Why Regional Solutions Won't Help Afghanistan

The Myth of Neighborly Harmony

Determined to get out of Afghanistan sooner rather than later, Washington, the United Nations, and NATO have been hunting for a multilateral regional approach to the country's woes. U.S. officials have called for neighboring countries to pitch in ahead of the drawdown and have urged Afghanistan's neighbors to develop strategic partnerships to build up infrastructure, boost trade, increase investment, and fight extremism. In effect, the move is a recognition that during its ten years in Afghanistan, the United States has handed off too little of the task of stabilizing the country to Kabul's neighbors. As U.S. General John Allen recently indicated, there are many issues that cannot be solved out of Kabul, and Afghanistan needs a regional, not a national solution. Now, the United Nations is working on a plan for a joint security arrangement in the region based on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe of the 1970s. And until September, NATO had been working on a cooperative security and development initiative that was to be unveiled at the May 2012 summit on Afghanistan.

At first glance, the region's governments seem to be on board with long-term neighborly solutions. In 2010, Turkmen officials brokered an agreement to construct a natural gas pipeline through Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. This year, the Uzbek government inaugurated a rail line that connects the north of Afghanistan to Uzbekistan. Not to be outdone, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari proposed developing a fast cargo train line to connect Pakistan to Iran via Afghanistan. He billed it as a win-win-win megaproject that would boost the economy of every country involved.

But if a harmonious regional solution seems too good to be true, that is because it is. In the past decade, several multilateral initiatives have flopped. At an economic summit in 2005, upbeat delegates from six of Afghanistan's neighboring states pledged to support Afghanistan's reconstruction with mutual initiatives on trade, energy, security, and counternarcotics. Privately, UN officials admitted that backroom discussions were tense and unproductive. The Uzbek delegation left after the first session, the Iranians kept a low profile, and a Chinese diplomat described the proposed regional partnerships as "hackneyed."

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