What Afghanistan needs to hear from Bonn
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This weekend's NATO airstrike on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was a tragedy. I feel deeply for the loss of life and offer my heartfelt condolences. There will be a thorough investigation, which should allow both countries to remain focused on the bedrock national interests we share. The past year has been especially trying for the US-Pakistan relationship.
Next week in Bonn we have another chance to try to move forward. The Bonn conference, at which leaders from NATO, Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries are to discuss the future of Afghanistan after US troops withdraw, will not be a panacea for the region's problems, but it is an opportunity for all parties with a vested interest in Afghanistan's future to engage. We should all seize this moment — including Pakistan, whose role is key in making any kind of peace last. If Pakistan does not attend Bonn, it will send a dangerous message it is not serious about working with Afghanistan and the international community. Regardless of whether or not Pakistan participates, Bonn is still an opportunity for the US to make clear we are not abandoning Afghanistan. We have significant long-term strategic interests in the region that will be imperiled if we do not engineer a responsible transition.
Our message in Bonn must be that in 2014, when the majority of our troops will leave the country, we will begin a new phase in our relationship with Afghanistan. We must make clear our military will continue to work with the Afghan National Security Forces to prevent the return of terrorist safe havens. We will remain engaged politically and economically on security, governance, and economic and social development.
We face a strategic challenge today because too many in the region doubt our staying power and fear we will turn our backs on Afghanistan and its people. Improving regional cooperation hinges on convincing the region that our core interests align. In addition to the need for cooperation with Pakistan, other neighbours warrant attention, too. Russia, for example, is looking to reassert its authority in the region and could use our departure as a pretext to redeploy Russian troops on the Tajik-Afghan border. The Chinese are expanding their economic footprint but have chosen not to engage politically or militarily, in part because they're fearful of stirring separatist sentiments in the volatile Xinjiang region bordering Afghanistan. Iran, too, has strengthened economic and trade cooperation with Kabul, building on its cultural ties to reassert its role in the region. And the Indians recently signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, cementing their long-term ties. Meanwhile, smaller neighbours have gone into a defensive crouch. Uzbekistan is concerned by drug smuggling and militant groups crossing from Afghanistan. Tajikistan, the weakest link in greater Central Asia, which has the most porous border with Afghanistan, strongly opposes a Taliban takeover but has limited means to defend itself.
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