ISLAMABAD: The opening of the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference in the capital today was marked by a warm welcome from Pakistani authorities to visiting dignitaries from India, Afghanistan, China among other Asian countries.
The theme of the conference, jointly hosted by Pakistan and Afghanistan, is 'enhanced cooperation for countering security threats and promoting connectivity in the Heart of Asia region.'
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was greeted by a full reception which included the prime minister, the army, air and navy chiefs as well as the defence minister.
Ghani arrived at the Nur Khan airbase to a resounding 21-gun salute and the melody of the Afghan and Pakistani national anthems. He was then escorted in a limousine to the foreign office, where leaders discussed Afghanistan.
Also in the spotlight today was Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, who arrived in the capital last night in order to participate in today’s discussion.
Ashraf Ghani's strong message
President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani opened his speech by expressing gratitude to Pakistan for "hosting millions of Afghan refugees over decades".
But his speech quickly turned to the perils and origins of the refugee problem and he talked about the ‘unintended consequences’ of Pakistan’s military operations.
"Unfortunately, recent events in Pakistan have forced us to host close to 350,000 to 500,000 Pakistani refugees on our soil. The refugee issue is a common issue, like other issues that confront us," Ghani said.
He lauded Pakistan's decision to launch operations against militancy, but said the action had "created unintended consequences bringing about the displacement of a significant number of these [militant] groups onto our soil".
The Taliban which began as an Afghan phenomena have become a regional phenomena, the Afghan president said.
"The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan launched a vicious attack on children in Peshawar for which Pakistan robustly responded. But that very response brought them onto our country. Until now we have launched 40 operations through our Special Forces against them.
"What is the nature of the Taliban and how do we deal with it?" he questioned. "There is no historical precedent for solving this problem," he said, referring to the challenges posed by terrorism.
"What is driving the conflict?" the Afghan president asked. "Is it insurgency or are we dealing with a much larger conflict?"
"The first driver of conflict is regional and international terror groups... Al Qaeda, Daesh and terrorists from China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the Middle East are all, unfortunately, present on our soil."
"The quarrel of these people [militants] is not with the government of Afghanistan or its people. We are fighting on behalf of all of you," Ghani told the conference, "But we are the ones who are daily suffering some of the worst atrocities, including the butchering of our children and elderly who are totally innocent."
'We are the ones who are daily suffering some of the worst atrocities, including the butchering of our children and elderly.'
Referring to recent terror incidents in Istanbul, Paris, Sharm-el-Shaikh and San Bernardino, he said, "We do have a problem. It is a global and regional problem. It requires us to focus on it systematically and coherently."
Ghani called for a mechanism of regional cooperation to examine "how the networks of terror coordinate, co-finance, what is their linkage with the criminal economy, how is radicalism shaping and maligning our holy religion and our opportunities for global engagement and dialogue".
The Afghan president stressed the need to recognise that terrorism, "while morally an aberration, has become a sociological system. It has a distinctive ecology of competition and cooperation. It has a morphology, it is changing its form very rapidly ─ If Al Qaeda is version one, Daesh is version six ─ and the worst feature of it is its pathology."
'If Al Qaeda is version one, Daesh is version six.'
He said terror groups now used violence to "overawe in order to make the news, in order to put fear into the hearts of people", and used violence for the sake of violence.
While non-state actors have been used in the past, he called for participants to "distance ourselves from non-state actors because the word of states is the word of predictability".
State-to-state, political-to-political, military-to-military, economic-to-economic and intelligence-to-intelligence cooperation are central to the Pak-Afghan relationship, he said.
"We need to create a framework for comprehensive cooperation so that, in light of drivers of conflict, we can fashion solutions that are going to be lasting. Peace is not equivalent to reconciliation. It requires dealing with all the drivers of conflict so that a multidimensional peace, that truly will ensure that all of us live in harmony and can count on each other for enforcing an agreed set of rules of the game, is essential."
"Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and I both do not believe in blame games. We would like to suggest mechanisms of verification as to what type of actors threaten our common interests because with a proper regime of verification, we can fashion the instruments of cooperation."
"Without rules of the game where states respect the rights and obligations of mutual sovereignty and cooperate in the states' relationship we will have enormous difficulty containing terrorists."
