ISLAMABAD – Afghanistan is a country that has been in perpetual turmoil and its people have grown up in warfare and, therefore, aspire for peace and stability. Already several models of neutrality exist and some key countries can be listed from which one can evolve a model of Afghan neutrality.

This was the crux of the speeches delivered at a discussion under a new series called “Islamabad Debate” arranged by the Institute of Strategic Studies (ISSI) here on Thursday.

The proposition of the debate was titled ‘Given the history of external competition for influence in Afghanistan, the only way to bring about a sustainable Afghan peace settlement is a regional/international agreement on guaranteeing its neutrality’.

The two speakers of the debate included Ambassador (Retd) Aziz Ahmed Khan who spoke in favour of the proposition, and Dr Simbal Khan, Director Afghanistan and Central Asia at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad (ISSI).

In his remarks, Director General of ISS, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, highlighted the importance of the proposition and said that Afghanistan was a country that had been in perpetual turmoil, its people had grown up in warfare and therefore aspire for peace and stability.

Aziz Ahmed Khan said that Afghanistan, throughout its troubled history, has suffered from foreign interference. The neighbouring and regional countries fought their proxy wars and tried to wield influence in the country with tragic consequences for the Afghan people. Today, Afghanistan is once again facing an uncertain situation, as the present Afghan government is weak; the Taliban insurgency has been on the rise and the Taliban have become bolder in their attacks. Hence, if one looks at the events over the past four decades in Afghanistan, this makes a strong case in favour of Afghanistan becoming a neutral state, totally non-aligned and without any military alliances and influence from any state.

Speaking about the concept of ‘neutrality’, Aziz Ahmed Khan said that already several models of neutrality exist and some key countries can be listed from which one can evolve a model of Afghan neutrality, and which include Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Japan, Panama, Sweden, Ukraine, the Vatican City, and Turkmenistan.

He said that the concept of Afghan neutrality is not new as King Nadir Shah talked about it in 1931. Elaborating his concept of model ‘neutral’ states, and how to go about Afghanistan’s neutrality, Aziz Khan spoke about the Swiss model. Comparing the Swiss model with Afghanistan, he said, that Switzerland is also multi-ethnic and multi-cultural like Afghanistan. It had the tradition of de-centralized power. In the 17 and 18 century Switzerland was poor and suffered from interference by its neighbors particularly France and Austria. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 declared the permanent neutrality of Switzerland, the inviolability of its territory and its independence from all foreign interference. The congress also settled a number of border problems that Switzerland had.  According to Ambassador (Retd) Aziz Ahmed Khan, such a model would also entail the final settlement of the Durand line with Pakistan.

Another model that he also talked about was Laos and the July 1962 declaration of neutrality. Although he mentioned that Laos has given up her status of neutrality, he expressed that it was a good model that could be looked at. He also spoke about the Austrian model of ‘neutrality’ and quoted the most recent example of Turkmenistan, which declared its permanent neutrality and had it recognized by the United Nations through a general assembly resolution.

He was of the opinion that Afghanistan’s neutrality will have to be carefully crafted. To begin with there would be the need for a state of peace and stability and end to all forms of insurgencies. This can only be achieved when all states agree not to interfere in Afghanistan through support to their ‘favorites’ and the Afghan government reaching out to all groups through a process of reconciliation. To achieve this objective, the Afghan government will need a strong Police and paramilitary forces for maintaining internal peace and security, and the UN will have to play its role by appointing a respected and recognized political personality as its special envoy for Afghanistan who should seek guarantees of cooperation and non-interference in Afghanistan from immediate neighbors sharing border with Afghanistan and other regional countries with interests in Afghanistan. In this regard he also suggested a peacekeeping force, which could be drawn from countries with no direct interest in Afghanistan.

Speaking in favour of the proposition, Dr Simbal Khan, argued that first, moderation of external competition alone is not likely to result in sustainable peace settlement in Afghanistan. Secondly, the concept of neutrality cannot be applied to present day Afghanistan in any meaningful way. 

She said as the 2014 security transition in Afghanistan approaches, multiple tracts need to be perused to ensure sustainable peace. Moderating international and regional competition for influence is only one such track which must be pursued in tandem to other fundamental issues which play the internal structures of present day Afghanistan itself. However, applying even this loose interpretation of neutrality to the case of Afghanistan in meaningful way immediately raises the following conceptual, legal, and enforcement issues: First the concept of ‘neutrality’ is a statist concept; it assumes a state which is by and large in control of its territory and enjoys monopoly on the use of force within its borders.

The status of neutrality maybe interpreted more widely than merely the absence of permanent militarily bases, but cannot be narrower than that.

The debate was concluded after an enlightening question and answer session.