This commentary appeared in International Herald Tribune on March 26, 2009.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described the upcoming high-level conference on Afghanistan at The Hague as a "big-tent meeting, with all the parties who have a stake and an interest in Afghanistan." With the situation in that country growing more precarious by the day, those attending this meeting must also think big.
Henry Kissinger already is. "Afghanistan is almost the archetypal international problem requiring a multilateral solution for the emergence of a political framework," he recently wrote in the International Herald Tribune. "In the 19th century, formal neutrality was sometimes negotiated to impose a standstill on interventions in and from strategically located countries."
"Is it possible," he asked, "to devise a modern equivalent?"
The answer is yes.
Those gathering under the "big tent" should start laying the groundwork for establishing Afghanistan as a permanently neutral state. Harkening back to the Congress of Vienna in 1815, this approach has been successful in neutralizing regional and great power rivalries that have threatened smaller, more vulnerable states. Switzerland and Austria are two examples.
Afghanistan is in this category today. Landlocked and resource-poor, the country is at risk of unwelcome external influences. Predatory neighbors have been a fact of life for the Afghan state throughout most of its history. When its neighbors perceived a common interest in a peaceful Afghanistan, it was at peace. When they did not, it was at war.
Afghanistan may be a hard country to occupy, as the British discovered in the 19th century and the Russians in the 20th, but it is an easy one to destabilize. At present it is being destabilized by multiple insurgencies organized, directed and supplied from sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan.
During its periods of relative tranquility, Afghanistan operated as a buffer state, in the 19th century between the British and Russian empires, and through much of the 20th between the Soviet and U.S. spheres of influence. Sustained peace in Afghanistan will require the recreation of such an equilibrium.
Kissinger proposed that a working group of Afghanistan's neighbors, India and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council be established to begin this process. This is an appropriate grouping, with the addition of Afghanistan, and it should be convened under the auspices of the U.N. secretary general.
The goal would be a multilateral accord that establishes principles and guarantees for Afghanistan's long-term status, to include agreements:
Such a package would give all the participants something of value. Pakistan would secure Afghan recognition of its border and assurances that India would not be allowed to use Afghan territory to pressure or destabilize Pakistan's volatile border regions.
India would be free to pursue normal relations with Kabul, including direct trade and commercial ties.
Iran would receive assurances that the international community recognizes its legitimate interests in Afghanistan and that the U.S. military presence on its eastern border is not permanent.
The United States and its allies would be able to depart, leaving behind a society at peace with itself and its neighbors.
Of greatest value would be the benefits for Afghanistan itself. It would gain an end to cross border infiltration and attacks, allowing it to pay full attention to rebuilding the country. Moreover, its hope of emerging as a regional crossroads for trade and commerce — a 21st century "Silk Road" — could be realized.
Diplomacy of this sort is no short term alternative to NATO's prosecuting a more effective counterinsurgency campaign inside Afghanistan.
More Western troops and economic assistance, more sophisticated military tactics and greater civilian capacity will be needed to turn the tide that is currently running against NATO and the democratically based government in Kabul.
In the longer term, however, Afghanistan will be able to secure its territory and population only with the active collaboration of its more powerful neighbors. Beginning now to build such a consensus is the ultimate Western exit strategy and the end state for Afghanistan that we should seek.
Karl F. Inderfurth, professor of international affairs at George Washington University, was the U.S. representative to the U.N.-sponsored "6 plus 2" talks on Afghanistan from 1997-2001. James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp., was the Bush administration's first special envoy for Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11.
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