He appealed to Afghanistan's neighbours, near and far, to help contain terrorists.
He said there had been "considerable uncertainty whether Pakistan would truly acknowledge a sovereign Afghan state with its legitimate government and constitution".
Addressing PM Nawaz, he said, "Your words today have gone a very long way to assure us in this regard and that opens up the possibility for sustained dialogue among us."
He called for a meeting regarding regional cooperation in line with what Nawaz earlier suggested in order to give it "concrete shape and movement forward".
The dignified return of refugees, he said, is absolutely central to regional cooperation and that it requires coordination in terms of "elimination of the threats that currently haunt us... We could generate double-digit growth and poverty elimination" if this happens, he said.
Recalling a speech in Beijing last year, Ghani said: "I spoke of four transitions: The political transition, the security transition, the economic transition and, most significantly, the transition to turn the culture of the state to being citizen focused."
He presented a run-down of the part Afghanistan played in regional cooperation and development in 2015:
- Turkmen railways, transmission lines, highways, gas pipelines and oil pipelines reaching Afghanistan
- TAPI pipeline to be inaugurated in Turkmenistan
- Transmission line from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan
- Gas pipeline accords, including CASA-1000
- Charbahar port which India and Iran jointly invested in
- Five-Nation agreements on railways with China
- Highway programme to link Herat to Iran, Turkmenistan; Will open way for Iran to Tajikistan and China
- Special economic zones planned in each of Afghanistan’s nine airports between 2016-2032 which will be able to earn estimated revenue of $32 billion
- India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam to operate starting spring 2016
- Will generate 242 megawatts (MW) of power in 2016 ─ 42MW from hydro, 100MW from natural gas, 100MW from solar energy
"In short, Afghanistan is rapidly moving towards regional integration towards Central Asia, East Asia and West Asia."
"By contrast, our ambitious projects of cooperation for transit and linkages to Pakistan have still remained at the level of conception and aspiration. I hope this conference results in significant movement in this domain."
"We inherited a deep recession bordering on a depression... We imposed an austerity program and met all our agreements including, for the first time all the revenue agreements, creating the ground for launching a stimulus package and a true growth series of programmes."
He said the packages would ensure the Afghan economy moved into a south reliance system, in which "our location, natural wealth, water, land and entrepreneurial energies of our people will be harnessed".
He said 36 per cent of Afghans live below the poverty line of $1.25. If the line were $2, he said, almost 70pc of Afghans would be below it.
“Poverty elimination is our most significant goal and I'm convinced that regional cooperation could allow us to have the types of growth that could allow us to tackle the most fundamental weakness ─ the poverty and exclusion of women, youth and the poor.”
Speaking of the political transition in Afghanistan, he said, “We took the unusual step of forming a government of national unity."
"We have learned from 300 years of discord that politics must become a win-win formula, not a lose-lose proposition and that is an important part of the new political culture.
"We have learned from 300 years of discord that politics must become a win-win formula, not a lose-lose proposition."
"As part of this again I strongly reiterate our commitment to lasting and just peace within which all movements that resort to arms convert themselves to political parties and participate in the political process legitimately," he said.
"Violence is not the way in a democratic society," Ghani asserted.
Swaraj wants Pakistan, India to 'be mature' and do business
In her speech, Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj focused on increased connectivity, regional trade and openness with Afghanistan, and also "extended India’s hand towards Pakistan" in this regard.
"It is time we [Pakistan and India] display maturity and self confidence to do business with each other... the entire world is watching and we must not disappoint them."
'It is time Pakistan and India display maturity and self confidence to do business with each other.'
"India will extend its cooperation at a pace Pakistan is comfortable with... but let us direct our help to Afghanistan for now."
Swaraj said connectivity also lies at the heart of India’s own efforts to push for regional economic cooperation. Nothing can benefit Afghanistan more immediately than full and direct access to India’s markets to enable it to take advantage of the zero-duty regime, she said.
"The heart of Asia cannot function if arteries are clogged."
"If Afghan trucks could carry Indian products to markets in Afghanistan and central Asia, that would be the best way to make trucking from Afghanistan cost effective and viable and bestow benefits to the whole region. India is willing to receive Afghan trucks on its territory at Attari and create necessary facilities for Afghan products there."
