Written by Rizwan Zeb.

Afghanistan, a quasi-state and a product of the British-Russian great game and US-USSR cold war compulsions, has turned into an even greater regional migraine in the post-cold war era. Especially since 9/11, Afghanistan has come under threat from several warring non-state actors. It is also a clear and present danger to regional security. The Afghan problem continues to defy any solution. There are a number of reasons for this. Most important is that the state of Afghanistan exists only in Kabul. Beyond that it is still a tribal land where different areas are under control of different factions often at logger heads with each other.

What further compounds this problem is the region and the interests of the regional players in which Afghanistan is situated. Almost all of Afghanistan’s neighbours have their own agendas, interests and favourites in Afghanistan. In other words, apart from Afghanistan’s own doings, many problems that Kabul faces are due to its neighbours. It could be argued that the solution to Afghanistan’s problems lie not inside Afghanistan alone but also in the capitals of the regional states. All states in the region have their own interests and pockets of influences in Afghanistan. This is true for Iran, Uzbekistan, Russia, Turkey and Pakistan, which all have their own objectives in Afghanistan. The presence of the U.S., NATO, India and the EU further complicates the situation. The Indo-Pakistani rivalry that has expanded into Afghanistan in recent years has further aggravated the situation.

Afghanistan’s unity government has failed to perform primarily due to surging differences between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

Internally, Kabul is suffering from numerous problems. Although the global media only highlights Islamabad as the villain or the spoiler and as the sole reason for Kabul’s problems, the fact is that this assessment is hardly the whole truth. Afghanistan’s unity government has failed to perform primarily due to surging differences between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. The government has performed poorly on multiple fronts without any hope of things improving. Corruption is rising, governance is non-existent and confrontation is brewing between the Afghan government and the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of parliament). The First Vice President, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, has been quite vocal in his accusations against President Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah for supporting their own ethnic groups. Dostum has revived his Uzbek militia and reportedly was responsible for the recent kidnappings and torture of his political rivals.

Regional Initiatives and the Afghanistan Problem

At present, several regional and international initiatives are focusing on improving the situation in Afghanistan. Prime amongst these are: the Istanbul Process also known as the Heart of Asia, Quadrilateral Coordination Group of Afghanistan, the International Contact Group on Afghanistan, the SCO-Afghanistan Contact group and the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan. Regular meetings and summits are held under these initiatives in which all regional actors participate. Such events end with lofty and overly ambitious declarations while nothing changes on ground. In almost all these summits, a number of objectives and road maps are set to resolve Afghanistan’s many problems. Yet, they ultimately fail to provide any clear strategy or clue of how exactly these objectives would be achieved in the absence of a regional consensus. If joint declarations and demonstration of good intentions for resolving Afghanistan’s multiple problems were the things to do, this would have solved the problem long ago. Yet, once these events end, all participants continue pursuing their interests in Afghanistan through their pockets of influences in Afghanistan, often at odds with other players.

The most recent of these summits was organised by Uzbekistan in March this year. Uzbekistan, in collaboration with the Afghanistan government, held a summit on Afghanistan on March 25-27, 2018 on the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. On March 25, the foreign minister of the Central Asian states held a meeting with Afghan officials. The summit was attended by almost all major stake holders such as the United Nations, United States, Russia, China, the European Union, Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Notable presences included UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherni, Sergei Lavrov of Russia, Wang Yi of China, Turkey’s Mevlut Cavusoglu and United States Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon.

As is the norm, the Tashkent summit ended with a joint declaration. This declaration is no different to all other such declarations that have been issued on the security situation in Afghanistan. It highlights all the right issues yet fails to provide any consensus on how Afghanistan’s problem will be resolved. The summit strongly supported President Ashraf Ghani’s offer of dialogue without any preconditions to the Taliban. The offer was framed as an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned initiative. At the same time, at least two of the significant actors involved in Afghanistan, the USA and NATO, accuse Pakistan and Russia of providing military and logistics support to the Taliban. Most of the attendees, including the major players, blamed Islamabad as the supporter of the Taliban and considered them part of the problem.

What exactly did President Ghani’s offer entail? Would this mean the Taliban would be considered a legitimate actor in the Afghan imbroglio? For the Taliban, any summit that does not address the issue of foreign troops is meaningless. For them, Ghani’s Kabul is just a puppet of the West. It claims that it is fighting against American occupation and in this occupation, Ghani is nothing but an agent of the Americans. For its part, Washington treats the Taliban as terrorists. Would Ghani’s offer imply that Washington is also willing to accept the Taliban as a legitimate party to the conflict? Furthermore, does this imply that now all parties involved share a similar understanding of the problem and solution to the Afghanistan conundrum?

So, is this summit any different from others? And what would be achieved out of this summit? What does this mean for Tashkent as a significant regional player? As far as the problem of Afghanistan is concerned: nothing. For Tashkent, it was an important event. Uzbekistan is a significant Central Asian – and by extension – a southern Asian player. It has the potential to play a major role in central-south Asia if peace in Afghanistan materialises. Through this summit, Tashkent signalled to the region and the world that Uzbekistan is ready and willing to play a significant role in regional politics. It is this intention that led Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoev to offer to host a dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban. He stated, “We stand ready to create all necessary conditions, at any stage of the peace process, to arrange on the territory of Uzbekistan direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement.”

For Afghanistan, the solution is not summits and lofty declaration based on hollow words, but an honest regional dialogue based on an understanding of interests and concerns of all parties involved and a consensus on how to address these issues. Until this happens, Afghanistan will continue to burn, keeping the global power houses worried and the region embroiled in economic and social stagnation.

Rizwan Zeb, Ph.D., is Research Fellow, South Asia Study Group (SASG), University of Sydney and associate professor, Iqra University, Islamabad, Pakistan. He is also associate editor of the Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs (Sage). He can be contacted at srizwanzeb@gmail.com. He tweets at @SRizwanZeb. Image Credit: CC xusenru/ Pixabay.

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