Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama and a Concert of Powers Approach?

The president-elect has selected Mona Sutphen to be his deputy chief of staff. Last year, she co-authored a book with her Clinton administration colleague Nina Hachigian (The Next American Century)on future directions for U.S. foreign policy, and expounded on a possible concert of powers approach to solving a number of pressing foreign policy issues.

Is this a direction he might move in? In a related essay for Culture 11, I noted that "depending on how he chooses to situate his Afghan policy, it could also serve as the basis for restoring the post-9/11 coalition of the major powers. Instability from Iraq is largely contained, and the major “proxy players” in Iraq — Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran — are skilled at limiting the fallout to the rest of the region. In contrast, there is no real prophylactic barrier that insulates Afghanistan from the larger world. A resurgent Taliban — even one that ends up in control only in southern Afghanistan — would not be in any of the great power’s interests.

"The return of the Taliban feeds the extremist current in Pakistani politics, which in turn causes the government in Islamabad to seek to export jihadis, principally into Kashmir and other parts of India. China and Russia do not want a return to the 1990s when terrorism spilled over into Central Asia and threatened their own stability (in Xinjiang and Chechnya, respectively). Europe doesn’t want a safe haven for extremists nor a resurgence of the heroin trade. There is a strong community of interest among the major powers for success in Afghanistan.

"If this is tied to two other issues which Obama has identified as first-order priorities for U.S. foreign policy — nuclear non-proliferation and climate change — one can see the emergence of a 21st century “concert of powers” approach where America “convenes the board” with representatives from Europe, India, China, Russia, and Brazil to hammer out workable solutions — in keeping with the original FDR vision for what the Security Council of the United Nations was intended to do (or, in keeping with Nixon’s “regional policemen” strategy)."

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Mr. Gvosdev,

I am a long-time and assiduous reader and admire your work a lot.

Might you have a minute to explain in just a bit more detail exactly how badly a Taliban-influenced Afghanistan would really hurt the world. Would they necessarily return to their pre-2001 policy of serving as a terrorist launch-pad? Is there no chance they might have somewhat learned the consequences of doing so and might prefer to focus on domestic rule?

In essence, I'm sure one could dream of better than a Taliban-led Afghanistan, but don't the US and its allies actually have more pressing threats to deal with?

Thank you for your time.


I know your question was addressed to Mr. Gvosdev but here's my view:

I wouldn't have a problem with a dictatorship in Afghanistan, but it's one thing to have a dictatorial or oligarchic government, it is a different thing altogether to have in place a totalitarian regime.

And the Taliban's "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" was precisely that.

The Sutphen-Hachigian perspective seems pretty solid to me.

Even wihtout Al-Qaeda, there was already a regional concert of sorts - before the NATO intervention - with Iran, Russia and India working against the Taliban.

The Taliban went to the extreme of hurting the interests and demands of the few sponsors they had (Saudi Arabia and the US), so why believe that today, their fanaticism may have died down?...

One cannot negotiate with totalitarians. And to understand the Taliban as a simple dictatorial theocracy is wrong.
You need to re-visit and push the Concert of Middle East idea of Pat Lang.
In trying to differentiate the incoming administration from its predecessor, observers looking forward to the change have underlined the change in U.S. tone and approach that is likely to occur. But a Concert of Powers approach is still only a means, not an end.

The only end or outcome that will prevent a Taliban return to power in Afghanistan is a central government in Kabul capable of exercising effective jurisdiction over the country as a whole. I don't think the breadth of international support for such a government is the factor on which its success is contingent. More relevant is the amount of time the United States, as the key outside power, is willing to stay in the country; whether its strategy going forward is more effective than it has been in the last seven years; and whether the Kabul government can take control of the country in the time the U.S. is still willing to commit.

On the larger matters of climate change and nuclear nonproliferation, a more conciliar approach by the United States would change the tone of discussion and might incline other governments to compromise more than they otherwise would. But the outcome may still depend on whether sacrifice can be framed in terms that are fair to all. That will be as much a test of the United States as it is of other countries.
Hi Andrew--just to briefly address your question. I could see a grand bargain where "moderate Taliban" renounce any external involvements, but I think that the nature of their ideology but more importantly their commitments would preclude this--they would still be involved in things that would spill over.

I agree that the international community as a whole loses interest in Afghanistan if you have a fundamentalist Islamic government that is also basically isolationist.
Thanks to all of you for your comments. In fact, my original point came from having read the following in Nir Rosen's most recent article about the Taliban (

"As we head south, Shafiq tells me that fighters from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan have come through the Andar district. Most are suicide bombers, but some fight alongside the Taliban. He is impressed with their skill, but like many Taliban, he doesn't care for their politics. "Pakistan and Iran are not friends of Afghanistan," Shafiq says dismissively. "They don't want peace in Afghanistan — they want to take Afghanistan." Despite their extremely conservative views on religion, most Taliban are fundamentally nationalist and Afghan-centric. They accept the support of Al Qaeda, but that doesn't mean they approve of its tactics. "Suicide attacks are not good because they kill Muslims," Shafiq says. [...]

"Yusuf makes it clear that it is only the Americans he has a problem with. Once the foreigners leave, he insists, the Taliban will negotiate peace with the Afghan army and police: "They are brothers, Muslims." What's more, he says, girls will be allowed to go to school, and women will be allowed to work. It is a stance I will hear echoed by many Taliban leaders. In recent years, recognizing that their harsher strictures had alienated the population, the Taliban have grown more tolerant. To improve their operations, they have even been forced to adopt technologies they once banned: computers, television, films, the Internet. [...]"
Andrew d. Bishop:

Iran is not interested in taking Afghanistan - it is a sink-hole of money and there is no willingness to spend money there.

While certain circles in Pakistan were vewing Afghanistan as potentially furnishing Pakistan with strategic depth (against India) it is impossible to entertain such ideas with the current situation in Afghanistan - it will be a drain on Pakistan.

India, Iran, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan, and China all are opposed to Taliban or their inclusion. And they have made their views clear to US, SA, EU, and others. Proceed at your own risk.

If US and her allies pursue that polciy, these countries will play their Northern Alliance game and will effectively partition Afghanistan into a Pashtun pieces and a non-Pashtun piece.

This type of scenario has already been tried in Somalia with a functioning northern Somali Republic and the lawless Souther & Eastern Somalia.
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