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Against the backdrop of the inconclusive military conflict in Afghanistan, the US-led international community is currently focusing on building a consensus on that troubled country as well as the region in which it is located. A conference titled Security and Cooperation in the Heart of Asia has just concluded in Istanbul.

In itself a product of extended consultations, the Istanbul meeting was supposed to lay the groundwork for the second Bonn conference that may bring together more than a hundred states and international organisations in early December. This is to be followed by a Nato summit in Chicago in the spring of 2012. Behind this meticulously structured and choreographed international diplomacy lies the accord reached at Nato's Lisbon Summit providing for the cessation of combat by the American and allied forces in Afghanistan by 2014 and transference of national security to the Kabul government.

Ostensibly, such a heavy global agenda seems to be disproportionate to a counter-insurgency campaign in a small country. In reality, the lives of hapless ordinary Afghans are bedevilled by a conflict that has internal ethnic and ideological dimensions and, no less importantly, the conflicting strategic interests of a whole host of states. The Istanbul conference brought the latter factor to the forecourt eclipsing the prime objective of bringing peace and tranquillity to Afghans ravaged by war for three decades. The strong undercurrents of strategic rivalry stood in the way of the total success that a conclave of 13 interested nations — Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Russia, the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia and the UAE — deserved. The difference in the perspectives on the future of the region, of which Afghanistan was considered to be the centrepiece, may now lead to greater divergence in the current policies of concerned states.

Strategic battleground

At Istanbul, it crystallised into a western-backed proposal for a new mechanism of regional security that could be a major item on the agenda for the Bonn Conference. Most of the participating countries would see this as an instrument of ensuring a perennial dominance of the region by the US and a role in it for Nato, far away from its own treaty area. It would run counter to the geopolitical and geo-economic interests of Iran, China and Russia. The Central Asians too may be wary of becoming a strategic battlefield and, in all likelihood, prefer the present situation in which they benefit from the economic competition between the East and the West. India is basking in the warmth of its new strategic partnership with the US and may not be averse to this proposal. Pakistan, a non-Nato ally of the US would, ironically enough, have reservations till it reaches a much better understanding on the future of Afghanistan with Washington than exists at present.

Following the recent visit of US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to Islamabad, the US has reported progress in promoting such an understanding. Avowedly, this is now being translated into a work plan for a coordinated effort to get the process of reconciliation under way. Improvement of relations, however, seems to be conditional on Pakistan's contribution to the ‘squeezing' of the so-called Haqqani network and on Pakistan delivering the Taliban for substantive negotiations. Clearly, Pakistan's influence on the leadership of the various factions fighting under the symbolic leadership of Mullah Omar is being over-estimated.

Then, US President Barack Obama is surrounded by advisers who tell him that Pakistan is a part of the problem and not its solution; this propaganda blitz hardly encourages Pakistan to take risks. Negotiations with the Taliban can easily get wrecked by a non-negotiable demand that they accept the proposed strategic partnership agreement under which the US would maintain military bases in Afghanistan, a necessary condition for the regional security architecture sought at Istanbul.

The Bonn Conference may be approached from either of two standpoints: one, the US-led West treats it as a forum to get this architecture endorsed; two, the plan is not insisted upon in formal, structuralist terms but is replaced by a global approval of core principles for the region and Afghanistan. This was the view taken by Russia, China and some other states in Istanbul. Its multilateralism would have a worldwide appeal; implicitly, the ultimate legitimacy of future arrangements would come from the UN, and not from a security organisation propped up by the West.

In moving towards the latter option, the Bonn Conference may be inhibited by the perception that the Nato summit in Chicago would aggressively assert western domination of the region. In that case, consensus on Afghanistan would remain elusive, prolonging the strife and endangering the prospects of regional economic integration that was advocated at Istanbul in the form of the New Silk Route, strongly favoured by Washington. 

Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former ambassador and foreign secretary of Pakistan.