Joint Understandings Reached At 5th China-Afghanistan-Pakistan FM’s Dialogue: A Victory For Regional Diplomacy – OpEd

The Joint Statement released by the Foreign Ministers of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan at the 5th China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral dialogue in Islamabad is a victory for regional diplomacy. By eschewing intervention in Afghan affairs and providing a vision for future prosperity which is devoid of great power politics, addressing address economic, security and political quagmires in the country apolitically was prioritized. Instead of resorting to isolationism or pressurizing one side to act unilaterally, Foreign Ministers Qin Gang, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Amir Khan Muttaqi, focused on exploring new opportunities for regional connectivity, tapping into existing ones, countering terrorism and treating each side as a stakeholder of peace.

There is little doubt that the haphazard US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 has brought nothing but economic ‘freefall’, rising poverty, widespread terrorism and international isolation for the Afghan people. According to the United Nations Development Program’s ‘ Afghanistan Socio-Economic Outlook 2023’, the country’s economic output collapsed by 20.7% in 2021. Adding to such harrowing realities are security quagmires that continue to plague its landscape. As per the UN Security Council Press Statement issued in March 2023, Afghanistan continues to witness heinous terrorist attacks targeting civilians from the Islamic State in the Khorasan Province (ISKP). The fact that the joint statement from the Islamabad Trilateral Dialogue speaks of nullifying the ISKP and other terrorist organizations from waging attacks, is a welcoming sign.

The truth is that groups such as the Tehrik I Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) pose an existential threat. According to the Center for Research and Security Studies, Pakistan suffered 376 terrorist attacks in 2022 out of which banned terror outfits such as the TTP, the Islamic State and the Balochistan Liberation Army constituted 57 of them. Similarly, ETIM militants remain adamant in stoking unrest in the Xinjiang province despite being designated as a terrorist organization by the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee since 2002. Alongside stoking unrest in 2008, the ETIM is responsible for ethnic attacks in 2009, 2014 and 2015 which challenges peace, tranquility and interreligious harmony within China.

Yet instead of chastising the Kabul government as the Biden administration has done, China and Pakistan opted to reach out to the Kabul government. There is an acknowledgment that Afghanistan remains a victim of terrorism despite the 20 year long US led war on terror costing $ 8 trillion. In 2023 Kabul remains strangulated on two fronts due to international sanctions championed by the Biden administration on one hand and terrorist attacks from the ISKP on the other. According to the Global Terrorism Index report of 2023, the ISKP remains the world’s deadliest terrorist group for eight consecutive years straight and hence, it is clear that Afghanistan needs a comprehensive counterterrorism mechanism in the post US withdrawal era. The joint statement’s resolve to expand cooperation to tackle security quagmires in Afghanistan and the region is a promising sign in this regard.

Beyond terrorism is the need to tackle cross border crime. The joint statement speaks about tackling drug smuggling and calls upon the international community to provide necessary supplies, equipment and technical assistance to nab trafficking. Recall that President of the United Nations General Assembly, Csaba Korosi in November 2022 depicted the situation in Afghanistan as ‘apocalyptic’ after decades of conflict with the country being ‘awash with heroin and opium.’ As a result, joint mechanisms to tackle the drug trade and resuscitate the national economy especially as Afghanistan seeks to recover amid foreign aid being withheld and growing by only 1.3% amid exchange rate devaluations, soaring inflation and rising poverty in 2023 is the need of the hour. Lifting sanctions, returning assets owed to the Afghan people and providing humanitarian aid is also needed and mentioned.

The trilateral dialogue also sought to harness Afghanistan’s potential in becoming a regional connectivity hub. This included extending the $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor including special economic zones and infrastructural projects into the country. Additionally, swift implementation of the Central Asia- South Asia power project (CASA 1000) worth $1.16 billion, trans-Afghan railways and the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) gas pipeline project which is being developed with the Asia Development Bank was prioritized. Implementing regional projects, enhancing transit through the Gwadar port in Pakistan and strengthening people to people exchanges by conducting trilateral programs in line with the list of China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Trilateral Practical Cooperation Projects, demonstrates the collective wisdom and vision from the three sides to realize a stable Afghanistan and region.

Hence, by vowing to continue with the trilateral cooperation mechanism at the end of the dialogue, there is little doubt that the joint statement at the Islamabad Dialogue of 2023 is a success for regional diplomacy.