Politics of regional cooperation

Courtesy:- Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi
13 hrs ago | Comments (1)
Pakistan and its neighbouring states often emphasise the need of promoting regional cooperation. Though some regional cooperation organisations exist in the region, cooperation among these states has generally been weak and limited. Some of these states entertain distrust about one another and they generally have more active relationship with the states outside the region.

The latest attempt to adopt a shared approach to the problems of the region was made by Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on February 17 when President Hamid Karzai, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and President Asif Ali Zardari held a tripartite meeting in Islamabad.

The three leaders were euphoric in expressing their strong desire to work with one another on regional and bilateral maters. They agreed to cooperate for stabilising the situation in Afghanistan as the US/NATO troops withdraw from there. Pakistan and Iran were keen to reduce the role of the US in the region. However, Afghanistan was cautious in taking a clear position on this issue, although President Karzai said that the distance between Kabul and Islamabad was less than the distance between Kabul and Washington, implying that Afghanistan and Pakistan could engage in cooperative interaction.

Karzai has been successful in getting the support of Iran and Pakistan for his bid to enter into negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. He wants Pakistan to encourage the Afghan Taliban leaders to resume dialogue with his government. He also met with some leaders of Pakistani Islamic parties and the PML(N) in order to seek their support for this purpose. Pakistan and Afghanistan also discussed the measures to remove operational problems in Afghanistan’s transit-trade through Pakistani territory and Pakistan’s port of Karachi. Pakistan also explored the option of its trade with Central Asian states through Afghanistan’s land route.

The three leaders agreed that they would not allow their territory to be used against one another. Pakistan specifically assured Iran that it would not allow the use of its facilities for American attack on Iran. The presidents of Iran and Pakistan affirmed their strong desire to expand their bilateral trade and Iran reiterated its commitment to supply gas to Pakistan. It may be mentioned that Iran has also offered to sell 1000MW electricity to Pakistan to help Pakistan to cope with energy shortages.

Pakistan’s President Zardari declared that Pakistan would complete the gas pipeline project. The US wants Pakistan to abandon this project and it is willing to support an alternate gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan. Pakistan wants to get gas from both sources.

It is a positive development that Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan want to work together for addressing the regional problems. They had two similar meetings in the past but no significant change came in their policies after the first them. However, now these countries have realised that they will have to work together if the region is to be stabilised and the role of outside powers is to be reduced in the region. It is a feeling that unless they work together their problems are not going to be resolved.

Each leader wants to demonstrate autonomy from the US. Hamid Karzai is somewhat perturbed by the US’ effort to engage the Afghan Taliban in Qatar because of the fear of being left out. He is worried that the US may not enter into an arrangement with some Afghan Taliban groups that would exclude him from the post-withdrawal political set up in Kabul. Therefore, he has sought the support of the government of Pakistan and the leaders of Pakistan’s Islamic parties for facilitating his government’s dialogue with the Afghan Taliban. If he succeeds in initiating a meaningful dialogue with the Afghan Taliban, he can show to the Americans that he continues to be an active player and that he can build expanded support for his government.

Iran has its reasons to cultivate the neighbouring states. This helps Iran to demonstrate that it can pursue dynamic foreign policy despite persistent US efforts to isolate it. Iran is paying attention to strengthen its economic relations with Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. It is keen to provide gas and electricity to Pakistan.

Pakistan also wants to reduce its reliance on the West, especially the US. It wants to broaden the scope of its foreign policy by paying more attention to non-Western countries. In addition to China, it is attempting to expand its relations with Russia, Central Asian states, Iran, Turkey and India. It also wants to help the Karzai government to broaden its support base by bringing the Taliban in its fold.

These considerations have led the leaders of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan to make a number of decisions for improving mutual cooperation. However, the main challenge is how to turn these commitments into concrete steps to actually work together and help each other.

In the past, these countries often distrusted one another for one reason or another. From time to time, Iran criticised Pakistan with reference to Jundullah’s terrorist activities and Iran’s reservations about Pakistan’s relations with the US. Similarly, distrust manifested in the Pakistan-Afghanistan relations on the issue of cross-border movement of Taliban between these countries. It is difficult to suggest if these countries have overcome their old biases.

Pakistan and Afghan officials met separately on the sidelines of the tripartite conference to discuss their bilateral issues. This meeting exposed differences between the two countries. The Afghan leaders continue to hold Pakistan responsible for almost all violence in Afghanistan, arguing that the Taliban have “safe-havens” in Pakistan and that its security forces should take action against all of them. At the same time, they want Pakistan to facilitate their dialogue with the Taliban. It also refuses to accommodate Pakistan complaint that a good number of Pakistani Taliban groups operate from Afghanistan, especially those knocked out of Swat/Malakand and South Waziristan. The Afghan government does not recognise contradictions in their demands on Pakistan.

Pakistan faces serious financial constraints for constructing the pipeline in Pakistani territory in order to get Iranian gas. As the US is opposed to this project, Pakistan cannot get funding from the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. It will have to generate resources from within or from elsewhere. A similar funding problem exists for erecting transmission lines to get electricity from Iran.

The tripartite Afghanistan-Iran-Pakistan conference was a commendable development but we will have to wait and see if these countries can adopt meaningful and concrete steps to change the regional strategic and political landscape.

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