A new US strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia released in August 2017 identified India and Pakistan as key players in relation to the stability and security of Afghanistan. Intended to foster a much-needed wider regional approach towards the future of Afghanistan, the strategy was debated for the first time by top officials and influential experts from Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, as well as the US, at an October conference held by the IISS in Muscat, Oman.
The 11th South Asia Security Conference, held in partnership with the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies of the US National Defense University, convened top officials from both the White House and the State Department, senior government and intelligence officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, as well as Bangladesh, along with influential experts from China, Iran, and for the first time, Russia.
Perhaps the most important development at the 11th IISS–NESA ‘Track 1.5’ South Asia Security Conference took place on its margins, as it set the stage for the resumption of the four-nation ‘Track 1’ inter-governmental Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) on Afghanistan. After a 17-month hiatus in discussions, key officials from the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan extended their stay in Oman to attend the QCG the following day.
Speaking in the first session of the conference, Lisa Curtis, Deputy Assistant to the US President and Senior Director for South and Central Asia, National Security Council, and Ambassador Alice Wells, Acting US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs and Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, elaborated upon the new US strategy. They responded to queries from the participants and engaged in a policy-relevant discussion on the ‘way forward’.
The conference took place in the wake of a recent visit by Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa to Afghanistan to meet President Ashraf Ghani, resulting in a more positive conference session on Afghanistan–Pakistan relations than in previous years. By contrast, the session on India–Pakistan relations – which covered crisis management and strategic stability ahead of the ten-year anniversary of the 2008 Mumbai attacks – took a sharper tone than in the past, likely as a result of recent bilateral tensions and the absence of an official-level dialogue.
A panel of women members of parliament from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh discussed their national efforts to counter extremism and a unique intelligence panel, which included the Bangladesh intelligence chief, focused on counter-terrorism. As the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, stood on the brink of military defeat in Syria, South Asian security officials and civil society alike were alert to the potential risks posed by returnees and the ISIS brand of extremism for the region. Key sessions also took place on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, the maritime security of the Indian Ocean and the possibility of a new ‘great game’ in Afghanistan. An important forward-looking session focused on the challenges likely to be encountered by policymakers within six months.
One-third of the 76 conference participants were government officials, just over half were attending for the first time and just under half were from South Asia. The debate benefited greatly from an increase in the number of female delegates over previous years – the session led by women members of parliament was the first all-female panel to be held at the conference.
The Oman conference is the largest of the ‘Track 1.5’ off-the-record meetings that the IISS convenes annually on South Asian regional security issues. This year also marked the 14th year of the Institute’s relationship with the Sultanate of Oman. The IISS and NESA express their gratitude to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said for his continued support for this series of conferences. The IISS expects to organise its next annual conference in Oman in October 2018.