Mehlaqa Samdani: Consensus and conflict at the Istanbul Conference

The U.S. government and its NATO allies have, in recent months, scrambled to mobilize regional and international support to advance stability in Afghanistan following significant international troop withdrawals in 2014. The most recent of these efforts was the Istanbul Conference held in Turkey last week. The meeting was organized to prepare the groundwork for Afghanistan’s political, security and economic transition.

At the conclusion of the day-long Istanbul meeting, which included a whole host of regional countries as well as representatives from Europe and the United States, analysts dismissed the conference for ‘lacking substance’ and having achieved little in terms of a coherent framework for Afghanistan’s transition. And yet, despite discouraging reviews, it is worth noting that the conference as well as what followed saw progress on at least a couple of fronts.

First, it appears that a regional and international consensus has emerged with respect to Afghanistan’s economic future.

At the conference, the United States introduced its economic vision, the ‘New Silk Road’ project that involves the construction of an extensive network of transportation links across central and south Asia, designed to turn Afghanistan into a regional economic hub. The United States also strongly endorsed the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline that is supposed to meet the energy needs of India and Pakistan and “could provide significant transit revenues for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

What is interesting, however, as noted by Eurasianet analyst, Joshua Kucera, is that a few days later in St. Petersburg, Russia, members of the regional bloc, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) met and outlined a vision for Afghanistan that sounded quite similar to America’s New Silk Road strategy. Referring to proceedings at the SCO, Kucera, wrote:

The proposals that came out of the meeting seem(ed) to dovetail remarkably with those of the U.S. and its New Silk Road—i.e. building infrastructure in Central Asia to help the region become a hub of commerce between Europe and Asia…” The SCO members also voiced support for the TAPI pipeline as well as as “endorsed the idea of a new China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway link which, while not explicitly part of the US’ strategy, certainly fits into that framework.

The challenge of course will be the implementation of these various proposals that could potentially be undermined by a shortage of funds given the international economic climate as well as continuing security concerns across Afghanistan.

Additionally, while there seems to be growing consensus as to the kinds of proposals that would sustain Afghanistan financially over the long-term, for the strategies to work, the United States and its NATO allies will have to work through regional blocs such as the SCO so that member states of the latter do not see these initiatives as a deliberate challenge to their influence in the region.

On the security front, while there were no major breakthroughs, an important Pakistani concern was addressed with respect to the training of Afghan forces. Afghanistan and Pakistan signed an agreement that would allow the Pakistanis to train members of the Afghan national security forces. Afghanistan had signed a similar, though more comprehensive, agreement with India last month, which had increased apprehensions in Pakistan.

Perhaps the least amount of progress was made in the political realm with respect to reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, which throws into doubt the success or progress that could potentially be made on the other two fronts. While international consensus exists regarding the critical importance of negotiating with the Taliban, little progress has yet been made.

This led academic and former diplomat, Maleeha Lodhi, to wonder about the ‘sequencing’ of the various conferences being held. Regarding the Istanbul Conference and the Bonn +10 conference to take place on December 5th, she wrote:

Sequentially (these) two conferences should have followed and not preceded the achievement of significant progress in Afghan reconciliation talks aimed at a political settlement to end the war. Regional and international conferences could then have endorsed the peace deal with the Taliban and their nominees invited to attend the Bonn summit as ‘peace partners’.

It is, therefore, difficult to imagine how meaningful the international Bonn conference will be without advancements made with respect to reconciliation with the Taliban whose cooperation will be critical in stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan.

The author is a Pakistani citizen who lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two children. This post was originally published on her blog Politics and Peacebuilding in Pakistan and has been published by Pakistan Horizon with her permission for which PH is grateful.


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Filed under Afghanistan, Discussion, Peace building, Taliban

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