'The heart of Asia cannot function if arteries are clogged.'
She also conveyed India’s willingness to join the Afghanistan-Pakistan trade and transit agreement.
The Indian foreign minister singled out terrorism as the biggest deterrent to progress and peace in Afghanistan and said India was ready to help Afghanistan strengthen its defence.
She stressed that countries in "proximity of Afghanistan" have a responsibility to help Afghans fight terror and saluted the Afghan people and forces for battling the menace.
'India will extend its cooperation at a pace Pakistan is comfortable with.'
At the end, Swaraj referred to the historic Grand Trank (GT) road constructed by Sher Shah Suri 450 years ago, connecting Kolkata and Kabul. "That road exists till today, reminding us of our shared destiny."
Development vital for durable peace: Nawaz
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharf, while addressing the conference, called for an intensification of efforts in order to "move forward from a conceptual domain to tangible landmarks for the implementation of concrete ideas, projects and visions in the heart of Asia".
"Working for the achievement of a peaceful neighbourhood is a cardinal principal of Pakistan's foreign policy. We firmly believe that peace is vital for development, and development is vital for durable peace." he asserted.
"Afghanistan is a sovereign state and the international community fully respects its sovereignty and territorial integrity," the premier said, adding that the democratically elected government in Afghanistan is the only legitimate authority in the country in accordance with its unanimously adopted constitution.
The prime minister recalled remarks he made during a visit to Kabul in May 2015: "The enemies of Afghanistan are the enemies of Pakistan."
He said the Pakistani government would continue to support an Afghan-owned and led peace and reconciliation process "which remains the most viable option to end violence and promote stability in Afghanistan".
The prime minister said Pakistan was committed to eradicating terrorism, violence and extremism from its soil, and that military operations Zarb-i-Azb and the National Action Plan were "delivering desired results".
"The emergence of newer and more threatening terrorist groups like Daesh should also strengthen our resolve against terrorism," he said. "We should envisage collective and coordinated measures on the regional security front to ensure that the gains and struggle against terrorism are durable and irreversible."
"Finalisation of border management standard operating procedures will be helpful in containing the movement of terrorists across the border," he said.
"The massive cross-border movement of refugees constitutes a security risk and is exploited by the miscreants for their nefarious designs," Nawaz said, adding that efforts for stability in Afghanistan should envisage the return and resettlement of Afghan refugees to their homeland in a dignified manner.
The theme of the conference, the premier said, "reflects our desire for promoting regional development, increasing economic and create linkages, improving quality of life for our peoples and meeting security challenges.
"For us, Afghanistan is more than a neighbour. Our cordial ties are rooted in shared history, common religion, cultural and linguistic affinities and people to people relations since time immemorial. Due to these close bonds, Pakistan has always stood by Afghanistan," he said.
The PM reiterated Pakistan's commitment to strengthening its relations with all its neighbours and regional countries, as well as promoting regional cooperation and connectivity.
'Regional cooperation needed to defeat terrorism'
During an introductory session of the conference on Tuesday, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz and Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai laid emphasis on regional cooperation for defeating terrorism.
"In our view, closer regional cooperation can play an effective role in eliminating the scourge of terrorism," Aziz said.
Khalil Karzai called for united action against militancy in the region saying, "We strongly believe that today, like never before, regional and international circumstances require a united and collective approach in the fight against the scourge of terrorism and extremism."
Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan were reflected during the inaugural session as Karzai, without naming Pakistan, called for an end to support for Taliban.
"Vision of a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan, which is in the best interest of the region, is far from becoming reality unless we put an end to financial, logistical and ideological support enjoyed by militants in our region," he said.
In the past, Afghan officials have openly accused Pakistan of backing Taliban insurgents.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has on a number of occasions pointed fingers at Pakistan for not ending Taliban sanctuaries on its soil.
Aziz, who spoke before Karzai at the meeting, denied the continuing allegations about Pakistan being behind Afghan woes.
"Pakistan wants durable peace and stability in Afghanistan. Instability in Afghanistan is not in our interest. We will, therefore, continue to support all endeavours aiming at strengthening peace and security in Afghanistan," Aziz said.