Tuesday, June 28, 2011


"Washington has given up its hopes of turning Afghanistan into the Switzerland of Central Asia – now it wants to make the country into the region’s Belgium.

As the US steps up its diplomatic push following the decision last week from Barack Obama, president, to draw down the 33,000-strong troop surge, Washington officials say defusing Indian-Pakistan rivalries within Afghanistan remains a main challenge.

In particular, Pakistan, which has long cultivated ties with Afghanistan to offset India’s strategic advantages, can play a near-decisive role in hindering or facilitating talks with the Taliban. In little-noticed comments, Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, recently suggested that to address the problem the US could look to the past, namely to the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna, which established Belgium as a neutral buffer state and ushered in a century of relative stability.

Indeed, US officials say that Washington’s diplomatic efforts are largely aimed at achieving a regional compact, whereby countries agree not to use Afghanistan as a battleground for their rivalries.

The Obama administration is turning its back on more ambitious nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, which officials now dismiss as doomed efforts to build a Switzerland or a “Central Asian Valhalla”.

Asked by Richard Lugar, the senior Republican Senator, about the importance of bringing countries such as India, Russia and central Asian states to the table, Mrs Clinton endorsed his suggestion that the Congress of Vienna be a model.

“The Congress of Vienna is an interesting historical example because there was a pact made among regional powers that in effect left the Benelux countries as a free zone,” she said.

“If we could get to that point with the regional powers in South Asia, that would not recommence with the great game in Afghanistan, that would be a very worthy outcome.”'

David Dombey & Matthew Green, "US aims to turn Afghanistan into neutral zone." The Financial Times. 27 June 2011 in www.ft.com.

"Now, the third surge is our diplomatic surge. It is diplomatic efforts in support of an Afghan-led political process that aims to shatter the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaida, end the insurgency, and help to produce more stability. To begin, we are working with the Afghans on a new strategic partnership declaration that will provide a long-term framework for bilateral cooperation and NATO cooperation, as agreed to, again, at Lisbon. And it will bolster Afghan and regional confidence that Afghanistan will not again become a safe haven for terrorists and an arena for competing regional interests....

But we believe that a political solution that meets these conditions is possible. The United States has a broad range of contacts at many levels across Afghanistan and the region, that we are leveraging to support this effort, including very preliminary outreach to members of the Taliban. This is not a pleasant business, but a necessary one, because history tells us that a combination of military pressure, economic opportunity, and an inclusive political and diplomatic process is the best way to end insurgencies. With bin Ladin dead and al-Qaida’s remaining leadership under enormous pressure, the choice facing the Taliban is clear: Be part of Afghanistan’s future or face unrelenting assault. They cannot escape this choice.

Special Representative Marc Grossman is leading an active diplomatic effort to build support for a political solution. What we call the Core Group – Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States – has met twice and will convene again next week. At the same time, we are engaging the region around a common vision of an independent, stable Afghanistan and a region free of al-Qaida. We believe we’ve made progress with all of the neighbors, including India, Russia, and even Iran. Just this past Friday, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to support reconciliation by splitting its sanctions on al-Qaida and the Taliban into two separate lists, underscoring that the door is open for the insurgents to abandon the terrorists and choose a different path.

We welcome these steps, and for the United States the key diplomatic priority and indeed a lynchpin of this entire effort is closing the gap between Kabul and Islamabad. Pakistan must be part of this process. Earlier this month, the two countries launched a joint peace commission and held substantive talks at the highest levels. Also, very significant, was the full implementation on June 12th of the Transit Trade Agreement, which will create new economic opportunity on both sides of the Durand Line and lay the foundation for a broader vision of regional economic integration and cooperation. This agreement started being negotiated in the early 1960s. It therefore took decades, including great, heroic effort by the late Richard Holbrooke and his team. But the trucks are now rolling across the border".

Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, "The Way Forward in Afghanistan." Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 23 June 2011, in www.state.gov.

