Experts share insights on Afghan solutions

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He has literally written the book on Afghanistan's decades of warfare -- nearly a thousand pages' worth -- so former U.S. Ambassador Peter Tomsen might have reason for pessimism about that nation's future.

But Mr. Tomsen, returning to his alma mater nearly a half-century after earning a master's in public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, was surprisingly hopeful in a keynote address on Thursday.

Peace, he said, is as possible among Afghan factions and surrounding nations today as it was between the adversaries who faced off in World War II and the Cold War.

"You may be tempted to roll on the floor in laughter that this is indeed possible," Mr. Tomsen said at the University Club at the start of a two-day conference, "Afghanistan: A Regional Way Forward," which drew dozens of scholars from around the world.

"We could spend a day just on the problems of the region," acknowledged Mr. Tomsen, who was an envoy of President George H.W. Bush in Afghanistan and served in other senior diplomatic posts. But he said if outside countries can be persuaded to stop meddling in Afghanistan, it can recover some of the stability it had before the Soviet invasion of the late 1970s.

"Are there any Reagans or Gorbachevs ... in the region?" said Mr. Tomsen, author of the 2011 book, "The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts and the Failures of Great Powers."

Conference organizer Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, a professor in Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said any solutions will have to come from those most directly involved -- such as steady supplies of energy and water resources.

"Solutions to the seemingly intractable problems facing the country can only be solved when it's in the interest of other regional partners to ensure such peace," Ms. Murtazashvili said.

She urged the experts gathered at the conference to build concrete policy recommendations.

"Although we may disagree on many issues. ... we are united in a belief that solutions will not come from dwelling on the past but rather a forward-looking perspective."

Still, some speakers said a look at the past is needed to avoid repeating mistakes.

Lucy Morgan Edwards, a researcher at England's Exeter University, said the United States and Britain made fateful alliances to drive the Taliban out of power after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We've partnered up with criminals, and now we have a criminal state" in Afghanistan, said Ms. Edwards, author of the 2011 book, "The Afghan Solution." She cited growing cases of ransom kidnapping in Afghanistan and a large population of vulnerable street children.

"If we don't look after the children, we risk that they are going to become radicalized -- apart from the obvious ethical obligation," she said.

While the intense Sunni-Shia divide in Syria and other Middle Eastern nations hasn't erupted in Afghanistan, some speakers feared that other nations would be tempted to aggravate such conflicts among proxies in Afghanistan.

"That's why it's important for the United States to maintain a residual presence" even after most of its troops leave, said Ahmad Majidiyar of the American Enterprise Institute.

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