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."
Everyone got together again in Paris three years later. The agenda was a carbon copy of the 2005 proceedings, and what little cooperative spirit existed dissipated once ministers returned to their capitals. Uzbek diplomats, who had informally agreed to strengthen regional trade and multilateral counternarcotics efforts, did an about-face and spent much of the rest of the year accusing Afghanistan of narco-aggression. They insisted that they would stick to unilateral measures to combat the drug trade in the future. At recent high-level meetings in Islamabad, London, and Lisbon, much energy was squandered ensuring that the region's diplomats did not take offense to one another or the discussions. In the end, other than the usual hollow calls to "facilitate," "strengthen," "look closely," and "work together" regionally, little was actually achieved.
In reality, the region's accomplishments on Afghanistan have had little to do with multilateral summitry. To be sure, regional cooperation has been credited with bringing Central Asian electricity to Kabul. Yet, out of its own national interest, Uzbekistan was providing electricity to northern Afghanistan well before the past decade's summits. The most consequential agreement for the region's economy, a bilateral free-trade agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan, came about because of protracted arm twisting by Richard Holbrooke, the late U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, with the recent deterioration in relations between Kabul and Islamabad over allegations that Pakistan's security agencies have aided the Taliban in several high-profile attacks and assassinations, the longevity of the agreement cannot be taken for granted.
The real problem is the fact that, at best, Afghanistan's neighbors are strange bedfellows -- Iran, China, and Uzbekistan are anything but models of multilateralism. As Afghanistan's insurgency worsened in 2006, for example, Iran ratcheted up its war on drugs at the Afghan border and sent legions of intelligence operatives into Afghanistan. The enhanced border controls were helpful in putting pressure on Afghanistan's illicit opiate trade and making up for the Afghan government's lackluster counternarcotics initiatives. But they hardly made the case for multilateralism; Iranian officials regularly complained that their efforts saw little follow-up from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Turkmenistan's government paid lip service to multilateral peace initiatives, but, at one point in 2007, it might have secretly donated food, clothes, and fuel to Taliban fighters in return for their moving further into Afghanistan's interior and away from the Turkmen border. Finally, China will not increase its economic and political footprint in Afghanistan as long as it means becoming an insurgent target. Indeed, the vast majority of China's billions of dollars' worth of investment in Afghanistan is sunk in the Mes Aynak copper mine, south of Kabul, where the U.S. military provides free security.
And those are the better cases. Pakistan and Tajikistan are directly invested in Afghanistan's failure. For years, Pakistan's security agencies have fomented chaos in Afghanistan to maintain strategic depth against India. And Tajikistan's ability to collect lucrative international development aid is greatly owed to its proximity to dysfunctional Afghanistan. Tajik officials regularly present international donors with long lists of "win-win" cross-border development projects that, they insist, must be built on their side of the border. This means that Afghanistan accrues no benefits until much later, if at all. So even as Afghanistan's neighbors eagerly talk up solving common problems such as the drug trade, extremism, and poverty together, they have each found ways to live with and even profit from Afghanistan's debilitated state.
Rather than expecting Afghanistan's region to band together to help the country succeed, the United States, NATO, and the UN should focus on deflecting Afghanistan's most difficult neighbors so that the country can survive on its own. Two very recent developments suggest that the time for such a policy switch may be ripe, at least on the part of the United States. First, the U.S. military is toying with the idea of shifting troops from southern Afghanistan to a buffer zone between Kabul and the frontier with Pakistan, to deter cross-border movement of Taliban operatives. This is an admission that the region is more of a problem than an opportunity for Afghanistan.
Second, at a recent meeting over Libya, U.S. State Department officials engaged in side conversations to prod NATO representatives to halt work on a regional strategy and suggested that it may be more prudent to consider how Arab states might contribute more to Afghanistan. Growing private skepticism about regionalism is likely driven by a desire to scare Pakistan into behaving better; as such, it sheds little light on how regional approaches can be replaced with less untenable initiatives.
Ultimately, the solution may lie in pursuing bilateral initiatives with the more agreeable of Afghanistan's neighbors. This would mean working closely over the medium term with authoritarian governments such as Uzbekistan and Iran. Despite Uzbekistan's disappointing unilateralism, it does at least allow electricity and nonlethal supplies to transit across its territory en route to Afghanistan. Uzbekistan's role after the U.S. troop drawdown in 2014 is undefined, and the United States should encourage it to relax its notoriously closed borders so that Afghan goods have ready access to Eurasian markets.