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Afghanistan: The Istanbul Process in urgent need of more attention

An outer circle of 28 supporting members (mostly traditional donors to Afghanistan’s reconstruction) buttresses the inner circle of participating members. Through this process, members have created six confidence-building measures (CBMs) to instil trust and cooperation among members of the inner circle to support the planning, coordination and implementation of their work.

Arguably the sheer number of members involved in the process dilutes its effectiveness. The Beijing ministerial conference, somewhat overshadowed by Ghani’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, was no exception. While a number of action plans were discussed they were foremost the product of China’s efforts within the Process.

In its wake, the most recent ministerial conference has again left other participating members wondering in what way the Istanbul Process benefits them. Such concerns have been amplified by the notable diminished ranking of delegation officials attending the inner circle’s last two ministerial conferences in Beijing and Almaty, respectively; it is no longer the case that states send the top ranking representation to the conference.

Despite their concerns, participating members share some of the blame for the limitations of the process thus far. A number of the larger geopolitical powers in the inner circle have prevented further institutionalization of the process to safeguard the sway of established multilateral fora. This has led to a lack of funds for core Istanbul Process coordination. While outer-circle states could largely fund the Process, they prefer not to overstep the mark.

Furthermore, Afghanistan’s capacity to coordinate a multilateral process of 42 members has also been subject to scrutiny. Former Afghan deputy minister Jawed Ludin and Turkey (the co-initiator of the Process) were energetic drivers of the Process. But Ludin has left public service, and Turkey has deprioritized Afghanistan as a result of domestic and regional developments. This has created a power vacuum within the Process that has so far proven hard to fill. These issues are all exacerbated by hampered internal support for the Process: the Regional Cooperation Directorate (RCD), a small and understaffed office at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs that already has to juggle a series of commitments, runs the process.

Ghani’s administration will have to foster the process by underlining the need for more funding to members and by designating a sizable and diplomatically seasoned team to coordinate it. This team would have to be more proactive in signalling to members the precise needs of Afghanistan and to focus on projects with more immediate and tangible impact to cater to members’ expectations. In support of this, Afghanistan could also consider to downsize the number of CBMs: the process covers too much ground. It is better to do few things well, than many things half-baked.



Richard Ghiasy was an Associate Researcher in the SIPRI China and Global Security Programme.