The right way to get the region and the world behind Afghan peace
The Afghan negotiations in Doha represent a pivotal moment for war-weary Afghanistan, the region that surrounds it, and the US-led international military alliance that has been engaged in the country for the past two decades. However, without regional and international support and guarantee, any peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban will be in danger of falling apart as soon as it reaches the implementation phase. To ensure success, the three sets of players – the Afghan sides, regional countries, and major global powers – must work out a single, inclusive, and effective mechanism for consultations and cooperation in support of the ongoing peace process and a broader peace and security architecture for Afghanistan.
The necessity of a single strong platform
The success of the Afghan high-level talks could herald a new chapter in Afghanistan and bring greater stability and prosperity to the region. At the same time, a collapse of the process could be catastrophic, unleashing a complex civil and regional proxy war in Afghanistan, as well as a torrent of dangers for the region, the United States, and its allies. Given the deadly stalemate on the battlefield that has characterized the war for nearly ten years, the peace process is the only way to safeguard regional stability and mitigate myriad other challenges to Afghanistan and the region, including the fight against global terrorism, drug trafficking, and future war-caused waves of refugees.
To date, though most countries in the region have voiced support for the Afghan talks, there is no substantial regional convergence on the process itself or, more importantly, its end state. On the surface, this lack of convergence is a reflection of the fragmented relationships across the region. This fragmentation is exacerbated by divisive issues, such as differing views on the presence of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, as well as a plethora of regional and global rivalries and hostile relations. Fundamentally, there is a chronic inertia at the heart of regional politics that prevents meaningful dialogue, understanding, and cooperation on issues of shared concern.
For decades, regional politics have been bedeviled by two mutually reinforcing factors: a set of fraught relationships within the region, and the effect of global tensions and rivalries that are played out at the regional level. The Pakistan-India conflict is a prominent example of the former, while the tensions between the United States and regional powers, such as Iran, China, and Russia, of the latter. The accumulated, disempowering impact of these two factors lies behind the strategic inertia we are experiencing today.
There are valid reasons for regional powers to be concerned about the situation. Even in the aftermath of a successful political settlement in Afghanistan, the region will remain awash with threats and challenges, from global terrorism and instability, to organized crime and environmental and public health risks, to economic hardship and under-development. While American and European support will remain important, sustainable peace in Afghanistan and effective regional responses to shared challenges and threats can only be guaranteed by the region itself.
In this context, the Afghan negotiations can offer a unique chance for the region to coalesce around clear, coherent, and proactive regional responses, not only to address the long war in Afghanistan, but also the other critical challenges and dangers that threaten Afghan stability, the region, and the wider world. The United States’ decision to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in a conditions-based manner by May 2021—formalized in the 29 February 2020 US-Taliban agreement—opens up an opportunity for the region to show initiative and resolve. Agreeing on a common platform for high level diplomatic consultations thus becomes an urgent and essential priority.
In recent months, concerns about regional consensus and the absence of an effective platform to build it have emerged prominently from various public and closed-door interactions among stake-holding countries in the Afghan peace talks. We understand and feel these concerns first-hand: A series of Track 2 discussions among key regional and international countries with a stake in the Afghan peace process—hosted by the Heart of Asia Society and our partner organizations—has made clear to us the current dearth of an institutional process ensuring regional and international consultation.
Having been part of these Track 2 discussions and other deliberations for nearly ten years, we are convinced that the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (HoA-IP)—currently in its 9th year—or a similar process under another rubric is the best framework for regional consensus, long-term dialogue, and engagement between the region and the US on the current Afghan peace process and a post-settlement Afghanistan. Below, we highlight the key lessons we have gleaned from our efforts.
What is the Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process (HoA-IP)?
Launched in November 2011 as a joint initiative by Afghanistan and the countries surrounding it, the HoA-IP has sought to promote security, economic, and political cooperation at the regional level with Afghanistan at the center of its focus. Currently with 17 participating countries, including all of Afghanistan’s next-door and near neighbors, 15 supporting countries—which mainly include the United States and other Western powers—and 12 regional and international organizations, the Heart of Asia process has provided an unrivaled level of inclusivity among all existing regional platforms. In particular, from a regional perspective, the Heart of Asia process seeks to provide a multilateral platform whose format and functioning are acceptable to the widest cross-section of countries involved.
A key advantage of the HoA-IP is that it places Afghanistan at the center of what is essentially a regional and global agenda. Given the concern that countries of the region have for Afghanistan at the present juncture, as well as Afghanistan’s prominence today in the global security agenda, an Afghan-centric platform has greater convening potential in a region that is otherwise divided by strategic considerations. While no regional power exerts disproportionate control, there is a strong sense of ownership of the process by almost all member countries in the region. In 2020, the annual ministerial conference under the rotating co-chairmanship of Tajikistan was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM) held in August 2020 reiterated the region’s support for Afghan peace, which it recognized as a pre-condition for prosperity and economic development in the region.
