Afghan problem: for a regional approach

The U.N. Secretary-General should engage in a diplomatic exercise to hold talks with all the parties and states concerned to establish a consensus on arriving at a compact of mutual non-intervention and non-interference among all of Afghanistan's neighbours.  

Ambassador Robert Blackwill is well known among the ‘strategic' community in India as a person who contributed to the development of India- United States relations during his stay in New Delhi as the American ambassador to India, which also made him knowledgeable about what is now referred to, unfortunately, as the AfPak region. He is known for his bold, often unconventional and ‘out of the box,' thinking on issues of peace and security. Hence, his views on how the U.S. should tackle the Afghan quagmire must be taken serious note of.

In an article in the Financial Times of July 21, Mr. Blackwill has argued that the current strategy of counter-insurgency will fail and the U.S. will not succeed in persuading enough and weighty Taliban leaders to join in a reconciliation exercise. Since the U.S. can neither win the war nor withdraw precipitously, the only alternative is to arrange for what he calls a de facto partition of Afghanistan. The southern and eastern parts of the country would be surrendered to the Pashtuns which, in effect, would mean the Taliban. The U.S. and a coalition of “like-minded countries” would establish a separate regime in the non-Pashtun north and west of the country. The U.S. and others would maintain a more or less permanent presence of about 50,000 troops and air power to continue to harass the al-Qaeda elements in the other half and across the Durand Line as well as prevent the Pashtun and the Taliban from conquering the north and the west.

Such a solution, he admits, will leave many non-Pashtuns at the mercy of the Pashtuns in the southern part but he writes that off as an “unfortunate but unavoidable” consequence, as he does the complete denial of human rights to women in Pashtunland. He even treats the fragmentation of Pakistan, a possible result of his solution, with equanimity. Why should the U.S., he asks, be more concerned with Pakistan's territorial integrity than General Kayani and his colleagues? And so on.

Mr. Blackwill's diagnosis of the ailments afflicting Afghanistan contains many ground truths, but his proposed cure — a de facto partition of the country between the Pashtun south and the non-Pashtun north and west — is infinitely worse than the disease. Firstly, it smacks of a colonial attitude. Instead of the classic “divide and rule,” he is recommending “divide and depart;” the British practised them both in the sub-continent with disastrous consequences. Ahmed Rashid writing in an article in Financial Times on August 4 says: “Partition will lead to worse horrors than witnessed at India's division in 1947.”

Secondly, while we do not speak for our respective governments, it is unthinkable that either the U.S. or India, or indeed any other “like-minded” country will look favourably at this plan and join in such blatant interference in Afghanistan's internal situation and become parties to a civil conflict. Thirdly, women in the Taliban territory will be doomed forever to a life of denial of all human rights. Fourthly, it completely ignores the fact that Afghans of all ethnicities have a strong sense of nationhood, despite ethnic divergences; if the Afghans wanted to partition their country, they would have done so long ago and on their own terms. Ahmed Rashid cites, in the same article, several previous attempts by the Soviet Union, Iran as well as by Pakistan to divide Afghanistan on ethnic lines, all turned down by Afghans of all ethnicities.

According to Rashid, in 1996, when the Taliban initially failed to take the north, Pakistan's ISI suggested that the Pashtun group create its own state in the south. But the Taliban refused, despite its dependence on the ISI. And lastly, a partition will hasten the very result that it is meant to delay and avoid, namely, a civil war-type situation. Afghanistan's immediate and near-neighbours would feel compelled to be dragged into the vortex. To quote Rashid again: “It would endanger Pakistan, encouraging some 40 million Pashtuns in Pakistan to link up with some 15 million Pashtun brothers in Afghanistan and forge an extremist state that gives refuge to terrorists.”

And the consequences for India will be simply intolerable.

Mr. Blackwill is conscious that his prescription is not ideal; he only offers it because he sees no better or less bad alternative. But there is another, practicable though not an easy alternative approach that we have advocated in the past. We are convinced that what is needed is a regional approach to Afghanistan's problems, to address the multiple crises emanating from the region — terrorism, crime, drugs, refugees. The solution lies in less or zero interference, not more, and certainly not military intervention, in Afghanistan's affairs.

It is a historical fact that Afghanistan enjoyed relative stability and even prosperity when it practised, and was allowed by its neighbours and external powers to practise, a kind of neutrality in its foreign policy. If somehow conditions can be created that would permit Afghanistan to once again revert to its traditional neutrality, it ought to help in significantly reducing tensions in the region. This might appear to be a difficult or impossible goal to achieve in the prevailing climate of hatred and suspicions, but that is no reason for not considering it and working for it.

We believe that someone, preferably the Secretary-General of the United Nations, should engage in a diplomatic exercise to hold talks with all the parties and states concerned to establish a consensus, however defined, on arriving at a compact of mutual non-intervention and non-interference among all of Afghanistan's neighbours. The 1962 Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos provides one possible model and there could be others. The Bonn Agreement of December 2001, which brought into being the provisional government headed by Hamid Karzai, specifically tasks the United Nations to ‘guarantee' non-interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs; thus the Secretary-General already has the necessary mandate to undertake the necessary consultations. The process, which would be quite protracted, should eventually consummate in an international conference where all the neighbours of Afghanistan would solemnly commit themselves not to interfere or intervene in its internal affairs, as well as not to support in any way — politically, materially or militarily — any group or faction within Afghanistan. Afghanistan, for its part, would solemnly undertake to abjure forever from inviting any foreign elements to intervene in its internal problems.

The final document would be witnessed by the five permanent members of the Security Council as well as by the relevant foreign powers and would be registered with the United Nations. In addition, the participants at the proposed conference would need to take one further step — to establish an international commission to supervise the implementation of the document. A monitoring group and/or a complaints procedure would need to be established. It would be essential to create some mechanism that could inspire confidence among the signatories about compliance by all of them with their commitments.

As mentioned above, the proposal which we are putting forward is not an easy one. It will call for a sustained effort over many months. The then special envoy of the then Secretary General took several years to persuade all the parties to agree to the terms of the Geneva Agreement of 1988 which brought an end to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The challenges underlying our proposal must not deter the required effort and political will. We are convinced that it is definitely preferable either to the imposed and bloody partition, de facto or otherwise, of Afghanistan or to the alternative of precipitate withdrawal or open-ended military engagement of foreign forces in the country.

(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan served as India's special envoy for West Asia and is a former U.N. under secretary general. Karl F. Inderfurth served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs from 1997-2001 and is a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.)

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