Recent developments in Afghanistan, the deteriorating situation there and rising casualties among U.S. soldiers necessitate a new look at possible ways of resolving the Afghan conflict, as Washington grapples to find yet another new way forward.
After eight years of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, the Taliban's influence is expanding, with its sharply intensified military efforts now leaving the Taliban controlling a significant part of the country.
If the military option is now the subject of increased debate inside the Washington Beltway, Afghanistan's recent deeply flawed presidential elections have again highlighted the destructive trends in the country's political life and increased regional ethnic tensions.
Last but hardly least, the deepening instability in neighboring Pakistan directly and negatively impacts the military-political situation in Afghanistan. These processes are accelerating because of the ongoing paralysis of power in Kabul, where the Karzai government founders in its ineffectiveness and incompetence.
In response, world political leaders have advanced various initiatives to resolve the situation in Afghanistan and address the country's longstanding problems, ranging from the pragmatic to the surreal. Exotic suggestions include that of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan to conduct joint prayers with the Taliban as well as the current initiative of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to turn Bishkek into a "negotiating platform" for Afghanistan's various opposing forces.
Despite dozens of conferences and meetings on Afghanistan's problems, all are characterized by the lack of practical effectiveness, highlighted by the disparity between the decisions made during these events and the real situation in Afghanistan.
Against this background, initiatives put forward by Uzbek President Islam Karimov during the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008 take on heightened importance. The text of the address is at http://www.jahonnews.uz/eng/sections/politics/address_by_president_of_the_republic_of_uzbekistan_he_mr_islam_karimov.mgr.
Karimov's proposal, largely overshadowed at the time by the Bush administration's drive to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance, is unusual for its pragmatic assessment of Afghanistan's geopolitical and strategic situation. Well before the dramatic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Uzbekistan's leader warned repeatedly that Afghanistan was becoming an epicenter of global terrorism and religious extremism, a prediction largely borne out by subsequent events.
Karimov's insights included that while there is no military solution to Afghanistan's problems, there is an urgent need for resolving the country's social and economic difficulties, particularly endemic poverty and unemployment, adding that as Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state with many religions, a unique history and culture, the mentality and pious beliefs of the people must be considered and respected rather than ignored or demeaned.
The most interesting and innovative aspect of Karimov's speech was his proposal to revive the United Nations' Afghanistan "6 plus 2" assembly by expanding it into a "6 plus 3" ensemble by including NATO because of its anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan among the "six" members Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, China and Iran and the "two," the United States and Russia.
Karimov added that it is impossible to solve Afghanistan's problems without the direct involvement of neighboring countries, which have felt the destructive impact of the Afghan crisis for more than 30 years. As Afghanistan's problems are now of global nature, Karimov concluded that their resolution must also be global, with the participation of members of the international coalition that comprise NATO's International Security Assistance Force.
Karimov urged that the 6 plus 3 members evolve a common long-term Afghan strategy and develop a new model of national reconciliation with international support that both provides an interim solution of the Afghan crisis as it fosters long-term peace. In a significant departure from Western thinking at the time, Karimov concluded by noting that while it is possible to continue increasing the foreign military presence in Afghanistan, without a clear model of national reconciliation it will be impossible to end conflict there.
As one of Afghanistan's neighbors, Uzbekistan bases its initiative upon its unique experience extending over the past decade in the creation and functioning of the United Nations' 6 plus 2 contact group on Afghanistan. Karimov's proposal to expand the 6 plus 2 grouping is intended to resolve Afghanistan's problems exclusively by political means within the framework of the United Nations and is founded in Uzbekistan's long efforts towards that end. Following Uzbekistan hosting the United Nations' July 1999 6 plus 2 session, the "On Fundamental Principles for a Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict in Afghanistan" Tashkent Declaration was adopted. The declaration subsequently formed the basis of the U.N. Security Council's Presidential Statement 6743, which condemned Taliban military offensives as obstructing international efforts to facilitate peace.
The Tashkent meetings developed two key elements relevant today. For the first time since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Americans sat around the same table for indirect talks with Iran. Despite Iran's nuclear program and geopolitical ambitions, Iran's role in resolving Afghanistan's crisis and its potential role in establishing long-term peace there must not be ignored. Secondly, for the first time the Tashkent Declaration offered a constructive approach toward achieving reconciliation in Afghanistan through the participation of key indigenous opposing forces.
An important resource for resolving Afghanistan's problems is Uzbekistan's profound knowledge of Afghanistan's culture, mentality, customs and traditions, developed through centuries of close historical and cultural links. Today, about 3 million Uzbeks live in Afghanistan, predominantly in the north of the country. Additionally, while American experience with Afghanistan dates to November 2001, Uzbekistan has been preoccupied with the turmoil roiling that unhappy country for 30 years, since the 1979 Soviet invasion.
Further underlining Uzbekistan's importance as a committed key regional player is its extensive assistance to Afghanistan to rehabilitate its economy. During the last few years Uzbekistan has implemented many joint projects, including railroad construction, power generation, mining, agriculture, irrigation, education and the exchange of specialists as well as providing its neighbor with construction materials, metals, fertilizer, food and other goods.
With Asian Development Bank assistance, Uzbekistan is helping upgrade Afghanistan's only functioning railroad, the Termez-Hairatan line, linking Afghanistan's northern provinces with the world and constructing of the Termez-Hairatan-Mazar-e-Sharif railroad. Other Uzbek transit assistance includes hosting the final segment of NATO's Northern Distribution Network railway line, which became operational in February and provides increasing amounts of cargo for NATO ISAF troops in Afghanistan.
Uzbek companies and engineers have built 11 bridges in the Mazar-e-Sharif-Kabul area and are finishing the construction of a 275-mile high-voltage line capable of transmitting 150 megawatts from Termez to Kabul across some of the most challenging mountainous terrain on Earth, while Uzbektelecom and Afghan Telecom Corp. have an agreement to provide fiber-optic links and provide Afghanistan Internet access.
The aforementioned examples illustrate Uzbekistan's commitment as an active participant in Afghanistan's reconstruction, but a comprehensive solution to Afghanistan's difficulties must address new realities, as no single nation can go it alone, not even the United States.
Uzbekistan believes that a decade after the Tashkent Declaration, the world's most powerful military and political alliance must become broadly engaged beyond military action in resolving the Afghan crisis. The essence of the Uzbek position is that NATO bears responsibility not only for successfully implementing ISAF's military mission but also for a long-term political settlement while elaborating a new model of national reconciliation.
Alone among Afghanistan's neighbors, Uzbekistan has both committed resources and developed proposals for the country's emergence from decades of war and its economic recovery, and Karimov's comprehensive and viable 6 plus 3 initiative could form the basis for broader international efforts.
For the past decade Uzbekistan has been at the forefront of regional efforts to craft a comprehensive solution to Afghanistan's traumas. In the seeming absence of viable alternatives inside Beltwayistan, Karimov's initiative, overlooked at the time of its promulgation, is worthy of careful consideration.
(John C.K. Daly, Ph.D., is a non-resident fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University in Washington.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)