The Afghanistan Endgame

After almost 10 bloody years, it is the beginning of the endgame in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden drew America into Afghanistan; his death will be seen by many as the strategic rationale to depart. Even before this game changer occurred, the talk in Washington and other capitals was focusing on troop withdrawals, political settlements and negotiations with the Taliban.

For many in the region, however, Bin Laden’s demise is seen as a harbinger of more ominous developments to come: a vacuum created by the pullout of Western forces, the intensification of long-established regional rivalries, and a subsequent rise in instability inside Afghanistan itself. It is this “back-to-the-future” scenario for Afghanistan that they most fear.

To date, efforts to achieve a political settlement have been devoted mainly to building support for the so-called reconciliation process: reaching out to Taliban and other disaffected Afghans to come to some political accommodation with the current government. Whether Bin Laden’s elimination will increase the prospects for such a reconciliation remains to be seen. Some top insurgent leaders may be more willing to make a deal, with an eye toward self-preservation; others may conclude that with Bin Laden gone, the U.S. and NATO won’t be far behind.

But even if successful, a new internal political settlement will not be sufficient to assure Afghanistan’s long-term stability. What is required is a new external political settlement, one that brings the country’s neighbors and near neighbors into the process.

Historically, Afghanistan’s troubles have been, for the most part, caused by external interference and intervention, as well as by Afghan parties inviting foreign elements to take part in their internecine conflicts.

The importance of minimizing, if not totally eliminating, interference from outside parties was recognized by Afghan and other international participants at the Bonn Conference in December 2001, soon after the Taliban were ousted. The declaration adopted by the conference included a request that “the United Nations and the international community take the necessary measures to guarantee the national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Afghanistan as well as the noninterference by foreign countries in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.”

Over the past decade, there have been numerous calls for “regional cooperation” at international gatherings — including at the Istanbul “Heart of Asia” summit and the London and Kabul conferences in 2010 — but there has been little action, making these calls more aspirational than concrete.

Since the U.N. secretary general already has the mandate in the Bonn Declaration, he should appoint a person of high political stature and experience to focus exclusively on an external political settlement for Afghanistan, one that leads to a regional compact on noninterference and nonintervention. A similar U.N. special envoy was appointed for the 1988 Geneva Accord, a move that led to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It must be an inclusive process, including all states in the region and beyond that will play a critical role in stabilizing Afghanistan’s future, especially those that have suspicions and rivalries with one another. Pakistan and India come to mind, as do the United States and Iran, and Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The regional agreement must provide for a mechanism to monitor its implementation. It should also address matters that have critical regional importance and opportunities for cooperation: combating drug trafficking and production; assisting refugee populations; and facilitating commerce, transit and energy flows throughout the region. The latter would underscore the potential benefits for all in the region of a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.

Clearly, negotiating such an external political agreement will take considerable time and high-level effort. In the meantime, should the United States want to be more proactive, it may want to consider a proposal recently offered by former Secretary of State James Baker: “Why don’t we pull together a conference of China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran — Iran helped us when we first went into Afghanistan — and the United States and say … you guys have every bit as much of an interest in a stable Afghanistan as we do. … We might get some help.”

Help from all quarters will be essential as the beginning of the endgame in Afghanistan commences.

By Karl F. Inderfurth, who served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, who served as India’s special envoy for the Middle East and is a former U.N. under secretary general.

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