There Is Only One Way Out of Afghanistan
And It Requires Cooperating With Regional Powers
(By Barnett R. Rubin)
For more than a decade, every debate about U.S. policy in Afghanistan has focused narrowly on the number of troops to send or withdraw. U.S. policymakers freely admit there can be no military solution to Afghanistan’s problems. Yet they continue to debate the same false choice between disengagement and troop commitment for counter-terrorism.
The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden has a chance to move beyond this blinkered approach. U.S. interests in Afghanistan extend beyond counter-terrorism. China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia—four nuclear powers, Asia’s two mega-economies, and a wily U.S. adversary—all have a stake in Afghanistan’s future. How the United States deals with these countries in the context of the Afghan peace process has profound implications for its relations with each of them and for its standing in Asia.
The Biden administration should continue to draw down troops in accordance with the agreement the administration of President Donald Trump signed with the Taliban in February 2020—though it could seek to adjust the timeline, since implementation of parts of the agreement has been delayed. But it should draw down as part of a coordinated regional strategy that seeks to capitalize on areas of alignment between the United States and regional powers.
Although its relations with China and Russia are otherwise in a downward spiral, the United States shares an interest with both countries in stabilizing Afghanistan. A political settlement that enjoys the support of Afghanistan’s neighbours wouldn’t just reduce the need for U.S. troops; it could serve as the foundation of a more ambitious and effective Asia policy.
Afghanistan’s problems are regional in nature. Yet the United States has no framework for managing the regional tensions that have fueled the conflict. The Trump administration’s strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia didn’t even mention China, Iran, or Russia (though all three are referenced in the December 2017 National Security Strategy, focused on “great power competition” and “dictatorships . . . determined to destabilize regions”). When in 2018 it decided to focus on a negotiated troop withdrawal, however, the Trump administration found that these countries were already engaged in peace negotiations through the so-called Moscow Process. As a result, it needed to cooperate with all of them to secure a U.S. withdrawal.
Trump’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, made some progress toward aligning peace efforts with Russia and China. He authorized U.S. participation in a November 2018 meeting of the Moscow Process, met regularly with Russian officials responsible for Afghanistan policy, and consulted with Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani officials on the Afghan peace process. Those consultations led to several joint statements in support of the U.S. negotiations with the Taliban that eventually led to the February 2020 peace accord and to subsequent inter-Afghan peace talks.
Despite Beijing’s participation in the consultations, however, the Trump administration continued to oppose even perfunctory expressions of support for Afghan-Chinese cooperation. In March 2020, for instance, the United States threatened to veto a UN Security Council resolution renewing the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan because it mentioned China’s Belt and Road Initiative (as, in fact, did every resolution to renew the mission since 2016). The resolution finally passed with a vague endorsement of “regional cooperation for regional development.”
Partly as a gesture toward India, the Trump administration also made some effort to bring Iran on board with its peace efforts in Afghanistan. In 2018, it authorized exceptions to U.S. sanctions on Iran for investments in Chabahar, an Iranian port project partially financed by India and Japan that would give India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. But the United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran continued to scare off investment in the port, blunting the diplomatic impact of the exceptions. It came as little surprise, then, that Iran declined to participate in the U.S.-led Afghan peace consultations with China, Russia, and Pakistan.
Regional support will be essential for implementation of the 2020 U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. Under that deal, the United States is to withdraw all remaining troops by May 1, 2021, in exchange for the Taliban’s commitment to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven. But the timeline is linked to other goals—for a U.S.-Taliban cease-fire, for the release of prisoners, for the lifting of sanctions, and for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations between the Taliban and the government in Kabul on a political road map for the country and a comprehensive cease-fire. Long (though foreseeable) delays in releasing prisoners and commencing direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban have dragged on for months amid escalating violence. The Taliban have not yet cut ties with al Qaeda, and the United States has not started the process of lifting bilateral and UN Security Council sanctions on the Taliban. It will be virtually impossible for the Afghan negotiators to agree on a future political road map and cease-fire during the brief 14-week window between Biden’s inauguration and the deadline for troop withdrawal.
