Public support for most wars comes with an expiration date. In Afghanistan in
2001, where a punitive expedition would have sufficed, an exemplary case of
“mission creep” took over and the domestic support predictably waned fast. Ten
years and half a trillion dollars later, political will, too, has ebbed
considerably and there is now a foreseeable end to American combat operations in
Afghanistan. The latter half of 2014, if Barack Obama can have his
Long-term stability in the region is of course far from assured. And
though for some, the limited success of the International Security Assistance
Force’s (ISAF) nation-building efforts will factor very marginally when gauging
overall success in Afghanistan, the consequences of leaving with a government in
place whose area of influence is heavily circumscribed could be
Equally important, it is unlikely these consequences will be
limited to the Afghan state. The recent call from the Russian foreign minister,
warning NATO not to leave a volatile Afghanistan, is among the more visible
expressions of the latent fears many of the country’s neighbors
To ask the ISAF to stay now, however, seems ludicrous. They are
tired. And if the public reaction to the inadvertent Koran-burning incident is
any indication of the general sentiment, it seems they’re no longer really
wanted. Also, the ISAF has achieved limited but very welcome success on the
counter-insurgency and development assistance fronts.
Afghanistan is no
longer a hub for global terrorist activity and there have been some improvements
in health, education and economic well-being. This makes an exit look a lot more
For Afghanistan, what the coming years will look like
largely depends on whether the central government can lay claim to greater
legitimacy. Given that tribal allegiances trump most other determinants of
loyalty, constructing a functional central state in Afghanistan will continue to
be an uphill task. The eastern provinces, for example, have proven nearly
impenetrable. The operational successes achieved there are clearly reversible,
and there is little reason to believe this will change when the Afghan security
forces try alone.
A BETTER-EQUIPPED and better-trained local security
force might have a slightly better chance at making temporary inroads to areas
where the center has little relevance. However, as former ISAF commander US Gen.
(ret.) Stanley McChrystal remarked, the military aspect of even the best
counter-insurgency campaigns can do little more than provide the time and space
for a civilian government to take root.
To help ensure this civilian
government stays relevant in the periphery it needs to outcompete its rivals in
providing services. Improvements in transparency, health care, primary
education, electricity, sanitation and access to clean water would give the
average Afghan a reason to believe it is better with a strong government at the
Seeking greater external engagement is one way Kabul can achieve
some of these goals more efficiently.
Considering that India and Russia
have faced terror attacks from groups operating in the Af-Pak region, and given
the potential vulnerability of China’s western territories to separatist and
extremist influence, there is incentive for these actors to help create a stable
The potential for mutually beneficial bi-lateral
relationships has not been lost on Afghanistan’s neighbors. So far India has
invested more than $1 billion in education, infrastructure and
Russia has embarked on a number of hydroelectric projects and a
major housing project that aims to build one million square meters of living
space a year.
A consortium led by the Steel Authority of India could
invest nearly $6 billion in developing the Hajigak mine. China has invested over
$4 billion in the Aynak copper mines, and will build a rail line connecting
Kabul to Torkham and Mazar-e-Sharif as part of the agreement.
these investments aim to access Afghanistan’s $3 trillion underground
treasure-chest. They will yield significant tax revenues, which if invested with
even moderate competence will help the center out-compete its
However, bilateral engagement alone – at least of the sort seen
thus far – threatens sub-optimal gains for all involved. If India wishes deeper
engagement, because Beijing will almost certainly echo Pakistan’s concerns – New
Delhi will have to contend with Islamabad’s fears of geostrategic
Even if Pakistan were taken out of the equation, there is a
significant amount of distrust between India and China. Which means each will be
wary of inroads the other tries to make. China and Russia, too, have conflicting
interests in the region. Without multi-lateral engagement, a lot of compromise
is likely. The biggest loser could be Afghanistan.
For all the distrust
that exists, there are a few objectives which beg collective action and promise
to pay ample dividend.
Engaging Afghanistan multi-laterally would not
only yield greater internal stability and a reduced terror threat externally,
but the exercise could prove to be a welcome trust-building measure among three
The writer has an M.A in International Security and
Terrorism from the University of Nottingham in the UK.