Internationalizing Afghanistan

There was some troubling news coming out of Kabul last week. Afghan President Hamid Karzai not only invited his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come visit; he supposedly told guests at the presidential palace recently that the Americans had invaded his country in order to dominate the region and that as such, they pose an obstacle to the Afghan government coming to terms with the Taliban. Karzai even threatened to side with the insurgents, should the United States continue to undermine his leadership, by raising eyebrows for instance when we hear of massive election fraud.

Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates of State and Defense respectively were wise to respond with caution, reminding the American audience what difficulties Karzai faces in trying to keep his country together. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs downplayed the president’s threat, acknowleding that the administration was “frustrated” by his remarks but refraining from expressing further discontent.

Karzai’s words may seem ungrateful (and they are) but they have to be understood from the Afghan perspective. The president is hard pressed to maintain power in a country that has never had much experience with the sort of strong, centralized rule that the Western allies would prefer to see imposed. The Afghan power struggle is one of constant bargaining and negotiation and Karzai’s suggestion that he might seek some understanding with the Taliban is not entirely unreasonable from this point of view.

The American reaction so far has been very calculated but apparently, President Obama laying out a specific timetable for withdrawal has not been enough to convince the Afghans that America is not set on occupying Afghanistan indefinitively. One possibility, as proposed by Thomas Barnett, is to expand the international military presence to include neighboring states: “de-Westernize the intervention by plussing up the regional contingent,” he writes.

The obvious candidate here is India. As Fareed Zakaria previously noted, India has already invested $1,2 billion in aid, making it the world’s fifth largest contributor to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. When the Taliban were forced out of power, “the cuisine, movies, and money that flowed into the country were, naturally, Indian.” It has, after all, a much greater interest in keeping Afghanistan safe: a destabilized state on Pakistan’s frontier is bound to engulfe all of South Asia in turmoil.

India has previously signaled that it is willing to step up the pace but more troops, according to Barnett, isn’t the number one priority. Allowing India a greater role in Afghanistan would assure the Afghans that the Western allies do not dream of conquest. “What results,” he notes, “will not simply be us getting them to fill in as we see fit. They will fill in as they see fit,” meaning that future great powers, as India, will become an indispensible part of an international community dedicated to ensuring stability around the globe. In the end, “it will be better for the rising great powers to do an okay job on their own than for us to try and do a better job all by ourselves.”

The problem being, unfortunately, that part of the American strategy is still inspired by a Cold War mentality that sees power as a zero-sum game. Washington policymakers are fretful to let other countries take on more responsibility, lest it diminish their own influence. By granting others such responsibility however, the American rules of the game are much more likely to become universal than through the top-down approach stubbornly pursued by the last administration. As others rise, America’s relative decline is inevitable, but that has not to apply to the superpower mandate that until now, it has claimed exclusively.


  1. The Afghan security situation must be ‘Afghanised’, not ‘internationalised’ or ‘indianised.’ Indigenous security organisations are and should be the cornerstone of any counter-insurgency force. Having said that, the post-conflict position of afghanistan vis a vis American or Indian spheres of influence is as much a current issue as the Cold War was in 1943. Afghanistan needs to be made to need the US in the long run, not just as a stop gap before it can warm to India after the Insurgency(Say in ten years time.) I’m not sure how that will be achieved. A materiel reliance on the US, as could be practiced, would hugely backfire in a way simmilar to South Vietnam’s collapse in 75, after Congress stopped giving them money, leaving the South Vietnamese airforce and army useless in the threat of the communists. Or more simmilarly to Rhodesia after the South Africans stopped supplying them with armaments and support. I imagine Congress and the american people can’t wait to cut all ties with Afghanistan like they did Vietnam, and who can blame them, but that will resort either to a return of the Taleban or the post-insurgency Afghanistan seeking Iran or India as a securirty partner, which makes the previous 10 years of Western fighting in the country entirely pointless.

  2. Eventually, of course, the Afghan security forces must be able to guarantee stability in their own country. At the moment though, they don’t seem quite capable of doing that.

    We indeed run the risk of the US pulling out in 2012 (or mostly at least), leaving Afghanistan, like South Vietnam in the mid’70s, reliant on US, materially, militarily, possibly economically. Under such circumstances it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine a return of the Taliban.

  3. I agree entirely, which is why the US should maintain its commitment, either by extended deployment, or by ramping up the capabilities of the Afghan police to take over the job, and then, after US withdrawal, KEEP the money flowing in. In other words, not do what the US did 1972-1975. But I don’t see why India should fit into the equation, not if we want Afghanistan to remain on-side post-conflict. Which lets be honest, is the reason we went in.

  4. I see two advantages:

    First, it’d be sending a clear signal to India that we’re taking it seriously as a major power.

    Second, India has a much greater interest in keeping Afghanistan safe and secure, meaning it’ll be willing to invest money and manpower to probably a greater degree that most Western nations.

    As for disadvantages… I don’t see any, actually.

  5. Disadvantages are giving India influence over Afghanistan in the same way India (as the Raj) did in the 1840s-1900s, pissing off everyone else in the region fearful of Indian expansion and rising power. Pakistan especially. You wouldn’t hand over Romania to Russia, would you? Ukraine would have a fit! Instead of continuing to create and maintaining dozens of little states across the world with US advisors and puppet governments taking orders from Washington, you’re actually building an Indian power block, sacrificing a region which, since 2001 has seen huge amounts of blood and treasure sank into its security, to a rival, rising state with its own particular interests. The whole point of going in 2001 was to sort the place out and bring into the Western sphere. If we follow your proposals, it’d have been cheaper (and I believe also more efficient) to pay India several billion dollars a year to invade it and annexe it (formally or informally.) Who then benefits? India only. Why not do the same with Russia? Here you go Putin, here’s several bill’ go and sort Afghan out. Salt the earth if you like. In both examples, it isn’t the US (which by extension is Britain, The Netherlands and the rest of NATO) which reaps the rewards, yet we’ve put in all the work since 2001? Realpolitik

  6. I see your point. And I agree, of course, that we don’t want an Afghanistan that’s basically a puppet state of India. That would undercut the whole, already fragile, (nuclear) balance of power between India and Pakistan.

    Still, I’d pick an Indian puppet state over the return of the Taliban which might come down to little more than a Pakistani puppet state. There have been reports of the Pakistanis secretly wishing the Taliban’s return to power. That would be an all the more dangerous situation.

    The ideal scenario is an independent, fairly stable and fairly democratic Afghanistan, but I’m just not so sure anymore whether that’s viable.

  7. That’s thing with ideals, they’re rarely achieved 100%. A dictatorship, preferably benevolent, is the best we can get, in my opinion. Afghanistan seems immune to the kind of democracy we’re trying to instill there, and for many, many reasons. I’m surprised of Pakistan though, but I suppose since Musharaff left, they’ve gone from bad to worse. He at least was on our side more or less.

  8. As for Afghanistan being immune to democracy. Perhaps, to Western-style democracy, but in recent centuries, power brokers there had always to negotiate between different regions and groups. There is certainly room for something of a representative system on the nation level. Whether it be “democratic” in the sense that every Afghan gets a vote is another matter.

    What don’t believe will happen is for a strong, centralized state to take shape that can impose law and order from Kabul.

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