While the United States and its North Atlantic partners have reaffirmed their commitment to Afghanistan through to 2014, the Western alliance has also clearly signaled it is not willing to offer an unlimited “blank check” to Kabul. The president’s approach to Afghanistan is guided by what I’ve described as the “just enough” doctrine designed to “keep al-Qaida on a “path to defeat” and Afghanistan on track to meet its objectives for progress.”
But Afghanistan will not be ready to fully assume responsibility for its own security any time in the near future. Security forces, notably local police units, will continue to need to be trained and equipped; infrastructure projects designed both to improve the quality of life but also to better integrate Afghanistan so it could play its role as the hub between Central and South Asia will need to be protected. So as NATO stands down and Afghans are not yet fully ready to stand up, who will fill the gap? World Politics Review editor Judah Grunstein made this blunt assessment: “If Afghanistan is to stand a chance, the coming decade must be one of regional engagement.”
My hope is that the summit on Afghanistan that the president has called to meet in Chicago next year makes a concerted effort to draw in the members and observers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both in an individual as well as a collective capacity, in an effort to address this question. After all, the SCO’s members and observers—Russia, China, the Central Asian states, India and Pakistan—all have vested interests in stability in Afghanistan.
If the United States makes it abundantly clear that its timetable for a 2014 disengagement is unshakeable, it might have an impact on Afghanistan’s neighbors — particularly China — who have benefited from the expenditure of U.S. and NATO blood and treasure. Afghanistan is moving to become a full-fledged observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional body already encompassing China, Russia and the states of Central Asia. Both India and Pakistan have recently upgraded their connections to this body, with the possibility that by 2014 they could be full members of the group. That suggests that, as India’s External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna noted during the SCO summit in Kazakhstan earlier this month, the organization “could play an important role in stabilizing Afghanistan after the drawdown of foreign troops.”
Quiet demarches are apparently already underway between the United States and the SCO, in an attempt to begin probing ways forward for cooperation. Working together to ensure a transition from a NATO-led operation in Afghanistan to one where the regional countries take the lead might also help to breathe new life into the Russia-NATO relationship, which has begun to show some green shoots as a result of the Northern Distribution Network.
“It is possible that the SCO will assume responsibility for many issues in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014,” Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev recently declared. Better coordination between the West and the East can ensure that this handoff occurs smoothly.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at the Atlantic Council, is professor of national security decision making at the U.S. Naval War College.