Parag Khanna: Anxious in Afghanistan

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Parag Khanna. (29 minutes, 13 mb mp3)

Parag Khanna

Parag Khanna reads and sounds to me like the sane, worldly-wise, long-view alternative to the mainstream bloviators about American power in this new Age of Obama.

His breakthrough piece in the New York Times Magazine just a year ago was headlined: Who Shrank the Superpower? (Answer: GWB and “imperial overstretch.”) The evidence threaded through his book The Second World (paperbound edition just out) is that countries on the verge (think: Brazil, Morocco, Turkey, Vietnam and many others) have come to look more and more to China and the European Union for means and models of globalization. Parag Khanna was just back from Pakistan last week when I saw him in New York and asked him to take apart the anxiety in the air around Afghanistan. “The Right War,” as TIME put it in a cover headline last year? Or Obama’s Vietnam? Parag Khanna’s current piece in Foreign Policy makes the commonsense argument that Afghanistan is, first, a neighborhood problem. Enlist China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and India ahead of the Pentagon:

We have been in geographic denial because we’ve had a constant military presence in Afghanistan since 9/11. But the truth is: we have no border with land-locked central Asia.  We do in fact require as many local regional allies as possible.

If you look around the world at security institutions, you find that the two regions that don’t have them are the ones that are most insecure – one is south-central Asia, and the other is the Persian Gulf region.  If we are not contributing to building those longer-term institutionalized architectures, then we’re not really creating a long-term solution; we are just simply perpetuating our own role over there, which fewer and fewer countries want.

See the news, of course, the case of Kyrgyzstan closing the Manas airbase, and several years ago Uzbekistan closing the K2 airbase. Our presence in the region militarily has always been extremely vulnerable to this sort of political pressure from neighboring countries.  We have contributed very little to an integrated regional security framework for the region which involves India, Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia, Uzbekistan and others – but that is exactly what needs to happen in the long run for the region to be responsible for its own security and for us not to be stuck over there for decades to come.

Now hopefully we’ll do that – I think that necessity can be the mother of genius.  The supply lines in Pakistan have been heavily attacked by Taliban forces.  It’s been at risk, the US is scrambling for alternatives, one of those alternatives could be Iran. If so, that opens up the opportunity to engage Iran in Afghan stabilization.  The Obama administration has said that it will talk to Iran on counter-narcotics issues; they could certainly also talk to them about logistics and supply. Other Nato countries are certainly going to do that. Now that Nato has given the green light for it, maybe the US should as well.

I wanted to hear Parag Khanna’s fresh observations of America’s limp in the world, after the Obama election and the onset of a deep economic slump:

Barack Obama most certainly understands that this is a more diffuse world, that the United States cannot unilaterally call the shots either militarily or diplomatically.  Take the financial crisis —  America doesn’t know what it’s doing anyway — so people are looking to Gordon Brown, or elsewhere, or to the Chinese central bank for solutions. Take Iran: the US is going to adopt the European view of engagement and dialogue.  Take North Korea, where the same thing is going to be happening as well.  So it is not so much that American leadership is being restored, or that America is going back to the world, or rejoining the world, but they have to evaluate to what extent there even is an international order for America to rejoin.

I believe that international order is in some form of decay, because these rising powers are doing things their own way. Russia is not consulting with the United Nations when it invades Georgia. China is not consulting any UN human rights committee when it rolls tanks into Tibet. So things are going on that speak against the notion of a strong central international community.  Clearly Obama has said that the UN is going to be a priority – he has made the ambassador to the UN a cabinet-level position— but that doesn’t mean the UN will suddenly be a more effective organization either.  The National Intelligence Council’s 2025 report says that by that point, ten to fifteen years from now, there won’t even really be such thing as the international community. It was a very striking argument for them to be making.  They’re pointing to a very sort of medieval future, rather than one in which international institutions can in fact direct and order global affairs, the way we thought they could in the aftermath of the cold war.

Parag Khanna with Chris Lydon at the Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan, February 20, 2009

Parag Khanna is what we called in school a hard marker and there’s a tough report card here. It sounds like the right cautionary tone President Obama would easily, almost naturally, take to heart.

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