Until now, fighting the Afghan war has been an American project, and Americans have feared most that their withdrawal will be followed by chaos. That’s why they have focused on handing over the fighting to Afghanistan’s military.
But the first round of the presidential election on April 5 opened a new prospect. Just by turning out in large numbers in defiance of Taliban denunciations, Afghans showed that they craved a stable future — and would need friends in the neighborhood to help broker their differences. That creates an incentive for every nearby country to collaborate on holding Afghanistan together after the Americans leave.
With that in mind, it might be best for the United States to focus first on handing over the peacemaking to Afghanistan’s neighbors, as the most credible strategy for ending the war quickly. Ever since 9/11, Washington demanded that the region’s powers support its strategy in Afghanistan. But the region was split: India and Russia were content to see America seek outright victory over the Taliban and pursue the war to its end; Pakistan and Iran, which share ethnic roots with groups in Afghanistan, have long wanted America to end the fighting by negotiating its way out.
Because the neighbors’ interests never coincided in clear support of America’s view, the region watched America experiment — with mixed results — at counterinsurgency and state-building, and later at peacemaking with the Taliban.
Now it will be up to the neighbors, who — despite all their differences — share an interest in seeing Afghanistan avoid a new bloodletting. They question the Afghan Army’s ability to defeat the Taliban in battle; the force is still largely made up of ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras from Afghanistan’s north and west, leaving it likely to provoke resistance among the Pashtuns of the embattled south and east, from whom the Taliban spring. The neighbors remember the collapse of an earlier Afghan army soon after the Soviets who had trained it left, as well as the decade of civil war that followed in the 1990s. No neighbor wants that experience repeated, and a regionally supported peace deal would be the surest way to dissuade outsiders from supporting any Afghans who did.
So how does the United States proceed?
It should keep reminding everyone that it is about to leave, and that it is in their own best interest to build a regional consensus for an Afghan peace. That means joining hands with the Americans to ensure that a strong president emerges from the messy election process.
On Election Day, the first reaction was relief at the turnout. But now there is concern that the final ballot count will prompt claims that the margin of fraud exceeds the margin of victory. The early first-round results point to a tight runoff race between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, and a need for America to help broker a fair outcome, since a disputed outcome could divide the country.
America should call on Afghanistan’s neighbors to assist. Any political wrangling would draw in Iran as well as America, since the two nations have had the most influence on Afghan politics. They should take a page from their quiet cooperation in 2001, when they supported a conference of Afghan leaders in Bonn, Germany, that prepared Afghanistan for its transition to a constitution and elected government.
Once in office, Afghanistan’s next president will face myriad problems, not least that the Afghan economy will shrink as American funding for the war ends. Meanwhile, the most important task will remain keeping the Taliban at bay. If Afghan forces are not up to the job, Afghanistan will need a strong president with American and regional backing all the more. His job will be to negotiate a reconciliation with the Taliban. Which raises the question of how his disparate neighbors might find common ground to help. They should, because chaos in Afghanistan would threaten all of them.
Moscow still sees extremism in Afghanistan as a threat to Muslim regions of Russia like Chechnya, and to the Muslim-populated former Soviet republics of Central Asia. China similarly worries that upheaval in Afghanistan could exacerbate Islamic extremism in Xinjiang; India thinks the same could happen in Kashmir. And Shiite Iran almost went to war with the Taliban, an extremist Sunni movement, in 1997; its leaders do not want a repeat of that crisis. Iran is already home to over two million Afghan refugees, and to a huge number of addicts dependent on heroin trafficked from Afghanistan. War next door would aggravate the first problem, and lawlessness would compound the second.
Pakistan may be the most problematic — and important — neighbor. It has long looked to the Taliban to protect its interests in Afghanistan, but lately its government has been challenged by its own violent Islamist groups, including the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistanis have opposed Indian influence in Afghanistan on the ground that India might turn Pashtun nationalism against Pakistan. But that hypothetical fear has to be balanced with the tangible threat that, in the absence of American troops, Pakistan’s own ascendant Taliban could feel free to join hands with Afghanistan’s Taliban.
In other words, these days even Islamabad is interested in putting the Taliban in a cage — or a peace agreement. In fact, Islamabad has favored a negotiated reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban all along, if Kabul would agree to include a role for Pakistan and its interests.
The United States is now talking to Iran. Its relations with Pakistan have stabilized. Its withdrawal from Afghanistan is in the works. All of this could make possible the kind of regional dialogue that could give Afghanistan a chance for a future.
Afghanistan had a good election, but the war is not over. America will not be fighting that war, but it can help bring about a peace.
Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.