Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid have co-authored an essay in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs (not online yet). It is absolutely esential reading: unlike the vast majority of analysis on the topic (with the notable exception of Anthony Cordesman of CSIS), it is measured, rational, and compelling—especially considering the expertise of each. I’m curious about a few things with it, however, so this deserves a longer discussion.
For starters, a contrast. In an essay called, “What Has Moscow Done,” about the Russo-Georgia War, Columbia University’s Stephen Sestanovich notes:
Whenever U.S. foreign policy faces a major failure, so-called realist commentators come forward to suggest a way ot, usually by recalibrating ends and means and rethinking national priorities… This “let’s make a deal” approach to diplomacy has a tempting simplicity to it. And (because this is the role realism usually plays in U.S. foreign policy debates) it will surely force U.S. decision-makers to think harder about the ends they seek, by what means they should pursue them, and at what cost. Even so, it is not likely to be the strategy the next U.S. administration adopts. Diplomats are widely thought to be negotiating such deals all the time, but it is in fact very rare that any large problem is solved because representatives of two great powers trade completely unrelated assets. These “grand bargains” favored by amateur diplomats are almost never consummated.
Sestanovich, who spent several years as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for the FSU, also highlights the assumptions behind such thinking, namely about the flexibility of the other party’s policy. While he was discussing Russia, it is a principle that applies in general: it is wonderful to talk about grand bargains and compromise, but that really only works so long as the other party believes in a positive-sum outcome as well: if it is zero-sum, then there must be a great deal of work beforehand to shape the outcome.
I bring this up because Rubin and Rashid’s essay is called “From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In the same issue. But, they make really strong points about the region:
- Much of Pakistan operates under a “sense of siege” driven both by India’s aggressive diplomatic push into Afghanistan, and also cross-border attacks in territory long claimed by Afghanistan.
- U.S. policy is paralyzed by the political baggage of the GWoT.
- The West badly overestimates Afghanistan’s ability to secure itself (i.e. the total annual cost of the ANSF will fall short of the government’s total budget by about $1 billion in 2013).
- The Durand Line drives a significant amount of the conflict.
- Afghanistan will never be at peace so long as Pakistan is obsessed with India.
- The Taliban must be distinguished from al-Qaeda.
- Pursuing discussions, and being prepared to compromise on objectives that might not be vital, can produce the calm needed for permanent development to take place.
I am hopelessly simplifying this (seriously, go grab a copy off the shelves if you don’t subscribe). But I am curious:
- What evidence do Rubin and Rashid have that the initial overtures by some Taliban members to the GIRoA and New York Times are genuine? Maulana Fazlur Rahman doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation as an honest broker—how can we be sure his bargain (voting rights as a party in exchange for not being called a terrorist) is brokered honestly?
- While speaking in grand ideas is wonderful, the devil, as they say, is in the details. The details of the security guarantees, amnesty, U.S. presence, the terms under which somehow talking will legitimate the Durand Line—all of these are relatively minor, but will determine the success of any talks.
- These UNSC-approved contact groups sound suspiciously like the envoys of the 1990s. How can they be more effective at forcing a permanent solution to the Kashmir crisis than the other multilateral and parallel bilateral diplomatic campaigns that have failed?
- If the contact group is to assure Pakistan of its territorial integrity, how will it ever get Afghanistan to relent on its claim to Pakistani territory in the FATA and stop launching wars over it?
- Rubin and Rashid are absolutely right that the FATA must be politically connected to a state, at least according to recent surveys. How could this contact group bring about such a fundamental change in Pakistan’s political and institutional make up?
- They are absolutely right that a major diplomatic push needs to happen, and it needs to be coordinated region-wide and focused on long term solutions. While including China, Iran, and Russia is nice, there is no precedent for hoping that such talks will bear results acceptable to the West in general and the U.S. in particular. Should the U.S. consent to Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for cooperation on Afghanistan? Should the U.S. scuttle the India nuclear deal to reduce pressure on the Pakistani government? Should the U.S. agree never to influence Central Asia so Russia takes a more active role in securing Afghanistan, and should we assume Russia’s presence will be accepted?
I really don’t have answers to these. Rubin and Rashid are right to bring them up, because discussing them—pros and cons alike—will help us all get a better understanding of what and how we can do better in the area. I haven’t settled my mind on any of this yet, either: these are questions only. I don’t even know if they’re good ones.
I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this: are Rubin and Rashid off the reservation? Or are they in front of the cutting edge, looking for radical new solutions to replace our current failing ones?