No Insurgency Here

Let's be honest: What Afghanistan has on its hands isn't an insurgency, it's a civil war.

Two conclusions are inescapable from the fiasco of Afghanistan's presidential elections and the McChrystal assessment: There is no electoral solution to Afghan government's crisis of legitimacy, and there is no military solution to the challenge of the Taliban. And when observing the current Afghan conflict not from the perspective of America's post-9/11 intervention, but from Afghanistan's own quarter-century of warfare, a third conclusion becomes still more apparent: What we confront is not, in fact, an insurgency but rather a civil war -- one whose resolution can only be found in a new decentralized Afghan politics based on the enduring, if ugly, realities of power there, and not through another decade of Western military intervention.

If there is one lesson to be drawn from the withdrawal of Hamid Karzai's main rival from the second round of the elections -- and his own subsequent appointment as president for another term -- it is that the ability of outsiders to influence the existing politics of Afghanistan is now near zero, even when the object of our entreaties is a politician whose very existence has long depended entirely on Western support and funding. Like a patient rising from a hospital bed after a near-death experience only to rob his doctor blind on the way out the door, Karzai has conclusively demonstrated that his utility to Western interests -- as well as to the Afghan people whom he's grossly robbed of a chance for representative government -- is over. 

This leaves the West with a stark dilemma. We can proceed to invest a government we ourselves have called fraudulent with an authority that few Afghans are willing to grant it, hoping it will eventually eschew the corrupt behavior that has sustained its power to date. Or we can make the unquestionably more difficult decision and insist, as a condition of our continued support, that a new political compact be put in place. 

The reality is that the War of 9/11 against al Qaeda and its backers will not be won -- or lost -- in Afghanistan.

It is time to help Afghans resolve their civil war in the only way that is likely to help, and not further hinder, their search for security and stability. Painful as it is, the time has come to set aside the illusion of Afghan democracy and implement a new federal power-sharing agreement between those Afghans willing and able to provide security and governance in a sustainable manner for the Afghan people. The best chance we have of achieving minimal Afghan objectives at an acceptable cost to the West is by establishing a new Loya Jirga -- drawing on the shrewd diplomacy of the 2001 Bonn Conference and the persistent muscle of the 1995 Dayton Agreement, but looking forward as a New Afghanistan Conference.

This new Loya Jirga would be best jointly convened by Lakhdar Brahimi (on behalf of the United Nations), and Richard Holbrooke (on behalf of the United States). It can be done quietly, or it can be done publicly, but it must be done, and soon. In Brahimi, who led the negotiations at Bonn, this initiative would have a diplomat with unparalleled standing among Afghans actors and the key external actors in the region, including Saudi Arabia. Holbrooke, the architect behind Dayton, would not only bring the full backing of the United States, his involvement would also signal a shift away from a military solution to the politics of peacemaking and send an unmistakable message to Afghans that the days of occupation are numbered. Perhaps most importantly, the new Loya Jirga would ensure that the new politics of Afghanistan will be truly owned and enforced by Afghans, including reconcilable elements of the Taliban, and their neighbors, for whom caring about the nation's fate never will be a matter of choice. 

It won't be easy. A Brahimi-Holbrooke convened Loya Jirga solution to the Afghan civil war will demand a compromise with the high ideals of the early intervention; a redrafting of the Afghan Constitution to allow for a decentralized structure of governance; a granting of provincial power to leaders and warlords with less than clean hands; a de facto reduced commitment to human rights and women's rights; a greater involvement of neighbors whose motives are mixed, and not necessarily aligned. While this solution would initially require a substantial troop presence, over time it will place responsibility for security among provincial and tribal leaders and the militias under their command, leading to a steady withdrawal of Western troops.

Despite the challenges of this approach, it's important to recognize that the West's early ambitions have been, in practice, long abandoned, and it's past time to end the callous hypocrisy of promising Afghans a Western-style democratic future we have neither the ability nor the will to deliver.

Instead of trying to end or somehow sublimate deeply held ethnic and tribal loyalties in pursuit of an imagined community of modern Afghan citizenship, we should rather embed the country's future security and governance mechanisms precisely within those allegiances and give each group the incentive and means to defend itself within a broader federal structure. Instead of seeking to impose a demonstrably failed Western construct of government on the Afghan polity, it is time to implement an Afghan peace to end an Afghan civil war.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images


Energizing Peace

Natural gas pipelines, not military supply lines, could pave the way for stability in power-starved Central Asia.

