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Tashkent Declaration 2: Phony Peace Harbinger for Afghanistan?

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Could Tashkent be as a city of peacemaking for Afghanistan as it did in case of Indo-Pak (1965 War)? The First Tashkent Declaration was a peace agreement signed between India and Pakistan on 10 January 1966 to resolve the Indo-Pak War (1965). Now, the war theatre has changed to Afghanistan Conflict (2001-18), may be called Af-Pak. Why Af-Pak, as Pakistan conceives Afghanistan its strategic backyard vis-à-vis India and vice-versa Afghanistan alleges Pakistan for providing safe sanctuaries to Taliban and Al-Qaeda, operating from its territory. Realizing the security concerns spillover across the border, Uzbekistan has reoriented its foreign policy towards Afghanistan particularly under its ‘Neighborhood First’ policy. Therefore,  once again Tashkent has become witness to the peacemaking process of Afghanistan under the banner of an international conference, more precisely Tashkent Declaration2 (26-27 March 2018).

For establishing peace in Afghanistan, several peacemaking mechanisms like Kabul Process, the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) have been put in place. Now, the question is, how Uzbekistan can play an important role in Afghanistan peace-making? Could the Tashkent Declaration 2 could become a peace harbinger for Afghanistan?  Despite sharing long historical, civilizational relations and plus collective long border (2190 km) after Pakistan (2430 km), Afghanistan has not been figured prominently in Central Asia’s regional diplomacy radar as it had not played any important role in the conflict resolution of the former. The diplomatic relations (1991) between Tashkent and Kabul had been enervated after taking over the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has become turbulent given the sectarian fighting and involvement of external actors and hence, it had become major security concerns for the neighboring countries including Uzbekistan. The Tajik Civil War (1992-1997) had multiplied the security concerns of  Uzbekistan. Therefore, in anticipation of more security concerns across the border, the “Friendship Bridge” between Tashkent and Kabul was closed (24 May 1997). In this background, however, Uzbekistan had maintained the enervated political and strategic engagements with Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding its passive foreign policy towards the neighbouring countries including Afghanistan, keeping the security concerns in view, Uzbekistan has taken the step like an establishment of “Six Plus Two Group on Afghanistan,” (1997). Tashkent has signed several agreements including the transit, road construction, electricity, agriculture, security etc. with Afghanistan. On the other hand, it had also extended strategic cooperation with the global players engaged in peacemaking, peacebuilding, and peacekeeping for Afghanistan. The first step in this direction on part of Uzbekistan was to reopen the Friendship Bridge (2002). Secondly, it had provided an airbase Karshi-Khanabad and Termez for the US and Germany respectively to assist the ISAF to fight against the terrorism. It had also allowed the passage for supply lines of the Northern Distribution Network.

Aftermath of the changing political regime in Uzbekistan, a paradigmatic shift has taken place in its foreign policy. When Uzbekistan President Mirziyoyev came to power (2016), he had reoriented his foreign policy. With his neighbourhood first policy, he made Central Asia including Afghanistan as a top priority agenda of his foreign policy. The President had hosted the first round of political consultations of the foreign ministers of both the countries (January 2017) for extending cooperation in respect of Afghanistan peace process. For the further improvement of relations with Afghanistan, the Special Representative of the Uzbek President for Afghanistan has been appointed.

Tashkent Declaration 2

Hosting the International Conference for Afghan peacemaking process validates its the Neighbourhood First policy of Uzbekistan.  The theme of the conference hosted by Tashkent, ‘Peace Process, Security Cooperation and Regional Connectivity’ on Afghanistan is a major question for the strategic commentators. How much part of the theme may be converted into reality? In this conference,  about 20 countries had participated in the peacemaking process. Despite the absence of Taliban in this meeting,  Uzbekistan and  Afghanistan have been hoping to strengthen the regional cooperation and consensus to end the two decades long Afghanistan ethnic conflict. While speaking in the conference, Uzbek President Mirziyoyev said, “Our country has been an active party to almost all the international forums including the Kabul Process, the Moscow Format, the Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process, the International Contact Group on Afghanistan, the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) to address the Afghan crisis.”

The Tashkent Declaration had emphasized on the peace process, which is ought to be Afghan led and Afghan built. Moreover, it should be as per the peacemaking resolutions and decisions of the regional and internal organizations including UN General Assembly and Security Council. It has also urged Afghanistan government to ensure guaranteed integration of the armed opposition group into the political life of the country. The group should be acknowledged and recognized as a legitimate political force in order to ensure its instrumental role in the establishment of peace. The participating members have strongly opposed all the forms and manifestations of terrorism without any distinctions. The members have also recognized the threats like transnational terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime as common challenges to stability and sustainable development not only of Afghanistan, rather of the region and the whole world at large. It is believed that the conference will go in a long way to contribute to Afghanistan’s successful integration into the system of trade, economic and infrastructural relations with the states of Central Asia, the effective implementation of projects and programmes of regional scale.

