November 15, 2011

Gameplans for Afghanistan

Pakistan's policies are forcing Mr. Karzai to seek autonomy. But that makes Islamabad more paranoid.

As the Obama administration pushes for an earlier drawdown of U.S. troops, Kabul must quickly take responsibility for maintaining internal stability and charting an independent foreign policy. We asked four analysts—Michael O'Hanlon, Marin Strmecki, Amin Saikal and Nitin Pai—how Kabul should address the challenge.

Don't Turn to India
By Michael O'Hanlon

Afghan President Hamid Karzai went to New Delhi last month and signed a long-term security agreement, making many believe that Kabul can choose India over Pakistan for its key strategic partner in the region. Yet the notion that India can be a substitute for Pakistan is an unwise gamble. If Kabul continues down this road, the most probable outcome would be Islamabad waging a full-blown proxy war.

Pakistan is paranoid about its arch rival gaining a major foothold in Afghanistan. This is its chief motivation for all the trouble its intelligence agencies have caused by supporting the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura Taliban.

This problem is bad enough as is, but it could grow more severe. In a worst case, as NATO winds down its effort in Afghanistan, Pakistan could seek to stir up even more trouble, with the possibility of civil war and even the partition of Afghanistan becoming much more real. In turn, the country could once again become a terrorist sanctuary.

To be sure, it would be useful if New Delhi and Kabul expanded their economic interactions. However, even as Kabul seeks better ties with New Delhi it must work hard to strengthen relations with Islamabad. Kabul should seek a bargain in which it addresses some of Pakistan's fears in exchange for Islamabad reining in the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura.

One step Kabul should take is clarifying the nature of military relations with India. In the aftermath of President Karzai's trip to India, where New Delhi and Kabul agreed that India would help train Afghan security forces, Afghanistan could promise Pakistan that such training will occur only under the auspices of NATO's training mission, as long as NATO remains in Afghanistan.

Second, Kabul also could request that India close its consulates in eastern and southern Afghanistan. Islamabad sees these Indian outposts in Jalalabad and Kandahar as intelligence collection sites and covert action staging bases in disguise. Though it's doubtful that the consulates are as threatening as Islamabad thinks, they are not important enough to risk antagonizing Pakistan.

Kabul also should commit to respect the Durand Line that has separated Pakistan and Afghanistan since British times as the effective border indefinitely. Afghans continue to resist accepting this arbitrary line as their boundary. But it makes little sense for small, weak Afghanistan to pick a fight with its big neighbor over where the border should be, especially since what is at stake are remote mountain regions that are hardly the heartland of either country.

David Gothard
Finally, Kabul should further develop Afghanistan-Pakistan border management discussions, with high-level government participation on both sides. In this forum, Islamabad could also convey its preferences as to who among the Haqqanis or other tribes might be accorded government jobs in Afghanistan's eastern provinces. Islamabad should not get to choose Afghanistan's local leaders, but there is no reason to deprive it of a chance to advocate for certain interests. Afghanistan might do the same in reverse.

None of this will be easy. But for those looking for fruitful peace talks to secure Afghanistan's future, a conversation with Pakistan is a more promising arena for diplomacy than with India, and certainly better than those between Kabul and the Taliban.

Mr. O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Have a Plan B
By Marin Strmecki

Afghanistan's survival, long dependent on adroit geopolitics, will turn on its external relations more so now than ever before. The immediate challenge is how to deal with the Pakistan's determined effort to destabilize Afghanistan through support for terrorist proxies.

The best option—let's call it Plan A—is to try to recreate the conditions that enabled internal and regional stability in the 20th century before the Communist coup and Soviet intervention in 1979. This formula involved giving all of Afghanistan's neighbors some degree of political influence but permitting none to have a dominant one. This preserved Afghan independence, since it convinced one power that the others didn't have a dominant foothold in Kabul.

In those quieter and more stable days, Afghanistan also had a government with institutions sufficiently strong to uphold that balance-of-power formula. Its security forces then enabled the government to police its territory, while its political and economic institutions created the legitimacy that ensured the social cohesion, making it difficult for foreign powers to subvert that.

Today, with its institutions and economy only partially rebuilt and with a much more dangerous threat environment, the Afghan government cannot do this alone. It therefore requires Afghanistan to have a long-term strategic relationship with the United States that includes an enduring but relatively small military presence and long-term capacity building efforts in the security and other sectors.

An aspect of the U.S. role would be to reassure regional powers, particularly Pakistan, that Afghanistan would not become an instrument of one of its rivals. In essence, the U.S. would guarantee Afghanistan's non-alignment vis-à-vis regional rivals. At the same time, the U.S. should mediate Pakistan-Afghanistan issues (such as the border ones) and facilitate regional trade. This approach will test whether the Pakistani military can be reconciled to the existence of a stable and independent Afghanistan.

If this does not alter Pakistan's policies—and there is good reason to believe that it would not—then Afghanistan must go to Plan B, which involves balancing against or containing Pakistan. In this scenario, Kabul will still need the relationship with Washington to build up internal Afghan capabilities to thwart Pakistan's policies. More importantly, the enduring U.S. presence would need to be larger. If President Obama draws down American forces too quickly or fails to commit to an enduring presence after 2014, it will be difficult to bring this plan to fruition.

Under Plan B, Afghanistan would need to stronger ties with India, Russia, Central Asian states, and possibly Iran. The recently concluded Indo-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement creates the legal framework for such cooperation. It will involve training Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police officers at Indian institutions.

