After the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Toward a Regional Approach
Proponents of the global war on terror may remember this year’s September 11 ceremony at ground zero as an important milestone. Two reasons account for its significance. The first is the death of Osama bin Laden in the US raid near Islamabad on May 2, marking a closure to the ten-year search for al-Qaeda’s top leader. The second reason is President Obama’s declaration on June 22 of his intent to start withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan this July, reversing the steady increase in the number of US troops since the 2001 invasion.
The combined effect of the American public euphoria in the immediate aftermath of bin Laden’s death and the prospect of Washington’s mission soon to be accomplished in Afghanistan is bound to generate unintended consequences. The widespread public jubilation over his death appears to have reinforced the American collective mindset that personifies the roots of al-Qaeda’s terror in the individualized image of bin Laden as its leader, instead of contextualizing the historical roots of the September 11 attacks in the interconnected nature of the relationships between the United States, its Western allies, and several of the Muslim-majority countries in which al-Qaeda had found supportive constituents. In this context, the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, however significant for America’s domestic needs, has little to do with transforming the structural basis capable of reproducing the likes of bin Laden.
What, then, lies at the core of these structural roots of terror? A possible answer to this question may be found when we suspend our moral judgment for a moment and enter into a thought experiment to decode the message that al-Qaeda’s leaders tried to send the United States through their acts of terror on September 11. The suicide attacks on the World Trade Center most probably represented their indictment of what they viewed as the predatory effects of America-centered global capitalism that marginalizes the Global South, including many of the Muslim-majority societies. A regional manifestation of this global force was especially conspicuous in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and their Central Asian neighbors in much of the 1990s, when oil and gas companies from the United States and elsewhere actively sought deals with the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to secure a safe passage of pipelines crisscrossing the region. Al-Qaeda’s attack on the Pentagon, on the other hand, was possibly intended to demonstrate its resistance to America’s military campaigns and presence deep inside Islam’s holy land. However despicable al-Qaeda’s terrorizing method has been to challenge America’s economic and military supremacy, the human, emotional basis of these grievances that motivated their acts of terror has won varying degrees of sympathy across Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A series of dialogues that I have held with policy-oriented practitioners from the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other regional contexts have generated alternative visions of US-Central Asia relations that are distinctly different from a logical extension of the US-led war on terror. While the removal of terrorist threats to American and European homeland security depends decisively on Afghanistan’s capacity to build its security forces and stable government, Pakistan’s commitment to curve militancy under effective civilian rule, and India’s influential role in each of these contexts, there is also a need to establish a regionally-based, transnational mechanism of collective security that reduces the necessity of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) military presence.
One way of enabling such a regional process is to launch a Central and South Asian Conference for Peace and Security, modeling after the Helsinki Process of 1972-5 that had facilitated confidence-building among thirty-five European and North American countries divided by the Cold War. The proposed regional process seeks to provide a common platform of problem-solving not only for Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also for Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The conference should be open to other Central Asian countries as needed. Regardless of the exact scope of its membership, its basic vision is to build on the existing ties that these countries have already developed through regular summit meetings and technical coordination under the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), a ten-member group whose aim is to develop a common regional market for goods and services.
Turkey, with its ruling Justice and Development Party having recently secured voters’ confidence in mid-June, may find it appropriate to convene the process as an extension of its policy of “zero problems with its neighbors”. Turkey’s credential to assume such a leadership role may be supported by its diplomatic record of having convened a series of Afghanistan-Pakistan summits for confidence-building, while offering to establish an Istanbul-based office of the Taliban movement to assist in Afghanistan’s national reconciliation. In order to make this conference a regionally-driven, self-governing process, the United States, India, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, the European Union, Japan, and other external stakeholders must refrain from intervening unless invited, and maintain a secondary, supportive role.
The proposed multi-year process may consist of three parallel tracks of ministerial-level dialogue – security, economic, and cultural and religious affairs – analogous to the three-track approach applied to the Helsinki process. The security track may prioritize a joint exploration of well-incentivized arms control, practical measures of border control over transnational militancy, and police coordination and training across the region. The economic track may build on the existing mechanism of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), devise sustainable, equitable ways of harnessing and sharing oil and gas resources, and promote alternatives to drug and arms trade as a basis of economic livelihood. The cultural and religious track must mainstream the existing networks, leaders, and discourses of Islam that actively counter ideologies of terror and promote educational curricula that emphasize interreligious and inter-communal coexistence.
To support these regional initiatives, the United States and its NATO allies must withdraw their troops in a timely yet responsible manner, suspend drone attacks in favor of regional peacekeeping functions, and redirect their financial resources through a United Nations mechanism that assures greater political impartiality on the ground.
PLEASE WATCH PROF. ARAI’S TED TALKS PRESENTATION ON VIDEO OF THE WEEK.
Tatsushi Arai, Associate Professor of Conflict Transformation, SIT Graduate Institute.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Jul 2011.
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