To build a regional consensus on Afghanistan's future, on November 2, foreign ministers from 14 countries -- including India, Pakistan, China, and Russia -- plus officials from the United States and some European countries are meeting in Istanbul. The conference aims for Afghanistan's neighbors and other major regional players to commit to a pledge of noninterference, support a reconciliation process toward a political solution, and help build a sustainable Afghan economy in the long-term as envisioned in the New Silk Road strategy.
But expectations have been scaled down (Reuters), given the conflicting interests of many regional players. Pakistan, seen as central to any Afghan stability, has already expressed opposition (Dawn) to the formation of a regional contact group in the proposed draft, which would be charged with confidence-building measures.
The Istanbul conference is to be followed by a broader international gathering in Bonn, Germany, on December 5, and by a NATO summit meeting in Chicago in May. The summits will stress a political solution, which hinges in large part on negotiating with the insurgents, as the United States seeks withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014. This is a "curious reversal" of what's necessary to build peace and security in Afghanistan (The News), writes former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Maleeha Lodhi, arguing "progress in the process of reconciliation with the insurgency ought to have preceded declarations of support and cooperation by regional states." Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger disagrees, saying the United States must negotiate with Afghanistan's neighbors (Politico) before beginning discussions with the Taliban.
But the reconciliation process has made little progress and is beset by mistrust on all sides. Meanwhile, time is running out for the United States and NATO, which look to an endgame but want to ensure the country does not slip into civil war once they leave. Instability in Afghanistan could also spell disaster for a region marked by terrorist safe havens and historic rivalries between nuclear-weapon states. A "successful transition and durable peace in Afghanistan (PDF) is not possible without the Afghan government's ability to provide good governance, political reform, and effective rule of law," writes Hodei Sultan of the U.S. Institute of Peace. The latest Pentagon report (PDF) notes that since April of this year, "the Afghan government made only limited progress in building the human and institutional capacity necessary for sustainable government."
The push for regional support for a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan is part of a revised U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, reports the Washington Post, one that also includes escalation against insurgents and pursuing talks with them at the same time. In a recent testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called this the "fight, talk, and build" strategy, saying Washington was pursuing all three tracks simultaneously. As part of this, the United States has mounted a military offensive against the Haqqani network, one of the most violent insurgent groups with safe havens in Pakistan.
At the same time, it is seeking Pakistani help to bring the group, along with other insurgent groups, to the negotiating table. This is a shift from previous U.S. demands that sought Pakistani military action against the Haqqani network. But as Omar Waraich of TIME notes, it is far from certain if the Pakistanis can deliver the militants to the negotiating table.
A lack of clarity on U.S. goals for the endgame in Afghanistan has also led many of the regional players to make their own calculations (ForeignPolicy), which ultimately may not help toward U.S. aims to stabilize Afghanistan, according to some experts. In the past decade, several multilateral initiatives have flopped (ForeignAffairs), notes George Gavrilis, executive director of the Hollings Center for International Dialogue. Ultimately, he writes, "the solution may lie in pursuing bilateral initiatives with the more agreeable of Afghanistan's neighbors." For instance, he says the United States should encourage Uzbekistan to open its borders to give Afghan goods access to Eurasian markets and pressurize China to increase its development and security aid to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's Missed Opportunities and New Choices, Foreign Policy
Dealing with the Haqqanis, Eurasia Review
Afghanistan: Key Conference Sidelining Women, Human Rights Watch