STOCKHOLM – On a recent visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan, I could not fail to notice the increasingly frequent international calls for an “endgame” in Afghanistan. But an endgame for that country is a dangerous illusion: the game will not end, and neither will history. The only thing that could come to an end is the world’s attention and engagement in Afghanistan, which could well lead to catastrophic consequences.
Much international focus is now on the year 2014, the target date for completion of the gradual transfer of responsibility for security from international forces to the Afghan government. This process is not without challenges, but there is no reason to believe that it could not be finalized more or less according to plan and the current timetable.
My belief is that there is another, far more critical challenge facing Afghanistan in 2014: the election of a new president. In a system where so much power – open and hidden, constitutional and traditional – is centered around the president, the election could well turn into an all-out battle for the country’s future.
The presidential election of 2009 – in which Hamid Karzai gained a second term – was a highly contentious affair, and neither the Afghan political system nor the international community came through it with flying colors. Together with the battle over the Taliban’s future role in the country, the struggle for power in 2014 could reanimate divisions that take the country back to the brink of a wider civil war, with the liberal technocrats of Kabul crushed between a resurgent Northern Alliance and a wider “Pashtun Pact.”
Such a scenario would, of course, spell disaster for Afghanistan. But the implications would be far broader. We must not ignore the grave dangers that it would pose for Pakistan, where a new round of jihadist rhetoric and mobilization could be fatal to hopes of building a stable and more secure country. We should have learned the lesson of the 1980’s: ignorance is not bliss.
What, then, is the proper policy for the international community?
First, we must focus on what is most important – a transition to a post-Karzai system that is seen as reasonably legitimate by all parts of Afghanistan. This is primarily a question of making the elections as free and as fair as possible, and here the United Nations’ role will be critical. But it is also imperative to establish a wide national consensus on the rules of the game. Karzai can leave no better legacy than an orderly transition, and has no interest in seeing all that he has achieved go up in flames.
Second, we must encourage a true regional dialogue that prevents Afghanistan from becoming a battleground for devastating proxy wars. Here, the key will be to bridge the gulf between Pakistan’s government and the forces of northern Afghanistan. Pakistan must do whatever is necessary to convince everyone that it will not play a hidden game with the Taliban – assuming, of course, that it has no such intention.
It is equally important that Pakistan and India engage in an open dialogue that can establish trust and transparency in their respective policies concerning Afghanistan. Today, this dialogue hardly exists, and their mutual maneuvering, fueled by mistrust, could easily destabilize their weaker neighbor.
Finally, for reasons of history, geography, and culture, Iran’s role in Afghanistan cannot and should not be ignored.
There is no reason why the West’s strategic objectives concerning Afghanistan should change fundamentally in the coming years. The key now is to get our priorities right. Securing an orderly political transition and encouraging a deep and broad regional dialogue should now be at the top of the international agenda for Afghanistan. Not only are these objectives important in themselves; they are also central in creating the right framework for a settlement between the various Afghan parties and the Taliban.
Some now argue that large-scale engagement in Afghanistan was a mistake. But, in the mirror of history, we can see that the greater mistake has been to abandon the country altogether.
Afghanistan connects Central and South Asia, and a breakdown of order there would pose grave risks in both directions. Moreover, the world – not just the West, but Russia and China as well – would risk global proliferation of drugs, weapons, and terror.
The task now is not to seek an illusory endgame. The book is not finished; we are merely entering a new chapter. What we must do now is create the framework for a more stable Afghanistan, and for sustained international engagement in a region that is crucial for global stability.