THE clock on the Afghan endgame is ticking. A key piece of the jigsaw is the regional solution. An increasing number of influential voices have argued over the past year that peace cannot return to Afghanistan without a regional non-interference framework being put in place.Unfortunately, lack of significant progress on this count is conspicuous. It is just another reminder of how far we still are from finding an amicable solution to the Afghanistan conundrum.
For some time now, a number of diplomatic channels have operated to persuade relevant stakeholders of the merit of a regional framework. The outcome of these efforts was supposed to be showcased in high-profile international conferences.
The Istanbul conference — set up as the precursor to the Bonn meeting next month — was the most recent of these efforts. And while it did produce a document containing all the right language about everyone's support for peace in Afghanistan, it was just that — the right language — and nothing more. The Bonn conference is a fortnight away and will produce no miracles either.
What has gone wrong?
Simply put, a grand regional understanding could never have been a stand-alone. It necessarily had to follow progress on reconciliation within Afghanistan and among various regional players on the question of coexistence in Afghanistan. This never occurred.
Let me lay out a few specifics.
First, the propensity of any outside actor to meddle in and influence Afghan affairs is essentially a function of how these actors see the situation in Afghanistan evolving and whether they find their interests accommodated. As soon as any regional state with influence feels it is being left out, or harmed, by the direction of events in Afghanistan, it throws a spanner in the works.
At the moment, while everyone may, normatively speaking, want peace in Afghanistan, the way various external parties see peace ensuing and the actors they would prefer to lead that peaceful Afghanistan differs from country to country. Moreover, there is a lack of mutual trust and clarity regarding the policies of the most important states — the US, Pakistan, Iran, and indeed Afghanistan. These factors are causing everyone to hedge their bets. Each actor is inclined to hold on to its current partners and proxies within Afghanistan and back them for leverage over how things evolve rather than putting its weight behind any far-fetched idea — a regional solution in this case.
Changing the calculus favourably requires creating win-wins. It needs a clearly articulated formula which satisfies each major regional actor enough to incentivise support for non-interference and neutrality in Afghanistan. For this to happen, however, there has to be enough of an overlap in the preferred endgame outcomes of all regional players and the formula has to be built upon these overlaps. Until this is articulated, and the countries in question are persuaded to prioritise these overlapping areas in their policies, hedging (and consequently meddling) will continue.
In the Afghan context, we are not even at the point where a serious discussion about these overlaps has begun, let alone concluded. Just consider the most pertinent example: India-Pakistan.
The two countries have had no dialogue on coexistence in Afghanistan. New Delhi believes that Islamabad wants it out; Islamabad thinks that Delhi is using Afghanistan to create a 'two-front situation' for Pakistan. Interestingly, saner voices have pointed out that there is ample opportunity for the two to coexist, especially in the development sector. Even some specific sectors and projects have been identified. It hardly matters though as the international community has been prioritising normative appeals to regionalism over the urgent need to lay the practical groundwork by promoting sub-regional dialogue.
There is also an inside-out aspect of relevance to the discussion. Just like outside states, various Afghan political and militant factions will also solicit support and backing — benign or otherwise — (of outsiders) to further their own agendas unless they are satisfied with the state of affairs in Afghanistan. Therefore, an internal Afghan reconciliation process which satisfies all major stakeholders and takes away the incentive to use violence is an equally important prerequisite to a regional understanding.
The way in which outsiders want the internal reconciliation process to proceed is another hindrance. A thorough read of the history of negotiations among Afghans reveals two very interesting facts: (i) Afghans are extremely skilful negotiators. More often than not, intra-Afghan negotiations are successful in forging some kind of understanding even under the most difficult of circumstances; (ii) the most effective and lasting deals have been the ones with minimal external arm-twisting.
One easily identifiable problem in the current situation is that Afghan factions are not being allowed to negotiate on their own. Notwithstanding the rhetoric to the contrary, the fact is that no outside party is acting neutrally in Afghan reconciliation. They are pushing their own preferences; some want to be directly involved and even dictate the negotiations phase; some Afghan factions are not even being allowed to participate directly in talks, etc.
As should be obvious, this intrusion is a result of what has been explained above: an incentive to keep hedging under the current circumstances.
Finally, let us jump ahead and presume that the world has managed a regional agreement which all relevant parties have signed off on. Then what? How does one verify that no state is breaching it? Who guarantees that everyone will behave? Will any state truly believe that the others will stick to their promises? Will not an inevitable expectation of a breach of the arrangement by others prompt countries to wrest the “first mover's advantage” in establishing their influence in Afghanistan?
The answers to these questions will only come if we ever get to the stage of having a regional framework in place. The problem is that just the concerns raised here are likely to be strong deterrents for states to sign on in the first place.
If it is true that a peaceful Afghanistan is ultimately dependent on regional non-interference, the prospects seem grim. A turnaround requires energies to be focused at the intra-Afghan and sub-regional levels before hoping for tangible outcomes on a regional scale.
The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.