An Endgame for Afghanistan

The epochal events in the Middle East this year have redefined foreign policy. There are new priorities and challenges that need intensive Western engagement. But it is imperative that the war in Afghanistan does not become the “forgotten war,” as happened with such dangerous consequences after 2002.

There are signs of a significant turn in policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke in February of a “political surge.” NATO’s senior civilian representative, Mark Sedwill, said last month “the time is now right to take the risk and pursue the political agenda with the same energy we have brought to the military and civilian surges.”

These deviations from the otherwise relentless focus on military operations, allied and Afghan, need to be taken to a whole new level of urgency, coherence and effort.

The 2014 end date set by NATO will prove illusory unless there is an endgame. And that endgame must be negotiations, involving Western powers led by the United States, with all factions in the Afghan struggle and their backers in the region.

The issue is not simply that the political arm of the Defense-Development-Diplomacy triad has been missing in action. A political settlement is not one part of a multipronged strategy in a counterinsurgency; it is the overarching framework within which everything else fits and in the service of which everything else operates.

First and most important, the United Nations Security Council needs to appoint and empower a U.N. mediator to facilitate talks, with a clear mandate setting out principles of the endgame and an open invitation to all to participate.

The mediator should come from the Muslim world. His job would be to canvass the views of all parties and create the confidence for and commitment to a process for serious talks about the future of Afghanistan. He should for a start develop the idea of a safe place in a third country — an Arabian Gulf State, Turkey or Japan — for all the sides to talk.

We need steps by which each side can prove its bona fides. The Taliban want an end to night raids, safe passage to and from talks, prisoner releases. We need to propose localized cease-fires, security for development projects on the model of the polio vaccination campaigns that the Taliban have supported in the past, a Taliban declaration of disassociation from Al Qaeda.

Third, there needs to be clarity of civilian command of the international presence in Afghanistan, to match the clarity of military command. As the U.S. appoints a new ambassador this year, this appointment needs the personality, instruction and length of mandate to convene and cohere the disparate strands of civilian effort between now and 2014.

The job description would include being President Hamid Karzai’s principal interlocutor, working closely with him on the endgame strategy, liaising strongly with the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to ensure that military strategy comes behind it, and creating a framework within which the political strength of the U.N., and the development strengths of contributing nations, can bear full fruit.

Fourth, Pakistan needs a long-term relationship with the United States and the European Union based on responsibility and respect. It cannot have privilege, but pressure alone will not get it to deliver. Pakistan needs an up-front deal that we will support their long-term security in return for their help now in protecting ours; the alternative is that we end up negotiating with the Taliban and Pakistan in a delayed endgame.

Fifth, there needs to be a process to get all the neighbors talking in a serious and structured way. The new U.N. envoy should be responsible for regional engagement as well as internal talks. In the first instance these should be bilateral. The medium-term goal should be a Council of Regional Stability that oversees a compact between the neighbors and Afghanistan.

Our leverage will decline, not improve, as 2014 approaches. The insurgency can spread, outstripping the ability of international and Afghan forces to check its growth. The warlords can strengthen their grip. Inter-ethnic strife can come to look more and more like civil war.

Two international conferences — in Kabul in the summer and Bonn in December — currently have scant agenda or preparation. The agreement on a new political approach would make them historic occasions.

The theory and practice of counter-insurgency leads everyone to incant the cliché that there is no military solution; but it is a cliché because it is true, so it is time that we stopped behaving as if there were a military solution and developed a political one.

For that politicians need to give a lead. That is the way forward in Afghanistan — working to mend it not just rushing to end it.

By David Miliband, a member of the British Parliament and former foreign secretary (2007-2010).

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