6th September 2021
As the world watches Afghanistan creep into a chaotic quagmire unfolded by the Taliban’s take over of Kabul on 15 August, various options are being weighed out by the international community on what is to be done for peace and stability of the region at large. While one ponders over this question, it should be remembered that Afghanistan occupies a geostrategic position at the periphery of South Asia and forms a part of its regional grouping — the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Established in 1985 at Dhaka, SAARC symbolized the growing geopolitical significance of the region and need for cooperation between the seven states that were its founding members. This included India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and Maldives. In 2007 Afghanistan became a full member state of SAARC. At the 14th SAARC Summit in New Delhi that year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had remarked “India feels privileged that Afghanistan’s first SAARC Summit as full member is being hosted by India”. A decade later, Afghanistan had limited substantial give or take from SAARC, which itself has been in need of fresh vigour and agenda. Now, as an attempt is being made to refresh the SAARC grouping, there should be a push from New Delhi and others in stepping up the role of SAARC, especially in the ensuing Afghanistan context.
SAARC and Afghanistan
By 2005 when Afghanistan’s request to become a full member of SAARC was being accepted, the Taliban had been pushed out of Kabul already. Just a year before, the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism, signed during the 1987 Summit at Kathmandu, was upgraded. In 2007, when President Hamid Karzai delivered his first address to the forum as a full member state, he focused on the need to tackle terrorism and extremism in the region. Besides hoping to work on projects such as the Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India (TAPI) gas pipeline and stating to ensure development in the thus far ‘isolated’ Afghanistan, President Karzai’s words reflected things that had seemingly changed in an otherwise troubled state. With the Taliban scathingly back to power in Afghanistan, the interfaces between SAARC and Afghanistan now stands at risk.
On an immediate basis, it is not that SAARC can be a leading voice on Afghanistan at the international level. Simply stating, it lacks the strength or vision. Yet, since the issue at stake is not bi-laterally contentious, something that the SAARC Charter disallows to be taken up, nor solely a domestic issue, which requires the forum to adhere to a policy of ‘non-interference’, it comes up as yet another test for SAARC. What can be possible options for SAARC must be deliberated upon.
On 21 July 2021, an article in the Indian Express carried an opinion piece written by Nepal’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, Dinesh Bhattarai. The article suggested the possibility of a “joint peacekeeping force from the SAARC under the UN aegis”. A month later, as Taliban captured Kabul, this idea becomes almost redundant. No doubt the UN called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council on the situation in Afghanistan as was expected. The New York Times noted on 15 August that Secretary General Antonio Guterres hoped to ‘use all tools’ to tackle the Afghan crisis. Among them, peacekeeping was being discussed at the UN under India’s presidency as Foreign Minister Jaishanker chaired the session on ‘Protecting the Protectors’ on 18 August. Indeed, SAARC member states contribute a large percentage of blue helmet personnel to UN forces. But, theoretically speaking, peacekeeping is possible by ‘consent’ of two or more conflicting parties. With American boots out of Afghan territory and President Ashraf Ghani’s flight reportedly to Uzbekistan and now to UAE, at present there is no contender to the Taliban rule in Kabul. Moreover, Taliban already announced that the Afghan War is over. Attempting to send peacekeeping forces, until requested for by Taliban, is not viable thus.
What was visible within a week of the Taliban’s take over was the chaos in the country that could spur another civil war in coming times. This inevitably will lead to grave migration problems, regional insecurity and even rise of terrorism. The somber fate is more likely than otherwise. For the Afghan people, it matters less whether the war is over or not until the conflict for power in Afghanistan comes to an end. What looks likely is that it will continue to be a conflict zone, between Taliban and rebel forces, some of whom had already recaptured 3 districts back from the Taliban by 20 August. If this trend continues, the possibility could also arise for peace-making where ceasefires may have to be maintained between conflicting parties. However, the role of SAARC looks insignificant in this context. What may be needed for SAARC to preempt is the steps it may take if any contractual peace is enforced under the UN capacity. Article 41 of the UN Charter facilitates the idea of peace enforcement, which allows for sanctions and even military actions in cases of extreme violation. The functionality of these sanctions fall upon the participating groups. Therefore, what each member state, and SAARC as a forum that aims to maintain regional integration and stability, does regarding peace-enforcement, if at all, will have a reasonable impact in the future.
If one continues to explore the UN card, especially the Agenda for Peace adopted in 1992, another option, generally discussed in tandem in conflict situations is peacebuilding. Surprisingly, in July US President Joe Biden is noted to have said that US was never in Afghanistan for nation building, indicating thus a lack of interest in peacebuilding. Peacebuilding is rather a post-conflict mechanism, “to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict”. The UN Mission Assistance in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is the largest peacebuilding program in the country. It notes that compared to 2020, in the first half of this year, there has been a 47% increase in total civilian casualties. This figure is on rise. At such a time, SAARC’s support should reach out to peacebuilding groups and processes. For one, UNAMA undertakes the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process since 2011 where SAARC stands as a supporting organization for regional cooperation. Strengthening this should be fruitful. Secondly, there are indigenous forums such as the Co-operation Centre (CCA), Sanaee Institute of Education and Learning (SIEL), Co-operation for Peace and Unity (CPAU), etc. that should be reached out to and externally supported, financially and technically.
The SAARC Charter states one of its main objectives as promotion of the “welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life”. It is at this juncture, when attempts at resuscitation of SAARC is taking place and when the common enemy of COVID-19 enabled unprecedented virtual unions of all member states in the recent past, that the crisis in Afghanistan comes up as a test for the meaningful revival of the lagging regional forum. In the near future therefore, how SAARC aims to deal with a Taliban led Afghanistan and what it does to address issues of security and stability in the region will need crucial attention.
*The Author is ICSSR Doctoral Fellow, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author