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Afghanistan Beyond 2014: The Search for Security in the Heart of Asia

From: Asia Policy
Number 17, January 2014
pp. 2-5 | 10.1353/asp.2014.0003

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On November 26, 2013, National Security Advisor Susan Rice left Kabul in frustration as President Hamid Karzai refused to compromise in negotiations over a bilateral security agreement that would govern U.S. military forces remaining in Afghanistan following the conclusion in late 2014 of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission. President Karzai’s intransigence—several senior Afghan political leaders and advisers had urged him to reach an accommodation on the agreement—was likely due to a misreading of the appetite within the United States for continuing to provide high levels of support for Afghanistan, despite the shortcomings of the Karzai government and its episodic intemperate outbursts toward Washington. Stephen Biddle likened the situation to a game of chicken, in which each side expected the other to swerve at the last minute to avoid a damaging collision.

The U.S.-Afghan negotiations over a security agreement in the fall and winter of 2013–14, still ongoing as this roundtable went to press, have taken place against a growing chorus of voices assessing the impact of the long Afghanistan campaign on U.S. national security interests in the heart of Asia. These analyses range from discussions about how a decade-long focus on counterinsurgency operations has affected U.S. military readiness to critical assessments of the costs and benefits of the ISAF mission and whether the United States should cut its losses and seek a definitive departure from the region.

A prevailing assumption in many of these assessments is that the United States is likely to shift its focus away from the region toward other security challenges in Asia, such as China’s increasing assertiveness in the East and South China seas or the threat of instability in or provocations from North Korea. In this Asia Policy roundtable, Xenia Dormandy and Michael Keating review the history of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan and argue persuasively that other issues in the Asia-Pacific will most likely capture Washington’s attention following the conclusion of the ISAF operation in 2014. Certainly there are many within the U.S. policy community who seem to agree with the notion that providing billions of dollars a year to Afghanistan, perhaps for another decade or more, is no longer feasible.

In the event that the United States does pull back, other powers will continue to vie for strategic influence in the region, and the outcome of that competition could have significant implications for broader U.S. objectives in Asia. The purpose of this roundtable, which comprises nine national and regional assessments, is to examine the range of strategic interests and priorities that Afghanistan’s neighbors and other regional powers possess. Developed fully in the pages that follow, these interests can be grouped into three broad categories.

The first is the search for security, and in particular the desire to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban for fear that Afghanistan will once again provide refuge to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. This motivation, of course, first drove the U.S. intervention in 2001, and it remains a key concern for U.S. national security managers. Security is also a primary motivation for leaders in Russia, as Mark Katz points out; in the front-line states of Central Asia (namely, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), which Kathleen Collins argues are preparing for a “coming Afghan spillover” of conflict, refugees, Islamist extremism, and drug trafficking; and in Iran, which, as Sumitha Narayanan Kutty notes, backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance during the civil war of the 1990s and was one of the earliest supporters of the U.S.-led intervention. China, too, has significant concerns about Islamism, which Beijing views as a key driver of the ethnic and religious tensions it is struggling to contain in Xinjiang.

A second category revolves around economic interests and the protection of investments that have been or are being made in major energy, natural resources, and transportation projects in Afghanistan. These interests motivate decision-makers in Beijing, Tokyo, New Delhi, and Tehran. Zhao Huasheng, for example, describes how China increasingly seeks to protect its investments in Afghanistan, while Kuniko Ashizawa ascribes similar motives to Japan, which ranks second to the United States in...

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