The trilateral summit of the Presidents of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan held at Islamabad from February 16-17 achieved mixed results, falling far below the high expectations that had been attached to it by the media hype. The central task of the summit was the promotion of and support to the peace process in Afghanistan. Despite the rhetoric of the participants and the positive tone of the joint communiqué issued after the summit, the reported heated exchanges between President Karzai and his Pakistani interlocutors laid bare the serious differences between the two countries on the modalities for the restoration of durable peace in Afghanistan. This was unfortunate since any Afghan peace process to be successful, besides being Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, must have the support of regional countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran because of their extensive and deep-rooted links with Afghanistan. As the history of the Afghan civil war in 1990s shows, peace in Afghanistan is inconceivable without a supportive regional consensus.
Other tasks facing the participants of the summit included the strengthening of cooperation among the three countries in economic, security, commercial, technical and cultural fields. The statements of the leaders of the three countries made all the right noises in this regard. Similarly, the joint communiqué also declared their seriousness in the strengthening of the ties among Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan in various fields. However, the disappointing performance of the three countries in the past in translating pious declarations into concrete actions, in the context of the decisions taken during the previous two trilateral summits held in 2009 and 2011, or the Economic Cooperation Organisation, does not generate high hopes for the strengthening of cooperation among them. The main stumbling block remains the armed conflict in Afghanistan in regard to which the three countries are not on the same page. Other obstacles include the US pressure against extensive cooperation with Iran and the non-serious attitude of the leaders and officials of the three countries to give practical shape to their declarations.
Undoubtedly, the restoration of durable peace in Afghanistan was at the top of the agenda of the trilateral summit. The essential conditions for the realisation of this goal are well known:
i Reconciliation among the various Afghan parties, including the Taliban, the current Karzai-led Afghan government, the Northern Alliance and any other Afghan party enjoying significant following in Afghanistan;
i A new political framework enjoying broad support among the Afghan people;
i The establishment of a broad-based government reflecting the multi-ethnic composition of the Afghan population;
i The support of the regional countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran, and the blessing of the US to the peace settlement in Afghanistan;
i The renunciation of all links with Al-Qaeda by the Taliban and other Afghan groups; and
i The total withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan, since they are now seen as occupation forces by most of the Afghans.
Both Pakistan and Iran must extend full support to the peace process in Afghanistan, while avoiding their policy blunders of 1990s when they worked at cross purposes, thus, aggravating the Afghan civil war. Hopefully, the Americans have learnt by now that they must distinguish between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and that they cannot impose a government of their choice on the independent-minded Afghans.
Similarly, in the light of historical experience, it must be obvious to the Taliban and the Northern Alliance that neither of them alone can rule over Afghanistan. They will have to learn to coexist and cooperate with each other within the agreed political framework for the sake of durable peace in Afghanistan.
The contacts between the US and the Taliban leading to the decision to open a Taliban office in Qatar are a move in the right direction. These contacts must pave the way for talks between the various Afghan parties leading to national reconciliation and a political settlement in Afghanistan. Obviously, at some stage the Taliban, the Karzai government and the Northern Alliance would have to engage with each other in talks. However, the timing and the modalities of these talks must be decided by the Afghan parties themselves. As Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar rightly pointed out after the recent trilateral summit in Islamabad, it was unrealistic on the part of President Karzai to expect Pakistan to deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table. That decision must be made by the Taliban themselves, since Pakistan does not control them.
At the same time, Pakistan should not hesitate using whatever influence it has on the Taliban to join the Afghan peace talks under the right conditions. Of course, it would be for the Taliban to judge after their contacts with the Americans whether the timing and the conditions for such talks were right.
The joint communiqué issued at the end of the trilateral summit did mention the determination of the three countries to strengthen mutual cooperation in countering terrorism and developing their economic and commercial ties. What was particularly heartening, in the context of the US and Israeli threats against Iran, was their agreement “not to allow any threat emanating from their respective territories against each other and commence trilateral consultations on an agreement in this regard.” President Asif Zardari’s statement at the press conference with the other two heads of state that “Pakistan and Iran need each other and no foreign pressure can hinder their ties” was particularly welcome because of the sustained US pressure on Pakistan to discard the Iran-Pakistan pipeline project.
Earlier, the Presidents of Pakistan and Iran in their bilateral talks called for the expeditious implementation of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, the 1,000MW electricity transmission line for the import of electricity from Iran and the 100MW power supply from Iran for Gwadar Port. However, the early implementation of economic projects involving Afghanistan and Central Republics, like TAPI, remains doubtful pending due to the armed conflict and insecurity in Afghanistan. The continuing differences between Pakistan and Afghanistan on the Afghan peace process, which were highlighted during the trilateral summit, would also act a major obstacle to the realisation of these projects.
Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan in the shape of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) already have an excellent forum for regional cooperation based on the strong foundation of common cultural heritage and economic complementarities. The ECO, which besides Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, includes Afghanistan, five Central Asian Republics and Azerbaijan, offers promising opportunities for the expansion of economic, commercial and cultural cooperation among the member states. The ECO region covers a vast area of eight million square kilometres with a population approaching 400 million. It is endowed with vast mineral, oil and gas resources.
The ECO Vision 2015 adopted by the ECO Council of Ministers in 2005 called for the dismantling of tariff and non-tariff barriers among the member states, so as to increase the intra-regional trade to 20 percent of their total trade by 2015, besides other targets for the strengthening of regional cooperation in diverse fields like energy, transport and communications, industry and agriculture. It is a matter of great disappointment that little is heard of the ECO and the realisation of its targets in different spheres at the meetings of the leaders and senior officials of the member states. Unfortunately, the recent trilateral summit was no exception reflecting the lack of comprehension of the vast potential of the ECO on the part of the senior officials and the lack of vision of the leaders of the member states.
The writer is a retired ambassador.