U.S. expert urges Japan role in Afghan stability

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Japan should get involved in rebuilding Afghanistan by encouraging the international community to broker a peace settlement once the U.S.-led NATO forces withdraw from the country, according to a top American scholar on the Middle East.

Vali Nasr, who served as a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others in the Obama administration on Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan policy from 2009 to 2011, said that reconstructing Afghanistan will require both sufficient military force to keep order and a concerted effort by the international community to host peace talks like those that led to the Bonn Agreement in 2001.

During the talks in the German city brokered by the United Nations, prominent Afghans agreed on a road map for rebuilding the nation, which has been torn by warfare following the Taliban regime’s ouster and subsequent insurgency against the NATO forces that deployed to the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

The plan included drafting a new constitution and convening a “loya jirga,” or grand assembly.

“Countries like Japan can try to engage Europe and the U.S. in an effort to create an international effort for a final settlement to Afghanistan, as it has certain clout in the region,” Nasr said in an interview with The Japan Times during a recent visit to Tokyo. Nasr is the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and a senior fellow on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

Since 2001, Japan has contributed more than ¥4 billion in Afghan aid and the Self-Defense Forces have provided training for the Afghan police. Japan also committed up to ¥3 billion in assistance at the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan last year.

Without an international consensus, Nasr warned, every country with an interest in Afghanistan will be acting unilaterally, raising the prospects of chaos, as was witnessed in the 1980s as the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union intensified.

It is vital that a peace settlement be in place by the time foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan next year. On Jan. 11, President Barack Obama said in a summit with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that American forces will accelerate the transition of security responsibilities to the Afghans.

Yet the capability of the Afghan forces to maintain stability remains highly in doubt. Even though Obama is eager to turn the page after more than a decade of war, the Afghan people are weary of the security situation. The Taliban remain active, as do elements of al-Qaida, and both can strike and then retreat into Pakistan. Nasr said it would be much more difficult for the international community to go back in and restore order if the Afghan government collapses after the foreign forces exit.

Nasr warned that a collapse of the Afghan government would have negative implications for regional stability in East Asia as well, in part because of mutual economic interests, including gas reserves and mines in South Asia.

Nasr thus recommended that Tokyo and Beijing set aside their territorial dispute over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands and cooperate to ensure Afghanistan’s stability.

“Even though there are disagreements over (islands in) the South China Sea (and) East China Sea . . . Afghanistan can be one area where there is actually a common Asian ground about bringing stability and creating a situation where this idea of the Silk Road can actually materialize,” said Nasr.

As Obama kicks off his second term, the U.S. is saddled with more diplomatic challenges beyond the Middle East and Afghanistan. One major task is for the U.S. to establish its strategy for engaging with Asia.

Since 2011, the U.S. has focused on its strategic “Asia pivot” that entails, in part, promoting human rights and democracy in the region, as well as realigning its military forces more toward the Pacific while disengaging from the Afghanistan region.

Beijing, however, views the pivot as a bid to contain China. Nasr said Washington’s goal was not to increase regional tensions.

“The idea that the U.S. is just going to go to Asia and be one big happy family and it’s only going to be about trade has not worked out quite well,” Nasr said. “The key question is how the U.S. wants to play a role of the balancer in Asia.”

Nasr said the U.S. should mediate regional disputes when Obama clears his domestic hurdles and compiles concrete strategies for Asia. Until then, Washington hopes tensions won’t escalate.

Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is inclined to spout rightwing rhetoric, Nasr said each country must realize that the rise of nationalism, if left unchecked, can have unexpected international repercussions, apparently referring to growing nationalist sentiment in both Japan and China.

If relations worsen, they will impact trade, foreign investment, tourism and the flow of people, Nasr said, noting balance is needed regarding sentiments expressed on the domestic front versus those meant for overseas consumption, otherwise confrontation will prove an overall losing situation.