Tashkent Declaration 2: Could Be A Phony Peace Harbinger?

Despite several peacemaking, peacebuilding and even peacekeeping mechanisms have been put in place, the peace has remained a  distant dream. Since 2010, Afghanistan has been making several efforts and even offered several proposals to the Taliban, but it has remained crystal clear the latter had never come forwarded or shown any inclination towards talks with Afghan authorities. Even recently, Afghanistan President extended an offer to Taliban to open an office in Afghanistan to manage their talk, as well as the group, will be conceived as a political force. The hopes of talk on part of Afghanistan dashed to the ground when the Taliban clearly said no chance of talks with the Afghan government, rather expressed desire to talk only to the US officials, believing that the latter could help to end the protracted Afghan War. The report of DW (German Broadcaster) has anticipated the peace offering can be met with concerns and skepticism by the former Afghan Northern Alliance, which had played a key role in outfoxing the Taliban regime from Afghanistan.

Another knee-jerk setback to the peace process initiated by Uzbekistan was General Nicholson’s an exclusive interview with the BBC, wherein he alleged Russia’s involvement in derailing the peace process of Afghanistan. He called Russia’s role in Afghanistan as  a  “destabilizing activity.” Even he alleged that the Russian weapons are being smuggled to the Taliban.

The major challenge of the Afghan peacemaking is the geopolitical perspective. One Indian scholar has pointed out in his argument that the US has its geopolitical goal by engineering the peace process by Uzbekistan. Firstly, it will open the gateway for Afghanistan to the new world market. Moreover, by making an alliance between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan,  the access route/s through Central Asia would be available apart from lessening the former ’s dependence on Russia, Pakistan, and Iran. Secondly, it will revamp the Northern Distribution Network to supply the US-NATO bases in Afghanistan, by sidelining Russia and Pakistan. Thirdly, the US would become successful in outfoxing the great game actors like China and Russia from Central Asia. By the Tashkent Process, the US anticipated that China’s recent moves on Afghanistan could be weakened Chinese initiatives like China-Afghanistan-Pakistan (Foreign-minister level forum), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (working group with Afghanistan) and, most important, to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan integrating that country with the Belt and Road Initiative.

The  Operation Enduring Freedom had launched by the Bush regime (2001), which has three major objectives like to root out the terrorist, to capture of Osama bin Laden, and the cessation of terrorist activities in Afghanistan, which are major threats not only to Afghanistan, rather the entire humanity at large. Notwithstanding the 1.5 lac boots on Afghanistan land and several peacemaking and peacebuilding mechanism in place, peace has remained a distant dream for Afghanistan. Whereas on the other hand, terrorist attacks have been increased exponentially. As per the  Annual Report of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), during 2017,  the killings (3,438), injured (7,015) and about civilian casualties (10,453) have taken place. The new South Asian Policy of the Trump regime has also been failed to show any positive sign in the Afghan security situation.

Conclusion

Tashkent has a past record of peacemaking for the countries such as of India and Pakistan (1966). Currently, it has taken a few steps for peacemaking for Afghanistan conflict including the International Conference (26-27 March 2018). Tashkent Declaration strongly advocated for the peace process which is led and built by the Afghans. It had suggested the guaranteed integration of the armed opposition into the Afghanistan political life. It had gone to the extent of suggesting that the same may be recognized as a legitimate political force for the success of the peace process. The main focus of the declaration was also to register strong opposition to all forms and manifestations of terrorism.

Notwithstanding the several peacemaking initiatives, the socio-economic challenges, ethnosectarian disputes, organized crimes and criminality, killing of soldiers and civilians, attacks of green over blue, exponentially growing rate of desertion among the Afghan soldiers, increasing control over geographical covers of  the non-state actors, and absence of peace are some of the existential threats, which have multiplied during the last two decades for Afghanistan. Even the latest meeting of the senior officials (The Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process, 19 April 2018) took, wherein a  delegation of the Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry had participated. In this meeting, again the participant countries had ruminated over the issues like security and the regional economic cooperation in general and the strengthening the confidence-building measures were in particular, for the stabilization and socio-economic recovery of Afghanistan.

