Quadrilateral talks between the presidents of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and host Tajikistan took place in Dushanbe on the occasion of Nauroz, which reiterated the regional countries’ desire to promote mutual trade, economic cooperation, coordinate the struggle against terrorism, militancy and drug-trafficking for what was described as a “win-win situation”. In the context of regional energy cooperation, President Asif Ali Zardari once again expressed Pakistan’s commitment to the Iran-Pakistan (IP) and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline projects. On Afghanistan, President Zardari said non-state actors wanted to destabilise that country but Pakistan was committed to peace in the region. He went on to assert that a stable Afghanistan is in the interests of Pakistan. Further, he underlined the greater significance of closer cooperation amongst the four countries in all fields, particularly defence, security and intelligence sharing. The message all four presidents put out at the end of their summit was that terrorism and militancy posed a serious threat to peace, security and socio-economic development of the region and needed to be tackled jointly through a regional approach and solutions. Stronger bonds needed to be created amongst them through trade, communications, transportation, energy and infrastructure. The presidents agreed that the joyous occasion of Nauroz on which they were meeting represents peace, tolerance and friendship among all civilisations of the world. Afghan President Karzai and Iranian President Ahmedinejad called for unity and solidarity among the regional countries. Similar sentiments were voiced by the host, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.
The context in which this regional summit should be seen is the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, the impending withdrawal of US/NATO forces from that country, and the fraught relationship at present between Pakistan and the US. On the sidelines of the summit, President Zardari met the US Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, in which Zardari stressed the need for greater transparency in the relationship with the US. Both sides said they respected and would wait for the parliamentary review of ties that has started in a joint session of parliament in Islamabad. President Zardari explained that the energy crunch Pakistan faces necessitates the construction of the IP gas pipeline. Unfortunately, whatever diplomatic fence-mending was attempted in this meeting was washed away by the release of the US military’s second report on the NATO strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in the Salala check post on the Afghan-Pakistan border on November 26, 2011. The report exonerates the US military of responsibility for the deaths of these soldiers, arguing they fired back in self-defence after coming under attack from two check posts in the area. This whitewash is likely to make the task of putting US-Pakistan relations on an even keel even more difficult. The central issue of that relationship at present is whether or not to reopen the US/NATO supply route for their forces in Afghanistan, which Pakistan shut down after the Salala incident. While the US military’s report will work against the desire for reopening the supply route, to add to the kerfuffle, the Pakistani Taliban have threatened to target MPs who support the reopening.
These differences and contradictions between ostensible allies Pakistan and the US point once again to the gulf between regional powers and a distant, powerful, but increasingly seen as arrogant and bullying imperial power. However this conundrum pans out, there is no denying the enormous advantages geography and history have blessed Pakistan with. Its potential as a trade and energy corridor for the region is by now accepted wisdom. But for that potential to translate into reality, Pakistan and the region need to be at peace so that development can proceed apace and without obstruction. Peace cannot be established without the defeat of the Taliban and other such jihadi forces throughout the region, which feels threatened as a whole by the medieval ideology espoused by the extremists and terrorists. As the moment for the western powers to withdraw from Afghanistan approaches, the signs of a realisation among and shift to regional countries taking responsibility for the welfare and future of the area is by now unmistakeable. This should have happened earlier, but better late than never.