Nearly a year after international and Northern Alliance forces overthrew the Taliban, the political situation in Afghanistan remains volatile and full of peril for the new government of Hamid Karzai. At a time when the country is particularly vulnerable to outside meddling, is Afghanistan in danger of becoming the object of yet another "Great Game," fought over and interfered with by regional and global powers such as Iran, Pakistan, Russia, India, and the United States? And how have the events since 9/11 altered American thinking about an area of the world where traditionally the United States has not had major strategic interests? To examine these and related questions, the Middle East Project and the Asia Program sponsored a half-day conference at the Wilson Center on November 15th.

Ahmed Rashid, correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of two recent highly successful books on Afghanistan and central Asia, pointed to interference by outside powers as one of the most serious threats to Afghanistan, and to the consolidation of peace and stability throughout central Asia. Rashid called for the signatories of last year's Bonn agreement to reaffirm their pledge of non-interference in Afghanistan's domestic affairs, urged the establishment of a mechanism where Kabul can frankly discuss the issue of interference by its neighbors and, if need be, raise the issue before the UN Security Council, and advocated the creation of a new national army that could disarm the country's many warlords.

Indiana University's Nazif Shahrani described how the five central Asian republics view their region's geopolitical environment. Broadly speaking, Afghanistan is seen as "the other," a threatening, inhospitable place that can be used to justify repressive governing tactics at home. At the same time, several of the republics, notably Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, play out their own rivalries in Afghanistan, which contributes to the further destabilization of Afghanistan. Shahrani, a former Wilson Center fellow, disagreed vigorously with Rashid's preference for a strong central authority, and argued instead for a decentralized Afghanistan whose autonomous regions, building on the community-based organizations that arose during the jihad against the Soviet Union, could provide Afghans with better governance. A member of the audience subsequently questioned the extent to which the local warlords today are popularly based.

Former Wilson Center fellow Feroz Khan, now with the Monterey Institute, focused his remarks on Afghanistan as an element in Pakistan's strategic thinking. Afghanistan, he asserted, is a secondary factor in Pakistani security planning; India remains the principal focus and concern. New Delhi, according to Khan, seeks a "strategic envelopment" of Pakistan by developing ties with Afghanistan and Iran. India is primarily interested in manipulating events in Afghanistan to create political and security problems for Pakistan, and this in turn is what drives Islamabad's policy toward Afghanistan. Contrary to much discussion of Pakistani thinking about Afghanistan, Khan ridiculed the idea that Pakistan sees its western neighbor as providing "strategic depth." Were Pakistan to retreat into Afghanistan, as advocates of the "strategic depth" idea postulate, the Pakistani nation would find itself cut in half by an advancing Indian army.

Mohsen Milani of the University of South Florida rounded out this part of the morning's discussion by looking at Iranian policy toward Afghanistan. Iran's thinking about Afghanistan, Milani argued, is largely reactive. The rise of the Taliban nearly ten years ago represented a major threat to Iran, but the subsequent defeat of the Taliban and the introduction into Afghanistan of US forces has created new difficulties for Tehran. If US forces subsequently invade and occupy Iraq, this will increase Iran's sense of encirclement. Milani contended that Iran can accept a pro-American government in Kabul, but not one openly pro-Pakistani or pro-Saudi. But Tehran, Milani added, also wants to see the north and west of Afghanistan, especially the area around Herat, serve as something of a buffer zone where Iranian interests will be protected. Iran, he insisted in terms contradicting beliefs widely held in Washington, is not interested in destabilizing Afghanistan or in exporting revolution. Indeed, Iran and the United States have common strategic goals in Afghanistan.

The day's keynote address was delivered by Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Near East, Southwest Asian, and North African Affairs at the National Security Council, and President Bush's Special Envoy for Afghanistan. Khalilzad presented an upbeat assessment of the progress that has been made in Afghanistan since its liberation from the Taliban nearly a year ago. The Afghan people, he asserted, enjoy the most broadly representative government in their country's history (though this may say as much about the character of past Afghan governments as about the nature of the current regime). But Afghanistan will fail, Khalilzad warned, if its neighbors revert back to the practices and policies of interference of former days. The United States, he added, is committed to doing whatever is required, for as long as necessary, to consolidate the new government in Kabul. "We will not disengage. We will stay for as long as we are needed."

Robert M. Hathaway
Director, Asia Program