Istanbul–The Division Conference

[SEE:  The Istanbul Conference: Helping the Devil Get His Way In Central and South Asia]

Pakistan opposed to regional solution on Afghanistan


New Delhi: Pakistan is blocking the establishment of a regional monitoring group to oversee cooperation on Afghanistan’s economic and security future. As leaders from 12 nations head to Istanbul on November 2 to help Afghanistan become a stable and independent state, Pakistan is building up opposition to the key decisions at the conference.

Foreign minister S M Krishna will represent India at the conference, the first time India will be at the table. Last year, Pakistan had successfully weighed in with its close allies and host, Turkey, to keep India out. Turkish president Abdullah Gulbore the brunt of New Delhi’s unhappiness when he visited India soon after.

While negotiations for the event is yet to yield an “outcome document” (a negotiated, agreed text), there are two stated goals – to commit to non-interference/neutrality on Afghanistan and to set up a mechanism of senior officials to monitor it. Pakistan has cited “national security”, maintaining its old position that it needed to have a “friendly’ government in Kabul as a defence against India. Pakistan’s opposition is to having so many countries – primarily India- enjoying similar status in the contact group on Afghanistan.

The US, Pakistan’s principal backer, has decisively turned away from accepting Islamabad’s arguments. Turkey, Pakistan’s close friend and mentor, too is pushing the regional framework that includes all Afghanistan’s neighbours. Hillary Clinton, who will represent the US at the conference, will push the New Silk Road concept that is aimed to help Afghanistan to its feet, and one that includes all its neighbours. This too has seen opposition from the Pakistani army.

Pakistan, said sources, is trying to marshal support from an unlikely group of countries that may have implications for India. Iran, which is opposed to the idea of US military presence in Afghanistan, has been seen to be supporting the Pakistani position, even though Teheran detests the Taliban and the al Qaeda. A curious fellow opponent is Russia. Moscow is worried about a Talibanised Afghanistan, but it is equally sceptical of a continued US presence there.

Highly placed sources in government say there have been recent “exploratory” talks between Pakistan and Russia on Afghanistan. Russia, like Iran and India, used to be the triad that supported the Northern Alliance in the 1990s when Taliban ruled Kabul with Pakistan’s help. But in a changing geopolitical environment, Russia is finding itself much closer to China, which Russians have admitted to as being “need-based”. Russia’s economic ties with China have increased exponentially, and in regional groupings is now closer to China than ever before.

While China has little to object in the Istanbul plan, China is bound to support Pakistan. The Chinese objection has centred on a stated apprehension that the new contact group could replicate or undermine its creation, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Pakistan foreign office spokesperson repeated this line, “The existing regional organizations and arrangements may also be urged to prioritize support in their respective domains for achieving the aforesaid objectives…”

Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, the US and the UK will attend the Istanbul conference, which precedes the 90-nation Bonn conference in December.