The HoA-IP is designed to function as a multilateral political cooperation framework. It seeks to avoid competition or rivalry with other existing mechanisms by actively seeking an interface with relevant sub-regional, regional, and international organizations, notably SCO, CICA, SAARC, ECO, and NATO. Crucially, the confidence building measures (CBMs) under HoA-IP and its associated arrangements for participation and coordination constitute a sweeping and inclusive mechanism for collaboration on key regional priorities, including counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, disaster management, regional infrastructure, environmental protection, economic connectivity, culture, and education.
An inclusive and effective platform
The HoA-IP is sometimes described as too inclusive to be effective, and critics argue that major powers, regional or global, do not find adequate space in its highly participatory format. These are valid concerns that can be addressed. For instance, given the crucial role that the United States and the European Union play in developments concerning Afghanistan and the wider region, it would be more pragmatic for them to be engaged as direct participants and not merely in a “supporting” role.
With these concerns in mind, a process of reform of the HoA-IP, led by Afghanistan, its neighbors, and other regional countries—with support from the United States and other international stakeholders—should be initiated without delay. Our view is that with some adjustments in the process and structure, the HoA-IP can be both inclusive and effective as a consultation and cooperation platform. As such, it should maintain its inclusive structure but allow for more intensive levels of interaction among smaller groups of countries.
Specifically, under the rubric of the HoA-IP and structured as a new CBM (the 9th CBM), an International Consultation and Co-operation Platform (ICCP) should be formed as the most inclusive format under one umbrella. Consultations and negotiations in smaller formats may be drawn among select regional and international players regarding specific issues, or when roadblocks need to be overcome. While the Afghan peace talks are ongoing, the ICCP could serve as a key mechanism for regional and international engagement and interactions with both the Afghan government and the Taliban as they make progress toward an eventual peace agreement. Such coordinated and coherent engagement will help the Afghan parties to fully grasp regional and international concerns and legitimate interests, and to integrate them into an all-Afghan peace deal, thus integrating support into the eventual peace agreement itself. This will make the peace deal robust and resilient to derailment by spoilers and irreconcilable elements.
The full ICCP is to consist of Afghanistan’s six immediate neighbors (Pakistan, Iran, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan) plus six extended neighbors (Russia, India, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) as well as a support group of international stakeholders (United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Norway, Japan, and the United Nations). This wide composition of the ICCP ensures broad participation and a good balance of neighbors as well as regional and global powers. The principle of inclusion is to be used judiciously, however, giving greater emphasis to the quality and impact of the dialogue. To allow for more intensive dialogue in smaller groups, any number of secondary formats, including bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral, near neighbors, large powers, host nations, and so on may be established and convened under the umbrella of the overarching process as and when needed and mutually agreed among countries involved.
To ensure coordination and oversee the convening of consultations and dialogues in various formats, a Core Group headed by the United Nations (represented by the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Afghanistan based in Kabul) and involving Afghanistan, Turkey, and the rotating co-chair of the HoA-IP, is to be established. The Core Group will ensure that the exclusion of any country or entity—including Afghanistan—from meetings of smaller and restricted formats should not be perceived as detrimental to their interests but merely to allow for a more open and candid dialogue. In meetings where Afghanistan is not present, a neighboring, regional or international partner country, or the United Nations, will act as a ‘stand-in’ to represent the country’s interest.
Parallel to the official regional and international diplomacy on the process, Track 2 (informal) and Track 1.5 (semi-official) dialogues mirroring the various sub-groups must be launched to identify options for the various roles of Afghanistan’s neighbors, the wider region, and the international community in the months and years to come. Such consultations on the informal and semi-official front generally help build consensus and develop options on issues of concern sooner and more smoothly.
Admittedly, several years of neglect on the part of Afghanistan—as the permanent seat of HoA-IP—have relegated the process to dormancy and even irrelevancy, particularly when it comes to the need for high level political dialogue. However, as we have argued here, a recommitment of major regional and international players in the Afghan peace process—plus a degree of innovation and flexibility—will be sufficient to make the HoA-IP fit for purpose as the most inclusive, effective, and easily convened consultation and support platform. Given the urgency of the process and the importance of a regional guarantee and support for an eventual Afghan peace agreement, this diplomatic initiative should be prioritized by all the key regional and international stakeholders, including the incoming Biden administration.