Terrorism dominated the agenda at the Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference in Amritsar on Sunday.
Delegates from 45 participating and supporting countries attended the sixth Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process conference, which is organised to deliberate upon the situation in Afghanistan and how to improve it.
At the end of the conference, the countries signed the Amritsar Declaration, which reiterated that terrorism was the biggest threat to peace, stability and cooperation in the region. The declaration named specific terror groups operating in the region, and also sought an immediate end to all forms of terror.
"We remain concerned by the gravity of the security situation in Afghanistan in particular and the region and the high level of violence caused by the Taliban, terrorist groups including ISIL/DAISH and its affiliates, the Haqqani Network, Al Qaida, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, East Turkistan Islamic Movement, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Jundullah and other foreign terrorist fighters," it stated.
The declaration also called for "concerted regional and international cooperation to ensure elimination of terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, including the dismantling of terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens in the Heart of Asia region, as well as disrupting all financial, tactical and logistical support for terrorism."
It also sought to push the regional counter-terror framework, "convening an early meeting of experts to discuss the draft framework strategy with the view to its finalisation for consideration by senior security officials".
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, said that terrorism and externally-induced instability posed the gravest threat to Afghanistan's peace, stability and prosperity. He added that "silence and inaction against terrorism in Afghanistan and our region will only embolden terrorists and their masters".
Connectivity and development were the other important issues discussed at the conference.
Pakistan faces the heat
The Amritsar Declaration will put further pressure on Pakistan, since many of the groups named therein have been known to use Pakistani territory, with some even enjoying patronage from within a section of the Pakistani security establishment. The 2015 Islamabad Declaration had only mentioned Al Qaeda and the Islamic State/Daesh and their affiliate organisations.
The Pakistani delegation at the conference was led by Sartaj Aziz, the powerful advisor to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Earlier, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani snubbed Pakistan when, during his inaugural address, he mentioned how the $500 million promised by Pakistan for Afghan reconstruction were better utilised fighting terror.
"We need to identify cross-border terrorism and a fund to combat terrorism. Pakistan has pledged $500 million for Afghanistan's development. This amount, Mr Aziz, can be spent to contain extremism," Ghani told Aziz.
If this was not enough, the Afghan President mentioned how his war-ravaged country suffered the maximum casualties last year, even as he sought clarifications on what was being done to tackle the menace.
"Afghanistan suffered the highest number of casualties last year. This is unacceptable... some still provide sanctuary for terrorists. As a Taliban figure said recently, if they had no sanctuary in Pakistan, they wouldn't last a month," Ghani said.
Ghani, who, during the initial months of his tenure, had been very friendly with the Pakistani leadership, has lately grown frustrated over Pakistan's inability to bring the Taliban to a negotiating table. A section of the Taliban is said to be enjoying refuge in Pakistan.
Even the dreaded Haqqani Network, an offshoot of the Taliban, has been known to be close to a section of the Pakistani security establishment.
Afghans also see a foreign angle to the latest spate of sectarian attacks claimed by the IS.
India and Afghanistan have lately seen a convergence of views, especially on terror in the region.
According to Pakistani High Commissioner Abdul Basit's Twitter account, Aziz told the conference that "we need to have an objective and holistic view rather to blame one country".
Did Aziz and Doval meet?
The Pakistani press on Sunday carried a picture of India's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval sharing a light moment with Aziz, with High Commissioner Basit also in the frame.
Speculation was rife that the two top advisors had met for over half an hour on Saturday night in Amritsar, and that this was the first sign of a thaw in relations which have been getting colder and colder since the Pathankot attack in January this year.
However, the Ministry of External Affairs categorically denied any meeting between Aziz and Ajit Doval. "There was no pull-aside or bilateral meeting between the two," MEA spokesperson Vikas Swaroop said.
Instead, it has now emerged that the picture was taken when both the advisors had a small informal chat after the dinner hosted by Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal at a restaurant in Amritsar.
Aziz, who changed his plans and arrived in Amritsar on Saturday itself, instead of Sunday morning, told The Indian Express that Pakistan was ready to talk to India. He added that India's concerns over terrorism from Pakistan could be tackled under the framework of the comprehensive dialogue agreed upon on the sidelines of last year's ministerial conference in Islamabad.
India, meanwhile, maintained that while it was open to talks, they could not happen in an atmosphere of continued terrorism, as the MEA spokesperson put it.
Important points from the Amritsar Declaration
- "We commend the government of Afghanistan in successfully pursuing peace talks with Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar resulting in the signature of a peace agreement that sets a good precedent for future peace talks with all other armed groups."
- "We welcome the assumption of full responsibility for security by the ANDSF and for their role in fighting terrorism and violent extremism in Afghanistan. We welcome the agreements between the International Community and the Government of Afghanistan, and relevant decisions, which allow for continued financial support to the ANDSF until 2020 and assistance to them by the Post-ISAF Mission, in support of long-term security and stability in Afghanistan."
- "We commend countries in the region and beyond, particularly Iran and Pakistan, for their hospitality in hosting millions of Afghan refugees for over three decades. We call on all these countries to continue hosting the Afghan refugees until their sustainable repatriation and reintegration in Afghanistan can take place."
- "We recognize the necessity of taking serious measures to address recruitment of youth to extremist and terrorist networks. We realize that the radicalization of disaffected elements of the population, especially youth, can only be prevented by effective de-radicalization and counter-radicalization strategies involving all the HoA countries.
- "...we welcome the practical implementation of TAPI and completion of the first stage of the Asian International Railway Corridor between Imamnazar, Turkmenistan, and Aqina, Afghanistan -- the initial stages of TAT linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Further, we encourage the early implementation of the multinational energy and connectivity projects of CASA-1000, TUTAP, Chabahar Agreement, the Five Nation Railway, TAT linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan by rail, all of which would play a central role in strengthening regional cooperation between Central Asia and South Asia and further forge economic connectivity and growth in the region. We welcome the MoU on Jointly Building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road between the Government of the People's Republic of China and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan."
- "...we stress on the urgent need to integrate, through the land route, South Asia and Central Asia through the expansion of existing bilateral trade and transit agreement both northwards and southwards."
Edited by Shreyas Sharma
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