December 8, 2015 6:22:08 pm
Late in 1933, the poet Muhammad Iqbal visited Afghanistan, at the invitation of King Muhammad Nadir Shah, travelling to the ruins of Ghazni once home to one of Asia’s most powerful empires. He asked God, the scholar Abdul Aleem Hilal has written: “Why are you so kind to the British who have confined mankind to bondage?” He answered his own question: “The Muslim has lost his zest for life, and his heart beats no more”.
Few of the world leaders gathered in Islamabad for the annual Heart of Asia conference on Wednesday will have read the Iqbal poem from which it draws its name, nor be aware of the religious chauvinism his work is redolent with.
Their job is to give meaning to the new Afghanistan born from the ashes of 9/11, one based on egalitarian principles, not the Islamic nostalgia of Iqbal. Instead, his vision appears closer to the emerging reality.
Fourteen years after the Taliban regime was destroyed, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest, most war-torn nations. Its institutions are frail; its polity torn apart by three generations of killing. Education, health, income: take any index of national well-being, and Afghanistan is near the bottom. The country’s democratic institutions are decaying; it has proved unable to elect a Constitutionally-mandated Parliament.
Little imagination is needed to see why. Even though there’s been big talk of Afghanistan’s economic potential, the war makes delivering on them near-impossible. India’s completion of the Salma Dam in Herat is one of few projects to have been completed. China and India have both backed down on plans to develop the country’s mineral resources, and plans for networks of gas pipelines criss-crossing the country have proved pipe-dreams.
Even worse, there’s little international appetite to help finance a significant expansion of Afghanistan’s armed forces who have proved unable to push back the Pakistan-backed Taliban.
Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hikmat Karzai told delegates to the conference on Tuesday that they shared a common interest against terrorism. “The wave of terrorist activities, including those of Daesh [Islamic State] in various parts of the region and the world, once again reminds us of the gravity of this menace confronting today’s humanity and the urgency for a united position against this evil phenomenon”.
Azerbaijan, China, Iran, India Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates and the United States all want the violence to end, fearing its consequences for them—but there’s a problem.
The elephant in the room is Pakistan which, though it has swept out anti-Islamabad jihadists from North Waziristan, has shown no similar resolve to act against the anti-Kabul Taliban and its jihadist affiliate, the Haqqani network. Key leaders of the insurgency continue to openly operate out of Pakistan, despite its promises to shut their networks down.
Earlier this week, President Ashraf Ghani said Afghanistan and Pakistan had been fighting a 14-year-long “undeclared war”.
Though nation-states across the region are concerned that this war might spill over into their territories, there’s still no consensus on how Pakistan can be contained, or on enhancing support for Afghanistan to fight the long war that looms ahead.
Like it has done every year since 2011, the Heart of Asia conference will likely see lots of pious talk, but little real action.
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