Last month an extraordinary diplomatic development occurred in Rome with the potential to seed a long-term solution for Afghanistan's security and stability. For the first time, the government of Iran sent a special representative to a multinational forum on transition of power to the Afghan government, ahead of the impending drawdown of NATO troops from mid-2011.
Given the long chill in US-Iranian relations, the welcome for the Iranian representative from the US and Europeans grabbed attention. The American delegate declared ambivalently that he had "no problem with their presence so far," while the German chairperson remarked that having Iran at the table is "good news" and "proves that we are on the right track."
For interested regional parties like Iran, India and Russia, the challenge is to forge common ground to ensure that the fledgling Afghan state does not fall back into internal chaos or become a playground for machinations of neighboring states with a pedigree of weaponizing Sunni Islamist fundamentalism.
By virtue of geographical location - as well as historical, cultural and political influence, Iran is an indispensable power for securing an Afghanistan that remains free from domination of any single regional power such as Pakistan. Iran has a fervent anti-Taliban and anti-Al Qaeda posture because these two movements appeal to Sunni zealotry and threaten Iran's control over its southeastern Sunni majority province, Sistan-e-Balochistan. Abdolmalek Rigi, the executed former leader of Jundullah, a secretive Sunni terrorist outfit trying to overthrow Iranian rule in Sistan, sought joint training and assistance from the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He was a product of Pakistan's Binoria seminary in Karachi, a hotbed of Sunni jihadi elements from around the world and notorious as the school of the Taliban.
The haze around Iran's nuclear program and its tussle with the US has somewhat clouded memories of Tehran's pragmatic cooperation with Washington in 2001 to unseat the Taliban after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Notwithstanding Iran's subsequent decrying of the US military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran found the American-initiated ousters of Saddam Hussein on its western frontier and of the Taliban on its eastern frontier strategically advantageous.
The still violent conditions in Sistan province imply that Iran and the United States have a common interest in an Afghanistan where the Taliban should not once again become de facto authorities. Washington's mildly encouraging response to Iranian presence at the Rome confabulations is tacit recognition of this confluence.
India's involvement in Afghanistan is similar in logic to that of Iran. Although India and Afghanistan are non-contiguous and separated by the breadth of Pakistan, the fungible relationships among Pakistan's military intelligence complex, Kashmir-oriented Punjabi terrorist organizations and the Afghan Taliban have meant that the war in Afghanistan has had a direct blowback effect on New Delhi's determination to hold on to the portion of Kashmir it has administered since 1947.
India happens to be the second largest development aid donor in Afghanistan after the US, a reflection of New Delhi's conviction that strengthening the current Afghan state apparatus through capacity building is a step towards weakening the chances of a full-fledged Taliban comeback in Kabul.
Western anxiety that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, starting next year, will leave the country to the whims of the Taliban and Al Qaeda is an existential threat not only to Iran and India but also to Russia because of its proximity to the war zone and its own history of confronting Islamist separatism in the Caucasus.
Over the years, Moscow has found that Islamist guerrillas in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan have depended on men and materials from the ranks of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Sensing this sinister nexus, Russia has set aside its characteristic suspicion of NATO encroachment and permitted land transit through its territory for food and fuel supplies reaching Western troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Moscow has also hosted a "regional cooperation" meeting in Sochi in August, bringing together the presidents of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, as a move towards reinserting Russia into the likely vacuum that would emerge once the Americans begin a pullback from Afghanistan.
Theoretically speaking, Pakistan should be in the same boat as Iran, India and Russia in wanting a neutral Afghanistan where influences of all regional actors are roughly balanced so that cross-border jihadi furies do not tear apart Pakistan's already-frayed security. But the military establishment in Rawalpindi has sadly pursued a scenario of Pakistan's monopoly over Afghanistan's fate after the American military footprint is downsized.
Revelations that NATO forces are escorting senior Taliban leaders for secret reconciliation talks with the Hamid Karzai government without the imprimatur of Pakistan show that Washington is not sanguine about Islamabad's schemes to dominate a post-US Afghanistan. Pakistan scuppered previous behind-the-scenes rapprochement efforts within Afghanistan through untimely arrests of Taliban negotiators or by dangling Islamabad's own Afghan assets to the Americans as more reliable interlocutors.
China is a potential regional problem-solver which should, on paper, prefer a concordat with Iran, India and Russia to guarantee a safe transition to the Afghan state and society once US President Barack Obama begins pulling troops. But the strategic alliance between Beijing and Islamabad suggests close coordination of their policies on Afghanistan's eventual political makeup.
China has often relied on implicit guarantees from Pakistan to ensure that jihadi elements do not endanger Beijing's control over restive Xinjiang. China is likely to defer to Pakistani designs over a post-American Afghanistan on a quid pro quo basis. In the process of letting Pakistan set China's policy towards Afghanistan, Beijing would buttress its old strategy of containing expansion of Indian influence in the region.
Since Pakistani and Chinese interests lie in restoration of Taliban rule, it's up to Iran, India and Russia - states with convergent interests about a peaceful, unified Afghanistan - to brainstorm as a smaller group about converting their visions into reality. Large multilateral forums like the one in Rome show promise of spinning off into coherent caucuses of fewer likeminded states. A Moscow-Delhi-Tehran axis to prevent Afghanistan's capture by a single neighbor could materialize - if the US visualizes that such a formation can provide safe and dignified exit from its longest overseas war commitment.
Unlike in the post-communist phase of the early 1990s, this axis must avoid patronizing specific Afghan ethnic clients and alienating the Pashtun majority. Such a non-partisan, non-militaristic regional concord can possibly mollify Islamabad that no further injustice will be meted out for the Pashtuns. Still, the possibility of this axis being thwarted by a countervailing Beijing-Rawalpindi axis exists, and it's here that Washington must weigh in strongly through post-withdrawal oversight to prevent geopolitical wrangling that can yet again sunder Afghanistan through proxy wars. Only a fully engaged Obama administration can ensure that Afghanistan avoids the fate of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where each neighboring power has its own favored armed group, and the result is the so-called endless "Africa's world war."
An informal alliance of Russia, Iran and India can be scuppered by the domestic anti-Iranian lobby in the US, which muddies the waters with scare stories of alleged plots and funds from Tehran aimed at weakening the American hold in Afghanistan. Incredulous claims that Iran is financing or arming the Taliban also circulate, quoting anonymous sources. Should the Obama administration overcome these confounding voices and unequivocally endorse Iran's role in a final settlement of Afghanistan, Moscow and Delhi can take cues and start planning the regional endgame of the war.