The diplomatic and military surge into South-Central Asia that will define the Obama administration's early years has already begun. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Centcom head Gen. David Petraeus have become regular visitors to Islamabad and Kabul. Vice President Joe Biden recently came through for huddled conversations, and veteran Balkan negotiator Richard Holbrooke has just embarked on his first trip as special envoy to the region. Enough congressional delegations are passing through that the Pakistani media jokes that there must a two-for-one sale on Pakistan International Airlines.
But perhaps people in Congress should be looking into ticket prices on China Air and IranAir as well.
Despite the flurry of American activity in the region, it's by no means clear that Washington is any closer to understanding the dynamics in South-Central Asia -- some that predate 9/11, and many that are new. On my recent trip to the region, I saw the incoherency unfolding for myself. To fix its strategy and hence, Afghanistan, the Obama administration will have to go regional -- and, crucially, look beyond the usual suspects for help, even if they are not naturally inclined allies.
We all know that Pakistan is a vital piece of the puzzle, but consider for a moment the consequences of a strategy that lacks a regional element. If the additional 30,000 U.S. troops being deployed in southern and eastern Afghanistan succeed at pushing Taliban fighters intro retreat over the border into Pakistan, they could massively destabilize that country's already volatile Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), which is itself almost as populous as Iraq. U.S. troops would be squeezing a balloon on one end only to inflate it on the other.
On the Pakistan side, newly armed (with Chinese AK-47s) tribal lashkars (militias) would be unable to cope with the Taliban influx. Meanwhile, fewer armored carrots from a pro-democracy Obama administration have diminished the Pakistani military's willingness to support American priorities, evidenced by a sudden increase in attacks on NATO convoys in Peshawar and the Khyber Pass. Centcom is scrambling for new logistics routes through Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. As was the case under the Musharraf regime, the Army is more interested in American planes than policies.
But China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are also becoming increasingly important -- not as neighbors of the chaos, like Pakistan, but meddlers in it. The United States is already failing to grasp not only the details of other powers' maneuverings in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the extent to which these dealings could eclipse even the most brilliant U.S. shuttle diplomacy by Holbrooke.
China's long-term strategy is clear: It has become the largest investor in Afghanistan, developing highways to connect Iran and the giant Aynak copper mine south of Kabul. The Chinese have likewise financed the deep-water port at Gwadar on Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is widely thought to be funnelling unquantified sums to Wahabbi mosques and the Taliban, and the country's leadership is brokering the latter's negotiations with the Karzai regime.
For its part, Iran is building electricity plants to meet Pakistan's growing shortfall. More importantly, the country is renewing efforts to construct an Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline, which both Pakistan and India badly need. Power outages in Pakistan today are on the rise, and they no longer even follow the predictable hourly rhythm of the past.
Yes, cooperation will have its price. The Obama administration may face greater pressure from both Pakistan and India to lift U.S. opposition to the IPI pipeline, to start. So too might the U.S. need to appeal to Iran to allow access to Afghanistan through the Iranian port of Chabahar and the Indian-built Zaranj-Delaram highway in western Afghanistan that connects the country's ring road to Kandahar and Kabul. (Some NATO allies are already rumored to be in dialogue with Iran about this option for access.) Building roads and controlling their usage has for centuries been the foundation of spreading Silk Road influence, as well as the key to success in the 19th-century Great Game. Today's struggle for control follows similar rules.
Clearly, the United States cannot resolve the Af-Pak problem alone. One way to align Afghanistan's and Pakistan's regional partners would be to follow a regional security model, much like those already adopted in Europe, East Asia, South America and even Africa. Such a self-sustaining mechanism in South-Central Asia must begin with a joint Afghan-Pak force empowered to conduct operations on both sides of the border, as recently proposed by Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak. At the same time, the United States will have to accept Afghan and Pakistani negotiations with Taliban commanders. If ever these groups were glorified fringe phenomena of the frontier, today they are rooted in a deep Punjabi and Pashtun social base that cannot be eradicated anytime soon.
To clear and hold will require a Pakistani version of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) that have been deployed to some effect in Afghanistan. Rather than spending the civilian portion of the $1.5 billion in promised annual assistance (as foreseen in the Pakistan Enhanced Partnership Act) on USAID's usual roster of beltway bandits, Pakistani-led PRTs should be provided with the cash and supplies to hire thousands of local Pashtun to build roads, hospitals, and schools, and install power generators. NWFP policemen, who earn two-thirds their Punjabi counterparts (despite working in the most dangerous circumstances in the world), should get more pay. This process can begin from the Khyber Agency outside Peshawar and spread north and west towards the Afghan border, turning unsettled lawless areas into settled integrated ones. Rather than spreading weapons in an area already armed to the teeth, PRTs can run gun-for-work programs.
Here again, a strategy that reflects the region's changing dynamics is paramount. The original PRTs in Afghanistan need a sizable boost, and this should come in the form of Arab, Turkish and especially Chinese participation, under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security mechanism that may well soon expand to include Iran, and later, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not only would this participation unlock thousands more stabilization- and reconstruction-oriented soldiers and civilians, but it would bind NATO's chief rivals for influence in the region into a common project. These are just some of the tradeoffs necessary to encourage a thaw with Iran, monitor China, stabilize Afghanistan, encourage political reform in Pakistan, and placate insecure India. If the U.S. cannot negotiate a modus vivendi among the nations and rivals of South-Central Asia, then perhaps China will.