An “Austria model” for Afghanistan: worth a try

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Grandiose nation-building schemes for Afghanistan, so prominent just a few years ago, have fallen victim to painful lessons in foreign policy realism. Except for vague generalities and generous dollops of wishful thinking, there are few Western plans for that country in the post-intervention period. Even the long-standing emphasis on preventing the Taliban from returning to power has become muted.  Today, Western policymakers talk more about fostering dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban rather than defeating the militants militarily.  

With the departure of NATO forces and the end of President Hamid Karzai’s tenure in office, the chances of ending the fighting in the short term have improved slightly. But unless the United States and other outside powers significantly alter their conduct toward Afghanistan, the cycle of fratricidal violence that has plagued that unfortunate country for the past three-and-a-half decades is very likely to return. The best way to minimize the prospect of such a tragic outcome is for all powers to adopt a “hands-off” policy and treat Afghanistan as a neutral enclave. One model for that approach is the agreement between the Soviet Union and the West regarding Austria in 1955, which prevented that country from being a pawn in the Cold War. That settlement was based on the willingness of both the Kremlin and the Western powers to endorse and respect a status of strict neutrality for Vienna.

Such a change for Afghanistan would require uncharacteristic restraint on the part of numerous countries, and the odds are admittedly against that outcome. Still, if the United States and its Western allies want to engage in creative diplomacy (and rectify some of the problems they helped cause), the initiative is worth a try.

For too long, Afghanistan has been the geopolitical plaything of outside powers.  Pakistan and India have been the worst offenders. Indeed, Islamabad and New Delhi have waged what amounts to a low-intensity proxy war for dominance in Afghanistan. Pakistani leaders for over more than half a century have deemed it a high priority to have a friendly, pliable government in Kabul. With India as a large, hostile neighbor on its eastern border, Pakistan is adamant about not tolerating an Indian client state on its other frontier. It was that perceived need for greater “strategic depth” that caused Islamabad to back the Taliban in the 1990s, despite the movement’s often horrific behavior. Indeed, worry about a lack of strategic depth was a factor impelling Pakistan to cooperate with the United States in supporting the mujahedeen rebels against the Soviet-backed Afghan government in the 1980s. After all, Moscow was considered India’s patron.  

A similar dynamic has caused New Delhi to meddle in Afghanistan, albeit in a somewhat more subtle fashion than Islamabad. India enthusiastically backed the Karzai government, providing financial aid and advice on ways to combat the Islamic militants. Karzai’s association with the Indian government was sufficiently cozy that Pakistani officials implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) accused him of being New Delhi’s puppet.

Although India and Pakistan have engaged in the most extensive meddling in Afghanistan, they are hardly the only outside powers to be guilty of that conduct. Both Washington and Moscow (and Beijing, to some extent) have been offenders as well. The interference reached its zenith in the late 1970s and the 1980s when Afghanistan became a prominent arena in the Cold War - and a prominent casualty of the rivalry between Moscow and Washington.

Developments in the past few years have been more promising. The Russians certainly were sobered by the USSR’s disastrous experience in occupying Afghanistan and trying to subdue the country. Washington’s more recent experience has been nearly as frustrating for American would-be nation-builders. 

Indeed, the United States seems to have become reconciled to playing a more limited role, not only in Afghanistan, but throughout Central Asia. During the 1990s, and especially after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, US and Western officials sought to forge close economic and strategic partnerships with several Central Asian nations, especially Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. In December 2001, Kyrgyzstan’s government leased the Manas air base to the United States. As late as 2005, NATO officials referred to Kazakhstan as the Alliance’s “anchor” in Central Asia.

Growing turmoil in Uzbekistan, combined with mounting Russian pressure on Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to limit their ties to Washington dashed those hopes. Recently, the Obama administration reluctantly complied with Kyrgyzstan’s demand and agreed to leave Manas, which had been the main logistical hub for sending military supplies into Afghanistan and an important symbol of the US presence in Central Asia.

Ending the US occupation of Afghanistan and scaling-back Western ambitions in the rest of Central Asia should reduce the danger of a nasty rivalry with Moscow. In fact, the main potential for rivalry is between Russia and China, primarily over the region’s oil and gas riches. Beijing’s agreement with the government of Turkmenistan confirms that China hopes to protect and promote some key petroleum and other economic interests, and Moscow views the Chinese move with some uneasiness.

If Afghanistan is to avoid being caught-up in a maelstrom of geopolitical animosity, all of the relevant outside powers need to view that country as a neutral buffer state, not as a base for the projection of power. That means limiting both the nature and scope of rivalry to peaceful economic competition, which, if preliminary reports that Afghanistan may be the repository of valuable minerals prove true, could be beneficial to all parties concerned.

In any case, if the errors and tragedies of the past are not to be repeated, both India and Pakistan must drastically change their posture toward Afghanistan. New Delhi needs to stop viewing Kabul as a potential ally to increase Islamabad’s anxiety about the security of its western flank. Pakistan needs to recognize that a neutral government in Kabul may cause fewer headaches for the overall region, including Pakistan itself, than a new Taliban regime. And without the expectation of backing from Islamabad, the Taliban would be more likely to accept a compromise political solution at home.

Even if India and Pakistan improve their behavior, though, Russia and the United States need to exercise restraint so that Afghanistan does not become an arena in a new cold war between Moscow and the West. The chill in relations as a result of the Ukraine crisis is bad enough; it would not benefit either side to see those tensions migrate to Central Asia.

Despite obvious obstacles (including Afghanistan’s myriad internal divisions), the potential exists for a happier, productive future for the Afghan people. The United States and its NATO allies have the opportunity to embrace a more modest status for themselves in Central Asia and facilitate through wise diplomacy the establishment of a neutral Afghanistan. That approach worked with respect to Austria during the height of the Cold War. Western policymakers should make a concerted effort to replicate that achievement in Afghanistan.