Vague platitudes, rather than meaningful solutions, dominated last week’s international conference on Afghanistan held in Turkey’s capital, Istanbul. Conference participants, including Pakistan, Iran, India, China, and Russia, broadly affirmed their support for the sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Afghanistan. But for countries like Pakistan that continue to support Afghan insurgents at the expense of stability in the country, the declarations seem empty. And in Iran’s case, the real objective is to minimize Western involvement for the advancement of its own regional agenda. Despite the 2014 deadline for U.S. and NATO troop withdrawals—33,000 of which will be removed by next September—U.S. policymakers must understand the critical role American influence plays in protecting regional security.
Istanbul is the first of three conferences aiming to secure and stabilize Afghanistan. The United States’ long-term security goal in Afghanistan is simple: Don’t hand the country back to radical forces that will again safeguard al-Qaeda. America hoped to advance that goal in Istanbul by supporting regional players in their commitment to Afghan sovereignty and rallying support for an international security framework that encourages economic integration through a web of roads and rails across Asia called the New Silk Road. Unfortunately, conflicting regional interests are preventing meaningful cooperation.
Regional Tensions. Russia, Pakistan, and Iran object to the creation of a regional security apparatus that ensures the long-term presence of U.S. and NATO forces. China and Russia have vested resource interests in the region and see extensive U.S. security assistance as a threat to economic access. Pakistan is critical of regional solutions because it fears they will give India an opportunity to increase its involvement in the country. Pakistan’s fears were exacerbated by last month’s strategic partnership agreement made between Kabul and New Delhi, which expands India’s role in the training of Afghan security forces. Monday’s suicide bombing in Kabul, which left 12 Americans dead, again raises questions about Pakistan’s role in the violence as the Pentagon investigates the possible role of the Haqqani network, which recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen referred to as a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s intelligence service. Islamabad is attempting to cool tensions with Kabul by consenting to a joint investigation into the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Such confidence-building measures fail to address the core problem—Pakistan’s ties to the Taliban and Haqqani network.
In the midst of these international dynamics, Afghanistan’s weak government needs the continued support of the United States. By October 2012, the United States will have withdrawn approximately 33,000 troops from Afghanistan, and NATO will be on track to remove the remainder of its forces by 2014. Taliban and Haqqani insurgents are bent on overthrowing Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s feeble security forces and, without U.S. support, they will succeed.
What now? The Heritage Foundation contends that the keys to success in Afghanistan are genuine political reconciliation, the elimination of terrorist strongholds in Pakistan, and the emergence of an Afghan National Security Force capable of confronting its enemies. To meet those objectives, Washington must resist the urge to set up arbitrary timelines for withdrawal and encourage Pakistan to squeeze the Taliban until they break with al-Qaeda, abandon violence, and submit to Afghanistan’s constitution.
Two more Afghan-centered conferences are rapidly approaching. The first is the Bonn conference on December 5, which will bring together foreign ministers from 90 countries to discuss Afghanistan’s next decade after the overthrow of the Taliban. This will be followed by a NATO summit in Chicago in May of next year. Instead of using these forums to legitimize the removal of troops, the Obama Administration should focus on responding to events as they evolve on the ground. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on the right track when she argues that America paid a heavy price for abandoning Afghanistan in 1989 after the Soviets were expelled from the country. That mistake must not be repeated.
Zachary Enos is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm