The missile shield and the “grand bargain” on Afghanistan and Pakistan

September 17, 2009

Back in 2008, even before Barack Obama was elected, Washington pundits were urging him to adopt a new regional approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan involving Russia, India, China, Saudi Arabia and even Iran. The basic argument was that more troops alone would not solve the problems, and that the new U.S administration needed to subsume other foreign policy goals to the interests of winning a regional consensus on stabilising Afghanistan.

It would be simplistic to suggest that the Obama administration’s decision to cancel plans to build a missile-shield in eastern Europe was motivated purely — or even primarily — by a need to seek Russian help in Afghanistan. But it certainly serves as a powerful reminder about how far that need to seek a “grand bargain” on Afghanistan may be reshaping and influencing policy decisions around the world.

“Securing Afghanistan and its region will require an international presence for many years, but only a regional diplomatic initiative that creates a consensus to place stabilizing Afghanistan ahead of other objectives could make a long-term international deployment possible,” Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid argued in their much-cited 2008 policy paper titled “From Great Game to Grand Bargain”. (pdf document).

Many of those arguments reappeared in a more recent report by the Asia Society (pdf document) — formerly chaired by U.S special envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke – so they are worth studying closely.

The ideas were ambitious and far-reaching, from remapping relations between Russia and the United States, prodding India and Pakistan towards a peace deal on Kashmir, seeking help from Iran and drawing in China and Saudi Arabia.  Some of those ideas were blown off course by the financial crisis, by the row in Iran over its disputed election, and by last November’s attack on Mumbai which undermined U.S. attempts to steer India and Pakistan towards a peace deal.

And recently, they had been almost completely drowned by the media focus on military tactics and the merits of sending more troops to Afghanistan. With the U.S. decision to cancel the missile shield, one of those ideas — about seeking Russian help in Afghanistan — may have finally managed to break above the surface again.

In the case of Russia, the question was always about what price the United States was willing to pay to win Moscow’s help in Afghanistan, possibly through less ardent support for NATO aspirants Ukraine and Georgia and a review of the missile shield due to be set up in the Czech Republic and Poland.

Obama already moved to try to assuage fears in Moscow and elsewhere that the United States might be seeking a permanent military presence in Afghanistan, a long-standing concern in Russia wary of having U.S. troops in what it sees as its backyard. “Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there,” Obama said in his speech in Cairo in June

But it has been unclear how much further he might be willing to compromise to win Russia’s support for what has become widely known as “Obama’s war” in Afghanistan.

As discussed in this post, the Moscow Times spelled out what it saw as the price of Russian cooperation in Afghanistan in an op-ed published before Obama’s inauguration:

“Afghanistan may well define your foreign policy legacy the way Iraq defined Bush’s,” it said. “You will need all the support you can muster, including from Iran. You will also need Russia’s support. Moscow understands that the stability of its southern flank will hugely depend on what happens on the Hindu Kush mountain range in eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. But Moscow is torn between giving support to the West and preparing for the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The latter would mean cutting deals with the Taliban locally and relying on China strategically. You can help Russia make the right choice.”

Of course, there are many other reasons for, and consequences of, the U.S. decision on the missile shield, as discussed here and here.

But if anyone wants a steer on the likely direction of U.S. foreign policy, and its implications globally, it’s probably worth rereading Barnett Rubin’s “grand bargain” proposal from last year. Diplomacy is the art of the possible, and nobody expects the recommendations to be followed to the letter. But with Obama a considerably more cerebral president than his predecessor, the old “Read my Lips” slogan probably needs to be replaced with a new one: “Read the pdf.”

(You can also find regular updates on the progress in relations between India and Pakistan – one of the key themes of that report — on “Pakistan:Now or Never”, most recently in this post)

(Reuters photos: Girl in Afghanistan; Holbrooke, Obama)

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