Afghanistan, Pakistan and India took center stage a week ago at the 23rd annual Camden Conference.

This remarkable gathering of foreign policy experts from around the world is a tribute to the vision and tenacity of a small group of Camden foreign policy enthusiasts. They have proven, once again, that a small town on the Maine coast can become a center for policy debate of a very high caliber indeed.

This year’s keynote address was given by Ahmed Rashid, noted Pakistani journalist and scholar whose latest book, “Descent into Chaos,” was the must-read for the conference (and an absolute sell-out at the conference bookstore).

Rashid is a font of knowledge on the Afghan-Pakistan situation. He knows the deep background of the deep background, and he brings it to bear in a rapid-fire dialogue that commands attention.

Rashid sees Afghanistan as hanging by a thread. President Karzai has not delivered the fundamentals for his countrymen – neither security, so that they can avoid paying the Taliban for protection, nor an economy, except for the corrosive opium poppy trade.

The best that can be said for Afghanistan is that they have enormous absorptive power. In spite of more than 30 years of fighting and diverse and bitterly antagonistic ethnic divisions, Afghanistan has not fractured. The lack of Balkanization offers, perhaps, grounds for hope.

For his home country Pakistan, Rashid sees the situation as possibly even more dangerous. Weak civilian leadership, the army – long the central strength – without a political party to back, the economy in shambles, and arch-rival India going from strength to strength. All of these factors in a large country with nuclear arms gives concern, to say the least.

While Rashid set the tone, the conference provided several other excellent perspectives on all aspects of the conflict: social, military, and diplomatic. Most of the speakers echoed the themes that Rashid had introduced, and developed these themes with depth and nuance. All in all, the quality of the supporting cast was impressive.

Every good conference needs a contrarian, and Paul Pillar, Georgetown professor and retired CIA official, filled this role admirably.
Pillar questioned whether Afghanistan was a vital national interest for the United States. He pointed out that al-Qaida’s involvement with the Taliban was quite limited and unlikely to expand. Pillar suggested that the real U.S. national interest lay in ensuring that a nuclear-capable Pakistan did not become a rogue state.

The social perspectives provided by several speakers also made our understanding of the situation more vivid – personal reflections on Kabul, once a beautiful city reduced to rubble and military checkpoints, its proud people reduced to begging or corruption. There was also a heartfelt plea from Samina Quareshi, a Pakistani professor of arts, on the importance of secular education to counter the influence of the Madrasas – Islamist schools that preach a fundamentalist, radical gospel.

Taken as a whole, the conference was rich in depth but left some of us struggling with the complexity of the issues and the players involved. Much would have remained obscure but for the extraordinary talents of Nicholas Burns, career diplomat and conference moderator. Burns provided thoughtful dialogue all through the process, and, in a Sunday morning tour de force, pulled all the threads together in a most helpful framework. His framework contained two essential points:

First, military victory is not possible in Afghanistan. The best one can hope for in the current U.S. policy, which Burns supports, is a negotiated settlement involving all major parties including the Taliban.

The time frame involved will be several years, in spite of President Obama’s stated policy of starting a draw-down in 18 months. This policy will require much stronger economic and “nation-building” assistance in addition to the military surge – and, with all, there is still a significant risk of failure.

Second, we cannot let Pakistan slide into further chaos. The United States must increase economic assistance there as well. We must respect Pakistan’s view of their threat from India, and their distrust of our growing ties with India.

The United States’  role in Pakistan must be strong but nuanced – and we haven’t shown much adeptness at the nuanced part.
In his opening remarks at the conference, Burns had said a test for all of us by Sunday was “did we feel better” as a result of what we had heard.

On Sunday, he allowed that he did indeed feel better. I applaud him for it, but I would describe my post-conference feeling as more deeply informed and “scared as hell.”

Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant based in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]