Passing the buck would help the United States out of the impasse that securing Afghanistan promises to be. The political and military challenges the war poses underscore how difficult and costly will be the effort to restore order in the country and the region when the fighting stops. When the United States has achieved its military goals in Afghanistan, it should announce a phased withdrawal from its security commitments in the region, shifting to others the hard job of stabilizing it.
The complexities involved in that job are numerous. Washington's very strategy of primacy, and America's concomitant military presence in the region, are in themselves a source of instability, especially for the regimes on which the United States relies. The regimes in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for instance, face doubtful prospects precisely because their close connection to Washington intensifies radical nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist opposition within those countries. For this reason none of the regional regimes in the current coalition can be especially dependable allies. Only with enormous pressure did a few of them even allow American forces to conduct offensive strikes on Afghanistan from bases on their territory. And fearing that popular anger at the U.S. military campaign will trigger domestic political explosions, many of these states pressed Washington to bring an early end to the war.
If America remains in the region indefinitely, it will have to prop up these unpopular or failing regimes. In Saudi Arabia the United States could easily find itself militarily involved if internal upheaval threatens the monarchy's hold on power. To forestall economic collapse in Pakistan, Washington will have to donate billions of dollars in direct and indirect assistance. Finally, if the United States continues to play the role of regional gendarme, it will assume the thankless—and probably hopeless—burden of trying to put Afghanistan together again. Divided along ethnic, linguistic, and clan fault lines, the various factions inside Afghanistan cannot agree on that country's future political organization. (The forces making up the anti-Taliban contingent seem only to agree that they resent U.S. bombing of their country.) That the outside powers have conflicting goals for Afghanistan's future further complicates any sorting out of Afghanistan's political structure. If ever there was a place where America should devolve security responsibilities to others, it is the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia region. Again, Western Europe, Japan, Russia, China, and India all have greater security and economic interests in the region than does the United States, and if America pulls out, they will police it because they must.
Rather than attempt to impose a Pax Americana on this endemically turbulent area, the United States should devote the resources it currently spends on this costly and dangerous job to rendering the region economically and strategically irrelevant. That is, America should pursue a national energy policy that would develop alternative sources of energy for the United States and, more important, the rest of the industrialized world. This colossal scientific and industrial effort should be our highest national-security priority (see "Mideast Oil Forever?," by Joseph J. Romm and Charles B. Curtis, April, 1996, Atlantic). If the United States shifts responsibility for stabilizing the region to the other great powers, the real price of Persian Gulf oil will become extremely high for them. It would then be in their interests to pool resources and expertise with America in what would amount to an international Manhattan Project to obviate the need for that oil—thus dramatically reducing the revenue streams to the regimes in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Doing so is surely a common international interest. If Washington were to spend the approximately $106 billion that—according to Earl Ravenal, a former Pentagon analyst—it is devoting this year to defending the Persian Gulf region, and if Western Europe, Japan, China, and Russia were to kick in what they would otherwise spend on policing the region, it's hard to imagine that this goal couldn't be achieved.