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Regional Cooperation in Afghanistan: What Makes the Heart of Asia Beat?

ISAF soldiers provide aid at Kabul airport.

Turkish civil-military cooperation teams from the ISAF’s Regional Command provide aid at Kabul airport. Photo: isafmedia/flickr.

The new grand bargain went into its next round. On 14 June 2012 the Heart of Asia group gathered in Kabul to push forward the Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan. The real potential for regional security and cooperation, however, remains a contentious issue. Some observers disregarded the gathering as yet another useless meeting which failed to take concrete steps towards a regional security architecture. Others like UN-Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon praised it as “real progress on the path to security and broad-based development”.

Regional cooperation is a sine qua non for long-term stability, but unless three major current conditions improve substantially, it is – as many predict – doomed to fail: first, the divergent interests of stakeholders have to be mediated; second, the intricate bi-, tri- and multilateral rapprochements with Afghanistan have to be more transparently coordinated; and third, deteriorating US-Pakistan relations need to be repaired.

Potential for cooperation among stakeholders

Regional cooperation is possible and needs to be explored further. The Istanbul Conference in November 2011 kick-started a regionally-driven process of cooperation and was followed by a string of regional meetings, including five regional economic cooperation conferences on Afghanistan (RECCA) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Beijing summit that granted Afghanistan observer status. At the international level, the Bonn II conference in December 2011 and the Chicago G-8 and NATO summits in May 2012 sought to coordinate the commitment to the Afghan security forces and civilian reconstruction and development after transition, in the “Transformation Decade” of 2015-2024.

While most observers deemed the initial Istanbul Conference to be a false start, the ministerial-level Heart of Asia Kabul Conference for Regional Cooperation reanimated the Istanbul Process by stressing shared opportunities arising from a stable Afghanistan at the heart of Asia. A strong body needs a healthy heart – the conference took this lesson from Pakistani national poet Muhammad Iqbal and moved their initial military and logistical AfPak-centric approach to a broader vision that casts the country as an economic and political hub connecting the Middle East, South and Central Asia.

It deepened commitment to this vision by emphasizing regional ownership and constructively recognizing the limited ability of the West to handle the transformation period through NATO alone. Participants reiterated in their final declaration the urgent need to implement concrete confidence building measures as a key to an effective “regional approach” to peace in Afghanistan.

Fragmented regional ownership and the limits of managing divergent interests

Recent efforts thus offer a potential for a gradual deepening and broadening of regional cooperation.  Yet stakeholders’ underlying interests diverge significantly enough to possibly undermine its effectiveness. Indeed, the Istanbul Process meetings failed to mitigate such differences. Rather than seeking compromise, participants engaged in a growing competition for best-possible positions in the Afghan transformation period.

A combination of bi- and trilateral agreements further weakened the multilateral process rather than complementing it. Prior to the Heart of Asia conference, major players rushed to arrange deals with Kabul. China, for example, entered into a new strategic partnership  with Afghanistan just one week before the conference. The United States signed the “Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement” in early May, whereas India had already pioneered stronger bilateralism in a strategic partnership agreement in October 2011. While such agreements do not undermine the potential for regional cooperation per se, the lack of consultations and coordination among the stakeholders threatens to reinforce strategic divergences.

A lack of coherence in the move toward regional ownership further destabilizes regional cooperation. The co-optation of Afghanistan into the de facto India-dominated South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the China-led SCO organizations as well as the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) ran parallel to the Istanbul Process. Cooperative efforts to effectively complement the existing structures still lack political will. Consequently, regional cooperation still remains “generally Western- and specifically US-designed.”

The disenchanted ally: US-Pakistan relations at an all-time low

Even if intraregional divergences could be managed, however, a necessary condition for succesful regional cooperation in the short- and medium-term is a sufficiently functioning US-Pakistan working relationship. Be it negotiations with the Afghan Taliban leadership, trade infrastructure, or counter-narcotics – a non-cooperative, even resistant, Islamabad undermines progress in the Istanbul Process.

A series of incidents have increased the fundamental mistrust between the two historic “frenemies” and brought the relationship to its lowest point since 9/11. Already boiling tensions after the Bin Laden raid in May 2011 escalated with the US-ISAF helicopter strike on the Pakistani border-post at Salala in November 2011, in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were allegedly killed. Subsequently, Islamabad boycotted the Bonn II conference, closed NATO supply routes and expelled US troops from Shamsi air base in Balochistan. Since then Pakistan has demanded a public apology, the renegotiation of the terms for using the supply routes, and – most importantly – the discontinuation of unilateral unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes.

As a consequence, US civilian and military leadership shifted their strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan from strategic engagement via “congagement” to a more coercive stance and a new policy of containment that re-emphasizes counter-terrorism measures. US Defense Secretary Panetta demonstrated this course on his most recent visit to the region, where – on Indian soil – he publicly criticized Pakistan’s lack of cooperation, called for a more active Indian role in Afghanistan and commited to a deeper US-Indian defense partnership. The tense relationship is further strained by increasing political instability in Pakistan, which reached its peak with the de jure ousting of Prime Minister Gilani by the Supreme Court on 19 June.

Yet the US road to disengagement undermines the political process in Afghanistan and further alienates Pakistan. Islamabad is responding by deepening ties with its traditional allies China and Saudi Arabia and reaching out to Iran, but the castling’s limited success only increases the dangerous mix of isolation and frustration. Ahmed Rashid recently poignantly summed up the dilemma: until “real progress is made in US-Taliban talks and Pakistan shows that it is serious about peace (…), new conferences on Afghanistan’s future will achieve nothing.”

Ways to foster regional cooperation

In order to foster cooperation, the Heart of Asia group must introduce political instruments to manage divergent goals with regard to developments within and beyond Afghanistan. It needs to develop binding mechanisms that guarantee mutual non-interference. Parties that have been so far neglected in this process, such as the Central Asian states, should be integrated and held accountable to such mechanisms.

Priorities to enhance regional cooperation from the international side should include reviving US-Pakistan relations and committing more strongly to support regional economic integration. The US needs to balance its legitimate interests with those of Islamabad and invest as much as it can to rebuild trust. Washington should also seek cooperation with Beijing to support a more prosperous and stable Pakistan. The upcoming Delhi Investment Summit on Afghanistan on 28 June and the Tokyo Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan offer windows of opportunity to build on the improved trade relations and open up linkages between Central and South Asia.

However, if the grand bargain turns again into a great game, the Heart of Asia would suffer cardiac arrest – a return to power politics and interference in internal affairs at the cost of the Afghan people.


Hannes Ebert is a Research Fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg and holds a dissertation fellowship from the Volkswagen Foundation. He conducts research on international relations and security in South Asia.

For further information on the topic, please view the following publications from our partners:

Regional Security in South Asia

On the Road to Disengagement? Envisioning a Long-term Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan

Myths and Misconceptions in the Afghan Transition


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Security Watch and Editorial Plan.

One Response to “Regional Cooperation in Afghanistan: What Makes the Heart of Asia Beat?”

  1. A thought-provoking article.
    Belonging to Peshawar, located a few miles from the Afghan borderand even closer to the FATA areas, I find such perfect verbosity emerging from International moots an exercise in futility. This is despite the fact that I am an educated person who is on the wrong side of terrorism.
    US has to realize that peace can’t be won by killing people by Drone attacks on a regular basis while insisting that only bad guys are being eliminated. It is being, generally, felt here that such a dangerous policy is being dictated by the electoral considerations to President Obama. If that is so, we all including US will have to pay back heavily later on despite the status quo.