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Tragedy within the Tragedy: Afghanistan and the failed US approach to east-west relations

Tragedy within the TragedyTo try and understand why the end of the Cold War did not bring with it an end to east-west conflict Afghanistan is emblematic. As the current focus of international media attention, the Donald J. Trump administration’s US special envoy to the Taliban (aka Afghanistan), Zalmay Khalilzad, American of Afghan descent, is making ‘great success’ in at long last reaching a negotiated settlement with the Taliban allowing full US troop withdrawal. However, just about everyone else sees this as the US surrendering the Afghan government to the Taliban who, playing ‘the long game’ will regain their ‘caliphate’ in Kabul once the Americanos exit. As former US ambassador, Ryan Crocker, sees it in a Foreign Policy magazine interview, the Kabul government will go the way of the Saigon regime; that is when the US exited Vietnam and North Vietnamese took over.  So what’s wrong with this US-Taliban-Afghan picture?

Well, it is the picture accompanying the tale of Uncle Sam’s Unilateralism in its many guises, long predating the bellicose cluelessness of the Trump administration. And why Afghanistan is so emblematic in deciphering what’s wrong with this very American ‘Cowboys and Indians’ approach to east-west tensions is because Afghanistan and the Hindu-Kush are geo-strategically situated at the very intersection of the crossroads of the expansive Eurasian political geography, the historical graveyard of imperialisms past, present and future.

Now the picture of US unilateralism in Afghanistan is not so simple as ‘America alone.’ There is the token multilateralism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). So, a US-NATO presence, except that negotiation with the Taliban is all-American. No NATO. No Kabul government. Just Afghan-American Khalilzad (on behalf of Trump) and the Taliban. If, however, the Trump administration had even an ounce of strategic imagination allowing them to overcome their unilateralist compulsions they would acknowledge the other reality: the Afghan-Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) connection. This is a vital connection in terms of the potential stabilization benefits Afghanistan can receive from its neighbours and other SCO member states. But if the considerably more multilateralist inclined Barack Obama administration was unable to see this connection and its broader east-west multilateral implications, why would the Trump administration in its John Bolton-Mike Pompeo evangelical hardlinism? Yet this is not as if outreaching to the SCO is a new idea. In the first year of his administration, Barack Obama’s foreign policy mentor, Zbigniew Brzezinski of ‘Soviet Vietnam’ fame penned an article in the Foreign Affairs quarterly, “An Agenda for NATO”, that proposed engaging Russia via Moscow’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). “A NATO-CSTO agreement could also facilitate a cooperative NATO outreach further east, toward the rising Asian powers” leading “to a joint NATO-SCO council, thereby indirectly engaging China in cooperation with NATO, clearly a desirable and important longer-term goal.” To make a long and very complicatedly convoluted story short this Brzezinski aspirational vision never materialized. The geopolitics of US-Russian ‘reset’ in bilateral relations that was to have occurred under Obama and which apparently did involve some embryonic US-CSTO interaction did not lead to CSTO being taken seriously enough for the kind of engagement Brzezinski envisioned.

However, the SCO is another kettle of fish altogether. Co-led by China and Russia, SCO has emerged as the premier trans-Eurasian multilateral security bloc. It encompasses India and Pakistan as recent full members with Iran waiting in the wings for full membership with Afghanistan having observer status. Were the Trump administration operating on more than their China-Russia threat fixation, an east-west NATO-to-SCO framework for negotiating with the Taliban might ensure Kabul government involvement given its SCO connection. This might well provide a credible pathway for US troop withdrawal while avoiding the risk of Afghanistan reverting back to the Taliban ‘caliphate’ inspiration of ISIS – and at the expense of progress in gender relations experienced by Afghan women. Without such an east-west multilateral negotiating safeguard, the future of Afghanistan and prospects for Hindu-Kush stability are uncertain. Indeed, a restored Taliban regime might even find itself in an inter-caliphate civil war with ISIS.

The problem with ‘America alone’ unilateralism steered by Khalilzad is that the US has no existential regional stake in what happens to Afghanistan except that it wants out. It is an ‘out of area’ actor which should have gotten out long ago. Afghanistan is emblematic of Washington’s unsustainable ‘imperial overstretch.’ SCO powers, unlike NATO and the US, have a definitive regional security interest in Afghanistan’s future. This raises a number of questions:

  • Can SCO powers live with a return of the Taliban?
  • Are they in a position to intervene on behalf of their SCO observer member and avoid a total Taliban takeover by facilitating a more sustainable post-US withdrawal political outcome?
  • Would there be political will, especially given cross-purposes of Pakistan and India?
  • By making Afghanistan a full SCO member, could this facilitate transitional ‘protectorate’ status thereby stabilizing the internal balance of forces?

In effect, Afghanistan transferring from a US-NATO protectorate to an SCO protectorate. It is no telling what the Afghan scenario will look like as the US moves toward elections in 2020. However, if Trump fails re-election, would a new Democratic administration have the vision and will to pick up on Brzezinski’s NATO-SCO ideas? Meanwhile, could there not be a role for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in navigating the Security Council toward a NATO-SCO multilateral ‘backstop’ to a US-Taliban agreement, thereby securing a balance between Kabul and the Taliban?  Indeed, were there to emerge a UN Security Council (UNSC) imprimatur to a NATO-SCO collaboration on securing Afghanistan’s future, might this not serve as a springboard for facilitating more wide-ranging regional stability in the Hindu-Kush and Greater Eurasia? Might this not set the stage for UNSC-sponsored ‘nation-building’ via the ECOSOC channelled through SCO while, post-conflict Afghanistan finds footing within both Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union and the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation to which it already belongs. Only east-west collaboration in a regional integration solution in Afghanistan guarantees a lasting path out of its tragedy.

Francis A. Kornegay, Jr. is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Global Dialogue associated with UNISA, a member of the JIOR international editorial board and Global Fellow of The Wilson Centre in Washington. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent IGD/Unisa policy

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