SAARC With or Without Afghanistan?
By Sugeeswara Senadhira
The much awaited meeting of the Foreign Ministers of member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York was canceled in the last minute diminishing the hopes of a revival of the South Asian cooperation. Once again, there was no consensus among the two rivals India and Pakistan – a mandatory requirement for SAARC meetings.
The reason attributed to the cancellation was India’s refusal to accede to Pakistan’s position that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan be allowed to send a representative to the SAARC Foreign Ministers’ meet. This annual meeting was scheduled to be held virtually owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. The informal meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers was to be held in-person on 25 September in New York.
However, the current SAARC chair, the Nepalese Foreign Ministry issued a communiqué saying that the meet stands cancelled owing to the lack of concurrence from all Member States. India and a few other SAARC member states refused to entertain Pakistan’s request to allow the Taliban regime to represent Afghanistan in the informal meeting. Pakistan also insisted that none of the representatives of the erstwhile Afghan Government led by Ashraf Ghani be allowed at the SAARC Foreign Ministers’ meet at any cost.
UNGA speaking slot
Meanwhile, the Taliban have ended weeks of speculation over their plans to seek diplomatic recognition at the United Nations, asking the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres for a speaking slot at the UNGA and requesting the world body to sack the current Afghan U.N. Ambassador. Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban appointed Foreign Minister, wrote to Guterres asking to participate in the UNGA debate, according to Stéphane Dujarric, the U.N.’s chief spokesperson.
The request from Kabul came amidst the political battle between the Taliban and the United States and its Western partners, who are reluctant to recognise the Taliban before they demonstrate a willingness to form an inclusive Government and respect the human rights of the Afghan people, particularly women and girls. The UN representation will be decided by the nine-member U.N. Credentials Committee, which reviews cases of competing requests to represent a country at the UN. The Committee is scheduled to meet in November. The US is not in the Committee.
The case of Afghanistan’s seat mirrors another diplomatic dispute with the Credentials Committee in regard to Myanmar, where the military, which took power in a coup this year, is urging the UN to install its ambassador in New York. Pakistan is the only country among the SAARC members to recognise the Taliban Government of Afghanistan. Several top Taliban leaders are blacklisted by the US and designated as international terrorists. Senior leaders who are not blacklisted are known for supporting terrorist activities or affiliating with terrorist organisations.
While other SAARC members wait and watch developments in Afghanistan, India openly questioned their legitimacy of the Taliban Government. In this, New Delhi see eye-to-eye with the West as it became evident when Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the Taliban as a non-inclusive Government, warning other Nations to think before accepting the regime in Afghanistan. SAARC members worry about the future of the regional bloc as they are deeply aware of the threat of spillover terrorism from Afghanistan to other areas, especially India’s Kashmir.
Bangladesh also is concerned with the effect it may have on extremism within its borders. Acknowledging the same at the Shanghai Corporation Organisation, Modi stated developments in Afghanistan could lead to uncontrolled flow of drugs, illegal weapons and human trafficking.
Hope for regional cooperation
In 1985, SAARC was established with much hope for regional cooperation. However, it failed to mould to a regional association as that of the ASEAN, European Union or the African Union. The reason was internal divisions and irreconcilable differences between some members, most notably the conflict between India and Pakistan. Although SAARC made some progress in noncontroversial areas such as education, archaeology and tourism they could not come to a consensus on political and security issues.
The SAARC trade agreements failed to achieve meaningful progress in vital energy and infrastructure spheres due to differences on security issues. The SAARC agreed to hold Summits every two years, but several meetings could not be held due to India’s difference with Sri Lanka in the early 1990s, and with India’s issues with Pakistan twice. The last SAARC summit was held in 2014 in Nepal.
It was Pakistan’s turn to host the 19th summit in 2016. However, following Pakistan’s alleged involvement in the Uri terror attack in Jammu and Kashmir, Indian Prime Minister Modi refused to participate. The SAARC Summit is in limbo for the last five years. Although SAARC Summits could not solve political problems, it has at least provided a platform for the leaders to meet and discuss important issues.
India and Pakistan could come together under the banner of SAARC to discuss bilateral issues. But ‘The retreat’ on the sidelines of SAARC Summit gave an opportunity for bilateral exchanges to reduce tensions. Furthermore, the SAARC has made some headway in signing agreements related to climate change, food security and combatting the Covid19 crisis. It has the potential to do far more but that is contingent upon cooperation on key issues between member states.
However, new equations in security do not give much hope for SAARC future as the chances of a rapport between India and Pakistan reduce rapidly. Premier Modi, during his maiden meeting with American Vice President Kamala Harris used the opportunity to refer to Pakistan’s role in terrorism.
Harris mentioned that there were terror groups working in Pakistan and that she asked Islamabad to take action so the matter does not threaten the security of India and the United States. With India’s stance hardening and Pakistan headfast in its support for the Taliban, any future SAARC Summit is unlikely until the issue is resolved.