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Ahmed Rashid talk at Danish Institute of International Studies, Copenhagen, 19 May 2011

May 19, 2011


1.    Ahmed Rashid gave a talk on the subject of “Beginning of the End Game: How to make peace in Afghanistan”.  Travelling some very well-rehearsed and articulate themes, he still appears to rely somewhat on hindsight (“what the international community should have done was…”) and seemingly simple suggestions for the future (“building a regional settlement is crucial and must begin now”, “we need to build an Afghan popular consensus for talking to the Taleban”, “we must introduce the Taleban to the new levels of Afghan society”).  But very good value overall.

Key points

2.    NATO/US Transition plans – to whom/what will they be transitioning?  There is no effective Afghan government, army, bureaucracy or justice system.  But how do you rebuild Afghanistan in the middle of an insurgency?  The only way to end the violence is to talk to the Taleban.

Could the Taleban simply wait for the departure of ISAF?

3.    On a Taleban “strategic pause” – couldn’t the Taleban just wait out the international community, who will leave in 2014?  Difficult for the Taleban – they are exhausted and have suffered enormous casualties.  They are very aware that they have been and manipulated by Pakistan.  They are tired and want to return to Afghanistan with their families.  They also recognise that if they wait out the US they will be faced with the same problem they had in the 1990s – complete isolation within the international community – no NGOs, no funding, no aid, no development.  Therefore the Taleban recognise the need to enter into a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government – Karzai has the links to the international community that could secure funding.

Talking with the Taleban

4.    There have been several rounds of US/Taleban talks – this is late but encouraging.  We need to build an Afghan popular consensus for talking to the Taleban – there is political and ethnic resentment against the Taleban amongst the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.  In addition, Afghanistan is dependent upon its neighbours – we need to build a regional settlement and this must begin now.  The US appear to want forms of permanent basing in Afghanistan – but if they want a regional settlement they must forget this and find other ways to use Special Forces, drone strikes etc.

5.    Taleban capability – the US has been unable to achieve much against the Taleban through military force or reintegration efforts.

Death of Bin Laden

6.    Bin Laden death has deepened the crisis inside the Pakistani state: foreign policy run by the military, growth of intolerance, weak economy, collapse of state education.  But Pakistan cannot be abandoned – it is too fragile.  The Pakistani agenda in Afghanistan has probably modified – and is more flexible.  Conclusion – you cannot simply withdraw from Afghanistan – you have to prop up Pakistan and engage with neighbours and near-neighbours.  [In the Q&A, he said that AQ’s relationship with the Taleban had always been a divisive one for the Taleban.  Bin Laden had a very personal relationship with Mullah Omar, but there was no swearing of loyalty.  Rashid suggested that Bin Laden’s death might “free” Mullah Omar from loyalty obligations.  You might see a shift from the Taleban – they might not renounce AQ but might start to distance themselves.]

Q and A
What would the death of Mullah Omar mean?

I was able to pitch this question (“What are the political and military implications of the death of Mullah Omar?”) to him.  He had the following observations:

  • The death of Mullah Omar would be detrimental to the peace process – if you eliminate him the Taleban fragment.
  • All major Taleban policy decisions need the blessing of Mullah Omar, if he is dead, there is no one to bless a peace agreement.
  • Other insurgent leaders (Haqqani?) have signed allegiance to Omar, this allegiance would probably disappear if Omar died.
  • Also the killing of many mid-level commanders makes a peace process very difficult – “who do you talk to?”
  • The death of Omar fragments the Taleban and keeps Afghanistan unstable.

Talking to the Taleban

  • The Taleban want direct talks with the US.  There are two parts to talks:
  1. Politics and power-sharing (this part relatively easy with Afghan abilities at cutting deals)
  2. Social and constitutional (more difficult: would the Taleban accept elections?  No, not at the present.  Would they accept a constitution?  No, the Koran suffices for them)
  • If the Taleban do commit to an agreement, can they get all the components of “the Taleban” to agree and implement it?
  • We need Confidence Building Measures – cease-fires, partial cease-fires…

Civil society and reconciling with the Taleban

  • The culture of “Talebanisation” is still strong – we need the development of Afghan civil society – civil society should be leading on how to deal with and talk to the Taleban.  Young people in urban Afghanistan are very different these days – the Taleban are completely unaware – women are working as doctors, in government, driving cars.  We need to (re)introduce the Taleban to these new levels of society.  “Retired” members of the Taleban now living in Kabul (Tim comment: I think he is referring to Mullah Zaeef??) understand this to some extent.
  • The US must decide which is more important to them – permanent bases in Afghanistan or a regional settlement, you can have one or the other but not both.  Maybe the situation will have improved by 2014 and bases will not be needed??

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