Until geopolitics and mediation of third parties prevail, Tashkent Conference’s lofty and idealistic goals such as ‘peace, security, and regional connectivity’ would be like castles in the air. The people and politics of Afghans have to be wise enough to understand the great game led by external players, otherwise,  Tashkent Declaration could be a phony peacemaking process. Had these goals become part of Afghan people’s lives!!

Dr. Bawa Singh is teaching in the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India-151001. bawasingh73[at]gmail.com

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Saudi-Chinese Friendship: Should India be Concerned?

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Image source: Xinhua/Xie Huanchi

Saudi Arabia hosted the grand China-Arab summit in December last year and leaders of the two nations deliberated on future trade ties and regional security. The summit happened at a time when USA and Saudi ties are at an all time low. There lies massive uncertainty on global energy markets after the West forced a price cap on Russian oil and Washington is looking guardedly at China’s rising influence in the Middle East.

In Oil trade, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade more than $87 billion in 2021. Saudi Arabia is China’s top oil supplier, making up 18% of China’s total crude oil purchases. The two countries have deals in refineries, power and military & security.

 Africa’s natural resources have long been a Chinese favourite. Every year, China doles out billions in grants and loans to African governments as an inducement to secure raw material deals or to finance the infrastructure projects which are ultimately going to benefit its own companies.

What is India’s position on the China- Arab summit that intends to boost development and cooperation among the two? India would be in a bit of a quandary one may assume as Arabs are their good friends, as they claim; while the Chinese are not. The trio of the China, Arabs and Pakistan (being used as a mere proxy), uniting is bound to be a slight source of worry for India. What is India’s take on this friendship?

From a diplomatic perspective, if their friendship and goodwill is promoted, it’s a good thing but one hopes that this does not undermine Indian interest, as any bilateral relation must not  destabilize a third relation. In general when one talks of the Arab world, one thinks of its gargantuan energy power and energy crisis and its management is a global issue right now. With the Ukraine Russia war hanging around the energy crisis, it could be an ‘Energy Security’ thing they are trying to do bilaterally. If a big country like China enters the domain of energy, food etc it could turn out into a fairly big movement in the markets, in terms of prices and availability. India has to reckon by the fact that China is large and when you take out a large chunk of something that is available, that can create a pressure situation for others.

Also the union of China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan may have certain repercussions on India, as China and India already have problems and those are huge problems, there’s no denying that. Sachin Sawant, Senior leader of the Indian National Congress leader, the country’s main opposition party states that they are already over-exerting their power on India. The Chinese are going on building roads, tunnels and bridges nonstop along the border. India needs to develop stronger guiding principles, when dealing with China and its global intentions are concerned. It is a huge point of worry for India.

India definitely cannot do or say much if two good friends decide to meet, but it does have its  set of concerns. If China forges more business alliances with the Arabs in the energy and other sectors, India foresees instability in the markets which may be against its economic interest. It also is wary of the Chinese and Arabs getting together as this is a powerful alliance and its outcome may have a negative impact on Indian interest.

What could be the intentions of China to promote this friendship further and strengthen their relations with the Arabs. How does India look at this union of two economic superpowers? Every country wants to have good friends. They both have global ambitions and one goes about a decade back or lesser, they had invested heavily in Africa. They went there and tried to get hold of all the mines that were of strategic importance to them. They need nickel, gallium etc which are crucial for smart phone manufacturing. So, yes! They would be eyeing many such opportunities in their bilateral ventures.

China is known for its expansionism and they use their financial strength to arm-twist many countries, especially the economically weaker ones. “They are the Shylock kind of money lenders; they keep on lending money at exorbitant rates and then the poorer countries like Pakistan get into that vicious cycle where China takes hold of all their resources at very cheap rates. India is not at all bothered about their befriending the Arabs, because Chinese intentions are well known to the world,” says a concerned Sawant.

India says it is well aware that the Chinese mean business when they talk of befriending the Arabs. Together the two may explore many more avenues of business which strengthen their respective economies. Would their friendship affect India’s foreign policy in anyway? How affected or concerned is the Indian Government with this strategic partnership of China and the Arab nations?

Both Saudi Arabia and China are also part of G-20, and they must work in some areas of convergence that emerge from this global exercise. India closely follows whatever they are doing in terms of multilateral regional matters which impact the well being of all people, and also other matters that are taken up in G20, like climate change, green development and digital economy. India has sufficiently strong relations with the Arabs and its foreign policy will only be affected if China does something that is out of line of its interest.

