[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Colin Geraghty — Nathan]
Marc Grossman, regional diplomacy and transition
Recently-named Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) Marc Grossman inherits “a nearly impossible job” that comes with a daunting array of challenges.
On March 21, Afghan president Hamid Karzai officially announced the seven areas selected for the (largely symbolic) first phase of the security transition to Afghan forces (map available here), kicking off a critical but highly uncertain process that will last until 2014. Meanwhile, insurgents prepare their traditional spring offensive after an unusually active winter; several allies have recently left the coalition or plan to reduce their combat forces, leaving most of the fighting to U.S., British and French troops, as well as the nascent ANSF.
For any gain to be sustainable in this environment, it will be essential to minimize external manipulation of Afghan politics and attempts by regional powers to undermine the U.S.-led coalition’s strategy. Secretary Clinton’s February 18 Afghan-Pakistan speech (in which she announced Marc Grossman as her choice for SRAP) stated repeatedly that the United States would intensify its diplomatic engagement with the region in an effort to support and consolidate the progress made on other fronts. While the U.S. strategy still lacks a framework for sustained regional interactions, the speech provided few specifics for remedying this situation.
In this context, there is one relatively simple first step the new SRAP could take that could yield considerable benefit at little cost. Tasked with coordinating the civilian approach to the conflict, Richard Holbrooke during his tenure set up an interagency team that has been invaluable. This should serve as a loose model for a coordinating group based more on regionally-placed resources rather than simply US offices – for example, establishing a regional inter-embassy network under the supervision of the SRAP. This could be done through designating a “point person for Afghanistan” in each key embassy (principally Moscow, New Delhi, Beijing, but also Ankara and Riyadh), perhaps at the Political Counselor level. Such a network would allow for an increased regional interaction on a sustainable basis, as and provide directbinput from multiple countries rather than resting with Washington-based officials alone. The SRAP could convene meetings on a regular basis with this inter-embassy network (either in person or via VTC), to integrate the information this process produces with regards to each regional actor.
Some have called for establishing a regional contact group, or more recently an international facilitator to support negotiations. These proposals merit careful consideration. Yet such mechanisms often prove unwieldy. Pursuing dialogues in a bilateral setting affords the U.S. greater flexibility, at least initially, to explore regional dynamics, identify areas of possible cooperation and evaluate their eventual impact on other regional players.
The objective of an inter-embassy network would be to piece together the different positions of all the parties critical to a successful outcome, perhaps even to determine where possible areas of bilateral cooperation lie and what their repercussions might be. This would not be a decision-making mechanism, but one geared toward information-gathering and improved understanding of regional dynamics. Such an initiative would allow the SRAP to stake out a regional role without overstepping restrictions the White House reportedly sought. Indeed, rather than appearing to establish the SRAP as the administration’s central figure in the region, it would merely institutionalize his position as lead representative of the State Department (Marc Grossman’s recent remarks at the Brussels Forum were careful not to embrace any hint of a broader regional role for himself, focusing solely on the subject of Pakistan and Afghanistan).
Developing an overall understanding of the regional dynamics affecting Afghanistan’s geopolitical situation and engaging with regional powers takes on an increased urgency as the Afghan war nears a critical transition. While the changes on the ground may be expected to be marginal, especially at first, this new phase represents an important psychological shift, as regional actors will increasingly contemplate the future in terms of a post-ISAF Afghanistan. Shaping their perceptions should become an increasingly important objective for the Obama administration. Though the U.S. should be mindful that Afghanistan’s future ultimately will have to be decided by Afghans themselves, regional dynamics cannot be ignored as the U.S. begins to think about a political solution to the conflict and an exit strategy for itself. Eventual pursuit of a negotiated solution, like current attempts to stabilize the country, requires the buy-in of international actors, who possess at the very least the ability to disrupt talks, stoke tensions, or otherwise harm the prospects of a stabilized country. As Jeffrey Laurenti wrote, “peace can only come to Afghanistan if its neighbors will it.”
It will be crucial for the U.S. to project a long-term stabilization effort in Afghanistan, and to define a continued assistance along such lines, in order to encourage regional actors to perceive a stable Afghanistan as an inevitable outcome, and one that isn’t incompatible with their own interests. As Gerard Russell noted, economics could play a role in fostering constructive engagement by Afghanistan’s neighbors. It is however doubtful that they will forgo predefined strategic interests in Afghanistan solely for potential economic gains. Taking into consideration the multi-dimensional regional chessboard, the U.S. must therefore convince them that pursuing narrow interests as in the 1990’s is neither constructive nor ultimately conducive to their own interests long-term. The Obama administration has a narrow window of opportunity to shape regional perceptions, while the U.S. presence is still strong, both on the battlefields and in the minds of neighboring countries.
Now is the time for the administration to make good on the promise of a “diplomatic surge” to complement current military efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the Obama administration looks to prepare an exit strategy that doesn’t undo the progress accomplished by ISAF, establishing an inter-embassy network can be a low-key first step that supports a new focus on the regional dimension of the conflict, establishes a critical but low-profile role for the SRAP in this regard and encourages the pursuit of mutually-reinforcing efforts around shared interests between the U.S. and regional actors
Colin Geraghty is a research associate with the Raoul-Dandurand Chair in Strategic and Diplomatic Studies of the University of Québec at Montréal (UQAM). His research focuses on South Asian dynamics and the regional dimension of the Afghan conflict. He can be reached at email@example.com.