Avoiding Disaster in Afghanistan: The Regional Dimension
The U.S. decision to withdraw all military forces by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 increases the likelihood that the four-decades-long civil war in Afghanistan will intensify, at least in the short term. If the United States seeks to preserve its interests in Afghanistan (principally, blocking the recrudescence of terrorist networks and preserving the social, economic, and political gains of the past 20 years) it needs to support active diplomacy with Afghanistan’s neighbors to cement a fragile regional consensus that a settlement to the conflict is in everyone’s interests. In this scenario, the region should pressure the Taliban to exercise military restraint and negotiate seriously with the republic.
The war in Afghanistan can be thought of as comprising three interlocking circles. The innermost circle is the conflict among Afghans that has been ongoing since at least April of 1979. The intermediate circle involves the regional states, many of whom have intervened in Afghan affairs since 1979 (and indeed before). Finally, the outer ring constitutes the involvement of international forces since October 2001.
For better or for worse, the military dimension of the outer circle is closing with President Biden’s decision on April 14, 2021, based on the Trump administration’s February 2020 Doha agreement with the Taliban. International funding (especially multilateral funding) is essential to the functioning of the Afghan government, and the United States should exercise leadership to mobilize donor commitments to the republic, as it has in the past.
The first circle of conflict is in theory being addressed through the ongoing negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha (and perhaps, eventually, in Istanbul). These negotiations, despite having begun eight months ago, have not yet formally broached substance and are stalled on procedural issues. They are also hindered by political and personal divisions within the republic side, which have emboldened Taliban negotiators. Most observers believe that the Taliban are likely to test the military strength of the government post-NATO withdrawal and fighting will intensify, so progress in these negotiations is unlikely in the near term. While the Biden administration should look for opportunities to advance this track, the reality is that nothing is likely to happen unless and until a military stalemate reemerges.
As for the second ring, there is no single definitive negotiating “track.” Regional diplomatic fora abound (e.g., Heart of Asia, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan), but most are too large and too public to be effective on core political issues. Perhaps the most promising peace initiative is Moscow’s Troika Plus (Russia, China, United States, and Pakistan), but this forum does not include key regional powers such as Iran and India. The Biden administration has wisely embraced the Russian initiative, but a slightly larger grouping is necessary.
The lack of a definitive regional forum creates a vacuum at the intermediate ring. History shows that as Afghans jockey among themselves for political advantage, they seek alliances with outside powers. And the regional states are likely to protect their perceived equities within Afghanistan by supporting favored factions, initially politically but then militarily. This proxy warfare increases the risk of a multifaceted civil war and undermines the already slim chances for a political settlement.
Despite the possibility of a free-for-all, there is a tacit regional consensus in favor of peace. Most of the region would probably agree with the following:
- An acceptance of the Taliban as a political force
- A willingness to see a new political arrangement that includes the Taliban
- However, no support for a return of the “Islamic Emirate” of the 1990s
- More important, no return to the multidimensional civil war that preceded the emirate
- An end state in which Afghanistan does not allow its territory to be used for attacks on other countries and is not the venue for proxy warfare
- An end state in which Afghanistan is not the source of illicit narcotics or refugees
- An end state in which Afghanistan preserves economic and social gains made over the past 20 years
- An end state in which Afghanistan can fulfill its natural geographic role as land bridge between central and south Asia and thus foster the economic interconnectivity that regional countries have long said they desire
The challenge will be to bring these general longings into some form of concrete action.
A Tough Neighborhood
To be effective, a regional forum would need to bring together the key states with interests in Afghanistan and address their perceived equities.
Pakistan: Although it successfully pursued a hedging strategy for decades, formally supporting the U.S. and Afghan governments while simultaneously backing the Taliban, Islamabad now faces difficult choices. Backing the Taliban to the hilt would likely result in a civil war with sizable cross-border refugee flows that create opportunities for other neighboring states to back counter-Taliban forces. Even a Taliban victory would be problematic for Pakistan, as it faces its own barely-under-control extremist insurgents who would likely again find safe haven in Afghanistan. But above all else, Pakistan fears an Afghanistan aligned with India.