The ideas being bounced around by the American Secretary of State in the last week, of course have a very very old vintage indeed. As that is as it relates to Afghanistan. Namely that the Americans should sit all of the neighboring powers into a room, and cobbled together some agreeablemodus vivendi that serves the interests of all the powers in the region. Which per se is fine. However, as a practical matter, such suppositions have an element of a very very untried ballon d'essai aspect to it. The only problem with this proposition is that if say, India and Pakistan (as is present the case) are completely at loggerheads over Kashmir and the rest of their relationship is hardly warm, one begs to know why either power, apropos of nothing would necessarily agree to come to terms over Afghanistan's future. Simply put, unless and until these two powers in particular (and the other 'outside' powers' interest in the country is minuscule compared to these two) make up their differences (particularly over Kashmir), then the likelihood of some plausible modus vivendi over Afghanistan is something in the nature of a utopian aspiration. At best. Which of course explains why nothing came of such aspirations in either late 1980's or the 1990's.

Au fond of course, the real American, nay Western interest in Afghanistan, is a negative one: denying this particular bit of real estate to anyone be it state, para-state, terrorist groupings, et cetera. Who may use it as a launching pad for attacks elsewhere in the world and in particular in the Western world. Whether or not this can be done, if there is a full American and Western military withdrawal from the country in the next four to five years time seems questionable to me. Which does not obviate the fact that a re-position of forces along the Biden / Rumsfeldian 'light-touch' strategy, is: i) called for and indeed overdue; ii) will serve the purpose of denying Afghanistan as a base to 'hostile' or potentially hostile forces. Without at the same time tying down excessively large number of American and Western forces in the country; iii) still allow the Americans to launch when convenient and or necessary drone strikes on targets in Pakistan (and one presumes in the future, if needed parts of Central Asia). The factum is that any 'diplomatic surge', will not obviate the need to retain at the very least a light foot-print in Afghanistan along the Biden & Rumsfeldian lines. And that there is nothing per se, which the 'outside' powers can provide which is meaux than the strategy outlined above. At least as it serves Western and American interests in this region.

Finally, as it concerns the Congress of Vienna, and the foundations of Belgium as useful examples from history, what may one say but that as usual American officialdom (and most unfortunately enough a certain British journalist) is extraordinarily stupid and historically illiterate? By definition the Congress of Vienna analogy does not apply merely by virtue of the fact that said Congress was au fond a Congress of the victors of the long Napoleonic Wars. In essence the diplomatic gathering in Vienna in 1814-1815 ratified the military victory over Bonaparte 1. In the case of Afghanistan since there has not been a military victory over the Taliban, nor does the American administration look towards such a result, there can hardly be a diplomatic omnium gatherum or Congress to endorse such a non-event. And as we have seen in the absence of a demonstrative military victory and at the very least a modus vivendi, if not an entente between Pakistan and India, there can be no doubt that the other 'outside powers' will be lured or interested in serious pourparlers which will have meaningful results for the Afghani people. As for the 'Belgium' model need one add that: a) the foundation of Belgium has nothing to do with the Congress of Vienna, the latter event taking place more than fifteen years prior to the former; b) the foundation of Belgium, was in effect intended as an anti-French manoeuvre, as the goal achieved by the foundation of the country was to deny Paris any possibility of annexing French-speaking portions of what was formerly the southern portions of the United Netherlands and prior to 1789 the 'Austrian Netherlands' 2. Unfortunately, there will be a lot of fighting to come, via either air strikes, drone attacks and ground assaults until Afghanistan can be said to approach being the 'Belgium of Central Asia'.

1. On the purposes of the Congress of Vienna from a diplomatic perspective, see: Paul Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848. (1994), pp. 517-635.

2. On the purposes of the original Dutch-Belgium united Kingdom of 1815 and Belgium's later fufillment of the same fifteen years later, see: Schroeder, op. cit., p. 560-563, 671 and 688-691.


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