The Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan third trilateral summit held in Islamabad yesterday 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. A day before, in bilateral interactions by President Ahmadinejad of Iran and President Karzai of Afghanistan with President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani, issues of concern and problems in relations were on the table. These bilateral exchanges were consolidated in the joint statement issued at the end of the trilateral summit. Perhaps the most hopeful, and also most controversial 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. For Afghanistan, the irony is that this implies Pakistan’s withdrawal of the safe havens and support of the military establishment for the Afghan Taliban operating from our territory against the US, NATO and Afghan forces across the border, which arguably is the main reason for the failure of those forces to quell the Taliban insurgency. For Iran, the implication is that Pakistan would act to stop Jundullah operating from our soil against the Iranian regime in its Balochistan-Seistan province. In principle, this stance of not allowing territory to be used against sovereign neighbours should be adhered to in letter and spirit. Jundullah may be an easier phenomenon to control, but whether the Pakistani military establishment is prepared to go along with this principle vis-à-vis Afghanistan remains doubtful. And as long as that situation prevails, the trilateral aim of peace, stability, progress and cooperation may not achieve all its objectives.
Pakistan’s civilian authorities have of late been stressing their support for an Afghan-led and -owned peace process in that long suffering country. This should be seen in the context of the new factor in the equation, the unilateral efforts by the US to talk to the Afghan Taliban directly, bypassing both the Karzai government as well as Pakistan. Although President Karzai has claimed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on the eve of the summit that the Afghan government is a partner in the US-Taliban talks, this has been dismissed out of hand by the Taliban, asserting they will not talk to the “careless” Karzai regime. Pakistan and Afghanistan have been throwing out feelers along the lines that they will cooperate in the peace process but on the Pakistani side, it is not clear if the military establishment subscribes to this policy.
Perhaps all is not such bad or doubtful news. President Zardari wants the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement to be extended to the Central Asian countries, fulfilling the dream of Pakistan acting as a regional trade conduit, especially for land locked Central Asia. Pakistan’s geographical location also promises benefits as an energy corridor, particularly if the TAPI gas pipeline can be built to ship Turkmenistan’s enormous gas reserves to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. This pipeline is the favoured one by the US as a more acceptable option than the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. However, Washington will be less than pleased by the reiteration at the summit of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project being speeded up. Iran is under increasing international sanctions led by the US for its suspected nuclear weapons programme. That is why President Zardari suggested trade be conducted between the two neighbours through local currencies, barter, etc.
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.