As prospects for an early U.S.-NATO military victory in Afghanistan fade and pressures for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces grow, the debate over U.S. policy in Afghanistan focuses increasingly on one key issue: Is it possible to negotiate terms for disengagement that would not constitute a strategic defeat?
Advocates of staying the course equate any conceivable disengagement scenario with surrender to the Taliban. But elementary geopolitical arithmetic suggests an exit strategy that would contain Taliban influence after U.S. combat forces depart. Six of the seven neighboring regional powers with a stake in Afghanistan's future -- Russia, Iran, India, China, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- share the U.S. goal of preventing the return of a Taliban dictatorship in Kabul. Only one, Pakistan, which helped install and sustain the Taliban regime that ruled from 1996 to 2001, wants to see it back in power.
Iran, Russia, India, and Tajikistan all played a key role in helping U.S. forces dislodge the Taliban in 2001. More importantly, all of them, together with China and Uzbekistan, fear that a resurrected Taliban regime would foment Islamist insurgencies within their own borders. Russia faces nascent Islamist forces in its Muslim south. India worries that Taliban control in Kabul would lead to an upsurge in Pakistan-based terrorism. The Shiite theocracy in Iran fears that a Taliban regime would help the Sunni Jundullah separatist movement in Iranian Baluchistan and Salafi extremists in other 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 were to return to power. China is beset by Islamist Uighur separatists in Xinjiang.
The math is so obvious that "regional diplomacy" has become a fashionable buzzword in Afghanistan discussions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed a regional conference in March 2009 that would have included Iran, and Henry Kissinger has called for a diplomatic push to mobilize the support of neighboring states, which he said will be threatened "more than we are by the emergence of a base for international terrorism" in Afghanistan.
But these proposals implicitly assume that the United States would remain in the driver's seat in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the regional neighbors have no desire to legitimate an enduring U.S. presence in the country -- particularly with regards to the U.S. air bases now being used for intelligence surveillance missions in areas of Afghanistan bordering Russia, China, and Iran. Huge base expansion programs under way indicate that the U.S. Air Force plans to stay in Afghanistan even if the Army and the Marines pull out, and a readiness to phase out these programs would be necessary to set the stage for a viable regional exit strategy. This would require a firm stand by Barack Obama's administration in the face of Pentagon opposition, but it is the key to mobilizing the regional backing necessary for the containment of the Taliban.
The first step would be a U.N. diplomatic initiative designed to get the regional neighbors to join in a multilateral agreement providing for the military neutralization of Afghanistan and for sustained regional support as the country stabilizes. The agreement would set a timetable providing not only for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO combat forces within three years, but also for the termination of U.S. military access to bases in Afghanistan, including air bases, within five years.
In conjunction with the disengagement process, the agreement would set in motion U.N.-brokered peace negotiations. The Taliban has long demanded a disengagement timetable as the precondition for peace. Ironically, however, its emotional appeal comes primarily from its role as the standard-bearer of opposition to foreign forces. Thus, when and if the United States does present a timetable, it will be cut down to size. The Taliban will be in a strong bargaining position, but only as the dominant force in the ethnically Pashtun south and east of the country.
The focus of peace negotiations could then be redirected from the terms for power sharing with the Taliban in Kabul to the nature and degree of the power to be ceded to the Taliban in its Pashtun strongholds.
This approach is likely to get Pakistani blessing as the best deal available under present circumstances. Islamabad's leading strategist on Afghanistan, former Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammed Khan, suggested such a shift in focus in a Washington meeting on June 17, observing that the Taliban has "important regional influences where they should be accommodated." He specified Khost and Paktia as examples of provinces where Taliban control might have to be accepted, and he implied that Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, had explored such arrangements in their two Kabul meetings in early June.