No Responsible Exit from Afghanistan

Hopes of a regional agreement are futile. The West must find another way to prevent leaving Afghanistan in shambles.

Representatives of Afghanistan, neighboring nations and others involved in the Afghan war, meeting in Istanbul this week, want a regional agreement that could lead to a stable Afghanistan and the disengagement of foreign powers. It will disappoint the well-meaning theorists of international relations, activists and elected officials who are holding on to this straw in a nearly desperate search to find a “responsible” exit from a Vietnam-like morass.

Those who argue for a regional solution include Indian vice president Hamid Ansari, who calls for a neutral Afghanistan. Germany led the formation of an International Contact Group, which held a meeting in Kabul in June 2011 that included representatives of more than fifty nations. Henry Kissinger gave it the kind of caché only an éminence grise of his stature can award when he called for “a partly regional, partly global diplomatic effort” as part of the Afghan peace process in a June 2011 op-ed in the Washington Post.

Russia is also interested in playing a role (and curbing that of the United States) in what it considers its sphere of influence. Though Moscow hardly plans to return to Afghanistan itself, it does seek a key role in a regional arrangement. As President Mevedev put it, “What is happening in Afghanistan in the security sphere ultimately lies on our shoulders, so we need to strengthen cooperation within regional organizations.”

Even the U.S. secretary of state has toyed with the idea. In her testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 23, 2011, Hillary Clinton was asked by Senator Richard Lugar whether the nearly 200-year-old precedent of the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15 could offer a model for Afghanistan today. Clinton responded, “[The] Congress of Vienna is an interesting historical example because there was a pact among regional powers that in effect left the Benelux countries as a free zone, so to speak . . . Afghanistan is a part of a much larger diplomatic pattern and set of relationships, comparable to the Congress of Vienna.” She went on: “Certainly, if we could get to that point with the regional powers in South Asia that would be a very worthy outcome.” She added Iran to the names suggested by Senator Lugar—India, Russia, Saudi Arabia. She concluded, “The only way we are going to get a political solution is through this kind of diplomatic outreach and that is what we are engaged in.”

On the surface, a peaceful solution enforced by Afghanistan’s neighbors makes sense. China is keen to gain access to Afghanistan’s large mineral resources and would find investment there more promising if the security problems could be resolved. Pakistan seeks influence in Afghanistan due to fears that it may provide India with bases for attacks and deny Islamabad strategic depth. Thus, Pakistan would benefit if India agreed to stay out of Afghanistan in exchange for its own commitment that it would not interfere in Afghanistan’s affairs. The United States and its allies would surely be pleased to find a way out of the quagmire.

Unfortunately, there is very little chance that such rational thinking will prevail this week in Istanbul. It is enough to point out that those assembled include representatives of Iran and Saudi Arabia to gain a sense of the animosity among key participates. Pakistan and India have shown repeatedly that they want to control Afghanistan and will go to extreme lengths, including spurring insurgents and terrorists, to ensure that the other does not play a role in its future.

Even before the conference participants had a chance to greet each other, they were already involved in more than one squabble. The organizers decided to downgrade the status of some participants from “observers” to “supporters.” And France—a major proponent of creating a Central Asia Security Organization, which would ensure that commitments not to have contact with insurgent groups are enforced—was bitterly disappointed when the host country, Turkey, proposed a vague “initiative” to pursue security, rather than a more permanent “mechanism” or “structure.”

One must conclude, with regret, that as attractive as a regional solution might be, and as rational as it might seem to neutral analysts, it has no legs to stand on in the harsh international reality. The United States and its allies, seeking to disengage while leaving behind a stable Afghanistan, will need to find another exit.