Pakistan is fast emerging as a nexus state as the progressive recalibration of foreign relations by both it and the countries that surround and border it, proceed at some speed. The tectonic of geopolitics tend to move exceedingly slowly, but are currently on the diplomatic equivalent of fast-forwards in our neighbourhood. This theme was in full play at the 5th Heart of Asia Conference, held in Islamabad on 09 December 2015, which brought forward some offers of unity and friendship. Perhaps the somewhat-tough words helped leaders from 14 countries attending the conference to realise what needed to be done. In a joint communiqué issued at the end of the meet, which focuses on Afghanistan and the need for stability within it, leaders pointed out there was a need to work together to harness terrorism and build greater cooperation between all countries in the region.
The Heart of Asia Conference is part of Heart of Asia- Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure Afghanistan. It was jointly launched by Afghanistan and Turkey to encourage the countries which are involved in or adjacent to Afghanistan to play a positive role in stability and prosperity of the country. The rationale behind establishment of the Process had three main elements. The withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan and reduced international engagement and aid after 2014 would leave a question mark on the future of Afghanistan. Therefore, there was need to integrate Afghanistan in the regional economy and improve its relations with neighbours and regional powers. Secondly, this allowed Afghanistan to lead a process in which it had the authority to set its own agenda in regional perspective. Thirdly, the problems of Afghanistan are not exclusively a product of its own and they do not only affect it but also other countries in the region.
In terms of performance, the Process has been very slow and it has not depicted the clout which was expected. This was partly because of unclear foreign policy of Karzai administration and lack of political will to improve the process at senior levels. On the other hand, the nature of the region is complex and some of the key participating countries had conflicting agendas which further slowed down the process.
In spite of its slowness, the Process has served as the only regional forum lead by Afghanistan to set its own agenda. It has further provided an opportunity to open the gates of interaction for participating countries. It has earned regional interest as reflected by decision of China to host the conference in 2014 and participation by all members in the senior official level.
The recent Conference in Islamabad was held at a crucial juncture following Afghanistan’s political, security, and economic transition. The relations of Pakistan and Afghanistan were in escalated state after the break-up of the Murree peace talks. This was followed by deadly attacks in Kabul and other provinces for which Afghan government blamed Pakistan.
At Islamabad, President Ghani was accorded a warm welcome and he met Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff. In his speech, the Afghan President lauded the role of Pakistan to host refugees for years. However, he also mentioned the ‘shifting’ of terrorists to Afghanistan after Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Pakistan. Further, he signalled the resumption of comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan. On part of Afghanistan’s role in regional cooperation and development, he listed the progress on mega projects in 2015 including TAPI gas pipeline, the Chabahar Port, Turkmen railways, transmission lines and economic zones.
The second highlight of the conference was the participation of Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj. The recent relations between India and Pakistan have been tense due to issues over the Line of Control (LoC), Kashmir and the disagreements over the work mechanisms. The conference provided a platform for dialogue between the two countries and to de-escalate the underlying tensions. In a meeting with Nawaz Sharif and his adviser Sartaj Aziz, she agreed to include agendas and proceed according to the proposed plan of Pakistan, to which India had previous disagreed. She made an important announcement that the Prime Minister of India would visit Pakistan in 2016.
Sushma Swaraj also emphasized that the government of India was keen in joining the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) and they had formally shown willingness so that Indian Markets can access to Afghanistan. It is worth mentioning that at the moment Afghanistan’s goods can reach India through Pakistan but not the other way around.
The fifth Heart of Asia Conference has been an opportunity to melt ice in relations between key regional countries. The dialogue process between Afghanistan and Pakistan which was hindered in the recent past seems to resume after successful talks between the two countries.
Pakistan now stands at a very optimistic juncture. Relations with Afghanistan have started right from the point where they broke off. So is the case with India. But this long diplomatic pause among these three nations has made the task of negotiations more difficult. It is really a test of leadership to maintain good relations and achieve regional peace.
We can look at this as a golden opportunity for peace and prosperity in the region. Pakistan, Afghanistan as well as the Taliban should understand that such a rare opportunity for restoring peace does not come so easy.