PARIS, May 16, 2011 — The recent events in Pakistan have inspired commentary more akin to conspiracy theory than geopolitical analysis, and I propose here to take a step back and observe these happenings in the larger context of the wider region.
According to press reports, the United States negotiated directly with the Taliban sometime around last October. The exact contents of the discussions are unknown, but one can surmise that the future makeup of Afghanistan after the American withdrawal was discussed. Immediately afterwards, the Russians reported that they, too, were open to negotiating with the Taliban. In the past, they had cautioned against such talks, but once the U.S. opened the door to negotiations, the Russians refused to be excluded. Then the United States began negotiating with the Karzai government about a long-term American presence in Afghanistan. Russia, along with Iran, protested while China and Pakistan remained quiet. Pakistan then made its own overture to Kabul by sending their Prime Minister to talk Karzai into opposing that long-term presence.
It is too early to judge where this game will lead. The various parties are all maneuvering for the year 2014, when NATO forces will withdraw from Afghanistan. They are unwilling to let the future of Afghanistan be decided by the Afghans themselves, and nor should they, for their vital interests are at stake there. Deep inside, none of them are happy about the American withdrawal. Whatever the Russians may say in public about American heavy-handedness, what they say in private (and this I know from personal experience) is very different. If Afghanistan should implode and become once again a safe haven for radical Islamists, all of Central Asia will feel the impact, and neither the Russians nor the Chinese have anything to gain from such a scenario. Indeed, these two countries would prefer that we stay forever in Afghanistan, doing their dirty work for them, while they themselves profit from its mineral wealth – something the Chinese have already begun to do.
Such an arrangement is of course unacceptable for the United States. Americans cannot be expected to sacrifice the lives of their loved ones to fight an enemy thousands of miles away, for the sake of friends equally remote. It would make more sense to do so if these friends were weak and helpless, but they happen to be the most powerful countries in the world; the likes of China, Russia, and India should have no trouble looking after themselves.
We would regret to see Afghanistan implode after we leave it, but compared to the countries which actually reside in that part of the world, we have much less to fear from such an event. It follows from this that the brunt of the responsibility for Afghanistan’s security must be borne by those who have the most to fear from its collapse.
The United States must do whatever it can, within reason, to leave Afghanistan with honor, that is, without leaving in its wake a civil war. Some degree of reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government may be necessary, and insofar as talks contribute to that process, they should be held, though discreetly. But we should keep in mind that internal forces alone will not decide the fate of Afghanistan. The countries that surround Afghanistan are just as important, and we must take care to enter into a dialogue with Russia, China, India, and, yes, Pakistan. None of these countries have anything to gain from the implosion of Afghanistan. In the end, if wisdom prevails, this one common interest should trump all the others and allow for a regional solution. This must be the long-term view of American policy, and the current dispute with Pakistan should not distract us from that end.
Benjamin Ra is a graduate student in International Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. American foreign policy is his main interest. Read more of Benjamin’s writing in A Word on the National Interest in the Communities at the Washington Times.