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Walter Rodgers

As US slowly withdraws from Afghanistan, regional neighbors should step up

A US and NATO withdrawal raises the stakes in Afghanistan for Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and Iran. It's time for these regional powers to join together in a conference on Afghanistan, based on common concerns and shared interests.

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If Obama’s reduction of the US presence in Afghanistan pleases US voters, it’s causing some discomfort among Afghanistan’s near neighbors. India, which has been battling Islamist terrorism much longer than the US, is also understood to prefer a slower drawdown of US forces during ongoing efforts to stabilize the region.

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And despite its current abysmal relationship with Washington, Pakistan is also anxious about any downsizing of US forces in Afghanistan. Wracked by a Taliban insurgency within its borders, Islamabad is ever haunted by the US abandonment of the region after Soviet forces retreated from Afghanistan in 1989. Mr. Inderfurth believes that “Islamabad is hoping for the best and seeing the worst.”

The wild card, however, is Iran. The Obama administration has yet to signal what role, if any, it foresees for Iran in a future Afghanistan. Foreign policy realists like former US Secretaries of State James Baker and Henry Kissinger have argued Iran must be brought into the process. That, however, would probably trigger a Saudi demand that they also be included if Iran is involved in any conference on Afghanistan.

Yet Tehran has a demonstrable record of mischief, and one can but wonder whether the current Iranian regime would have anything beneficial to bring to the table and what its demands would be in return for playing a constructive role.

Cooperation is preferable to chaos

Admittedly, the obstacles are formidable. No one appears especially eager to help Obama out of the Afghan tangle. Pakistan, for example, could take a short-term view and fall back on a strategy of fomenting trouble in Afghanistan in the name of tribal fraternalism with Pashtu tribes.

Still, there is modest reason for hope. A regional agreement on Afghanistan is hugely preferable to living with a failed narco-terror state as one’s neighbor – and regional powers must sense the urgency of the situation as US and NATO forces prepare to withdraw.

Furthermore, the upcoming meeting in July between the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India could yet show that even traditional enemies can appreciate the value of an agreement that is clearly in the interest of everyone in the region.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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