By accident or design, the third trilateral summit that recently brought President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President Hamid Karzai and President Asif Ali Zardari together in Islamabad, took place against the backdrop of a fragile strategic environment. Afghanistan faces the consequences of Nato’s decision to withdraw the US-led armies by the end of 2014, with their active combat role ending as early as the summer of 2013. Iran is confronted by the United States and the European Union with an economic war that can easily degenerate into a full-fledged military conflict. Pakistan is reeling under the shocks suffered in its poorly conceived and poorly executed participation in the ‘global war on terror’, a situation greatly aggravated by astonishing misrule and poor governance.
The summit provided an opportunity to move towards a dynamic consensus on trilateral and bilateral issues in a revived awareness of an inner ring of immediate neighbours with long common borders. Understandably, Karzai hogged the limelight with his media interaction, his address at the National Defence University and with an endless queue of Pakistani politicians at his door. For Ahmadinejad’s sojourn, the spectre of Iran’s conflict with the West and its regional allies loomed large behind the summit. What could happen in Iran and the Gulf could be no less catastrophic than what has happened in Afghanistan over three decades. Pakistan’s leaders made appropriate statements about denying Pakistan’s soil for any hostile action against Iran and, in the bilateral context, about their resolve to proceed with the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.
The lynchpin of the western project for Afghanistan that can easily get derailed with disastrous consequences for the neighbours is the present effort to initiate a meaningful dialogue with the Taliban in Qatar, an enterprise to which the three presidents seem to have only a limited access. Afghanistan is walking a tight rope between efforts to influence the Qatar process and establishing an independent dialogue with the Taliban, with assistance from Pakistan. Karzai has only a limited leverage with the US in working out a peaceful transition to an inclusive Afghan dispensation beyond 2014.
For Iran, the endgame in Afghanistan is a matter of extreme concern as, apart from its intrinsic importance, it is integrally tied up with the worsening western siege around it. On its part, Pakistan is engaged in a complex manoeuvre: the much hyped guide lines from parliament have not materialised and yet, the government is busy resetting the troubled relationship with the US. Washington has not opened the door to the Qatar talks and Islamabad continues to seek a role in it, while vociferously asserting that it would only follow an Afghan-led and Afghan-driven peace process.
In a better world, Iran would be invited to join the world community to guarantee the terms of an Afghan settlement and international support for Afghanistan’s economic rehabilitation for decades to come. Instead we see an ominous interplay of two dangerous policies towards Iran: the western desire for a regime change in Tehran and Israel’s determination to destroy the Iranian nuclear programme before it enters, as Tel Aviv puts it, a ‘zone of immunity’, a curious phrase for a situation in which Iran cannot be effectively attacked with hundreds of aircraft and missiles.
In our surrealistic world, the presidents of three neighbouring states that happen to be Muslim meet to discuss projects that would eventually underpin the security and development of the entire region while Israel intensifies the campaign to start hostilities that would suck the sole superpower of our times into a crusade against Iran. Have the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan reminded President Barack Obama of what he famously said in Cairo and cautioned him against the trap being laid by Israel and its militaristic allies on both sides of the Atlantic? Such a message sent singly, or jointly, after the trilateral meeting would translate its spirit into a worthwhile diplomatic initiative.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 27th, 2012.