The lessons of geography appear to be ignored by policymakers in Washington D.C. these days. The Obama administration is pursuing tenuous negotiations with Iran regarding its supply of low-enriched uranium, in the hopes of taking the first step to erase the longstanding animosity between the two countries. It is also rethinking its Afghanistan and Pakistan policy to emphasize reconstruction and economic development. These two strategies are unfortunately disconnected -- despite the fact that Afghanistan shares a 600-mile-long strategic border with Iran.

Neither a "surge" of troops and aid in Afghanistan, nor negotiations over Iran's nuclear program without addressing its regional isolation, will bring Central Asia much closer to stability. The United States must support a policy that addresses the major deficiency all these countries share in common: a lack of clean, affordable energy for their poor populations. Only natural gas pipelines, not military supply lines, can do this.

The United States has so far been ambivalent about using Central Asia's natural resources to guide its policy, confounding the prospects for pipeline development. Yet without an energy infrastructure, individual U.S. reconstruction programs are going to struggle to get off the ground. For example, the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) established in Pakistan's tribal areas, which provide goods produced in these areas with duty-free access to the U.S. market, will have little impact without a steady energy supply to fuel local industry. Pipelines and power lines can be a much more significant economic stimulus. By providing energy for power-starved nations, they can empower microeconomic activity through lower fuel and electricity costs.

Natural gas pipelines can also provide an impetus for a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran. Two proposed pipeline routes currently offer the greatest opportunity to solidify regional integration and create lasting stability: the route from Iran via Pakistan to India (IPI), and from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan and Pakistan to India (TAPI). But thus far, the U.S. had sought to hinder international commerce with Iran, lobbying only for pipeline routes that avoid Iranian territory. It actively lobbied against the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) project - even despite its tacit acceptance of the pipeline that runs between Iran and Turkey. This Iran-Turkey pipeline, which traverses Turkey's volatile Kurdish region, also exemplifies how security along such infrastructure can be adequately provided, even in conflict zones.

The IPI pipeline might represent the most promising confidence-building measure with Iran. Furthermore, recent discussions surrounding TAPI actually route it through Iran as well. If this turns out to be the case, it will force the U.S. to accept that the stabilization of Pakistan and Afghanistan requires a rapprochement with Iran. Since demand for gas in South Asia continues to skyrocket, the U.S. should encourage both projects and actively link their implementation to its conflict resolution strategy for the region. Détente with Iran need not wait for a nuclear breakthrough.

Furthermore, depending on the route of the pipeline, Afghanistan could earn as much as $100 million per year from transit fees of pipelines, providing a necessary boost for Afghanistan's perpetually aid-dependent government.

These pipelines will aid, not hinder, America's efforts to provide economic relief to Pakistan as well. Even with the fairly high prices for gas Iran offers to Pakistan, IPI could save the country between $652 million and $1.17 billion annually, depending on the price of oil.  This is approximately the same amount as the Kerry-Lugar legislation would deliver in non-military aid each year to Pakistan. According to government reports, Pakistan currently has an energy shortfall of between 3000 and 4000 megawatts (MW), while India's shortfall is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 MW. For this reason, the development of energy projects were a focus of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Islamabad - however, the talks reportedly ignored the regional context of this issue.

Finally, given concerns about climate change, natural gas pipelines offer donors an opportunity to limit the output of carbon emissions. Natural gas is likely to be the cleanest and most cost-effective fuel to meet Pakistan and India's energy shortfall. Apart from its use in power plants, natural gas is also being used in the transportation sector. The significance of compressed natural gas (CNG) in India was highlighted as early as 1998, when the Supreme Court ruled that all commercial vehicles in New Delhi should switch to natural gas by 2001 due to pollution concerns from diesel and petrol engines. Pakistan already has more than a million cars on CNG and ranks third in global CNG use after Brazil and Argentina. What's more, while oil is still largely transported across the globe by a fleet of more than 38,000 pollution-causing marine tankers, 93% of the world's gas continues to be supplied through pipelines.

Natural gas development offers a unique opportunity to tackle strategic, diplomatic, and environmental goals at the same time. Even in the world's most turbulent region, there is a possibility for renewed trade along what ancient merchants knew as the Silk Road.

 If we genuinely want to stabilize this crisis zone without a heavy American footprint, new energy-based Silk Roads are the solution.