Steamboat Springs Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, told a Steamboat audience Monday evening that he thinks there still is time in 2011 for the U.S. to initiate a multinational effort to improve relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan as it prepares for large troop withdrawals from the latter.
“We need a bigger effort diplomatically,” Khalilzad said. “We need to bring in the Saudis, the Chinese, the Russians and the Europeans for an international conference to settle the differences between Pakistan and Afghanistan. I hope this will happen this year.”
Khalilzad represented the third speaker in the Seminars at Steamboat series to focus on issues in the Middle East, and a packed house at Strings Music Pavilion greeted him.
His primary message was one of increased diplomacy ahead of military solutions, but he also strongly advocated leaving thousands of American soldiers in place in Afghanistan and Iraq to enable a quick response to what could be catastrophic developments in the future.
Seated in a comfortable chair alongside old friend and moderator Steve Hofman, of Steamboat Springs, Khalilzad put the Middle East in context. He compared the region to Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and continuing into the middle of the 20th century.
“Europe’s problems were the problems of the world,” Khalilzad said. “It took world wars for it to settle down.”
The inability of governments to make the lives of their people better is at the core of the strife in the Middle East, he said.
“The Islamic Middle East is dysfunctional,” Khalilzad said. “It’s a region that’s not working for itself. The reason for this dysfunction is domestic systems that are not producing for the people.”
The frustrations brought on by the lack of an effective central government are amplified by a longing for the age when Middle Eastern cultures in countries like Iraq and Egypt were among the dominant cultures in the world, he said. A feeling that the region may have lost its way because it abandoned the true faith plays into religious fanaticism, Khalilzad said.
The former ambassador of Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and Iraq from 2005 to 2007 said his fellow Americans may be prone to overlooking the progress being made with regard to helping reformed governments take root in both countries.
Khalilzad helped frame the new constitutions of Iraq and Afghanistan. He points out the profound differences between the governments of both countries as ample evidence that the U.S. did not go to either country to impose an American version of democracy on the Iraq and Afghanistan people.
“Iraq is a federal system with a very weak center in a reaction against the rule of Saddam Hussein,” Khalilzad said. “The Afghans chose a very strong center,” in an era after a civil war that followed the Soviet invasion of the country in the 1980s.
Khalilzad is optimistic about the future of both countries because of their largely untapped natural resources.
Recently identified deposits of gold, copper, rare minerals and modest reserves of oil, gas and iron ore improve the prospects of a more stable economy in Afghanistan, he said. Estimates of the aggregate value of the deposits range from $3 trillion to $10 trillion.
India is looking at developing the iron ore, and the Chinese have struck a deal for a copper mine, he said. If anything, the U.S. could do more to advance its business interests there, he said.
“The question is, ‘Who will be the key players?’” he said.
Iraq’s potential to boost oil production to 10 million barrels a day also signals good things ahead for that nation, Khalilzad said.
“Iraq will get there because it’s very rich,” he said.
However, Khalilzad advocates keeping a core of perhaps 10,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq to allow a quick response in case fighting breaks out among the Sunni and Shiite factions within the country.
In a different way, he thinks it’s important to U.S. security interests to keep a force in Afghanistan for years to come so that America could react in the case that one or two nuclear weapons, or even pieces of a nuclear weapon, fall into the hands of extremists in neighboring Pakistan.
And, he said, Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the region that will accept an American military presence.