences and negotiate a settlement. To quote former Afghan govt official (and now Consultant) Habib Wayand, “This Conference is a chance to out-flank the “spoilers” on both sides and produce a far-sighted vision for the region, producing strategies for achieving lasting peace and prosperity.” For its part Afghanistan needs to avoid pursuing irresponsible and irrational anti-Pakistan agendas, blaming Pakistan for every terrorist incident.  Kabul needs to concentrate on job-creation to prevent the exodus of young Afghans from the country and/or their being recruited by insurgent groups.

Peace in Afghanistan will create opportunities for greater economic links between Central Asia and South Asia.  Afghanistan has been conducting its foreign trade largely through Pakistan and could facilitate Pakistan for its trade with Central Asia and, more importantly, for bringing electricity and gas from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan into South Asia. To quote my article of Dec 12, 2014 a year ago, “Reconnecting Afghanistan”, “Economic resurgence for land-locked countries requires facilitating trade to and through their territory.  The EastWest Institute (EWI), a New York-based leading US think tank, headed by Ross Perot Jr, initiated the “Abu Dhabi Process” — a cross-border trade dialogue co-funded by Abu Dhabi and Germany — between Afghanistan and the countries on its periphery. Hosted by the EWI, the recent Istanbul conference encouraged businesses in South and Central Asia to themselves take necessary initiatives to unlock trade and kick-start the war-ravaged Afghan economy.” 

Welcoming Ms Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad, Advisor to the PM Sartaj Aziz said that beyond the confines of the Conference itself, bi-lateral discussions between India and Pakistan focussed on resumption of composite dialogue between the two countries but included various matters.  He had earlier said, “The visit is part of efforts to restart peace dialogue plagued by militant attacks and distrust. This is a good beginning. The deadlock has eased to some extent.” Modi’s Govt seems set on a “course correction”, maybe PCB Chairman Shahryar Khan will not have to bend on his knees begging India anymore for resumption of cricket ties.

For Pakistan it was important to showcase the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an economic force-multiplier for peace and stability in the region.  With its vast pool of skilled manpower to go with its enormous raw material reserves, this country has the potential of becoming one of the most powerful economic engines in the region.

Whether it is Paris, Mali, San Bernardino, Yemen, Libya or the Iraq/Syria virtual cauldron, the world is in a state close to undeclared world war where borders are of least (or even no) consequence given the rise of the “Islamic State” in the areas adjacent to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey (with Kurdistan, a State that is not a State thrown in).  Every small step to contain such destructive and brutal forces is a giant step towards peace and stability in the world.  The “Heart of Asia” initiative is an appropriate epitaph for our brave soldiers who have selflessly shed blood giving the ultimate sacrifice securing Pakistan and making it peaceful.


Click here to read Ikram Sehgal's article "Reconnecting Afghanistan".

Click here to read EWI's report on "Afghanistan Reconnected: Advocacy and Outreach Mission to Tajikistan".