From Great Game to Grand Bargain

LAHORE – The “Great Game” is no fun anymore. Nineteenth-century British imperialists used that term to describe the British-Russian struggle for mastery in Afghanistan and Central Asia. More than a century later, the game continues. But now, the number of players has exploded, those living on the chessboard have become players, and the intensity of the violence and the threats that it produces affect the entire globe.

Afghanistan has been at war for three decades, and that war is spreading to Pakistan and beyond. A time-out needs to be called so that the players, including President-elect Barack Obama, can negotiate a new bargain for the region.

Securing Afghanistan and its region will require an international presence for many years. Building up Afghanistan’s security forces is at most a stopgap measure, as the country cannot sustain forces of the size that it now needs. Only a regional and global agreement to place Afghanistan’s stability above other objectives can make long-term stability possible by enabling Afghanistan to survive with security forces that it can afford. Such agreement, however, will require political and diplomatic initiatives both inside and outside of the country.

In Afghanistan, the United States and NATO must make clear that they are at war with al-Qaeda and those who support its global objectives, but have no objection if either the Afghan or Pakistani government negotiates with insurgents who renounce ties to Osama bin Laden. In exchange for such guarantees, international forces could largely withdraw, leaving a force to secure a political agreement and to train Afghan security forces.