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.