US President Barak Obama seems determined to chalk up Afghanistan as a failure on his scorecard.
Together with his decision to start drawing down the additional 33,000 troops he dispatched to the war-shattered Central Asian nation as part of his surge, Mr. Obama has also lowered his sights on what he hopes Afghanistan will look like once the vast majority of US forces have returned home 3.5 years from now.
Gone are the hopes that Afghanistan would emerge from the war as a beacon of democracy, peace and stability in a nook of the world populated by troubled, often autocratically ruled nations. Instead, Mr. Obama is gunning to leave behind a nation that no longer is a playing ground where regional powers fight some of their battles.
To achieve that, Mr. Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is reaching far back into history to the 1815 Congress of Vienna. That congress, attended by Europe’s major powers, effectively turned the Benelux into a neutral zone, created Belgium as a European buffer and marked the beginning of a century of relative stability in the region. An Afghanistan that no longer is at the center of the Great Game, the battle for influence in Central Asia between the major powers of the day, would be “a very worthy outcome,” Mrs. Clinton says.
Indeed it would, were it not that the way Mrs. Clinton intends to go about it amounts to willingly and knowingly giving birth to a stillborn baby. It is an approach that at best applies a temporary Band-Aid to a festering wound, deliberately evades tackling the puss that infects the wound and simply defies common sense.
To ensure that Afghanistan is exempted from regional rivalries, Mrs. Clinton is setting out to persuade India and Pakistan to fight their battles elsewhere and leave Afghanistan alone.
Those battles have nothing to do with Afghanistan and everything to do with Kashmir, a festering wound that not only is at the root of a destabilizing rivalry in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan, but also at the core of Pakistani-Indian tensions that effect the region, including nuclear competition between the two countries and the emergence of a fragile Pakistani state dominated by the military that sees terrorism and Islamic militancy as legitimate tools.
The Kashmir conflict is also a key spoiler in troubled US-Pakistan relations. It is too explosive a brew and too ingrained with deep-seated distrust for any exemption to have a realistic lease on life.
Afghan officials, who are as much part of the problem as they are part of the solution, have welcomed the US goal. It would take Pakistan out of their hair, the very reason they have been discreetly cuddling up to India, which in turn has made Pakistan even more determined to meddle in Afghan affairs.
Relations between the government of President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan have long been strained because of Pakistan’s role as a midwife and long-term supporter of the Taliban. Tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan flared last weekend with the Karzai government accusing the Pakistani military of firing rockets into Afghan territory. The military admitted the incident saying that rockets it fired during clashes with Pakistani Islamist militants fighting from the safety of the Afghan side of the border could have unintentionally landed inside Afghanistan.
The US plan for a neutral Afghanistan is stillborn because Pakistan will have to play a key role in any dialogue with the Taliban over ending the Afghan war. The Taliban are certain to play an important role in Afghanistan by hook or by crook once US forces have withdrawn from the country and a Pakistan embroiled in a festering dispute with India over Kashmir has every interest in ensuring that they do. For its part, India has every interest in preventing that from happening.
As a result, it is hardly rocket science that anything short of attempting to engineer an understanding between India and Pakistan over Kashmir will hardly be worth the paper it is written on and almost certainly circumvented by all parties. If anything reduced US involvement in Afghanistan could lead to an intensification of regional rivalries.
Granted, tackling Kashmir is easier said than done. Healing a long-festering wound that has distorted regional and domestic relations is no mean fete and may even prove impossible. But with the United States seeking to remove Afghanistan as a headache and secure its place in a world in which power is being redistributed to the advantage of China and India, it is an undertaking that makes a lot more sense than attempting to arrange an understanding that stands no chance of being adhered to.
Kashmir may be as intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The problem is that it is as important as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to preserving US interests in an emerging new world. If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict proves anything, it is that Band-Aids don’t work and understandings hold only if they are embedded in addressing core issues.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org)