With the Taliban growing steadily stronger, 30,000 more US troops will not lead to the early disengagement from the Afghan quagmire envisaged by President Obama, even in the improbable event that Hamid Karzai delivers on his promises of better governance. What is needed is a major United Nations diplomatic initiative designed to get Afghanistan’s regional neighbors to join in setting a disengagement timetable and to share responsibility for preventing a Taliban return to power in Kabul.
The timetable should provide not only for the early withdrawal of all US combat forces within, say, three years but also for the termination of US military access to air bases in Afghanistan within five years. It should set the stage, in short, for the military neutralization of Afghanistan.
A commitment to categorical disengagement has long been demanded by Taliban leaders as the condition for negotiations. It would test whether they are ready for the local peace deals that the Obama administration appears prepared to accept, or will insist on power-sharing in Kabul as the price of peace.
Even without a regional diplomatic framework, such a withdrawal timetable would be desirable and will become increasingly inescapable; but its political risks can be minimized by mobilizing regional support for the political containment of the Taliban.
Russia, India, Iran and Tajikistan all helped the United States to dislodge the Taliban in 2001. All of them, together with China, fear that a resurrected Taliban regime would pose a terrorist threat and would foment domestic Islamist insurgencies within their borders.
Russia faces nascent Islamist forces in its Muslim south. India worries that Taliban control in Kabul would lead to more Pakistan-based attacks like the 2008 one in Mumbai. The Shiite theocracy ruling Iran fears that a Sunni Taliban regime would help the Sunni Jundullah separatist movement in the Iranian part of Baluchistan and Salafi extremists in other non-Persian ethnic minority regions. Tajikistan faces Sunni extremist groups led by Hizb ut-Tahrir and is increasingly unsettled by an influx of Afghan refugees, which could grow if the Taliban return to power. China is beset by Islamist Uighur separatists in Xinjiang.
It is significant that all these neighboring countries are disturbed in varying degree by the expansion of US air bases near their borders; they recognize that no Taliban faction is likely to negotiate peace until the United States and NATO set a timetable that covers both withdrawal of their forces and closure of US bases. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s March 2009 proposal for a regional conference, revived recently by Henry Kissinger, has been ignored by potential participants because it assumes the indefinite continuance of a US military presence.
Iran and India are already giving large-scale economic aid to Kabul. Both might well increase it if US-NATO aid diminishes. New Delhi is helping to train the Afghan police and is prepared to join the United States and NATO in their faltering efforts to train the army.
China might well step up economic aid once the United States departs, as Li Qinggong, deputy secretary general of the China Institute for National Security Studies, hinted in a September 29 statement that also envisioned talks on “how to dispose of the forces of al-Qaeda” if and when the United States disengages and the possible establishment of “an international peacekeeping mission.” Beijing is investing $3 billion in Afghanistan’s Aynak copper mine and is “considering” a US request for help in police training. As members of a regional grouping known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, all of Afghanistan’s neighbors signed a March 27 statement spelling out detailed action plans for counterterrorism and narcotics control.