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International Herald Tribune: The Afghanistan Endgame

May 18, 2011

After almost 10 bloody years, it is the beginning of the endgame in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden drew America into Afghanistan; his death will be seen by many as the strategic rationale to depart. Even before this game changer occurred, the talk in Washington and other capitals was focusing on troop withdrawals, political settlements and negotiations with the Taliban.

For many in the region, however, Bin Laden’s demise is seen as a harbinger of more ominous developments to come: a vacuum created by the pullout of Western forces, the intensification of long-established regional rivalries, and a subsequent rise in instability inside Afghanistan itself. It is this “back-to-the-future” scenario for Afghanistan that they most fear.

To date, efforts to achieve a political settlement have been devoted mainly to building support for the so-called reconciliation process: reaching out to Taliban and other disaffected Afghans to come to some political accommodation with the current government. Whether Bin Laden’s elimination will increase the prospects for such a reconciliation remains to be seen. Some top insurgent leaders may be more willing to make a deal, with an eye toward self-preservation; others may conclude that with Bin Laden gone, the U.S. and NATO won’t be far behind.

But even if successful, a new internal political settlement will not be sufficient to assure Afghanistan’s long-term stability. What is required is a new external political settlement, one that brings the country’s neighbors and near neighbors into the process.

Historically, Afghanistan’s troubles have been, for the most part, caused by external interference and intervention, as well as by Afghan parties inviting foreign elements to take part in their internecine conflicts.

The importance of minimizing, if not totally eliminating, interference from outside parties was recognized by Afghan and other international participants at the Bonn Conference in December 2001, soon after the Taliban were ousted. The declaration adopted by the conference included a request that “the United Nations and the international community take the necessary measures to guarantee the national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Afghanistan as well as the noninterference by foreign countries in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.”

Over the past decade, there have been numerous calls for “regional cooperation” at international gatherings – including at the Istanbul “Heart of Asia” summit and the London and Kabul conferences in 2010 – but there has been little action, making these calls more aspirational than concrete.

Read the full op-ed originally published in International Herald Tribune on May 13.

Asia Foundation trustee Karl Inderfurth is the former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs and is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Chinmaya R. Gharekhan served as India’s special envoy for the Middle East and is a former U.N. under secretary general.

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