When it inherits the Afghan peace process on January 20, the Biden administration may wish to negotiate clearer relationships and contingencies among the components of the process and to coordinate the deal’s implementation with other regional initiatives, such as rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement. But doing so will require coordinated diplomatic outreach to Afghanistan’s powerful neighbors, all of whom, except India, have political relationships with both the Afghan government and the Taliban—and all of whom worry that the United States has taken advantage of their approval of a counter-terrorism mission to establish permanent military bases that might one day be used against them. These neighbors want U.S. troops out of the region, but not in a way that leaves a worse problem behind.
The Biden administration should make clear that withdrawing troops as part of a comprehensive political settlement—including a cease-fire and Taliban counter-terrorism commitments—will go hand in hand with a new focus on diplomacy and cooperation with regional powers. Continental Asia, virtually absent from the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, has a shared interest in stabilizing Afghanistan. The region is home to enormous infrastructure projects involving Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Japan, Russia, and the Central Asian states that can succeed only if there is peace in Afghanistan.
But the scope for cooperation goes beyond infrastructure and the commerce it can facilitate. Even China, whose relations with Washington are likely to remain contentious in other areas such as trade and technology, can find considerable common ground with the United States in Afghanistan. During the administration of President Barack Obama, joint U.S.-Chinese training of Afghan diplomats led to jointly sponsored peace efforts. The United States and China should revive and expand that training program. The two countries should also explore security cooperation. For years, China has discreetly mooted the possibility of working with the United States to support the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. Chinese officials have also informally proposed joint U.S.-Chinese training of Afghan military officers. The Biden administration could look into both of these possibilities. It might also consider supporting the acquisition by the Afghan military of reconditioned Chinese Mi-17 helicopters. These helicopters could carry out convoy escort and medical evacuation missions much more cheaply than the McDonnell Douglas models the United States is currently providing.
China could be enticed to step up military cooperation in part because of its interest in northeast Afghanistan, which borders the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Beijing has imposed a draconian regime of surveillance and detention in this region to suppress what it characterizes as the “three evils” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism. Its repression extends far beyond what might be justified by legitimate security threats, but legitimate security threats nonetheless exist. To counter them, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan have established a Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism under which they jointly patrol their shared borders. China has also helped the Afghan National Army build a counter-terrorism mountain brigade in the region of Badakhshan, along the border with China. While the United States should continue to condemn the repression in Xinjiang, China’s preoccupation with security threats in that region could provide a basis for greater U.S.-Chinese cooperation in support of Afghan security forces.
Additional collaborative avenues could open up if the United States shifts from simply opposing China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to constructively engaging with and competing with it. Beijing’s signature infrastructure-building drive has undeniable appeal: one 2017 Asian Development Bank study estimated that Asia will need $26 trillion in infrastructure investment between 2016 and 2030. Nowhere is that need more acute than in Afghanistan. Though Afghanistan has not officially joined the BRI, Beijing and Kabul have begun some cooperation through the initiative. In 2016, for instance under a 2016 memorandum of understanding, China opened the Sino-Afghan Special Railway, which connected Jiangsu Province on China’s Pacific coast with the northern Afghanistan land port of Hairatan. The first train laden with Afghan talc left Hairatan for China in September 2019.
Instead of opposing the BRI, the United States should seek to influence it—in particular, by joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral development bank with 103 member states, including Afghanistan and most U.S. allies. Far from the Chinese-inspired threat to the international order that its opponents make it out to be, the AIIB is “an avenue of constructive cooperation to help stabilize the rocky U.S.-China relationship and enhance the U.S. economic presence in Asia,” as a recent Brookings Institution report concluded. A significant capital contribution could make Washington an important influencer as well as a critic.
Afghanistan is also a promising theater for cooperation with Iran, even if the timing must be coordinated with nuclear negotiations. The Biden administration will seek to open dialogue with Tehran as soon as possible and to rejoin the nuclear deal that Trump abandoned in 2018. The recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, most likely by Israel, could complicate these plans. After the killing, hard-liners in the Iranian parliament passed a law forbidding diplomacy with the United States unless it lifts sanctions within three weeks of Biden’s inauguration. But the president-elect is already on the record advocating prompt reentry into the Iran nuclear deal and can argue that the ultimatum from Iranian hard-liners had no effect on his decision.
