The United States is putting together the road map for its regional strategies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia in the post-2014 scenario. It quintessentially involves working with Pakistan as a ‘core player’ and creating rings of engagement around it with China and Iran.

At a press briefing in Washington on Monday, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins outlined the US thinking.

The briefing took place against the backdrop of the imminent signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement [BSA] with the Kabul government in October. From the “reasonable optimism” Dobbins exuded, it is apparent that the major sticking points over the BSA draft have been sorted out.

An authoritative Pakistani political figure revealed last week that the US plans to keep 20000 soldiers as well as retain 100000 war contractors in the post-2014 period, aside “several thousand” strong contingent of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This is a much bigger western military presence than previous estimations. Kabul government should feel satisfied about the western commitment to provide the underpinning of security. An outright military takeover by the Taliban or the eruption of a chaotic civil war following the western troop withdrawal in 2014 – the doomsday predictions – seem highly improbable under the circumstances.

The Obama administration is proceeding with the BSA despite the absence of a credible peace process with the Taliban, who have consistently opposed long-term American military presence. Dobbins cryptically said nothing is happening on the peace process, because the Taliban are “as a practical matter, unwilling to engage with the United States, with the Afghans, with anybody, as a practical matter. And we’re not sure when they’ll emerge from this… The Taliban don’t seem to be ready for the moment.”

Nonetheless, Dobbins asserted, “We’re [US] not giving up. We continue to hope that there will be a positive development at some point, but we can’t predict when.” Dobbins disclosed that Pakistan has become “active in supporting an Afghan reconciliation process and urging the Afghan Taliban to participate in that process.”

Clearly, Washington is pinning hopes that talks with the Taliban will begin soon. He anticipated the Taliban to reopen their office in Doha. The US has identified Qatar as “a forum for negotiations about peace in Afghanistan.” Given the close working relationship between the US and Qatar in the Islamist barricades in the Greater Middle East – Libya, Egypt, Syria, etc. – Washington seems confident of the Qatari ingenuity to handle the Taliban appropriately through the tricky months ahead.

The clincher, however, is Pakistan’s cooperation. Dobbins indicated that the frayed US-Pakistan security partnership has recovered and good chemistry prevails between Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Washington. In his assessment, the new government in Islamabad has been successful to evolve a national consensus to move forward and “we’re [US] anxious to be helpful and they’re [Pakistan] anxious to work with us in order to all us to be helpful” on both security and economic cooperation.

Huge overtures

This is where Dobbins brought in China and Iran. He acknowledged Washington’s intense regular and close consultations with Beijing and emphatically underscored, “We support greater Chinese involvement in the stabilization of Afghanistan and in the economic development of Afghanistan, including investments that China has made and investments that China might make in the future.”

He implied that the US would see China’s “close relationship” with Pakistan as a useful factor. In an ecstatic tone never before heard, Dobbins added, “Chinese and American interests in this respect are largely aligned… China, like the United States, is concerned about the growths of violent militancy in the region. China, like the United States, would like to see greater security, greater – and diminished military [sic] in Pakistan, and China would like to see Afghanistan stabilized and no longer become a source for potential instability in the region. We and China – the United States and China – have collaboration.”

Equally, Dobbins approached the Iran template optimistically. He predicated the “opportunities for dialogue and cooperation” on the narrowing of US-Iranian differences regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Significantly, he recalled that Iran was “quite helpful” at the Bonn Conference in December 2001 which brought about the post-Taliban transition, paid compliments to the present foreign minister Mohemmed Javad Zarif as his Iranian counterpart during the parleys and regretted that the “genuine and important” cooperation twelve years ago couldn’t be sustained.

Dobbins pointed out, “I think objectively, Iran and American interests [in] Afghanistan are if not coincident, at least overlap significantly.” This assessment constitutes a huge overture by the Obama administration.

Suffice to say, within the week, Afghanistan becomes the second regional conflict – aside Syria – where the Obama administration would anticipate the scope for cooperation with the new Iranian leadership of President Hassan Rouhani.

Dobbins volunteered to detail why Iran could be a factor stability in the post-2014 Afghanistan – Iran always wanted a stable and peaceful neighbor; Tehran wants the Afghan refugees to go back; it has stakes in curbing drug-trafficking; Iran’s has “bad relations” with Taliban and good relations with Karzai and his government; and, Iran’s has significantly contributed to Afghan reconstruction. Thus, Dobbins summed up, “there are certainly the makings of [US-Iran] cooperation” over Afghanistan once the problems in the relations “can begin to be alleviated.”

Taken together with the fact that Dobbins downplayed the role of Russia and India in the future Afghan scenario, it is obvious that the Obama administration visualizes China and Iran as the two key regional partners aside Pakistan in the near term.

Washington sees China’s role as a stakeholder in the security and stability of Afghanistan in three main directions – putting big money by way of investments in projects into the Afghan economy that helps its rapid recovery; using the levers of influence in Islamabad (and Rawalpindi) to keep Pakistan on the track of the peace process; and, security cooperation.

On the other hand, Washington sees Iran’s role as far more critical. Dobbins hinted at Iran’s reservoir of influence within Afghanistan and its capacity to help out in a peaceful transition in Kabul, and more important, Iran’s genuine interest in preventing a Taliban takeover and in preserving a broad-based government. Dobbins vaguely alluded to the cooperation between the US and Iranian intelligence in the 2001 period relating to the Al-Qaeda.

Time for stressing convergence

How does it add up? Of course, in immediate terms, Washington is signaling that as stakeholders in regional stability, China and Iran ought to show understanding for the signing of the US-Afghan security pact (which provides for the establishment of the American military bases.) This is one thing. Second, the US prefers its bilateral track with Beijing and Tehran to be on the centre stage rather than any regional initiative such as by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Indeed, while Dobbins made polite references to Russia, he was not willing to be drawn into any projections of US-Russia cooperation over the post-2014 Afghan scenario. The maximum he would say was that the US and Russia have had  “largely similar views.” But then he also mentioned some “differences of perspective, but not differences”… that affect “our operations, not differences that affect our activities” in Afghanistan, so much so that “they [differences] continue to be quite compatible.”  The surfeit of caveats is self-evident in Dobbins’ remark.  

As for India, Dobbins was somewhat unkind. He merely took note that the best thing to happen would be if New Delhi were to work diligently for the improvement of India-Pakistan relations. Surely, there is nothing wrong with that useful advice to New Delhi.

But in turn any number of Indian pundits will ask, ‘Is that all?’ They may take umbrage that the US is regarding the Afghan problem as its family inheritance and intends to keep things that way, whereas India and Afghanistan have a dense volume of shared history through centuries.

They will no doubt resent the Obama administration’s arrogance to draw up an exclusive list of the first circle of core players who it wants to work with on the politico-security plane in its self-interests.

On Wednesday South Block pointed finger at the Taliban militants based in Pakistan for murdering a well-known Indian author in Afghanistan recently. But through the month of September, New Delhi will find it expedient to sidestep as a talking point the US’ regional strategy for Afghan security that Dobbins outlined. The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to meet Obama next Friday in Washington and there is a time and place for everything in diplomacy. This is the week to stress convergences in the US-India strategic partnership. Dobbins should have remembered that as well.