Success in Afghanistan: It takes a Region

Marc Grossman
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 
McClatchy Newspapers
Washington, DC
August 24, 2011

Six months ago this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out in a speech in New York three foundations for American policy in Afghanistan: a strong military effort to defeat al-Qaida and support Afghans as they secure their sovereignty; a civilian push to promote economic development and good governance; and a diplomatic surge to support an Afghan-led reconciliation process designed to end 30 years of war.

Six months later there is progress to report. The military campaign, supported by the efforts and sacrifices of NATO and other allies and friends, has dealt the Taliban an important blow. Afghanistan’s security forces have grown by over a hundred thousand soldiers and police. The transition to Afghan security lead has begun. Because of this progress, President Obama has begun a U.S. military drawdown that will bring 33,000 American soldiers home by the end of September 2012.

There is progress in civilian reconstruction as well. Afghanistan’s GDP has tripled since 2001. In 2001, 1 million Afghan children were in school - almost all boys. Today, more than 8 million children attend school - a third of them girls. Eighty percent of Afghans have access to basic health-care facilities, almost twice as many as in 2005. Half of Afghan families now have telephones; almost no one had a phone a decade ago.

We are creating the diplomatic surge Clinton called for by leveraging a broad range of contacts at many levels across Afghanistan and the region, including preliminary outreach to members of the Taliban. As part of this diplomatic effort the United States has focused special attention since February on the need for regional support for Afghanistan. Pakistan and India, Iran and China, Russia and the Central Asian republics would all benefit from an independent and stable Afghanistan integrated into a secure and prosperous South and Central Asia.

There are specific regional actions to applaud. Both Pakistani and Indian leaders have announced their support for Afghan-led reconciliation. In June, Russia, China and India joined the United States in voting to split the United Nations’ Taliban and al-Qaida sanctions regimes, an endorsement of Afghan efforts to reconcile with insurgents ready to break ties with al-Qaida, renounce violence, and accept the Afghan Constitution, especially the rights of women and minorities.

Pakistan has a leading regional role to play and has legitimate interests in any reconciliation process. Islamabad has formed a Joint Peace Commission with Afghanistan, and is in regular contact about the peace process with Afghanistan and the United States. Islamabad can demonstrate its further support for Afghan-led efforts by preventing Pakistani territory from being used to destabilize Afghanistan.

Two important international conferences - a summit of regional leaders hosted by Turkey in Istanbul in early November and the “Bonn+10” conference chaired by the Afghan Government and hosted by Germany in December - should build further regional and international support for Afghanistan.

In Istanbul, Afghanistan’s neighbors can commit to a stable and independent Afghanistan and define a mechanism to judge how well they live up to their commitments. In Bonn, the international community can endorse this regional vision and reaffirm a long-term investment in Afghanistan.

One other point is clear: there will be no secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan inside of a secure, stable and prosperous region without private sector fueled sustainable economic growth from Central Asia to Bangladesh. Regional power, transport, and transit infrastructure and new trade agreements will build economic connections. A vision for this “New Silk Road,” launched in Bonn, would bind the region together and help Afghanistan attract new sources of investment and consumers for its goods. Afghanistan and Pakistan have just implemented a new transit trade agreement. Expansion of this agreement to Central Asia, and perhaps even to India, would create further incentives for regional cooperation.

The region’s capacity to overcome old suspicions requires confidence in the international commitment to see through the current mission in Afghanistan. A new Strategic Partnership Declaration will outline the U.S. commitment to supporting Afghanistan’s security forces and civilian institutions. The United States seeks neither permanent military bases in Afghanistan, nor a long-term military presence that aimed at power-projection or threatening Afghanistan’s neighbors.

People in Islamabad, Astana, New Delhi and Washington have an interest in achieving a secure, increasingly prosperous Afghanistan at peace with its neighbors, and a region free from al-Qaida. Only the Afghan people can reconcile with the insurgency. But Afghanistan’s neighbors must support their efforts.

There is hard work to do in each of the three areas Clinton highlighted last February and again in India in July. Building on these actions will require difficult choices and consume enormous diplomatic energy. A status report six months from now can show further progress if the region comes together to support Afghanistan.