Navigating a Turbulent Middle East

February 17, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy Region: Middle East

Navigating a Turbulent Middle East

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad sizes up America's position in the greater Middle East.

Could détente between Tehran and Washington turn into a threat for the United States' Arab allies?

Should there be détente with Iran, it will not be easy to carry out, and such a détente would be a concern to some U.S. allies. I believe that the foundation of any détente would require five elements: guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is restricted to peaceful purposes only; limits on Iranian missile programs; ending Iranian support for extremist groups; stopping Iran’s meddling in the internal affairs of neighbors; and respect for human rights inside Iran. It should be recalled that the U.S. pursued détente with the Soviet Union without undermining its allies around the world.

Washington is pulling its last troops from Afghanistan after 13 years. However, the Taliban as the main opposition against the Afghan government insists on armed struggle. There is no promising peace prospect, narco-business has become stronger and radicalism, especially with the rise of ISIS, has taken a boost. Has Washington's military and political strategy in Afghanistan, at least in these areas, failed? In this situation, can Afghan security forces that are reportedly lacking military equipment, especially heavy weaponry, stand against extremist forces? Does the US' government have any plans to provide Afghans with their military needs?

Afghanistan has come a long way, and has become a much better place, since 2001. Life expectancy of the average Afghan has increased by a dozen years. The country also now has much better infrastructure. There is more freedom of press in Afghanistan than in Iran – Afghanistan ranked 45 spots above Iran in the 2014 world press freedom index. After a long period with a robust international security presence, it is time to shift more responsibility to the Afghan national security forces. At the same time, there is growing appreciation of the continuing extremist threat in the world today, so I do not think that Afghanistan will be left to face security challenges alone. The U.S. should reconsider the current plans for complete withdrawal at the end of 2016.

Moreover, the new government in Kabul is engaging China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia more intensely and is reinvigorating the reconciliation process. The tone from Islamabad has become more promising. But there is a long way to go, and Pakistan's statements alone, while positive, are not enough. Statements have to be accompanied by concrete actions to deny sanctuary to extremists and to assist with reconciliation.

The new government in Afghanistan has recently introduced its cabinet and brought hope among Afghan citizens. How do you see (Ashraf Ghani) Ahmadzai's capacity to solve Afghanistan's problems?

I believe that President Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah have the right vision for Afghanistan. Both leaders have good plans and ideas to transform and develop the country. They have an agreed agenda on the major reforms that must take place, especially for dealing with important issues such as corruption. There’s a lot of potential, but only time will tell how much they will accomplish. They need and deserve regional and international support.

Some American officials have recently declared that they "are not going to target Taliban simply by virtue of the fact that they're Taliban." Does this mean that Taliban is not considered a hostile force by the U.S. government anymore?

In general, the Taliban are a hostile force. But the group is fragmented, and some elements are willing to come to terms with the Afghan government and embrace a nationalist agenda, including on the issue of ties with the U.S. The Afghan government and the U.S. should be open to engaging with these elements.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are both non-NATO allies of Washington. Karzai's administration consistently accused Islamabad of backing the Taliban, and in the meantime criticized the U.S. government for not focusing on the main sponsors and strongholds of Taliban. Do you agree with them? Why did the U.S. government fail to solve tensions between its two allies?

This has been a real challenge, but it is not unique to these two countries. Other neighboring countries, both of which happen to be U.S. allies, have had profound differences. That is the case with Greece and Turkey. The U.S. has made significant efforts to help Afghanistan and Pakistan resolve their bilateral problems, including the appointment of special envoys to both countries and the convening of summits between leaders. There is potential for real cooperation on security and economic issues. Afghanistan responded to the recent worsening of the security situation in Pakistan, and specifically the attack on students in Peshawar, by enhancing its effort to tackle extremism. President Ghani is also trying to improve economic relations by opening new border trade posts to realize Afghanistan’s potential as a land bridge connecting Central and South Asia. Hopefully, Pakistan will reciprocate to these initiatives to the benefit of both sides and the wider region.

Strategic talks between Islamabad and Washington have resumed after a period of interruption. How do you see the prospect of these negotiations? What issues will be discussed?

The U.S. has sought greater action by Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for the Haqqani network and Taliban extremists. Also, the U.S. has an interest in improving Pakistan’s ability to defend itself against extremists. Pakistan is intensifying efforts to combat terrorism, as indicated by the recent operations in western Pakistan. There’s also growing appreciation in Pakistan of the risks associated with using extremist groups for political purposes against Afghanistan and India. Many Pakistanis see that such policies tend to backfire. I believe that a main issue in U.S.-Pakistani discussions will be the need for Islamabad to make a strategic break with extremists.

Zalmay Khalilzad is a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and president of Khalilzad Associates, an international business consulting firm based in Washington, DC. Previously, he served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.

Image: Flickr/ U.S. Air Force​