Iran: Formally a strong supporter of the republic, Iranian security agencies have links to the Taliban. While the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) no doubt welcomes the U.S. military departure, Tehran fears a destabilized Afghanistan and has proxy forces in waiting that could be activated in the case of a generalized civil war, especially if Afghanistan’s Shia minority comes under even greater pressure from the Islamic State groups operating in Afghanistan. Because of its fraught relationship with the United States, Iran has been unwilling to join even Moscow’s Troika Plus; it will only join a UN-convened forum. Iran also has much to lose if refugee flows from Afghanistan increase. It is already heavily and negatively impacted by narcotics trafficking out of Afghanistan.
Russia: Moscow no doubt welcomes the U.S. military withdrawal (since it always regarded the U.S. military presence in central Asia as a threat), but, like its partner Iran, fears that civil war will generate greater space for the Islamic State and narcotics traffickers.
India: Delhi has been a strong backer of the United States and the Afghan republic and opposed a U.S. military withdrawal. It is now somewhat isolated and seeking to establish ties with the Taliban. While there may be a temptation for India to back its traditional allies against the Taliban, such actions would inevitably trigger Pakistani blowback and a downward spiral into multidimensional proxy war.
China: Beijing has not been much engaged in Afghanistan, seeing the lack of security as an impediment to its economics-heavy regional approach. While it probably welcomes U.S. withdrawal, for similar reasons to Moscow, it is deeply concerned about the growth of Islamist extremism in a country that abuts Xinjiang. Many Afghans would see participation in the Belt and Road Initiative as a “peace dividend” for a political settlement.
Turkey: Seeing itself as an important player in central Asia and the Muslim world generally, Turkey could be a potential peace broker and perhaps even a security provider acceptable to both sides in the Afghan conflict.
Central Asia: The five central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan) have much to lose from greater instability in their southern neighbor and relatively little power to affect outcomes. They will be broadly supportive of peace initiatives, especially Uzbekistan.
Gulf States: This region is most likely driven to involve itself in Afghanistan by the not-entirely-healed rift between Qatar (host to the Taliban political commission and the Afghan Peace Negotiations), the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. That said, the Gulf States are potentially important donors and economic partners if a peace process succeeds. However, in the past, the Taliban benefited from donors in several Gulf countries.
Given its rapidly diminishing control over events in the ground in Afghanistan, the United States should get out of the business of convening and mediating various peace processes. Instead, the United States should throw its full weight behind the United Nations, especially the UN secretary-general’s special envoy Jean Arnault, as he attempts to establish a regional forum. The United Nations is the only potential convener with enough of a reputation for neutrality to be acceptable to all the regional parties. This would allow the United States to pivot back what should be its primary role, diplomatically shoring up the institutions of the republic in which it has invested two decades’ worth of blood and treasure.
The actual composition of the regional track should be left to the United Nations. It would be pragmatic to build on existing diplomatic fora (such as the Moscow Troika Plus, or the dormant 6+1 grouping). Any formal gathering should be reinforced by intensive private diplomacy with all the key stakeholders (and the United States should play an active role in it).
The initial objective should be to cement the existing consensus that there should be no return of the Taliban’s emirate, and to apply pressure on the Taliban to moderate its military offensive, accommodate its rivals, and engage in serious substantive negotiations. Over time it may be necessary to also press the republic for concessions, but now is not the time as Kabul reels under the departure of foreign forces.
The United States should not disengage fully. It has a vital role to play, using its diplomatic heft both publicly and privately to support Arnault, including at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Washington should use the leverage of its bilateral relationships to reinforce the work of the United Nations and the hammering out of a regional approach.
Despite troop withdrawals, the United States retains important points of leverage: It remains a significant donor to Afghanistan, both bilaterally and multilaterally. And as a P5 member of the UN Security Council, it can block any premature attempt to lift sanctions on the Taliban. Washington should use this leverage judiciously in the regional forum, and in any eventual intra-Afghan negotiations.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
The current regional situation resembles the classic game theory heuristic, the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Each individual state, including the United States, is tempted to look after its own security interests by backing a particular Afghan faction. Yet everyone would be better off by seeking a cooperative solution. There is little time left to recognize this dynamic and act on it.
Ambassador Richard Olson is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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