By Dr. Maleeha Lodhi
As Afghanistan embarks on a new chapter of its turbulent history there is great uncertainty about the future. The international community and especially its neighbours worry whether the country’s new rulers, the Taliban, will be able establish peace and stability that the people of Afghanistan have long yearned for. Neighbouring states are directly affected in multiple ways by the course of developments in their neighbour, long afflicted by war, turmoil and foreign military interventions. Regional stability now depends critically on whether the Taliban are able to govern, control the country’s borders, manage a flailing economy, establish order and above all, meet the expectations of their people.
All the states bordering Afghanistan have a common stake in its future. But the stunning speed with which developments unfolded in Afghanistan means there has been little by way of a regional diplomatic initiative to enable countries to confer, share views and evolve a consensus on the way forward. Pakistan’s move last week to convene a virtual meeting with five other neighbouring countries marks an important effort to take the lead in this regard. Special representatives or envoys of China, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan participated in this meeting which was chaired by Ambassador Mohammed Sadiq, Pakistan’s special representative for Afghanistan. This was an important way to involve Iran, which has remained excluded from western-led international diplomatic efforts.
The meeting may lead to a new informal group that consults regularly and takes ownership of a host of issues that affect them all. Of course, regional states are part of the wider global consensus and have sent a common message about what is expected of the Taliban. This consensus is embodied in the UN Security Council statement of August 16 and subsequent resolution of August 30. It turns principally on three core commitments that are expected of the Taliban – an inclusive government, respect for human and women’s rights and that Afghan soil should not be used to attack other nations.
The commitment on counter terrorism is a top priority not just for western nations but more so for Afghanistan’s neighbours. An assorted group of terrorist organizations are based there and pose a clear and present danger to neighbouring countries. A June report of the UN’s sanctions monitoring team found that “a significant part of the Al Qaeda leadership is based along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border while Daesh “remains active and dangerous.” It estimated that there were between 8,000 and 10,000 foreign terrorist fighters there and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had become stronger after splinter groups had returned to its fold.
Pakistan’s principal threat comes from the TTP that continues to carry out deadly cross border attacks against the country. For China, the danger is from members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. For Central Asia, the threat is from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Russia is concerned about the activities of Daesh. Iran worries about Afghanistan’s Shia population, who suffered atrocities under previous Taliban rule. All regional states are therefore keen to engage the Taliban and secure commitments that terrorist groups that have a sanctuary in Afghanistan will be prevented from using the country to launch attacks on others.
Beyond the issue of violent groups there are other challenges that all regional states face and concerns they share. These range from border management, trade and transit issues, people-to-people contact as well as concerns about refugee flow and narcotics smuggling. There is also the matter of support for the humanitarian effort in Afghanistan which is urgent now to address the dire situation there although Pakistan is the principal conduit and source for such efforts.
Most of these issues were discussed in the September 5 virtual meeting with agreement emerging on how to address them. All participants concurred that the Taliban should be engaged and the country should be helped to the extent possible so as to avert an economic and humanitarian crisis. No neighbouring state has so far closed its border with Afghanistan and therefore many practical aspects of these issues need a common approach. As a step to evolving a regional approach toward these shared challenges the meeting marked an important beginning. Apart from challenges there are also opportunities if the situation in Afghanistan stabilizes and durable order is established – opportunities for enhanced trade and economic connectivity that can benefit the entire region.
A meeting of the foreign ministers of the six countries is now planned. If the next step after that can be to expand the group to ‘Six plus One’ with Afghanistan also joining it would make these regional consultations even more meaningful. Pakistan’s regional initiative could not be more timely given the challenges posed by the fundamentally new situation in Afghanistan. And especially as the post-America era means that it is regional states who have to take charge of peace and security and economic progress in their own neighbourhood.
(The writer is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha)