LISBON -- Hopes of finding a peaceful resolution to the Afghan conflict remain distant, despite the highly touted successes of NATO's recent Lisbon summit.
Indeed, the alliance emerged from the November 19-20 summit with a somewhat clearer exit strategy, the result of the Enduring Partnership agreement aimed at shoring up Afghan forces before handing them security responsibilities by 2014. NATO managed to get members on both sides of the Atlantic on board and, significantly, secured cooperation from Russia, which many Afghans still associate with the Soviet Union's failed occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
But beyond endorsing Afghan President Hamid Karzai's wobbly peace process, the summit failed to touch on critical issues that must be sorted out for sustainable peace to be achieved. Foremost is NATO's highly volatile relationship with Karzai, whose role in leading Afghanistan through the transformation from war to peace is crucial. Another is Kabul's relations with predatory neighbors, whose actions in Afghanistan are unpredictable now that NATO's exit is clearly outlined.
Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, downplays the well-documented disagreements with Karzai, comparing them to differences among close friends and family members. But Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Kabul, acknowledges that there is friction between NATO and the Afghan leader. While they appear to have virtually different perspectives on the Afghan war, he says, such disagreements are not fundamental.
According to Sedwill, Karzai, "is always concerned about the impact of the international forces on the lives of the Afghan people and indeed on the hearts and minds in terms of the counterinsurgency campaign. He is, as he said, concerned about how intrusive our presence is. Now, you have to have an intrusive presence when you have 150,000 international forces on the ground seeking to push back an insurgency which has become so threatening as the Taliban have."
NATO's Mark Sedwill says 150,000 foreign troops will always be "an intrusive presence."
He sees no contradiction between NATO's efforts to kill and capture Taliban field commanders and Karzai's effort to seek a political settlement with them. He characterizes the growing military effort in Afghanistan as a means for pushing the Taliban to an "honorable way out" with Kabul. Sedwill is adamant that the gradual handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces will ensure stability and will not work to the advantage of the Taliban, whose strategy is to wait out the NATO presence.
A Nervous Neighborhood
Sedwill also says that Kabul has indicated that its growing military would not be a threat to any of its neighbors, which should assure Pakistan and Iran to support the transition. In 1992, after the fall of Mohammad Najibullah, the last socialist Afghan president, Islamabad hailed the disintegration of the Afghan military as a major strategic success.
"We've talked this through very extensively with the Pakistani Army and they support the transition process," Sedwill says. "And indeed for the first time, last month, there was a meeting of the international contact group on Afghanistan attended by a senior Iranian diplomat. And General [David] Petraeus and I were there and one of the things we briefed on was the transition process. And the Iranian representative welcomed the approach that we were taking to it, because Iran recognizes that in the end self-reliance for Afghanistan is in Iran's security interest as well."
But such assurances, often wrapped in nice diplomatic language, are unlikely to fundamentally change the postures of Islamabad, Tehran, and other regional countries who look at the struggle in the Hindu Kush as a global and regional battleground for securing interests.
Pakistani author and journalist Zahid Hussain says that Pakistan's powerful military establishment is skeptical about whether the 2014 deadline of handing over security responsibilities to the Afghans can be met.
He says that Islamabad will be closely watching the situation across its western border to see whether the current and future Afghan government remains friendly to it. Hussain predicts that Pakistan will hedge its bets when it comes to the United States successfully resolving the political conflict among Afghans. Afghan Tug-Of-War
Regional rivalries are expected to intensify in the wake of NATO's exit. In an ominous sign of things to come, he says, Islamabad and New Delhi have intensified efforts to increase their influence inside Afghanistan. Critics suggest that over the past nine years, Islamabad harbored Afghan insurgents to confront the growing influence of factions that opposed it during the civil war in the 1990s.
Pakistan "will be concerned whether in the future the Indians would have the same kind of influence that they have in Kabul [now], or whether Pakistan will be able to have somebody there who could look more towards them," Hussain says. "The way things are moving, I don't see any possibility of this confrontation coming down."
Islamabad wants a prominent role in the negotiations with the Taliban, Hussain says, but it's unclear how much leverage it now has over the Afghan Taliban, some of whose leaders are weary of Islamabad's alliance with Washington. Reports that an imposter participated in recent, highly publicized negotiations with Taliban leaders has undermined NATO's claims of the group's willingness to negotiate.
In Kabul, concerns are increasing about the future course. Analysts compare NATO transition plans to the Red Army's withdrawal in the late 1989, which was followed by collapse of state institutions and years of intense civil war after the West and the Soviet Union abandoned Afghanistan. This vacuum was filled by a vicious civil war bankrolled by Kabul's neighbors and also attracted Al-Qaeda.
Speaking to journalists on November 23, President Karzai called on Afghans to unite to prevent a rerun of his country's brutal recent history.
"There is no doubt that our neighbors interfered in Afghanistan and did it forcefully. But there is no doubt we [Afghans] facilitated that interference," Karzai says. "If we would not have allowed those countries to interfere in our affairs, they would have never been able to interfere. Afghan politicians and elders can prove that such intrusion in Afghanistan's affairs is impossible."
The major test for Karzai now is to maintain his hold on the shaky administration and political system he heads. And as the release on November 24 of contentious results from the country's fraud-tainted parliamentary elections suggests, doing so promises to be increasingly challenging.