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 way.

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 severe.

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 harbor.

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 appealing now.

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 center.

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 Afghanistan.

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 health.

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.

Some of 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 rivals.

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 encirclement.

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 emerging powers.

The writer has an M.A in International Security and Terrorism from the University of Nottingham in the UK.

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