Another complicating issue will be Iran’s presidential election, slated for June 2021. To appeal to an aggrieved population (and in order to delay possible talks and sanctions relief until after the election), Iran’s hard-liners are likely to demand compensation for losses caused by the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal. The Biden administration should nonetheless try to persuade skeptical Iranian voters to take another gamble on engagement with the United States. Even before it resumes bilateral negotiations with Tehran, the Biden administration could actively encourage U.S. and other companies to invest in Chabahar, a gesture that both Afghanistan and India would welcome.
The Biden administration could also capitalize on the interest it shares with Iran in combating the Islamic State—a common interest the Trump administration has ignored or denied. Even minimal exchanges of information in the fight against the extremist group could help lay the foundation for further coordination between Washington and Tehran.
The United States should survey the possible avenues for cooperation with India and Pakistan as well. Both are important destinations for Afghan exports. In 2018, for instance, Afghanistan exported $360 million worth of goods to India and $380 million to Pakistan. Lifting U.S. sanctions on Iran would allow India and others to build the road and rail connections needed to expand those exports through Chabahar. Deeper Indian economic ties to Afghanistan would also provide a platform for Indian participation in regional efforts related to the peace process.
At the same time, a coherent and cooperative regional policy would help the United States re-calibrate relations with Pakistan. Once it draws down its forces, closes its military bases in Afghanistan, and opens routes for its allies through Iran, the United States will be less dependent on logistical cooperation with Pakistan’s military. Coordination with other regional partners, especially China, will also help secure vital Pakistani support for an eventual political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. To safeguard such a settlement, Islamabad would need to help shut down Taliban military and logistical facilities in its territory. Pakistan is reportedly discussing this aspect of the settlement in high-level military talks with Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. But given the need to monitor implementation of such a highly sensitive agreement, China, whose observers might be acceptable to Pakistan, should be invited into this group.
Successfully implementing the peace agreement will require Moscow’s buy-in, too. Russia’s cooperation, along with China’s, will be vital for renegotiating timetables and making modifications to the UN sanctions regime. The Biden administration should seek Russia’s and China’s help in its outreach to Iran, Pakistan, and India.
The United States will not be able to execute a successful regional strategy for Afghanistan on its own. Only the United Nations has the convening authority to coordinate the multiple levels of negotiation that will be required. The UN could take on a bigger role in Afghanistan either by expanding the authorities of the UN special representative of the secretary-general for Afghanistan or by appointing a separate special envoy for international diplomacy in support of the Afghan peace process.
The United States could also support the establishment of a new UN regional hub in Central Asia. At present, the region’s UN country offices are mostly served out of distant hubs in Bangkok and Cairo. Several agencies, such as the World Health Organization and the World Food Program, don’t have a presence at all in some Central Asian countries. These gaps have become particularly evident over the past year, as the pandemic disrupted supply chains and pushed up food prices. The continued spread of COVID-19 risks causing additional disruptions this spring, which in turn could threaten the peace process and the regional cooperation it requires.
Uzbekistan has already expressed an interest in hosting UN offices and could be asked to establish such a hub. An expanded UN presence there would be welcome news in Kabul: the Uzbek government has signed several dozen agreements with Afghanistan since 2016, established a rail link between the two countries, facilitated transit trade, and set up an international logistics center and a free economic zone on the Afghan border. Japan and the EU—both looking for ways to expand their soft power in Central Asia—might be willing to fund a UN regional center in Uzbekistan.
Competition will always be a feature of the international system, but the United States need not let that define its options in Afghanistan. The United States has interests in the region that extend beyond counter-terrorism—and tools at its disposal other than the military. The Biden administration has a chance to overcome the tunnel vision of the past two decades by integrating its policy into a cooperative regional strategy that seeks common ground with Afghanistan’s neighbors.