The Presidents of Afghanistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Pakistan held the Quadrilateral Regional Summit on Friday, September 2, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The summit and its outcome have been an encouraging sign of a greater convergence of opinions and ideas among the countries of our region at a time when the need for enhanced cooperation among these countries has never been more acute.
In this summit, the four heads of states discussed a host of regional issues and reaffirmed their commitment to exploring avenues of shared cooperation. Fight against terrorism and extremism in the region, combating narcotics trafficking, joint infrastructure development plans in the region, increasing regional connectivity via developing rail and road transport systems, working towards developing a regional energy market of which the long-standing and controversial CASA-1000 project is a component, the transition of security responsibilities in Afghanistan and the post-2014 horizon were among the major issues discussed by the four heads of states.
The Dushanbe summit provided a valuable opportunity for the leaders from these four countries to talk about and discuss a range of extremely important regional issues, goals, visions as well as problems and challenges which none of them would be able to tackle individually and without closer cooperation from others.
For our country Afghanistan, which is emerging out of decades of conflict and civil war and is struggling to build political, economic and diplomatic normalcy, it is imperative to reach out to neighbors and forge bridges of trust, confidence and gradually-increase cooperation with them.
On the other hand, Afghanistan cannot afford to disregard the imperatives of diversifying Afghanistan's foreign relations and exploring bilaterally-beneficial relations with regional and Eastern countries while maintaining the present partnerships with the Western countries. Regional and international forums such as the recent Quadrilateral Regional Summit provide Afghanistan and its leadership with valuable opportunities to take concrete steps towards these ends.
Walking the talk on the promises made
The summit has done a good job of throwing open a wide array of exciting proposals that if implemented, would push forward greater regional economic integration and growth and allow for increased trade, commerce and people-to-people contact throughout the Eurasian landmass from Russia's southern regions all the way to Pakistani ports of Gwadar and Karachi.
The four leaders affirmed their and their respective governments' commitments to the agreements made; however, whether or not these exciting projects, colorful promises and lofty proposals will be followed up and words and promises converted into concrete action all remain to be seen. In our region, the past many years have seen many such multilateral meetings and summits during which lofty goals were set but nothing concrete was done afterwards to convert the agreed plans into action.
The fact is that in our region, sets of bilateral problems between many countries are so acute that they have rendered impossible closer regional cooperation. In spite of such a poor track record, a number of unresolved issues in our region are slowly assuming urgency and need to be tackled on a priority basis through enhanced regional cooperation.
Pakistan's energy crisis is one such issue that its tackling requires greater cooperation from energy-exporting countries in the region such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan not to mention oil-rich Iran. The ongoing acute energy crisis in Pakistan has had a deeply negative impact on its industries and has caused riots and widespread protests in many cities with electricity outages lasting 12 hours and more.
The CASA-1000 project is one such project aimed at transmitting 1000 megawatt of electricity annually from the under-construction Ragun dam in Tajikistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan. For now, the Ragun dam project in Tajikistan has hit many obstacles including environmental concerns and new studies that rule out the viability of the project.
Irrespective of whether or not the Ragun dam project in Tajikistan will be completed, transmitting power from other sources in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan would require sustained trilateral dialogue among the three countries. What is encouraging is that electricity transmission lines are relatively immune from insurgent attacks inside Afghanistan.
In addition to electricity transmission, Pakistan as well as Afghanistan can offer a huge energy consumption market of petroleum and natural gas to the energy-rich countries of central Asia. Forums such as the recent quadrilateral regional summit allow these countries to engage in constructive dialogue and gradually sort out the problems in the way of establishing these business ties.
The sheer need to increasing volumes of energy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is gradually forcing these countries to explore closer relations with the energy-rich central Asian countries. Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, announced in the summit that his country is for expansion of relations with the central Asian countries.
It is hoped that at least out of necessity these countries would commit themselves to a degree of genuine cooperation and gradually move away from paying only lip service to the cause of greater regional cooperation.
Russia has of late shown its eagerness to increase its presence in Afghanistan as part of a plan of promoting greater regional ownership of Afghanistan issue and also in anticipation of a reduced role by the U.S. and other western countries in a post-2014 Afghanistan.
The Russian government has proposed to refurbish and repair more than 100 Soviet-built infrastructure installations in Afghanistan. On the issue of Afghanistan, Russia and the central Asian countries have already started talking about taking up a more active role in Afghanistan especially beyond 2014.
This was evident in Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's calls in Dushanbe summit for a regional solution to the war in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, in the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization's summit in Astana, the SCO member countries also had called for a more active role in Afghanistan.
The Dushanbe Quadrilateral Regional Summit, although successful in churning out colorful declarations and lofty promises, will do very little to open paths of greater regional cooperation if it will not be followed up by the governments and bureaucracies of the four countries involved.
For example, Pakistani President proposed including other central Asian countries in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement despite the fact that this agreement has remained in a dead-end due to bureaucratic hurdles and numerous other problems.
Many bilateral and regional problems, complications and conflicts can easily overshadow and take the wind out of the sail of the agreements made in the Dushanbe Quadrilateral Regional Summit. Lingering problems between Afghanistan and Pakistan are enough to render futile the vision of closer regional cooperation.
As discussed, it is very well possible that each country's increasing needs and requirements such as energy gradually force a closer set of regional relations. But this will not be a sufficient driving engine for these countries to set aside strategic shortsightedness and vested interests in favor of weaving a close-knit web of regional cooperation. Anyhow, many things need to change in these countries before such colorful summits can deliver actual results.