The Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (HOA-IP) held in Islamabad, Pakistan, on 08-09 December 2015. The first conference on this process was held in Istanbul in 2011. Senior officials of most of the regional countries participated in this conference; among them were the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj and Iranian Foreign Minister, Jawad Zarif.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani went to Pakistan in order to participate in this conference. Pakistan warmly welcomed Afghan President. The most senior Pakistani political and military officials were there at the airport to welcome him.
Along with participating in the conference, Afghan President also had bilateral meetings with officials from India, Iran and China on the sidelines of the conference.
Moreover, Pakistan and India also held a bilateral meeting on the sideline of the conference and discussed about mending the ties between both countries.
The Pak-Afghan ties have had a lot of ups and downs in the last year. The Pak-Afghan ties in last one year, the activities of HOA-IP conferences and also the impact of Ashraf Ghani’s recent visit to Pakistan on the Afghan peace process are analyzed here.
The last one year of Pak-Afghan ties
Last year, the Afghan president, unlike the past 14 years foreign policy, tried to build good ties with Pakistan; he provided several privileges to Pakistan and he, in order to please Pakistan, increased the distance from Delhi. Hence, the visits of senior officials increased between Kabul-Islamabad.
After the ties mended, strong promises on the peace process were given and hopes for the successfulness of this process were increased. By the way, a series of bloody explosions rocked the Capital Kabul, the war became extended to the North of the country and insecurity incidents became increased in the entire country. Besides insecurities, the promises of Pakistan on that it would make the Taliban to have negotiations with the Afghan government became delayed from a date to date.
After the Shah Shaheed bloody incident in Kabul, the Pak-Afghan ties went worse. This scenario made the Afghan media, Parliament and the local people suspicious about Pakistan and at all, the internal pressures on the National Unity Government (NUG) increased. Therefore, the NUG changed its policy and started efforts to rebuild ties with India. From the other side, Pakistan, insistently, emphasized on reinitiating the Afghan peace process and it got use of “Pashto” card, also. Besides that, the regional diplomacy also became active to resume Afghan peace process and due to this the ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan entered into a new phase.
The fresh wave of bilateral ties
In the last few months, the Kabul-Islamabad ties were so frozen and as the insecurities increased in the country, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani clearly stated that “Afghanistan is in an undeclared war with Pakistan” and therefore, it conditioned the mending ties and reinitiating the peace process to an international guarantee from Pakistan.
Some days ago, a number of Pakistani Pashtun nationalist leaders visited Kabul and they were also carrying the message of Pakistani premier that if President Ghani meet him on a sideline of the Paris Climate Change Conference.
However, meeting with Nawaz Sharif in Paris was not a part of the Afghan President’s agenda, but due to the encouragement of Pashtun leaders and the pressures from China and the US, Ashraf Ghani met Nawaz Sharif in a trilateral meeting and, then, in another bilateral meeting as well. In these meetings, Nawaz Sharif invited the Afghan President to participate in HOA-IP and, for the first time, announced the quadrilateral policy regarding the Afghan peace process, in which China, America, Afghanistan and Pakistan is taking part.
According to some sources, the Afghan president was impacted by Nawaz Sharif’s words, and of course, he became more encouraged after the Pakistani Army Chief of Staff held a video call with him and invited him to Pakistan. Also, the increasing interest of the US and China in Pak-Afghan close ties caused pressures on Ashraf Ghani to become increased in order for relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan to become normal. Due to these two reasons, Ashraf Ghani traveled to Pakistani in order to participate in HOA-IP.
Warm Welcome to Ashraf Ghani
Ashraf Ghani was welcomed so warmly in Pakistan. It was the sort of welcome normally reserved for visits from prominent Pakistani allies like the president of China or the king of Saudi Arabia. However, that sort of welcome also surprised the Afghani side itself. The reasons for this sort of welcome to Ashraf Ghani in Pakistan are as follows:
- Pakistan wants not to lose the Afghan government alongside the Taliban;
- Pakistan wants not to lose Kabul due to latest visits of Haneef Atmar and Hekmat Khalil Karzai to India;
- The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has changed the minds of Pakistani political and military leaders; now, they are also busy on negotiations with Balochs and Bugti’s family in order to solve this problem. Besides that, it wants security to be provided in Afghanistan because it has role in succeeding this great project;
- It was a diplomatic protocol in order to show their veracity to the international community and the participants of HOA-IP.
Reinitiating the Peace Process
As long as the HOA-IP ended, hopes for resumption of the second round of the peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban emerged. In the bilateral meeting between the Afghan President and Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani Prime Minister (PM) in Paris, Nawaz Sharif suggested a quadrilateral meeting for the peace process to be held this time; America and China alongside Afghanistan and Pakistan would be also participating in this process.
