More than a dozen countries in the volatile region around Afghanistan have reached a security agreement that emphasizes non-interference in the troubled country’s affairs, in a diplomatic push to prevent proxy wars and state partition as NATO troops withdraw.
The Istanbul Protocol commits signatories to protect Afghanistan’s “sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity,” and promises co-operation on the dismantling of “terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens.”
Such promises are less notable than the list of countries that pledged agreement, which reads like a who’s who of regional rivals for influence in Afghanistan. Delegations that adopted the protocol included Pakistan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the United Arab Emirates.
Copies of the agreement given journalists did not include a signature from Uzbekistan, initially touted as a member of the regional group, but no Uzbek officials were available to comment.
Still, the deal reached at an ornate hall on the waterfront in Istanbul on Wednesday was touted by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns as the “first, clear, region-wide” statement of support from Afghanistan’s neighbourhood.
The focus of the agreement was clearly to prevent outsiders from meddling in Afghanistan during the sensitive transition period that started in recent months as the United States began withdrawing soldiers from the country. Those withdrawals are scheduled to accelerate, removing perhaps a quarter of the 130,000 international troops by the end of next year.
Some delegations to the Istanbul summit expressed worry that the withdrawals could result in civil war, or even the breakup of Afghanistan, and the meeting’s final agreement reflected those concerns: The document makes several mentions of “indivisible security,” “territorial integrity,” and similar phrases. Most importantly, signatories pledged “non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states.”
Such a non-intervention pact had been championed earlier this year by Karl Inderfurth, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asia, in a briefing paper that envisioned Pakistan and India promising “not to seek a military presence in Afghanistan or to use Afghan soil to undermine the other.”
Neither country made such a specific promise at the Istanbul conference, but they did speak in general terms about allowing Afghanistan to chart its own path. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, mentioned her country’s respect for Afghan sovereignty during her opening remarks to the conference on Tuesday morning, and that comment was quickly singled out for praise by Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, who appeared at the conference on behalf of the European Union foreign policy team.
Some members of the Pakistani delegation appeared to resent the emphasis on sovereignty, seeing it as another way of repeating the widespread accusation that Islamabad supports Taliban insurgents. In an interview on Monday evening, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that if the United States feels so strongly about ensuring respect for sovereignty in the region, then it should reconsider its policy of violating Pakistani airspace with armed drones.
“Nobody wants drone attacks in Pakistan,” Mr. Malik said. “So if these 14 countries agree to respect sovereignty, the 15th should be the United States.”
The regional foreign ministers agreed to meet again in June of 2012 in Kabul, to review compliance with the protocol.
Such diplomatic efforts have had little effect in the past: The United Nations started talks about non-interference across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 1982; an agreement was finally reached at Geneva in 1988, on the eve of Soviet troop withdrawals, but the deal was largely ignored as regional powers lined up to support opposing factions in the civil war.
The possibility of that bitter history repeating itself was not lost on the delegates in Istanbul. Iran’s Foreign Minister even suggested that the recent assassination of Afghan Peace Council chief Burhanuddin Rabbani represented part of a “conspiracy” to destabilize Afghanistan.
“Iran warns against every step that could bring Afghanistan to the edge of collapse or partition,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, according to a transcript of his speech.