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 neighbouring states.
Afghanistan is the common ground for regional rivals
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 starting in 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 neighbouring states with a pedigree of weaponising 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 Qa'eda posture because these two movements appeal to Sunni zealotry and threaten Iran's control over its southeastern Sunni majority province, Sistan-e-Balochistan.
The haze around Iran's nuclear programme 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 removal of Saddam Hussein on its western frontier and of the Taliban on its eastern frontier strategically advantageous.
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 relationships among Pakistan's military intelligence complex, Kashmir-oriented Punjabi terrorist organisations and the Afghan Taliban have meant that the war in Afghanistan has had a direct effect on New Delhi.
India is 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 Qa'eda 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 Qa'eda. Sensing this 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.
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 pursued a scenario of Pakistan's monopoly over Afghanistan's fate after the American military footprint is downsized.
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. But the strategic alliance between Beijing and Islamabad suggests close coordination of their policies on Afghanistan's eventual political makeup.
Since Pakistani and Chinese interests lie in the 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. A Moscow-Delhi-Tehran axis to prevent Afghanistan's capture by a single neighbour could materialise - if the US visualises that such a formation can provide a safe and dignified exit from its longest overseas war commitment.
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.
An informal alliance of Russia, Iran and India could also 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. 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.
Sreeram Chaulia is vice dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India
© Yale Centre for the Study of Globlisation 2010