Pakistan Observer

Trilateral regional cooperation

M Nawaz Khan

Sunday, March 11, 2012 - The Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan a two-day third summit on counter-terrorism in Islamabad is not just about terrorism. It has critics that focusing on the strategic implications of the three presidents meeting to rethink the economic map of the region. The moot put the seal on the growing perception in the region that responsibility for managing affairs in the wake of the US/NATO forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan rests on regional countries/players. The trilateral summit with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Islamabad was aimed at “Enhancing Trilateral Cooperation” through fraternal unity as the trio pledged to work for peace and prosperity in a region racked by war and terrorism. The talk in Islamabad was all about how to produce peace in war-weary Afghanistan to winding down the conflict because the neighboring countries share an interest in finding a political settlement to the war. Indeed, the summit came at a moment that is being considered a flash point in peace efforts with the Taliban and when tensions between Tehran and Israel and Tehran and Washington are rapidly increasing. Pakistan’s two main aims during talks were to figure out how Pakistan and Afghanistan could cooperate for peace in the latter and chalking out a roadmap to broaden the Pakistan-Iran relationship.

The three neighboring countries share an interest in finding a political settlement to the Afghan war. No doubt it is certainly one of the greatest diplomatic challenges in recent history. President Karzi wants Pakistan to help him tackle the Taliban in a separate dialogue which leaves the US out. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants Iran to break out of its heroic isolation through an economic opening with Pakistan and India. President Asif Ali Zardari wants to avert economic collapse in Pakistan by leaning on Iran’s gas pipeline and electricity supply into Balochistan. Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan are bound together by faith, common heritage and shared values of love and peace. As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated “when brothers join their hands together, certainly the hands of God will assist them.” Further he added that “The foundation of our political relationship is humanitarian and is based on common cultural values.”

The three brotherly regional players are poised to draw a roadmap to develop a joint framework in the areas of counter-terrorism, anti-narcotics and trafficking, border management and in combating transnational organised crimes while putting in use all their resources to address the problems. They agreed to proceed on the basis of mutual interest, shared respect, non-interference and non-intervention in internal affairs of each other. They also vowed to strengthen cooperation for eradicating extremism, terrorism and militancy, and to address the root causes of these menaces. These noble sentiments expressed in earlier two summits to enhance security, political and economic cooperation in the region did not go beyond rhetoric. These bilateral exchanges were consolidated in the joint statement issued at the end of the trilateral summit. The most hopeful aspect of the statement was the declaration in principle that the soil of the three neighbouring countries would not be used for intervention in each other’s affairs and to ensure respect for sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, as enshrined in the UN Charter.

The fact of the matter is that Pakistan and Afghanistan need peace, which is possible when Iran can use its influence over Northern Alliance, and Pakistan, may try to persuade the Taliban for the formation of a national government. The problem lies that the Afghan reconciliation talks have become clouded by multiple channels and competing approaches. Pakistan was sucked into the Afghan conflict primarily because of its geographical proximity. Pakistan has suffered from spillover effects of problems in Afghanistan since 1979. Its economy has suffered greatly, since the inflow of foreign investment has ceased on account of the security situation. The thirty years history of Afghanistan crises shows that Pakistan has played a major role in solving the Afghan puzzle on its own cost. Pakistan has particularly an important role because of the peculiar demography, unique ethnic overlap, and cross-border affiliates. Islamabad can assume a facilitating role by using its Pashtun leverage in convincing the Pashtun-headed-Taliban to agree on a power-sharing compromise through national reconciliation process and to bring these dissidents to some points of agreement. This point of agreement is required to be acceptable to all the parties, including the West, the neighboring countries and all Afghan factions. The geo-strategic and political position of Afghanistan demands that this would be possible when there is a convergence of interests of all the parties involved.

President Karzai termed Afghanistan and Pakistan “twin brothers” who should be working together towards stability in both countries. “What we need now is to formulate a policy that is actionable and implementable, and actually act upon it,” Karzai said. Pakistan reiterated its support for a stable Afghanistan and an “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned” peace process. Karzai has reiterated that Pakistani assistance is of ‘critical’ importance for the success of the peace process. Afghanistan is optimistic that regional power Pakistan will help the Kabul government advance a reconciliation process with the Taliban. But the reality also remained the same: Kabul still perceives Pakistan as doing little to truly enable the Afghans to engage with the Taliban leadership, his request for Pakistani help indicate a desperate attempt to open up his own links with the group outside of, or at least in addition to, the Qatar process being run by the Americans. However, recent developments indicate that Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy may be both broadening and maturing. It has for the first time made real efforts to engage the leadership of all ethnic groups in talks, which was the focus of Foreign Minister Khar’s last visit to Kabul. As things move forward, all sides must remember that the nascent peace process, which offers the only hope for an end to the decade-long Afghan conflict, depends crucially on Afghanistan and Pakistan being able to cooperate. For this, both sides need to have realistic expectations but also understand the other side’s concerns.

As for Iran, Pakistan has unequivocally assured the Iranian president of its commitment to the expeditious implementation of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, 1,000MW electricity transmission line and 100MW Gwadar power supply. In exchange, Iran has offered to enhance bilateral trade to $10 billion in the next few months. The two sides have also commenced discussions on currency swap and barter trade arrangements to circumvent US sanctions for doing business with Iran using the dollar. All these developments are likely to incense Washington which has, for years, trenchantly opposed the gas project, despite Pakistan’s dire energy shortages. However, it is a positive development that Pakistan is trying to send a message that Pakistani policy will be independent and that Pakistan will pursue its interest even if they don’t fall within the larger, strategic plan of the United States in the region. And why shouldn’t Pakistan be assertive when the US has stepped up efforts to lobby Pakistan to abandon not only the IP gas pipeline project but also liquefied natural gas purchases? Pakistan must work hard to retain its foreign policy autonomy after last year’s NATO attacks, and fend off US efforts to make it drop Iranian projects. Pakistan is bearing heavy losses due to the energy crisis and needs to go ahead and explore all its options, including Iran. It should not be pushed into giving up on its own interests.

The trilateral summit signals a tectonic shift from the US and the West calling the shots in the region in favour of local management. Cooperation amongst the three countries on security, trade, energy and economic cooperation could go a long way towards mutually benefitting all three and mitigating the dependence on the fickle and often aggressive West. More power to their “Excellencies” elbows in this good work.
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