Déjà Vu

By Karl F. Inderfurth

Istanbul Conference on Afghanistan

U.S. Deputy Secretary Burns meets with Pakistani Foreign Affairs Minister Khar at the Istanbul Conference on Afghanistan, Nov 1, 2011. Source: U.S. Department of State's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The formal document issued at last week’s high-level conference in Turkey was entitled the “Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan.” The participating nations pledged they will be guided by a set of “common principles and commitments,” including “Respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity” and “Non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states.”

While commendable, that language also provoked a sense of déjà vu. In July 1999, I led the U.S. delegation to the UN-sponsored “6 Plus 2” conference on Afghanistan, held in Uzbekistan. The formal document issued at the end of that meeting was the “Tashkent Declaration on Fundamental Principles for a Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict in Afghanistan.” It included this pledge: “We reaffirm our firm commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Afghanistan.” Participants included Pakistan, Iran, China, the neighboring Central Asian republics, the United States, Russia, and a Taliban representative. Several states promptly disregarded their solemn commitments upon adjournment of the meeting.

Will this history repeat itself with the Istanbul declaration? While heavy on good intentions, the eight-page document and accompanying speeches contained few specifics on implementation. Indeed, as Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who led the U.S. delegation, said in blunt terms:

“We have heard the right words from many participants. But if they are just words, then we will be no safer and no better off. Some countries have made these commitments before. We are hoping that, after agreeing to concrete and measurable steps forward and a process for continued dialogue, countries will stick to their word.”

But given the history of regional rivalries, intrigues, and “great games” played in Afghanistan by neighbors, near neighbors, and big powers, “hope” will not be enough.

Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger has long advocated a regional settlement for Afghanistan: “A long term solution must involve a combination, a consortium of countries in defining, protecting and guaranteeing a definition of statehood for Afghanistan.”

But such an agreement, argues Kissinger, must include enforcement provisions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a similar point in her July speech in Chennai: “The time has come to create mechanisms that ensure nations will live up to their commitments.”

Kissinger and Clinton are right. A regional agreement without teeth will not bring an end to outside meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs. It will be déjà vu, again.

Ambassdor Karl F. Inderfurth is senior adviser and Wadhwani Chair for U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS;  he served as assistant secretary of state for South Asia affairs from 1997 to 2001. To read the Wadhwani Chair’s monthly newsletter, U.S.-India Insight, click here.