Seeking regional peace for Afghanistan

October 23, 2008

Given the focus on U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan since 9/11, it’s easy to forget the regional context. In an article in Foreign Affairs, Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid try to set that right, calling for a regional approach that would take account of the interests not just of Afghanistan, but also of Pakistan, Russia, Iran, India and China.

“Both U.S. presidential candidates are committed to sending more troops to Afghanistan, but this would be insufficient to reverse the collapse of security there. A major diplomatic initiative involving all the regional stakeholders … is more important,” it says.

“No government in the region around Afghanistan supports a long-term U.S. or NATO presence there. Pakistan sees even the current deployment as strengthening an India-allied regime in Kabul; Iran is concerned that the United States will use Afghanistan as a base for launching ‘regime change’ in Tehran; and China, India, and Russia all have reservations about a NATO base within their spheres of influence and believe they must balance the threats from al Qaeda and the Taliban against those posed by the United States and NATO,” it adds.

Among its recommendations, it calls for a regional framework to allay Pakistan’s fears that it faces both a U.S.-Indian-Afghan alliance and a separate Iranian-Russian alliance, each aimed at undermining Pakistani influence in Afghanistan and even dismembering the Pakistani state. It suggests setting up a contact group including the five permanent members of the Security Council — three of them, the United States, Britain and France have troops in Afghanistan, while two, Russia and China face Islamist militancy in the North Caucasus and in Xinjiang respectively –along with perhaps NATO and Saudi Arabia, to promote dialogue between India and Pakistan on their competing interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir. 

This suggestion is unlikely to go down well with India, which resents outside interference on Kashmir, considers it has legitimate interests in Afghanistan which go well beyond its relationship with Pakistan, and sees itself as a candidate for permanent membership of the Security Council.

China, Pakistan’s largest investor, and poised to become the largest investor in Afghanistan as well, could play “a particularly significant role” in helping to stabilise the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. China had an interest in peace in the region so it could send goods from Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea ports of Pakistan and so that oil and gas pipelines could carry energy from the Persian Gulf and Iran to western China.

Russia should be involved so that Afghanistan did not become a test of wills between the United States and Russia as had happened in Georgia. ”Russia should be assured that U.S. and NATO forces can help defend, rather than threaten, legitimate Russian interests in Central Asia.”

Tehran would also need to know that that the United States and NATO presence in Afghanistan was not a threat to Iran. “The Bush administration responded to Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan in 2001 by placing Tehran in the ‘axis of evil’ and by promising to keep ‘all options on the table’, which is understood as a code for not ruling out a military attack. Iran has reacted in part by aiding insurgents in Afghanistan to signal how much damage it could do in response.” It suggested a direct dialogue with Tehran around the two countries’ common concerns in Afghanistan.

The authors admit their proposals “may seem audacious, naive, or impossible”. But seven years after the U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan, is there an alternative?

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