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A Muslim solution for Afghanistan

Let Muslim nations, not Western coalition, lead the mission to bring peace there.

By Arif Rafiq / October 6, 2009

Herndon, Va.

After eight years of US involvement in Afghanistan, a strategic crossroads within Asia, the country remains a deadly conflict zone. In fact, this weekend insurgents attacked two US military bases along the Pakistani border.

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Helping Afghanistan stand on its own – an imperative for both regional and Western states – is a task that will take decades. But it is increasingly clear that it is not one that the West can perform.

On one hand, a Western-led occupation force in Afghanistan has brought the most stability and progress the country has had in three decades.

But the US-led coalition's very presence in this land between the Indus and the Oxus rivers in Central Asia fuels an indigenous insurgency. It keeps the flame of transnational terror alive and blocks the return of Afghan refugees to their villages. The US presence also curbs the flow of potential energy pipelines, and, most critical, the forging of a permanent peace.

The Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan is gaining ground and Western casualties are mounting. The attack this past weekend was the deadliest since last year, killing eight Americans and four Afghan security officers. The Pentagon's solution is an expensive, population-centric counterinsurgency that involves more nation-building than warfare. But such a move is out of tune with domestic developments.

A majority of Americans, particularly Democrats, oppose the US war in Afghanistan. They tend to see little connection between Afghanistan and their own security. Opposition to involvement in Afghanistan among other NATO member states is even greater. And the resolve of America's coalition partners is nearly exhausted.

However, a precipitous Western withdrawal from Afghanistan would leave a major void in the state.

Afghanistan is factionalized, pockmarked by ethnic and tribal divisions. Its government's sole success is an election rigged in its own favor. Warlords run much of the country. The national Army and police are years away from being able to secure the country on their own. Other state institutions lack the minimal human and financial resources to function without external crutches.

US and Western troops should leave. But because Afghanistan will remain dependent on international aid for development and security, troops cannot leave without something to fill the vacancy.

The solution? Muslim and regional states must fill the void.

Much of the Afghan insurgency is oriented against the presence of non-Muslims in this almost exclusively Muslim land. Taliban statements, for example, describe the US-led coalition as "crusaders" and equate it with previous invaders, such as the British. Sensitivity to the non-Muslim military presence in their homeland gives Afghan insurgents common cause with Al Qaeda, which directly threatens the US at home and abroad.

But the most intransigent of Afghan rebels will be receptive to peacekeeping and nation-building with Muslim states as long as their factions are included in a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference, the association of more than four dozen Muslim states, should set up an Afghanistan contact group, led by Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The group would lead a coalition of Muslim states responsible for political reconciliation, peacekeeping, economic development, and governmental capacity building in Afghanistan.