New hopes for Af-Pak-India?

The bilateral meeting between India and Pakistan held in occasion of the Heart of Asia Conference could be opening new room for dialogue, capable of influencing not only the relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, but also those with Afghanistan in the broader regional arena

In early December, Islamabad was the venue of the Heart of Asia Conference, instituted by fourteen countries to discuss and frame common policies that could stabilize Afghanistan – the country at the heart of Asia – and thus increase security in the whole region.
On 8th December, there was the Senior Officials meeting, while on 9th the much-awaited ministerial meeting. To make the latter so important is the fact that it was turned into an opportunity of dialogue between India and Pakistan, there represented by Sushma Swaraj and Sartaj Aziz.
After the fiasco in August, when the meeting planned months before was cancelled at the very last minute due to disputes on the topics to be put in the agenda, there were few hopes that it would be possible to witness a change of direction so soon. And if it is undoubtedly premature to talk now of “turning point” in reference to the Islamabad meeting, the fact that it took place is encouraging per se. A sign that, maybe, something is moving in South Asia and the fiercest enemies of the region can respond to new chances of dialogue timidly emerging on the horizon.

So, what did create these chances of dialogue? Not a single, specific event but rather a series of events that altogether had a positive impact in recreating a minimum level of mutual opening.
Firstly, there was the meeting between Modi and Sharif at the sidelines of COP21, where it seems that new points of contact were found on the issue – for India crucial – of the Mumbai terror attack of 2008, with respect to which Sharif promised a speeding up of the investigative and punitive processes.
A week later, there was the bilateral meeting in Bangkok between the heads of the respective national security agencies, during which they talked of terrorism, border clashes, and the Kashmir issue (probably the biggest wound caused by the partition process of 1947 and still open and bleeding today). Clearly too soon to talk of significant steps forward, the meeting nevertheless ended with a joint statement in which the climate of dialogue was described as constructive and cordial (adjectives not often encountered when India and Pakistan are the subjects).

It is in this surprising climate that the third stage of this latest path of rapprochement took place: the meeting between Swaraj and Aziz.
Publicized by both sides as sign of disposal to retrieve those relations interrupted in August, the meeting marked the revival of those peace talks interrupted in 2012 and is thus a positive step for both Modi and Sharif.
On the table, the main topics were the issue of Kashmir – whose resolution is for Pakistan the key of the relations with New Delhi – and terrorism, topic of particular importance for India that has always considered itself (and not without reasons) victim of that Islamic terrorism supposedly financed by Islamabad. Complex and delicate topics that not only touch the bilateral relations India-Pakistan, but also interest (and are interested by) broader regional dynamics and other actors (namely Afghanistan and China).

In particular, it is of primarily importance the role played by Afghanistan in this new chance of distension.
Afghanistan, indeed, finds itself both upstream and downstream of the dialogue, as actor potentially capable of inducing Islamabad and New Delhi to mutual rapprochement and as actor that from the Indo-Pakistani distension as all to gain.
Regarding Afghanistan’s role in the dialogue between the two historical rivals, we should above all remember its position – at the heart of Asia. It is indeed because of it, that the afghan dynamics touch in a crucial – when not even direct – way the dynamics of the regions’ actors, thus interesting both Pakistan and India.
An Afghanistan secure and in peace, founded on political institutions fully functioning and independent from external influences, would thus be a source of stability and security for the whole of South Asia. It would imply the presence in the center of the region of a reliable partner and of an economic, commercial and energetic bridge linking South Asia and Central Asia.
Conversely, an Afghanistan unstable and unsafe as it still is today – where the control exercised by the central government doesn’t reach all provinces, where there are areas under Taliban control, where the presence of foreign troops is essential to avoid the collapse of the local security forces – makes more unsafe the whole region (as the continuous terrorist attacks prove).
India and Pakistan, then, have undoubtedly much to gain, both in terms of security and in terms of commercial and energetic prospects, from a sincere cooperation that includes among the other objectives the stabilization of the western neighbor.
From Kabul’s perspective, then, it is to be considered that what said thus far applies also in the opposite way: a distension between New Delhi and Islamabad is for Afghanistan desirable, since it would have for the country significant advantages – especially in terms of military and intelligence cooperation in the fight against terrorism, and in terms of investments.
Going beyond an afghan foreign policy that after embracing for years an exclusive friendship with India has diverted direction over the past twelve months and moved towards Pakistan, Ghani should invest his energies in pushing for an India-Pakistan rapprochement from which it has all to gain.

Favoring the dialogue between the two long-time rivals is thus of regional interest in order to create new and positive dynamics of cooperation, in absence of which the “Asian Century” cannot become reality.

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