A Muslim solution for Afghanistan

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

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.

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.

Wealthy Muslim states such as Malaysia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates can provide funding. Members of NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China and Russia, can also contribute donations and offer expertise.

But the military presence must be limited to personnel from Muslim states. Given Afghanistan's problematic relations with its neighbors, peacekeepers should come from nonneighboring Muslim states, including Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, and Turkey.

Many of those nations have valuable experience to offer. Bangladesh, for example, is a leading troop contributor to United Nations peacekeeping missions. Turkey (a NATO member) and the UAE already have a physical presence in Afghanistan. Peacekeeping in Afghanistan would be a natural extension of their present foreign missions.

Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey have the most developed bureaucracies and armies among Muslim states. They can help train the Afghan civil, foreign, and security services. A Muslim-led mission in Afghanistan would offer middle powers such as Egypt and Turkey an opportunity to revitalize regional leadership roles they once had. It would also provide regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia with a platform to constructively resolve a problem integral to their security concerns and interests.

And a number of international organizations, such as the Islamic Development Bank as well as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, should help continue to rebuild Afghanistan's economy.

Through the auspices of the Pakistani Army and Saudi royal family, this plan can be presented to the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Muhammad Omar. Via his official spokesman, Mullah Omar has made clear he is willing to talk to the Kabul government, but only in the context of the US-led coalition's withdrawal.

His representatives and those of other regional militant commanders can be joined with a wide scope of Afghan political, religious, and tribal leaders in a loya jirga, or grand council. It could take place in Kabul or another Muslim capital, to set up a transitional coalition government amid a phased Western withdrawal.

In the interim, the US, in concert with Pakistan, must continue to root out the foreign jihadi presence along the border with Afghanistan.

Having Muslims lead the mission to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan would create a wedge between Afghan insurgents and transnational jihadists, such as Al Qaeda, the elimination of which is the Obama administration's major goal in the region.

Ultimately, Al Qaeda will be given a decisive blow when Muslim states rise to the challenge and bring stability to Afghanistan.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues.

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