When should Afghanistan shift from Plan A to Plan B? That is the big question and depends on Pakistan. Initial Afghan statements following the September assassination of former Afghan president Burhannudin Rabbani, who was leading effort to reconcile with Pakistan-supported insurgent groups, indicated that Kabul was losing faith in the possibility of coming to terms with Pakistan. Perhaps Hamid Karzai is already thinking of some kind of Plan B, considering he soon stepped up relations with New Delhi. Future Afghan leaders will have to watch out for the point when Islamabad cannot be induced to end its destabilizing policies.

Mr. Strmecki is senior vice president of the Smith Richardson Foundation.

Without the U.S., Neither Here Nor There
By Amin Saikal

Afghanistan is in the grip of long-term disorder. It lacks the necessary foundations for enduring internal stability and the capacity for pursuing an appropriately effective foreign policy. It is not in a strong position to deter Pakistan's predatory behavior or to avoid the possibility of wider internal strife. That position dwindles further with the U.S. and its NATO allies deciding to withdraw most of their troops by 2014.

With Islamabad intent on influencing the turn of events in Kabul one way or the other, Afghanistan is being dealt such cards that it's got to hedge its bets. President Karzai is taking two simultaneous tacks. The first is to conclude with Washington a new strategic partnership to enable the U.S. to retain, at least until 2024, a number of military bases, with somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 troops. These forces will aim to prevent the Taliban and their Pakistani supporters from taking over power in Kabul.

The second is to forge closer ties with those regional players that could counterbalance Pakistan. Hence his recent signing of a strategic partnership with India; greater disposition towards Iran; and even strengthening ties with China, which has become the biggest investor in the Afghan mining industry and which could potentially have a restraining influence on Pakistan. Mr. Karzai has also been keen to enlist greater Turkish and Russian involvement.

Keeping both options open might seem like a good idea, but there are troublesome aspects. For one, Mr. Karzai's problems are as much domestically rooted as they are embedded in Pakistan's interventionism. His administration is dogged by a highly fragmented, corrupt and dysfunctional governing elite. One of his legacies is bound to be his failure to depart from the tradition of governing by patronage and divide and rule. Hence Afghanistan has no strong political institutions to absorb chaos at home or at its borders. That means that while Mr. Karzai tries to play off, say, Pakistan against India, Pakistan can create enough trouble to prevent him from proceeding.

Another problem for Kabul is that no regional player with which Mr. Karzai hopes to get close has the same capacity as Washington. The United States and its allies are well-placed to help Afghanistan with its institution-building, while providing a security umbrella.

Unless the U.S. and many of its NATO allies remain firmly engaged in Afghanistan for another two decades, either a situation of stalemate and bloodshed could continue; or the ethnic Pashtun Taliban could take over power, under Pakistan's aegis. That will provoke resistance from the non-Pashtuns, who could expect to be aided by Iran, India, Central Asian republics and Russia—and plunge the country into a civil war.

Mr. Saikal is director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University. He is also author of "Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival" (2006).

Delhi Is Not Enough
By Nitin Pai

The heart of Afghanistan's problem is that its natural desire for autonomy provokes strong resistance from Pakistan. Islamabad perceives anything less than a satellite regime as inimical to its interests, in turn driving Kabul to seek autonomy by reaching out to India, Iran, Russia and China.

This vicious cycle of insecurity can be broken in two ways: reconfigure the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, or change geopolitical attitudes in Pakistan. The latter is decidedly more painless, but requires getting Pakistan's generals to change their minds. It is not going to be easy.

Afghanistan then has to look for other solutions. To some extent, the Afghan state can look to New Delhi because India faces significant risks in the short term from a U.S. withdrawal.

Triumphant militants and their backers in the Pakistani military establishment, fresh from defeating a superpower, might decide to turn their attention to Kashmir. This is what happened in the early 1990s when Pakistani and other foreign veterans of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan edged out local militants in the Kashmir valley and began one of the most violent phases of Pakistan's proxy war.

Hence India doesn't want a repeat of the 1990s. There is however a sense in New Delhi that 2011 is not 1991. Only the most credulous today accept Pakistani denials that it does not use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. The good news then is that international pressure on Pakistan is likely to persist even after U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.

Even so, New Delhi is hedging in four ways. First, as the recent agreements signed by President Karzai and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh show, India intends to further bolster the capacity of the Afghan state to provide for its own security. Training Afghan troops allows India the flexibility to raise or lower its security investments, depending on circumstances.

Second, India is strengthening its relationships with Afghan political formations opposed to the Taliban. Third, it is attempting to improve bilateral relations with Pakistan, to the extent possible. Fourth, New Delhi is cooperating with other nations to keep the conflict contained within Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Kabul has its own internal problems that bedevil its foreign policy. The strategic logic in Mr. Karzai's attempts at striking a balance in Afghanistan's relations with its neighbors has been often overshadowed by the perception that his actions are mercurial and clumsy. That means his new friends in New Delhi, Beijing or in Moscow—with whom he is trying to get closer—may look at him with some wariness.

What's more, Mr. Karzai is keeping the Pakistani channel open at the same time. In this he faces determined domestic opposition from quarters that disapprove of his dalliances with Pakistan and its proxies. All of this makes for a heart-stopping tightrope act.

Mr. Pai is founder of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank.

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