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Opinion

Opinion: 'Heart of Asia' close to collapse

In the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, the regional powers are attempting to bring a bit of peace back to Afghanistan. These first, cautious steps may have come too late, says DW's Florian Weigand.

Over a century ago, the Pakistani national poet Allamah Muhammad Iqbal extolled Afghanistan as the "Heart of Asia," and it may seem like a strange coincidence that today's conference in Islamabad carries the same name. The weak Heart of Asia is once again near cardiac arrest and the countries surrounding it - Pakistan, China, India, and over 20 other nations which are meeting in the Pakistani capital - are like coronary vessels intertwined with Afghanistan, for better or for worse.

Should its political and economic arteries be clogged or closed-off, not even the Western NATO "pacemaker" can prevent the country's collapse and the region must expect the worst.

That is, arguably, the most important insight which government leaders, foreign ministers and diplomats have hopefully internalized at the conference today.

What seems surprising is the extent to which the poorest country in the region - plagued by a floundering economy, terrorism and crime - can determine the policies of its wealthier neighbors.

DW's Florian Weigand

DW's Florian Weigand

Regional rivalries

Its weakness is also its strength. Although it is only a pawn in the hand of regional powers - the pawn plays a key role. India supports Afghanistan in order to put the screws on its traditional foe Pakistan from both east and west. This is why the Pakistanis have tried to stir up unrest in Afghanistan with the help of terrorist groups such as the Taliban.

China, in turn, backs Pakistan not only to counter its economic rival India, but also to keep a close watch on Afghanistan's vast mineral resources. Who would have thought that Afghanistan is rich because it is a potentially abundant country in rare earths - used in the manufacturing mobile phones - copper and ore?

The trick is to transform the nature of the game from rivalry into cooperation. The first steps in this direction have already been taken: Afghanistan and Pakistan have finally decided to work closely together in the fight against extremism.

There are also positive signals coming from India, as Foreign Minister Sushma Suraj is taking part in the conference. She is India's highest-ranking politician to visit Pakistan since 2012. Suraj said she had come to the conference "with a message of better relations." Ties between the nuclear-armed neighbors have been strained for decades.

Regional solution to relieve NATO

The messages of politicians seem quite honestly meant. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif comes from a business family, who wants to earn money in Afghanistan and particularly in India. But this won't happen without peace. The political and personal security of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has come to Islamabad to shake hands, depends on him. He, too, only has a chance if there is at least some degree of peace.

The West will monitor this process with great benevolence. Just last week, NATO's mandate was extended through 2016. There is no clear target in terms of when and under which criteria the deployment will be finished. What's clear is that Western capitals would sigh in great relief if the regional parties involved reached a sustainable agreement. This would pave the way towards a convenient exit strategy.

Little hope for quick solution

As is often the case, the spoilsports are not attending the talks. The Taliban, for instance, currently don't have a contact person because their leader Mullah Mansoor is either badly injured or already dead. Opponents in his own ranks are responsible.

And what a coincidence: just at the start of the conference, the Taliban attacked Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan. It remains unclear what the role the Pakistan military and intelligence services played, which traditionally have been supporters of the militant group. And then Afghan President Ghani is no longer the master of his own house. Many districts are already in the hands of the Taliban and the "Islamic State."

Therefore, it appears there's no quick fix solution, even if time is running out before the "Heart of Asia" collapses.

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