Winter is the season of anticipation. The world catches its breath, hunkers down, and waits for spring. In Washington, the pundits and politicians lower their voices after the elections and before the next round of elections. Halfway around the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan wait with bated breath to see if the increased troop levels, change in focus, and regional strategy unveiled in 2009 will yield returns, and more importantly, if America will disengage from the region in the coming year.
We are in the endgame of Afghanistan - we just don't know how it will end. Like drying cement, changing the imprint is possible, but only for a limited time. Unfortunately for President Barack Obama, the cement was poured before he came into office, and the past 21 months have been a last ditch effort to change the imprint. In July of next year, Obama plans to start withdrawing troops, though recently he began to shy away from that date, as well as his commitment to have foreign soldiers out by 2014. We don't know how much time there is left before the die is set. That will be determined by Kandahar and Quetta just as much as by Washington and Brussels.
And so, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zadari, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Osama bin Laden wait. They wait to see if the searchlight of American foreign policy will drift to another region; moved by a new crisis, a new trouble zone, or simply American impatience. Perhaps the midterm elections best demonstrated what Afghanistan and Pakistan knew all along: Americans are impatient and fickle. In just two years, Obamania dissipated and calls for change and hope turned to shouts of anger and despair. Those who had championed Obama's shift of focus from Iraq to Afghanistan felt betrayed when they discovered that meant sending more soldiers in harm's way. Many didn't realize that once bumper stickers turned into policy, the consequences are real.
Unfortunately, many countries' welfare depends on the American electorate's mood. As a result, people in South Asia watch US domestic developments to see what the New Year will hold for their countries. Meanwhile, many of the problems in South Asia are frozen; waiting to see if Afghanistan stabilizes, waiting to see if US engagement in South Asia will survive the coming years, and waiting to see who will wield American power in 2013. Until those answers become clear, the actors will hedge their bets, and solutions will prove illusory.
Pakistan is playing both sides: taking American money and arms while supporting its favored militants. Yet the United States can do little to stop this duplicity until it no longer it requires Pakistan's assistance in Afghanistan. Pakistan has limited motivation to curry favor and a healthy relationship with Karzai if it is busy preparing for Afghanistan's collapse. While 75 percent of Afghans view the Taliban "very unfavorably" according to a 2009 ABC News/BBC poll, Afghans and Pakistanis need to know which will survive -- the Afghan government or the Taliban? Likewise, the Pakistani-Indian relationship cannot heal while the two play games of passive aggression in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the United States cannot consider solutions in Kashmir without being preoccupied by the mitigating factors of its involvement in Afghanistan and its dependency on Pakistan.
Afghanistan is the cornerstone of US policy in South Asia. The more you know about Afghanistan, the more problems and difficulties you will see. But Americans and NATO members must not be scared away. Afghans want the international community to commit to stabilizing their country, but avoid conflict with the local Taliban in preparation for when international forces leave. Until we see if the cornerstone will stay strong, Afghanistan's neighbors are left in a holding pattern.
So what must the United States and Obama do this winter? Be patient, but reassure the region. Hold a conference similar to the 2001 Bonn Conference, and secure an agreement among the neighbors stating: Afghanistan will remain a permanently neutral country, Afghanistan's territory will not be used against the interests of its neighbors, Afghanistan's neighbors cannot use their territory against the interests of Afghanistan, the Durand Line will be recognized by all parties as the Afghan-Pakistani border, and the United States and NATO will have no permanent military presence in Afghanistan but will act as guarantors of this agreement. Such a treaty would calm the fears of abandonment among Afghanistan's neighbors and prevent bet-hedging by giving reassurances calming deep-seated fears. Most importantly, America and NATO must commit to South Asia that they will keep their watchful eyes on the region. For what matters most is not on what date military forces leave, but what the international community does after that date.
Elizabeth Royall is pursuing an MA in Security Studies at Georgetown University.
This article is shortlisted for atlantic-community.org's competition, "Empowering Women in International Relations". It coincides with the 10th Anniversary of UN resolution 1325 which calls for increasing the influence of women in all aspects of peace and security.
The contest is sponsored by the U.S. Mission to NATO and the NATO Public Diplomacy Division.
You can find out more about the competition here.