DPG’s challenge to secret US-Iran talks on Afghanistan

It was not totally unexpected that my Indian friends would not be very happy with what I wrote in my previous column that focused on secret US and Iran negotiations over the future of Afghanistan at the expense of other immediate and extended neighbors, drawing a similar analogy with Iraq. I would very much like to be proved wrong that Americans do not repeat Iraqi mistakes because what is at stake here is the vitality and sustainability of Afghanistan as a stable and prosperous country in the future.

I received a critical response from Radha Kumar, director general of the Delhi Policy Group (DPG), to my previous column and will annex her comments in full to my explanatory remarks here. Her response does not really touch on my main point in the article, which focused on the worrying prospect for Afghanistan before the drawdown of forces by 2014 and secret US-Iranian negotiations. This may not be a concern for Indians but surely a huge concern for many in the Middle East. Because what the US did in Iraq actually paved the way for the Iranian proxy Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad, despised today by Kurds, Sunnis and even a sizable swath of Shiite groups in Iraq.

If you do not have a representative government that reflects different colors in the fabric of society and that pretty much stigmatizes and marginalize other ethnic/religious groups, then you would find yourself in a mess like we see today in Iraq. That was the result of an unfortunate US-Iran deal, most analysts acknowledge today, including many American experts. I did not and would definitely not argue that the US and Iran should not be talking to each other. Rather, they should talk more to resolve differences. But while hammering out a deal, don’t do it at the expense of others. That is the overriding concern here and has nothing to do with sectarian/ethnic motives, as Kumar seems to have suggested.

As for the Pakistani bashing, I suppose that was not the first time it happened that a panel of Indian experts composed of active or retired government officials seemed to have pretty much enjoyed slamming the Pakistani government in the Afghanistan context. That was a friendly suggestion to my Indian friends. Don’t you think it is rather naïve that you can solve problems in Afghanistan today without fully engaging with Pakistan? As a DPG official you must be worried that if you fail to keep the Pakistani delegation at the table, no matter what the motivations were, then the regional conference runs the risk of potentially turning into a mutual admiration society that is doomed to fail from the outset without tackling fundamental issues.

I am sure Kumar, being a specialist in ethnic conflicts, peacemaking and peace building, knows that very well. Therefore, I respectfully disagree with her on the point that these critical issues are simply “minor fault lines.” Being a reporter for many years, I think I can tell what are the minor points discussed in a meeting without running afoul of Chatham House rules or any other professional code of conduct. For example, if I had mentioned remarks made by some Indian participants in the discussion, which could not be construed as constructive criticism at all, then, that would have been picking on minor fault lines. Or let’s say if I recalled the shocking description of the Taliban by one Indian participant, then, that would have been minor as well. The list goes on. By the way, I did not understand why she felt the need to raise already agreed upon proposals in her response as I simply did not touch on these points for which I happily lent my support during discussions.

The main question boils down to this: Can we trust Iran as a reliable partner and responsible international actor in contributing to the stability and prosperity of Afghanistan? Can Iran act as a state seeking a bargain or will Tehran rather behave as a revolutionary and potentially destabilizing force that has no interest in deal making? I do not know about Kumar but judging from the track record of Iran and how it acted as a destructive force in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and other places, I have my deep reservations. It seems the international community also has its legitimate concerns as well considering the UN Security Council has slapped this Mullah regime with a series of sanctions over the years.

I fail to understand why the director of the DPG took it upon herself to advocate the Iranian position in her response, when she was not the addressee in my column anyway.

Here is Kumar’s response:

Abdullah Bozkurt’s column of Dec. 31, 2012, makes a series of allegations against my think tank and government, along with several others, which need to be answered.

The bulk of his column is a diatribe against Iran and purported moves by Iran and the US to discuss Afghanistan in consultation with the Afghan government. This, he believes, will leave stranded Sunni Muslim countries such as Turkey and the Gulf states (his description, not mine). Then he suggests that India is happy to encourage such a development. Finally, he suggests that Indian officials used the forum to engage in “Pakistan-bashing.”

The conference that Mr. Bozkurt draws these conclusions from was organized on Chatham House rules, and Mr. Bozkurt is skating close to the edge in referring to remarks made there. However, my quarrel is not on this issue: It is with his selection of a few individual remarks against the majority of what was said, upon which he hangs what I can only call a surreal theory.

First of all, the December conference was the third in a series that the Delhi Policy Group — which is an independent Indian think tank — organized. Its aim was to encourage regional discussions on how Afghanistan’s near and far neighbors can work together to support Afghan-led initiatives for peace and stabilization. Far from being intended to push any one country’s agenda, the conference series seeks to anchor the principles of the İstanbul Declaration in a roadmap for action. The number of positive recommendations that have been made in each conference and the supportive feedback from governments such as those of Afghanistan, India, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, attest to the value of the initiative.

It is a pity Mr. Bozkurt chose to focus on a couple of minor fault lines rather than the very substantial achievements of the conference. It is an even greater pity that he did not take note of what is being done to repair the fault lines. If the US and Iran can find some way to segregate their differences in order to cooperate with Afghanistan, that will surely be a helpful change, and if the Afghan government wants to support this development, that is their choice. As I recall, the Turkish government similarly tried for rapprochement between Iran and the US on the nuclear issue (an initiative that unfortunately failed).

Similarly, Mr. Bozkurt has chosen to ignore the remarks that were made by Indian and Pakistani participants and officials at the conference. Not only did participants from both countries report support of their governments for the bulk of the proposals, we also discussed how our two countries could further cooperate on the ground. Indian officials spoke about the successful round of India-Pakistan talks on CBMs that concluded while the Delhi Policy Group conference was still underway and re-signaled the Indian government’s acceptance of Afghan-led talks with the Taliban, a process that the Pakistan government also supports, as the Chantilly talks indicated. In such a context, any accusation of “Pakistan-bashing” by Indian participants or officials is bizarre, especially as Mr. Bozkurt knows the Pakistani “boycott” that he makes much of (actually a temporary abstention) was in response to remarks by one of the Afghan participants.

In my view, both South and West Asia are moving away from old realpolitik paradigms of India-Pakistan or Shiite-Sunni rivalry. New political and democratic aspirations have taken root in both Mr. Bozkurt’s region and ours, changes that the Turkish government not only recognizes but also based its innovative foreign policy on. Speaking for myself, these are the elements worth focusing on.

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