Can SAARC fill the power vacuum left by US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Source: Indian Express

Relevance: Understanding SAARC’s potential in bringing together leaders on one common platform.

Synopsis: Revival of SAARC is necessary and it can also contribute positively to the current Afghan situation.

Background

South Asia is the world’s most complex and closely watched region. There are unsettled territorial disputes, and various trans-border criminal activities. It remains a theatre for ethnic, cultural, and religious tensions and rivalries.

South Asia – emerging trends

A current rise in ultra-nationalism is taking place against the backdrop of a bloody history of repeated inter-state wars and intra-state conflicts. Nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan are in conflict again.

  • Cross-border terrorism has again made the region, as former US President Bill Clinton once deemed it, “the world’s most dangerous place.”

US military withdrawal from Afghanistan has fuelled fears of intensification of these trends.

SAARC has been sidelined

In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, leaders of South Asian nations — namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — created a regional forum.

  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established. Its goal was to contribute “to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems.”
  • Afghanistan was admitted as a member in 2007.

However, SAARC has remained sidelined and dormant since its 18th summit of 2014 in Kathmandu. No alternative capable of bringing together South Asian countries has emerged.

Potential of SAARC

In 36 years of existence, SAARC has developed a dense network of institutions, linkages, and mechanisms.

  • The 3rd SAARC summit in 1987 adopted a Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism and updated it in 2004 with the signing of an additional protocol. These instruments demonstrate the collective commitment to rid the region of terror and promote regional peace, stability, and prosperity.
  • In March 2020, Indian Prime Minister convened a video conference of SAARC leaders. They underscored the need for cooperation on a regional basis for fighting the pandemic. If the proceedings had not taken place under the SAARC banner, leaders from the eight countries would not have come together so readily on such short notice.
  • Development of civil society and track-two initiatives: SAARC has made significant contributions to the development of civil society and track-two initiatives.
  • An informal platform for leaders: Though SAARC’s charter prohibits bilateral issues at formal forums, SAARC summits provide a unique, informal window for leaders to meet without aides and chart future courses of action.

Such capacity to bring member-states together shows the potential power of SAARC. As the largest regional co-operation organization, SAARC holds importance in stabilising and effectively transforming the region.

Implications of a failed SAARC

Allowing SAARC to become dysfunctional and irrelevant will greatly effect our ability to address the realities and challenges facing SAARC nations.

  • The failure of South Asian nations to act together will lead to discord and escalating tensions with jihadi militias at the forefront. It will place the entire region in turmoil.
  • SAARC is needed as institutional support to allow for the diplomacy and coordination between member-states for addressing the numerous threats and challenges the region faces.
How can SAARC contribute in Afghanistan?
  • Joint-SAARC peacekeeping force: SAARC members are among the top troop-contributing countries to UN peacekeeping missions. A joint peacekeeping force from the SAARC region under the UN aegis could be explored to fill the power vacuum that would otherwise be filled by terrorist and extremist forces.

If arch enemies of World War II, France and Germany, can come shed their differences and come together under the aegis of European Union then there is no reason why India and Pakistan cannot do the same.

Conclusion

SAARC has the capacity to bring nations together. As Nelson Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

Also Read: Importance of reviving SAARC

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