Allow them some space to breathe

Afghanistan has always been a prisoner of its geography and history and this imponderable has blocked its emergence as a sovereign nation with a will of its own. Its strategic location could have been an asset for the world; on the contrary, it has turned out to be the cause of its

Nations have often found it tempting to meddle in Afghanistan’s affairs. But the time has come, particularly for India, Iran and Pakistan, and the US, Russia, China and the European Union, and also Afghanistan’s neighbours in Central Asia, to discuss how Afghanistan can be helped to live on its own, without any fear of interference from outside.

An effort aiming at an international concert on Afghanistan’s future has become urgent in view of President Barack Obama’s growing impatience to pull US troops out of the country before making a bid for another term. India, on its part, should not be shy of discussing with others the possible scenario in Afghanistan, after foreign troops leave the country.

It is not that during the last couple of years, major countries have not been discussing this situation. These discussions, however, have been non-serious, mainly because the US and Nato have been bothered more about tackling the immediate situation than sorting out the future.

President Obama’s keenness for re-election is understandable, but walking out of Afghanistan leaving behind a vacuum to be filled by wrong elements will amount to abdication of the responsibility the US took up after 26/11.

One idea that has been in the air, but not pursued by those who ought to have done so, is about recognising Afghanistan as a neutral nation with the assurance that no power would be allowed to interfere in its affairs. Although no two situations can be alike in international affairs, Austria has been cited as an example in exploratory consultations. It has been able to buy several years of peace guaranteed by other European powers.

President Karzai, it is said, does not like the term “neutrality”, but he is bound to welcome the idea if durable peace can be restored in his country. Another term can be thought of which guarantees peace to Afghanistan, shields it from outside interference, and underscores its status as a sovereign nation. After their experience with Afghanistan, most nations would like to accord it a neutral status.

There is, however, an exception — Pakistan — which is opposed to any such thought. This is because it undercuts the very concept of the ‘strategic depth’ Pakistan avows to acquire in Afghanistan. This concept is flawed, outdated and against the basics of international law and unsuitable to the needs of the 21st century. Also, it has the potential to cause  considerable mischief.

Embedded in it is the intention to interfere in Afghanistan, there’s a tendency to covet its territory, or guiding its affairs by placing a quisling in command in Kabul. This will be a source of recurring tensions. The immediate victim of the ‘strategic depth’ is bound to be where the depth — whether political or territorial — is sought to be acquired.

Judging from the psychology of Pakistan’s military leaders it will be difficult to sell the concept of a neutral Afghanistan to them, but others cannot afford to give it up if they want to see Afghanistan and the region trouble-free.

The thought of a neutral Afghanistan is still nascent and will take some time to mature. At present the US, the key actor  in Afghanistan, is only keen to induct a section of the Taliban — the so-called ‘Good Taliban’ — into the Karzai government so that it can pull out its troops in a couple of years. It will, however, be unwise for the US and other nations not to look beyond the withdrawal of troops. Unsettled Afghanistan will always be a problem for the world.

– Hindustan Times, May 6th, 2010.