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Will fine words fix Afghanistan?

Foreign ministers from Heart of Asia group resolve to cooperate and 'implement' key projects once US and NATO withdraw.
Last modified: 26 Apr 2013 17:41

There is widespread concern that after 2014's US and NATO troop withdrawal, Afghanistan could lapse back into widespread insecurity and decline. However, there is a process which is aimed at not letting that happen.

In the Kazakh commercial city of Almaty, foreign ministers of the Heart of Asia group signed a new declaration underlining their resolve to cooperate on, and now 'implement,' key projects under the Istanbul Process - named after their first meeting which was held in the Turkish city in November, 2011.

A key development to come out of all this was an agreement by China to host the next round of talks - a sign that Beijing is more willing to engage with the Afghan problem.

Just another talking shop? Well, with a bit of a difference. Washington is keen to stress (and so too are the Afghans) that this is not a US-led venture. In fact, the US and Europeans are just observers on the sidelines and in Almaty, did not actively take part.

"We did not shape the communique. In fact we might have written it differently," said one Western official.

Sometimes the interesting stuff is hidden within the print. The communique notes the termination of the end of the NATO/ISAF mission and the transformation of the role into one of assisting the Afghan National Security Forces by the end of 2014.

According to one source, that sort of line (inoffensive at face-value) is why it took 12 hours to thrash out the text among mid-level diplomats.

The Iranians had to wake their minister in the middle of the night for approval, the source said. Until now, the Iranians have generally refused to acknowledge ISAF having any legitimate role in Afghanistan.

There are six key project areas appetisingly described as CBMs (Confidence Building Measures).

1. Counterterrorism - (led by Afghanistan, Turkey and the UAE) sharing ideas and expertise with special emphasis on countering cross-border arms trading.

2. Counternarcotics - all countries resolve to expand cooperation. This one is led by Russia and Azerbaijan.

3. Disaster-management - in a natural and manmade disaster-prone region, more knowledge exchange. Led by Kazakhstan and Pakistan.

4. Trade, Commerce and Investment - led by India. The aim is to help Afghanistan go from an aid-based to a trade-driven economy by holding investment summits and finding other ways to highlight commercial opportunities in Afghanistan.

5. Regional Infrastructure - led by Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. This includes building major infrastructure projects such as road and rail networks - cross-border power grids and gas pipelines like the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India pipeline(TAPI).

6. Education - led by Iran. Cooperation on higher education and providing scholarships and vocational training to Afghans as well as cultural exchange programmes.

All the diplomats I spoke to were naturally enthusiastic about the meeting, and the Afghan delegation said it was looking forward to seeing concrete steps in the coming months - including the possibility of a regional trust fund for cross-border projects - something that hasn't existed before.

When reading the declaration there is a suspicion that it is all fine wording. For it hides the very real differences in opinion over the future of Afghanistan. Its neighbours have competing interests and ideas about how much of a threat or a business opportunity Afghanistan will shape up to be.

The true extent of the usefulness of all this chatter will become clear if it turns into action before, and after, the 2014 troop withdrawal. Then Afghanistan will begin to sink, or swim, on its own.