Afghanistan-Pakistan-USA and Afghanistan-Pakistan-China trilateral meetings and Afghanistan, Pakistan-USA -China quadrilateral meetings were held on the sidelines of HOA-IP. The Afghan-led peace process was emphasized in these meetings, according to the statements released by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Three new topics regarding the peace process were discussed in these talks; they are as following:
First: Afghanistan, Pakistan, USA and china agrees to work together to create a conducive atmosphere that encourages Taliban groups to engage in meaningful and sustained negotiations;
Second: China and America would also participate in the negotiations directly in order to eliminate the mistrust and suspicion between Kabul and Islamabad;
Third: The Constitution of Afghanistan would be respected.
On Wednesday night, Pakistan’s military chief General Raheel Sharif held a meeting with Ghani to discuss a possible timeframe for “reinvigorating” the Afghan peace process. Therefore, the Afghan Foreign Minister said: ““… our allies, in this case U.S. and China and of course Pakistan, have expressed their willingness to work with Afghanistan on peace and reconciliation process. And we very much hope that his effort will result in a result-oriented peace process where we will see some positive moves in the coming weeks…”
Impacts of this Conference on relations of Afghanistan and the Regional Countries
The leaders of regional countries met each other in a part of the HOA-IP in order to mend their bilateral relationships, and this conference also played a role in mending the Pak-India and Pak-Afghan ties.
Pak-India Ties: However, the Indian premier, Narendra Modi, as an initiative, invited the leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to India, and so the Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif was invited in this group, also. If this symbolic action was neglected, the Pak-India ties were too knotty. Both of the countries fought on border issues for several times, they suspended the negotiations and their frozen political relations even impacted Sports (start of Cricket matches between them is influenced by politics).
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj attended Islamabad as a result of Pakistan’s invitations and since 2012; she is the first Indian senior officials that travel to Pakistan.
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj held separate talks with the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his advisor Aziz on the sidelines of HOA-IP. In this bilateral meeting, both sides condemned terrorism and resolved to cooperate to eliminate it. Also, they noted the successful talks on terrorism and security related issues in Bangkok by the two NSAs and decided that the NSAs will continue to address all issues connected to terrorism. Both sides, accordingly, agreed to a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue and directed the Foreign Secretaries to work out the modalities and schedule of the meetings under the Dialogue including Peace and Security, CBMs, Jammu & Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, Economic and Commercial Cooperation, Counter-Terrorism, Narcotics Control, Humanitarian Issues, People to People exchanges and religious tourism.
Pak-Afghan Ties: The participation of President Ghani in the “Heart of Asia” Conference caused a fresh wave of ties with Pakistan; both sides expressed coordination for the resumption of peace process. This conference, temporarily, eliminated mistrust between both countries; however, fruitfulness of it would be directly linked to the successfulness of the second round of the peace process and it consequences would be seen in the upcoming month, then.
Afghanistan-China Relations: President Ghani met Chinese Foreign Minister on a sideline of the conference; the important improvements in these talks are as following:
- Afghanistan requested tojoin the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in order for this bank to help Afghanistan in building railway in Afghanistan and connecting Afghanistan with China through Wakhan Port;
- The Afghan side suggested for joint cooperation with China, Afghanistan and Germany in electricity production, house construction and development sector. The Chinese Foreign Minister welcomed this suggestion and called for establishing a committee regarding this issue;
- The Afghan side is ready to transfer gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China;
- The Afghan government officially requested the Chinese government to encourage the company working on the Aynak Copper Mine to fulfill its promise regarding building the railway.
- Afghanistan officially requested for Chinese assistance in equipping the Afghan Air Forces (AIF).
Afghanistan-Iran Ties: Emergence of Daesh group in Afghanistan, Chabahar Port and the Water Management were the issues discussed by Afghan and Iranian officials. The Iranian side, to a large extent, enlightened the issue of Daesh and the importance of Chabahar Port; and the Afghan President talked about concerns of Iranians about the issue of Helmand Water and said that there is an agreement present regarding this and the representatives of both sides would talk about its implementation, later.
Evaluation of the “Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process” Conference
The HOA-IP that was started due to Turkey’s initiative in 2011, it provides a new agenda for regional cooperation in the ‘Heart of Asia’ by placing Afghanistan at its center and engaging the ‘Heart of Asia’ countries in sincere and result‐oriented cooperation for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, as well as a secure and prosperous region as a whole. However, these conferences are held from a while and the Afghan side, unlike past, has taken more interest in it in the last two year; but it has not done anything beyond mending relationships.
In 2011, the ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan were frozen; however, it, for several times, as a result of Turkey’s intercession, through Heart of Asia Conference, was tried to mend relations between both countries.
Besides that, this conference has played role in mending relations between other countries in the region. For example, the relations between India and Pakistan were so frozen and it was nearly impossible for them to hold a meeting on the level of foreign ministers; but the Heart of Asia Conference 2015 paved the ground for bilateral meetings between both countries.
 For further studies see Presidential statement president.gov.af/ps/news/56708