Sawant reiterates that it is a matter of concern for India. The leader says that the alliance of China with the Arabs is definitely rooted in more trade and greater geo-political ambition. It can harm India. He says that China has this habit of deliberately targeting India’s neighbours, antagonizing them like it has been doing with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, all in a bid to weaken India. It has been their strategy and India should be worried about that. “India needs to revamp its foreign policy in dealing with China. On one hand we ban their apps but then our imports from them are also growing multi-fold, this has to stop. Even on the Bhutan front India needs to be more proactive in protecting the interests of people in that region,” argues Sawant.

If India looks at the China-Arab partnership through the prism of G20 then, it will jointly work on pressing global issues and is confident of a positive outcome. However, it would expect  China to cooperate with it in its G20 endeavours. Does the Indian Government have any certain policy to enhance cooperation and influence in the Mid East Region? Yes, the Middle East is India’s immediate neighbourhood. India has an authentic historical and cultural relationship with them which is now nicely developing into a stronger and closer economic partnership. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is India’s major economic partner; most of its energy comes from there. Also, it has huge Diasporas in the Arab countries who are emerging as investors in India’s growth and infrastructural development.     

“Any foreign policy is good until is serves the interest of the country. Just on the basis of how you are welcomed by foreign countries and how we welcome them cannot help determine foreign policy; this is a holistic issue. The Chinese President comes here and enjoys a resplendent welcome but that doesn’t stop their army from attacking us. What exactly we do in the interest of the country will help shape up strong foreign policy with any country. The Arabs, though our good friends will obviously be happy with the trade agreements with China, but we must be wary that it does not harm us or our economy inadvertently,” says Sawant.

In the end, India must be confident of its faith and friendship with the Middle East. Being a long time economic partner of theirs, they also benefit from the fact that Indians living in the Arab nations are a huge plus point for them. While there seems to be a bit of skepticism about the China- Arab ties, India should be confident that this will not come in the way of their strong relations with the other 7 GCC countries.

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Taliban and the crisis in Afghanistan

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In 2021, the Afghan Taliban took back control of Afghanistan after fighting a rebellion for twenty years. The Taliban reformed and began regaining territory less than 10 years after the American-led invasion that overthrew the previous regime in 2001. In line with a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, they staged a swift assault as the US started to evacuate its last forces from Afghanistan.

Even though they promised to preserve the rights of women and communities of religious and racial minorities, the Taliban have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban have failed to provide Afghans with sufficient food supplies and economic possibilities as they have evolved from an insurgent organization to a functioning administration.

Numerous instances of human rights violations have been documented by the UN mission in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban scared off journalists and put limits on press freedom, more than 200 news outlets had to close. Activists and protesters have been tracked and forcefully disappeared, and their government has ruthlessly suppressed protests. They also reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was previously in place, and enforced laws against actions judged to be contrary to Islam. They instructed judges to apply their version of sharia in November 2022; in the following weeks, authorities resumed public hangings and floggings.

Women’s rights have been undermined. Due to restrictions put in place by the Taliban, girls are not allowed to go to high school, and women are not allowed to go to college or teach there. The group banned women from working for local and international voluntary groups in December 2022. According to estimates from the UN Development Program (UNDP), limiting women’s employment might cost Afghanistan’s GDP up to 5%. Amnesty International reports a substantial increase in the number of women jailed for defying discriminatory rules, such as those requiring women to cover their whole bodies while in public and to only appear with male chaperones. In addition, there are now more child marriages.

The UNDP says that the Taliban’s rule has also taken away the gains that Afghans made in their living conditions in the 20 years after the US invasion. In a study from October 2022, the organization claimed that practically all Afghans were living in poverty. Since the takeover, the economy has contracted by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. More than 90% of individuals are impacted by food insecurity. The problem is getting worse because several countries and international groups have stopped giving aid, which is vital to the economy and public health.

International observers are nonetheless worried that the Taliban pose a danger to national and international security through their funding of terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda. Taliban leadership might convert Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the US and its allies, despite Taliban pledges that the country’s territory wouldn’t be used against the security of any other country. The violence has also increased along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, which has always supported the Taliban. Tehrik-e-Taliban, a terrorist organization commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has gained strength due to the Taliban’s ascent to power. The organization broke off a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in 2022 and began carrying out assaults throughout the nation. Officials from Pakistan have charged the Afghan Taliban with giving the extremists a safe harbor in their country.

For many years, the Afghan government relied on help from a number of countries; according to 2019 World Bank research, contributions from foreign partners funded 75% of the government’s public expenditures. Many of these countries stopped off aid when the Taliban took control, fueling concerns about potential future economic turmoil. Nevertheless, aid rose in 2022 as donors sent more than $2.6 billion. The US has donated more than $1.1 billion in help since the coup. However, according to UN authorities, the pledges fell short of the nation’s humanitarian requirements.

