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Beijing Panel Explores Stabilizing Afghanistan: A Role for the Neighbors?

July 8, 2015

By Tini Tran

As the era of massive foreign aid and foreign troops in Afghanistan draws to a close, the eyes of the international community are turning to Afghanistan’s nearest neighbors, including China, India, and Pakistan, to provide the diplomatic support and development assistance that remain crucial to that nation’s future prosperity. Despite last fall’s landmark elections, which led to the country’s first peaceful and democratic transfer of power, and the formal transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghan national army and police for the first time since 2001, the country still faces a future marred by poverty, instability, and violence.

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The panel, International Cooperation for Afghanistan’s Future Stability and Development, was co-sponsored by The Asia Foundation’s China office and the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University.

At the June 27-28 World Peace Forum in Beijing, Asia Foundation trustees Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Ambassador Karl F. Inderfurth helped lead a panel discussion exploring opportunities for international cooperation to support Afghanistan’s development. The panel, International Cooperation for Afghanistan’s Future Stability and Development, was co-sponsored by The Asia Foundation’s China office and the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University. Moderated by Ambassador Inderfurth, who served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs from 1997 to 2001, the panel brought together senior representatives from key nations, including the U.S., China, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Several consistent points emerged among the panelists: (1) There is a continued need for the international community to play a role in Afghanistan, especially its regional neighbors. (2) The United States must remain engaged in Afghanistan. (3) China has an emerging role in Afghanistan’s future, both economically and in its peace process.

Ershad Ahmadi, former deputy minister of foreign affairs in Afghanistan, noted that Afghanistan is facing multiple threats, including a major economic crisis, increased political uncertainty, and new security threats from ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria): “For this reason, I believe it’s really necessary that the international community continue to focus on Afghanistan. It’s absolutely necessary that regional powers such as China, India, and Russia start a sincere and candid dialogue with Afghanistan and the United States on what we can do together to tackle the issue of growing radicalization in Afghanistan. Without that sincere dialogue, we will see the crisis and insecurity in Afghanistan further increase.”

Ambassador Eikenberry, who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, agreed that Afghanistan remains in a period of “dramatic transition” on the economic, political, and security fronts. “Afghanistan from 2002 to 2012 was a wartime economy with a huge amount of foreign assistance and military assistance flooding the country with cash. … In 2011-2012, 90 percent of GDP was foreign aid and military assistance. That is coming down rapidly, and that’s causing problems of disruption.”

Any long-term solution needs to take a holistic approach to the interrelated challenges facing Afghanistan, said Ambassador Eikenberry: “If the economy tanks, that has implications for political stability. If there’s political instability, the cohesion of the Afghan army could be impacted. If there’s no regional security, the economy of Afghanistan will never be able to become more prosperous.”

Afghanistan has managed to survive this long in defiance of many expectations, said Jayant Prasad, a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, Nepal, and Algeria. But the country’s political and economic growth is being “undermined by the lack of security.” In order to support its future development, the international community must continue to remain engaged in Afghanistan, he said. In particular, “China’s entry is very welcome.”

China’s growing interest in Afghanistan has been well received by regional neighbors Pakistan and India, as well as by the U.S. Earlier this year, Afghan officials and former Taliban officials met in China for informal talks. Chinese officials have openly stated a desire to become more engaged with their neighbor. “China is a trusted country. There is this momentum in the relationship that must be reinforced. Of course China is involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and that must expand. Even more crucial is China’s involvement in the peace and reconciliation process,” said Masood Khan, formerly Pakistan’s permanent representative to the U.N. and ambassador to China.

Khan also strongly recommended that the United States remain engaged with Afghanistan, even after the withdrawal of its military forces, expected in 2016. Otherwise, he warned, there could be “a void or vacuum that could lead to a descent into chaos. That would be disastrous for the U.S. and regional neighbors. You must avoid that.”

Shi Zhiqin, professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of International Studies, affirmed that China is becoming “more active” diplomatically and wants to “support a smooth power transfer in Afghanistan” by encouraging peace negotiations and political reconciliation. At the same time, he reiterated that China’s increased involvement does not mean it is looking to replace the United States after its withdrawal. He reiterated that China would welcome Afghanistan’s participation in its One Belt One Road strategy.

Panelists also discussed lessons learned from the past 14 years of international assistance to Afghanistan. Ahmadi noted the problematic approach in which “donor countries come to Afghanistan with their own predetermined mindset of what is right, what the country needs, what are its priorities, … and that, at times, contradicts the local and national priorities of Afghanistan.” In addition, the influx of international technical advisers has led to “capacity substitution” instead of true capacity development, he said. Going forward, he said, he hopes that the donor community “will take the necessary steps to correct this.”

The discussion concluded with a renewed call for Afghanistan’s allies and neighbors to continue their commitment to the country’s future. This week, the Afghan government began its first official talks with Taliban representatives in Pakistan’s capital, in the most significant bid yet to open formal peace negotiations. In a sign of the international effort involved, Chinese and U.S. officials were also in attendance. As Afghanistan sets its own course, international cooperation to safeguard the country’s continued development and stability will be even more essential.

Watch a video of the full panel here.

Tini Tran is a program advisor for The Asia Foundation in China. She can be reached at thienhuong.tran@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Afghanistan, China, India, Pakistan
Related programs: International Cooperation
Related topics: International Development

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