Pakistan is set to host the Heart of Asia conference, which aims to strengthen the peace process in Afghanistan. Experts say the countries participating in the dialogue have conflicting interests in the war-torn country.
The Heart of Asia Istanbul Ministerial Process was established in November 2011 to provide a platform to discuss regional issues, particularly strengthening security, economic and political cooperation in Afghanistan and among its neighbors. The United States and some 20 other countries serve as “supporting nations” in the process.
The fourth conference was held in Beijing on October 31 last year. Pakistan is set to host the fifth summit on Tuesday in the capital, Islamabad. Twenty-seven countries are expected to participate in the conference, including Afghanistan, India, China, Russia, Turkey and the United States.
“The agenda of the conference is aimed at cementing regional ties through a set of confidence-building measures,” according to a statement released by Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry. “The process is aimed at expanding coordination between Afghanistan and its neighbors and regional partners in facing common threats, including terrorism, narcotics, poverty and extremism.
Shakoor Rahim, DW’s correspondent in Islamabad, says Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj have confirmed their participation. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will also travel to Islamabad on Tuesday.
The previous rounds of the conference failed to achieve any of the objectives that the Istanbul Ministerial Process had set for itself. The Afghanistan peace process never really took off, as the Taliban insurgents are not cooperating with the government in Kabul.
With the death of the militant group’s former leader, Mullah Omar, and the subsequent appointment of Mullah Akhter Mansoor as the new commander, the Islamist organization has experienced serious infighting. Mullah Dadullah has formed a breakaway faction, challenging the authority of Mansoor as the legitimate Taliban leader. The Dadullah group has pledged allegiance to the “Islamic State” (IS).
Unconfirmed reports that Mansoor had recently been killed in the Pakistani city of Quetta make it more complicated for the countries involved in the Istanbul process to forge a peace deal with the group.
“The Afghan government obviously doesn’t know who to talk to from the Taliban. Mansoor, even if he is alive, as claimed by his faction, is not willing to cooperate until all his demands are fulfilled,” Abdul Agha, an Islamabad-based analyst, told DW, adding that Mansoor wanted complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghan soil.
“Also, the tug of war over the leadership has diverted Mansoor’s attention,” Agha added. “The peace process is not a priority at the moment.”
Security analysts, however, believe that Islamabad can still convince the main Taliban group to agree on some kind of a peace deal. But is it making an effort?
Is Islamabad cooperating?
Islamabad says it is willing to cooperate. It denies claims of interference in Afghanistan and says it wants to facilitate the peace process. Despite a round of successful peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban hosted by Pakistan, there hasn’t been a breakthrough on this front. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani slammed Islamabad for its apparent unwillingness to cooperate in the negotiations.
“Pakistan should have an understanding of the situation in Afghanistan and use the same definition of terrorism with regard to Afghanistan as it does domestically,” Ghani told Peter Semneb, the outgoing Swedish ambassador to Afghanistan, in August, adding that the peace talks with the Taliban should be an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process.
Ghani also expressed his anger with Pakistan after a series of bomb attacks that killed dozens of people in August, blaming Islamabad for failing to stop the militants from planning and executing terror strikes from its side of the border.
“We hoped for peace, but war is declared against us from Pakistani territory,” Ghani said at a news conference on August 10.
But Afghanistan’s anger is unlikely to change Pakistan’s policies. Pakistan’s military and civil establishments still consider the Taliban an important strategic ally, analysts say. Islamabad believes that the group should be part of the Afghan government. Observers are of the view that the Pakistani military hopes to regain the influence it enjoyed in Kabul before the United States and its allies toppled the Taliban government in 2001.
Siegfried O. Wolf, a political science expert at Heidelberg University, is of the same view. He told DW that he was convinced that several elements within Pakistan’s security apparatus still believe that the Taliban could be used as a strategic tool to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan.
Regional tug of war
The United States and China want stability in Afghanistan, but both have conflicting interests in the war-torn country. After the Taliban surprisingly overtook Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city of Kunduz in July, US President Barack Obama revised his decision of complete troop withdrawal by 2017. More than 5,000 US soldiers will now stay in the war-torn country to help the Afghan security forces for an indefinite period of time.
Experts say the US wants to leave Afghanistan, but it wants its interests to be protected in the country. For that reason, the Obama administration is seeking Islamabad’s help. It believes that the powerful Pakistani military enjoys considerable influence on the Taliban leadership.
China, on the other hand, is wary of its own Islamic militants and their alliance with the Taliban and other Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also seeks Pakistan’s assistance – not only to help create peace in Afghanistan, but also keep regional rival India at bay. New Delhi’s influence in Kabul has increased substantially since 2001. Both Islamabad and Beijing find it a threat to their interests.
“Kabul is friendlier towards New Delhi now, whereas Islamabad continues to back the Taliban, as officially admitted by PM Nawaz Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz,” London-based journalist and researcher Farooq Sulehria told DW. “Pakistan wishes to change this scenario and turn Afghanistan into its political backyard once again.”
Indian Foreign Minister Swaraj is likely to raise New Delhi’s concerns during the Heart of Asia dialogue.
Vivek Kumar, a New Delhi-based journalist, says Indian and Pakistani interests have always clashed in Afghanistan and he does not foresee a major change in these dynamics. “The Indian government would want Afghan President Ghani to follow his predecessor Hamid Karzai’s path. India has invested a lot in Afghanistan, and all this investment is strategically aimed at minimizing Pakistan’s influence,” he said, adding that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would also like to enhance his country’s partnership with Kabul in the security sector.
The threat of IS
The Heart of Asia summit is taking place at a time when the Middle Eastern militant group IS has already made gains in Afghanistan and is increasing its presence in the country. The analyst Wolf fears that Taliban factionalism will lead to more defections of frustrated militants to IS: “In the long run, Mansoor could face a rebellion within his own ranks and will lose ground to IS.”
Experts are of the view that no country in the region wants Afghanistan to fall under IS’s control. But would the IS threat be a sufficient reason for all players, including the main Taliban group, to find a solution to protracted Afghan crisis?
“More violence and continued instability in Afghanistan will help IS to extend its influence in the region,” Agha said. “It is not good for the Taliban. It is also not good for India and Pakistan.” If the IS factor doesn’t guarantee the success of the Heart of Asia conference, he said, nothing can.