07/07/2011 11:26 am ET | Updated Sep 06, 2011

Nuclear Concerns After the Afghanistan Withdrawal

The national security calculus of keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan has shifted. Any gains that we made from keeping 100,000 American soldiers in harm's way are now questionable, especially since al Qaeda has been dealt a significant blow with the killing of Osama bin Laden. President Obama's decision to end the surge by late next year only reinforces this reality.

Yet many of the underlying sources of conflict and tension in South and Central Asia will remain after an American withdrawal. In a region that has deep experience on nuclear matters -- with nuclear aspirant Iran bordering Afghanistan on one side and nuclear-armed Pakistan and India on the other -- the United States must take into account the potential for regional nuclear insecurity caused by a poorly executed drawdown in Afghanistan.

As much as we may like to, we can't just cut and run. So as the United States draws down its forces, we must take care to leave stable systems and relationships in place; failure to do so could exacerbate historic regional tensions and potentially create new national security risks.

It is therefore essential that Washington policymakers create a comprehensive nuclear security strategy for the region as part of its Afghanistan withdrawal plans that lays the groundwork for regional stability.

We have only to look to our recent history in the region to understand the importance of this approach. In the 1980s, the U.S. supported the Mujahedeen against the Soviet Union. When that conflict ended, we withdrew, only to see the rise of al Qaeda -- and its resultant international terrorism -- in the 1990s because we didn't pull out responsibly from Afghanistan.

Our choices now in Afghanistan will determine the shape of our security challenges in the region for the foreseeable future. And we can't afford for nuclear weapons to become to South and Central Asia in the 21st century what al Qaeda was in the 1990s to Afghanistan. To avoid such an outcome, several key objectives must be included in any Afghanistan withdrawal plan.

First, current levels of regional insecurity -- which already are extremely high -- will continue to drive tensions, and quite possibly conflict, amongst the regional powers. Therefore, we must ensure the implementation of a regional approach to military withdrawal. These efforts must bring all relevant regional players to the table, particularly the nuclear and potentially nuclear states. Iran and all the countries bordering Afghanistan must be part of this discussion.

Second, the United States must be mindful to not leave a governance vacuum inside Afghanistan. While it is clear that the current counter-insurgency policy being pursued in Afghanistan is not working at a pace that meets either Western or Afghan aspirations, it is still essential that Afghanistan not be allowed to implode. We do not need 100,000 troops to do this, and as the Afghanistan Study Group has recommended, credible political negotiations that emphasize power-sharing and political reconciliation must take place to keep the country intact while the United States moves out.

Third, while the rationale for our presence in Afghanistan -- to defeat al Qaeda -- has dissipated, a major security concern justifying our continued involvement in the region -- potential nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan -- will remain and may actually rise in importance. It is crucial that we keep a particularly close eye on these programs to ensure that all is done to prevent the illicit transfer or ill-use of nuclear weapons.

Regardless of American troop levels in Afghanistan, the U.S. must maximize its military and intelligence relationships with these countries to continue to both understand their nuclear intentions and help prevent potential conflict. We must avoid a situation where any minor misunderstanding or even terrorist act, as happened in Mumbai in 2008, does not set off escalating tensions that lead to a nuclear exchange.

Ultimately, the U.S. will one day leave Afghanistan -- and it may be sooner than anyone expects. The key here is to leave in a way that promotes regional stability and cooperation, not a power vacuum that could foster proxy conflicts. To ensure that our security interests are protected and that the region does not get sucked in to a new level of insecurity and tension, a comprehensive strategy to enhance regional security, maintain a stable Afghanistan, and keep a watchful eye on Pakistan and India is essential. Taking such steps will help us to depart Afghanistan in a responsible manner that protects our security interests, while not exacerbating the deep strategic insecurities of a region that has the greatest risk of arms races and nuclear conflict in the world.

Joel Rubin is the Director of Policy and Government Affairs at Ploughshares Fund.