Many Western countries, most notably the US, shut down their diplomatic posts in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Diplomatic relations and recognition have been withheld from the Taliban regime, which refers to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The UN General Assembly has also postponed a decision on who would indefinitely represent Afghanistan at the UN. The Taliban are now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for suspected atrocities, including crimes against humanity, committed against Afghans.

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Decoding Donald Lu’s Visit: A Positive Upward in US-Bangladesh Relations?

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The U.S Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu paid a visit from January 12 to 15. During his brief but swarming itinerary the two parties discussed various issues ranging from diplomatic to political. Interestingly, this is the 11th visit of any U.S high-official in the past two years. The frequent swapping of delegations from the both sides pose a critical juncture between the U.S-Bangladesh relationship. Experts believe that recurrent visits from US high-ups are definitely an auspicious sign between the relationship of the two nations. Therefore, the visit of Donald Lu is an offshoot of the “growing reciprocity and renewed engagement” between Dhaka and Washington.

Needless to say, Bangladesh has a long standing and steady relationship with the US since the latter recognized the former shortly after independence on April 04, 1972. Recently the US-Bangladesh celebrated the completion of 50 years of bilateral relationship and US President Joe Biden termed this as “robust partnership”. Amid such backdrop, it goes without saying that the recent visits signal to a significant positive tie-up between the two parties and the visit can be interpreted in the context of international and domestic backdrop of international politics.

The US is the largest market for Bangladesh’s RMG export. Naturally, the issue of GSP reinstatement plays a key role in bilateral camaraderie. Under such circumstances, Lu’s visit is important to hold talks of economic in the context of Bangladesh’s growing needs, especially after the LDC graduation. Moreover, in the annual Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Bangladesh is placed 40th out of 145 nations. On the other hand, Bangladesh came in 12th place on the GFP review’s list of ‘Strengths on the Rise,’ which emphasizes national military powers based on strong growth patterns until 2023. In this context, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) agreement indicates to a deeper and strategic engagement from the US rationale.

Bangladesh’s stands at the heart of a strategic position of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to counter the increasing footprint of China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, Bangladesh maintains a neutral position in terms of its foreign relations and has been carefully helming without taking any side of any major powers. Washington’s focus on free and fair election is important to maintain a stability in the greater Bay of Bengal neighborhood- an important feat in it’s IPS. Conversely, Bangladesh values economic partnership to sustain her ongoing upward trend. However, at the same time Bangladesh should be careful not to succumb to any pressure, a case in point when the Foreign Minister announced that the US proposed strategy is being vetted under the lens of economic opportunity.

On the domestic fore, arguably, the U.S has been advocating for a free and fair election, upholding democratic values, and condemning extra judicial excesses. However, continuous engagement between the two parties resulted helping to mitigate tensions and create a more positive atmosphere. The crux of Donald Lu’s visit is to reaffirm democratic ideals in state mechanism, rule based international system and Bangladesh to be part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Accordingly, Bangladesh has committed to hold a fair election and the recent decline of the controversial RAB’s extrajudicial excesses reported by Human Rights Watch as well as peaceful demonstrations of the opposition have been markedly praised by Donald Lu. From Bangladesh’s perspective rescinding of sanctions, reinstatement of GSP, and more support for Rohingya Refugees were reiterated. More importantly, Dhaka’s impartial foreign policy goals align with Washington’s interest in the South Asian region and it will be of American interest to consider Bangladesh as an important ally in the geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific region.  

However, the visit is also crucial for Donald Lu who is accused of meddling with the internal affairs of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. But, Donald Lu manifested his diplomatic acumen to “manage the fissures of the diplomatic ties’ and “highlight on the areas of convergence” in the recent visit. Evidently, the past year has been tumultuous for South Asian nations, following the collapse of Colombo, the Pakistani Economic Crisis and the revolving debt crisis around the region. Amongst her neighbors, Bangladesh has endured relatively steady political and economic pursuit. Therefore, US needs to formulate a comprehensive South Asian policy to accommodate the interests of the respective nations on its own merit.

Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S is vital in both economic and political stance. Continued engagement and partnership between the two states is critical for the security of South Asia as well as Bangladesh’s ongoing economic prosperity. On a pragmatic tone, it would take more than just this one visit for Bangladesh to solve these complex geopolitical issues. For now, the visit has symbolized strengthening of U.S-Bangladesh relationship going forward by exonerating the mutual interests to diplomatically resolve pressing bilateral issues and elevation of continuous engagement.

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