Afghanistan 2050: The Game-Changer

The Afghanistan War, 2001 – 2011
The Pakistan floods of August 2010 were the turning point. Very quietly, South Africa’s Ambassador Abdul S. Minty detached himself from an International Atomic Energy Agency delegation visiting Israel to deliver a letter from Nelson Mandela to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (Appendix XIX; reproduced at the end of this post). The letter urged Netanyahu to lead an effort to bring aid to Pakistan. The stated purpose was to improve Israel’s image in the world and its relations with Turkey in particular, but Mandela’s intention also was to distract Netanyahu and Israel more generally from its fixation on Iran’s nuclear program.

Pakistan, as a central player in the Afghan war, was focused largely on its perceived enemy, India, in the same way that Israel was focused on Iran. India focused on China and Pakistan, and Iran on Israel. At the time of the floods, India and Iran were developing an allliance relative to Afghanistan which would have made Pakistan feel boxed in.

It might have been expected that Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan would have led the way to a settlement. But these two-party grudge matches, state weakness, and rivalries of the various parties with the United States made it difficult to forge the multilateral relations that would prove necessary for peace. The Mandela letter changed that.

Netanyahu began talks immediately with Turkey and Russia to provide aid to Pakistan. Within a week, the first shipments and military helicopters began to arrive. Meanwhile, the United States was diverting some of its military equipment from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Netanyahu then took a risk and sent Tzipi Livni as a special envoy to China and India. China was already providing aid to Pakistan, but Livni’s purpose was to prepare China’s leaders for India’s entry into the aid program. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States volunteered their help. India brought Iran into the relief effort.

Pakistan’s government, preoccupied with the floods, severed relations with the Taliban. After the emergency had been dealt with and the situation in Pakistan stabilized, the helpers realized that their former enemies could be worked with. The United States and Russia immediately called a conference of the neighbors, plus Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which resulted in the Treaty of Isfahan in late 2011, ending the hostilities in Afghanistan and assigning Iran, Pakistan, and India major roles in stabilizing the country. Continuing talks resulted in a settlement between Pakistan and India on Jammu and Kashmir.


The Treaty of Ashkabat, which makes southwestern Asia into a nuclear-weapons-free zone, is expected to come into force in 2054. Israel is already converting its complex at Dimona to an IAEA fuel production center. Iran has sent its fissionable materials to the IAEA’s Angarsk nuclear fuel production complex. Both internationally-run complexes will convert the materials to fuel for reactors in the region. Negotiations are beginning on a Southwest Asia free-trade zone; Dubai is leading the first round.

from Southwest Asia’s Remarkable Century, 1940-2050; Svetlana M. Alekseeva, Lev D. Cohen, Courtney R. Manning, and Bashir R. Asad, Chapter 26.

My reasoning: Game-changers are infrequent in history, and it’s tempting to use one as a deus ex machina. I’ve probably made this one go too far too quickly, but game-changers are by nature unpredictable.

Two examples from the last century are the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community and the breakup of the Soviet Union. The first has grown into a partially unified Europe, certainly a game change from the constantly warring continent of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second is recent enough that it can’t be evaluated as fully, but fifteen independent and reasonably stable countries are developing in ways that they couldn’t earlier.

Game-changers don’t come from nowhere. Both of those examples arose out of circumstances that couldn’t continue: Europe’s destruction by war and the economic devastation that the Soviet system inflicted. External factors contributed: the Marshall Plan and the American arms buildup. But ultimately, decisions had to be made internally: the formation of the ECSC and, most likely, Mikhail Gorbachev’s introduction of perestroika and glasnost, which could serve as cover and a peaceful means for revolutionaries in the republics. We would probably be seeing more rapid and positive movement from the breakup of the Soviet Union if the United States had supported it in the way it did Europe’s transformation.

The game-changer I’ve posited, Israel’s leading a relief effort for Pakistan’s current disaster, has some of those characteristics. The situation in southwest Asia, unstable in multiple dimensions with multiple antipathies, cannot continue without dreadful consequences, which could even include nuclear exchanges. South Africa has some affinities with Israel, but it is outside the current group of countries pressuring Israel in various ways. Ultimately, though, the decisions will have to come from the countries in the region: Pakistan to prize internal stability over its enmity with India, Afghanistan to prize development over regionalism, Iran to prize world integration over regional domination. The larger powers surrounding the region, mainly Russia and China, have to recognize that the current situation is untenable. And Israel must realize that it will have to live with its neighbors and stabilize its internal situation.

Another characteristic of game-changers is that they address multiple, intertwined problems. State weakness, poor governance, and a nuclear arms race are some of the problems of Southwest Asia. The bilateral rivalries and absence of candor in discussions of the issues have precluded lasting solutions.

This is not the only game-changer possible, just what this week brings. Opportunities arise constantly. But reaching out to help is unifying and healing for those who reach out as well as those who are helped.

Appendix XIX: The Mandela – Netanyahu Letter

August 10, 2010

Nelson Mandela
Mandela House
107 Central Street
South Africa

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
Tel Aviv

My dear Bibi:

I retain fond memories of our last meeting. We and our countries hold so much in common.

I have a small suggestion for you that could go far. Your country, like mine at one time, feels embattled and endangered. The world is critical of many of your internal problems in ways that seem unhelpful. The same word, apartheid, has even spoken.

At such a time, it may help to look beyond, to one’s religion. There are many desperate needs in the world, but one is particularly urgent just now: Pakistan’s damage from their floods. Millions of people have been displaced and crops ruined. Starvation and disease await.

Israel is well-placed to lead in providing aid. Israel has a friend, Turkey, who has recently sponsored humanitarian aid to Gaza. Let those ships bring aid to Pakistan, and let Israel join with them to heal the breach between two friends.

But don’t let it stop there. Your statesmanship can reach beyond your region. You have friends in other countries in Europe and elsewhere. Bring them into the action.

The United States, Israel’s great friend and ally, is beginning to recognize its humanitarian obligations to its other ally, Pakistan. Let there be an outpouring among the nations to support Pakistan in this difficult time.

South Africa pledges its help.

Best wishes from your friend,

Nelson Mandela

3 thoughts on “Afghanistan 2050: The Game-Changer”

  1. This one is hard to relate to. Cheryl Rofer has it right: Game changers are typically ridiculously implausible, to the point of Deus Ex as she points out. Given time, it is likely that the group could generate a scenario that might ring more true….. but might not be any more plausible.

  2. And now a visit to Israel from the IAEA. The news reports don’t say whether Minty was along on the trip.

    I would doubt that my scenario would play out as written, but these two reports are amusingly consistent with it. I did put some thought into the most plausible way that an outside player could change the dynamics immediately surrounding the situation in Afghanistan.

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