NATO conference: A tale of too many non-attendees
For quite some time, the world has been talking about this month’s NATO conference, which will be held in Chicago on May 20 and 21 and shall focus in great part on Afghanistan’s future. Yet with the event now just days away, the roster of attendees makes it hard to take the conference very seriously.
How many of Afghanistan’s neighbours are confirmed participants? One, and that is Pakistan. (Incidentally, Russia has also now announced it will be present—another example of a nation at odds with the policies of certain Nato countries yet nonetheless willing to hold its nose and travel to Chicago.)
Yet even with Pakistan attending, there still remains a striking absence of regional players.
Some of these omissions are unsurprising. Iran, for example, is not exactly in the West’s good graces. But how about India—a nation that has concluded a strategic agreement with Afghanistan, and that has a major development presence in the country?
And how about those nations of Central Asia that Washington deems so critical for Afghanistan’s future stability and economic well-being? In a speech last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that if Afghans are to experience “sustainable prosperity,” they “will have to work alongside all of their neighbours to shape a more integrated economic future for the region that will create jobs and will undercut the appeal of extremism.”
Clinton then invoked her vision of a new Silk Road:
For centuries, the nations of South and Central Asia were connected to each other and the rest of the continent by a sprawling trading network called the Silk Road…Let’s set our sights on a new Silk Road: A web of economic and transit connections that will bind together a region too long torn apart by conflict and division.
Eloquent words? Sure. Yet don’t expect the foundations of this road to be laid in Chicago; no nation from Central Asia has announced its intention to attend the conference (it’s unlikely the New Silk Road is envisioned to stretch as far west as conference attendees Georgia and Azerbaijan).
This may not be Nato’s fault. According to media reports, Nato’s secretary general has invited to the summit “nations that are currently providing supply routes to Afghanistan.” Nato’s major non-Pakistan supply route—the Northern Distribution Network— runs through several Central Asian states. So perhaps these countries have simply declined Nato’s invitation.
Scroll down the list of “leaders expected to attend” appearing on the conference’s official Host Committee website. It’s clear from this list that most attending countries are Nato member-states or pro-West allies. In some ways this makes sense. After all, a main conference theme is “the Alliance’s commitment to Afghanistan through transition and beyond.” Additionally, many of those confirmed as attendees have contributed troops or funding to the mission in Afghanistan, and they deserve to be at the table. Yet the cynic in me wonders if the conference planners, cognizant of the soaring challenges of planning for Afghanistan’s future, secretly hope to have only like-minded nations in attendance, in order to maximize the chances of reaching some—any—form of agreement.
Still, it is beyond obvious that the fate of post-2014 Afghanistan will have direct consequences across the immediate region. Having so many of this region’s governments absent from aconference on Afghanistan’s future is sheerfolly.
So, what can we expect from this conference? Definitely count on ample pageantry and constant flashbulbs. How could there not be pomp and paparazzi, given the likes of lines like this one, the lead from a recent story appearing in a Chicago publication:
Chicago is getting all flirty for Nato’s party, hoping to get noticed by some dashing foreign journalists.
Yet, without a regional component, this much-ballyhooed Nato extravaganza is flirting with disaster—in the form of yet another major international conference that yields few substantive results.
Published in The Express Tribune Oped pages, May 18th, 2012.
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