GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany – The future of Afghanistan and what might happen in that nation after 2014 took center stage during a three-day conference held by three of the Department of Defense’s regional centers here March 13-15.
“Afghanistan and Regional Security: Current Trends and Future Challenges” included 17 participants from 11 countries including Afghanistan, China, India, Russia and the United States. Also sending representatives were Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan.
James Dehart, director, office for Afghanistan at the U.S. Department of State; and Dr. Florian Reindel, deputy for the task force for Afghanistan/Pakistan at the German Foreign Office, provided keynote addresses. Dehart said having Afghanistan’s regional neighbors in the room for these discussions was vital to any discussion.
“With everything that we’re trying to do with Afghanistan – support them through transition, trying to help them get an actual peace negotiation going with the Taliban – there is a very strong regional component to this,” Dehart said.
The cosponsored event included seven participants from the Marshall Center, four from the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, and one from the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. The Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., also provided a representative. The conference was almost one year in the making, according to organizers.
Over the course of three days, participants broke into two groups and discussed topics like “Afghanistan’s development and its impact on bilateral relations with neighboring countries” and “National interests and roles in Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional powers.”
Organizers were quick to point out there was nothing being taught. Rather, the conference served as more of a listening session to “feel out” what might have been in the minds of regional neighbors. For instance, participants expressed concern over the announced withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by 2014 and how that could create an “atmosphere of strategic uncertainty” in the region.
“The panels and the working groups discussed ways bilateral or regional cooperation could ease uncertainty and bring greater stability,” said Army Lt. Col. Joe Matthews of the Marshall Center’s plans and strategy division.
Having Russia participate in the discussion also signified a big step in the process, according to Matthews. Dr. Vadim Kozyulin, director of the program for conventional arms at the Russian Center for Policy Studies, provided that perspective. He said the United States and Russia have a vested interest in a post-2014 Afghanistan.
“It’s very important to understand where we can find common ground. Obviously, different neighbors have different interests. We talk about what unites us – the stability in the region – but we look at this stability from different points of view. It’s very important to collect knowledge about how people estimate the situation,” Kozyulin said.
Another panel discussed the implication of a drawdown of the International Security Assistance Force. Other panels dealt with bilateral and regional cooperation, improving stability the region and how to enhance regional security. Still another dealt with regional cooperation countering narcotics production.
“The energetic discussion in working groups outlined the diverse national approaches, but the overall consensus was that a regional approach would be beneficial,” Matthews said.
To finish the conference, working groups were given 15 minutes to summarize their progress. They were asked to pass along what had been discussed as well as recommendations. Matthews lauded the effort given by each representative. “The fact that each of these countries participated was a significant achievement, and reflects the strength of the relationships that the regional centers have in their respective areas.”
Meanwhile, Dehart said much of this discussion hinged on quick cooperation and trust by the members, which he believed the conference achieved. “The challenge in conferences like these is that the participants will fall into old habits. They’ll focus on the shortcomings of one of the other governments, and get into a bilateral thing. Trying to draw them out and get them to talk about regional cooperation is always a challenge. I think it went very well,” he said.
“It’s pretty clear that there are some differences in perceptions, particularly from some of the participants from the central Asian countries. It was helpful for them to hear straight from the Afghans and some other participants,” he said.
Kozyulin agreed with his colleague’s assessment. “In the next couple of years, I feel that might become a place where we should unite to improve our relations. It’s my belief is that this is a field where the United States needs Russia. We have a long history here. A lot of our people know about Afghanistan, have been to Afghanistan, and have good feelings about Afghanistan. I know these people and I like this nation,” he said.