Patricia Lee Sharpe
Stephen J. Hadley, former National Security advisor, now chairman of the U.S. Institute for Peace, and his colleague Moeed Yusuf have blessed us with some rational thinking about “How to Bring Peace to Afghanistan,” the title of their recent op-ed piece in the New York Times. Their bedrock assumption is this: Afghanistan does not exist in a geographic or historical vacuum.
No serious observer believes that peace can come to Afghanistan without the cooperation of the government of Pakistan, most especially not without Islamabad’s willingness to resolutely destroy peace-violating elements, be they Afghan or Pakistani, pious or not, anti-Indian or not. But it's not that simple.
Although many analysts give a nod to India’s relevance, especially in so far as India has provided economic and security assistance to the government in Kabul, the more general tendency is to relegate the disfunctional India-Pak relationship to a separate, if not wholly seep-free, compartment. This is where Hadley and Yusuf part company with conventional wisdom: Pakistan’s destructive meddling in Afghanistan, they believe, can be eliminated only by addressing Pakistan’s oversized fear of its gigantic neighbor India.
According to Hadley and Jusuf, a less paranoid (my word) Pakistan would benefit the U.S., too. “United States policies toward Pakistan have long underestimated the centrality of this regional dynamic in defining Pakistan’s choices.” Not only will better Indo-Pak relations “reduce Pakistan’s apprehensions in Afghanistan,” they write, their rapprochement will also serve “other long term U.S. interests: eliminating terrorist threats from the region, reducing the risk of nuclear war and supporting a greater global role for India.” Enhancing India’s importance would have anothe benefit as well, it seems to me. It would help to counterbalance the rising power of the dragon to the North.
As a border state with its own claims to regional territory, China would, in any event, need to be a party to any agreement, which brings me to Kashmir, where some bits of China’s ambition lie. Since the creation of Pakistan and the birth of post-colonial India, nearly seventy years ago, Kashmir has been a major, if not the primary, stumbling block to amicable relations between the two neighbors. If anything, since the rise of ISIS and the increase in fervent Hindu nationalism, the potential for a war between two nervous nuclear powers has increased, but it’s hard to see a way to regional peace without a resolution of the Kashmir problem. Pakistan’s flirtation with cross-border, Islamic terrorism was initially aimed at India.
It won’t be easy, as Hadley and Jusuf concede, to bring a rivalry-ridden Afghan government, a squabbling Taliban, a self-righteous India, a defensive Pakistan and an opportunistic China to the table (or tables, for parallel and eventually converging negotiations), but the status quo is unhealthy for everyone.
And, surely, getting hard-nosed, realistic talks underway is preferable to the current thinking in the Trump administration. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, apparently, has been given carte blanche to up the troop level in Afghanistan, doubling it, at least. Another surge, in short. History replayed as a bad joke. For a couple of years the foreign troop level in Afghanistan, mostly American, was over 100,000. Yet even that huge force wasn’t enough to secure, on a permanent basis, the territories recurrently seized from Taliban occupation. It was a thoroughly disheartening seesaw war.
I feel a little uneasy about stating this so baldly, but I’ll do so anyway. No surge of foreign troops, however massive, will “solve” the political problems of Afghanistan. The best hope is dogged, intelligent diplomacy. Not smirks over dinner at Mar-a-Lago. The real thing.