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Democracy Forum talk: Afghanistan – the challenges ahead

September 26, 2018

Democracy Forum, 13 September. Check out the back of Ms Fair’s laptop if you can…

Summary. Little tangible optimism.  The usual problems remain.  The number of troops in Afghanistan is not as important as empowering Afghanistan’s economic potential.

I was lucky enough to catch a pretty stellar cast of analysts and experts at the Democracy Forum’s discussion on the challenges facing Afghanistan.  Overall, the debate offered some pragmatic reality and little in the way of immediate – or even medium-term – hope.  Most of the issues are still as I remember them from 2013, 2009, 2004 – talk about talks with the Taliban, concern over lack of progress, the faltering election process, the debate over the role of Pakistan and whether (and how) the US are going to win a “military” victory, whatever that might actually mean.  For me, there were three key issues that came out:

Peace talks about peace talks: I didn’t take much comfort that much was happening amid the flurries of rumour and denials that we have not already seen or got excited about before.  Maybe there is cause for optimism this time (as was suggested).  But I have yet to see anything.  For my money, the Taliban have upped their military game a little bit this year and may feel that they can do even better.  The Taliban are concerned about weakening themselves if they talk and/or strike a deal.

The economics of it all: Barnett Rubin and Christine Fair made very strong points in their own ways that whatever the military and political dynamics and direction, Afghanistan cannot sustain itself economically (landlocked, food shortages…) on its own.  Do not lose track of this – Afghanistan’s economic viability is perhaps more important than anything else…

Pakistan’s Great Game: Pakistan has many internal flaws.   Its negative role (support for the Taliban) remains much argued over but Afghanistan cannot blame the Pakistanis for everything – need to take some responsibility as well…

But don’t take my word for it, here are my notes of the wise words from an impressive and thought-provoking panel.  I welcome any thoughts…


Democracy Forum talk: Afghanistan – the challenges ahead, 13 September 2018

Barnett Rubin, Antonio Giustozzi, Emily Winterbotham, Christine Fair

Said Tayeb Jawad, Afg ambassador to UK:

  • Peace plan – what is a peace plan. We need a peace “concept”.  It is like planning a wedding without a proposal.  A peace process only happens when both sides are weak.  The idea of negotiating from a position of strength is flawed
  • There is no meaningful discussion about what peace means for the Taliban – peace can weaken the Taliban as different factions discuss and argue.
  • PP hasn’t started yet – if it starts it will be quick. Ideological groups like FARC and the IRA took longer to reach peace.  The Taliban are only united by war.  The act of having negotiations makes it harder to maintain the resolve of the foot soldiers – the ceasefire in June showed that the Taliban soldiers rather enjoyed the peace – so denial of talks and “window-shopping” for talk locations (Russia?) is part of the “game”.  Talks have been happening in some way since 2004.
  • How to talk? The prime stakeholders are the Afg govt and population.  Secondary participants are the US, Pakistan, etc.  In talks the objective is to weaken the other side (?).  It will be a long process with conflicting reports/denials
  • The Taliban cannot govern Afghanistan alone – they would not be able to fund it (international support would vanish)

Barnett Rubin

  • Peace process – planning is essential, peace “scenarios” is a good concept. Negotiation is a process – a changing of the relationship between the opponents.  It is not “zero sum”.
  • What will the strategic position of Afghanistan be after a peace agreement. What should the situation be in relation to US forces in Afghanistan?.
  • The main Taliban demand is the complete withdrawal of foreign troops (but privately there are nuances to this).
  • Afghanistan, as it is currently defined, has never been able to produce enough resources to fund its own state – partly because the British and Russians clipped it into a buffer state (Durand line etc). This deprived Afghanistan of its most productive territories.  The state is even more dependent now on foreign support after a war of 40 years.
  • Three main periods in this time frame: Soviet hegemony, no hegemony, attempted Pakistani hegemony, US hegemony. The 1990s saw state collapse.  The 2001 US intervention was backed by international consensus and Pakistan isolated, leading to a few years of peace.  This broke down in around 2005.
  • Key issues – who will fund the Afghan government? Who will counter ISIS and others?
  • The peace process does not have to consist of one meeting and agenda – could comprise of many groups and mediators: Afg govt, Taliban, political actors, ethnic groups.
  • The possible permanent presence of the US forces is a concern to the entire continent – should be considered in a different forum.
  • Rubin doesn’t like the word “spoiler” it is more about people that cannot be taken account of. The Chinese have a very different timeframe for judging progress

Emily Winterbotham:  

  • Peace talks tend to be an annual thing – but perhaps there is some real momentum this time? The Doha talks between the US and the Taliban as an “ice-breaker”.
  • Are the Taliban ready to talk? They have some level of control in 40-50% of the country and are still committed to fighting.  The Taliban military leadership faction may become talk “spoilers” if they see they are continuing to win.
  • US CT ops rumble on – “groundhog day”.
  • Concern over signs of fragmentation within the Afghan government – Hekmatyar’s concern was controversial, there are accusations that Ashraf Ghani is trying to increase the Pushtun element in government. Rivalry between Ghani and Dostum.  Many coalitions and powerbrokers – hard to keep track.  The Afghan government is removed from the population.  Perhaps not even sure if the elections should go ahead?  The Taliban know they cannot win in an election. – would it be so bad to skip the elections and have another “Bonn-type”  agreement?
  • But it does seem there is a positive shift towards talks – a second round is scheduled. The Taliban still call it an “occupation”.  Signs of Taliban lack of unity.

Christine Fair – protecting Chabahar from Trump:

  • Map of Taliban control shows govt version and analysts version – NATO were doing this dishonestly since 2009. Gen Nicholson says Trump’s strategy is working.  Difficult to know what the truth is – this is the most depressing time to be a south Asia analysts.  At least Obama’s approach was structured…
  • Supply/trade routes. What happened to the Northern Distribution Network.  What is Pakistan closes the airspace?
  • An acceptable ground Line of Communication could have been the Iranian port of Chabahar to protect against these potential problems – but Trump has torn up the JCPOA – need to protect Chabahar from Trump
  • Need to think about the economic viability of Afghanistan – historically a “rentier” state. It is resource-rich but it needs an economic and trade infrastructure: Chabahar can be a part of this.  The number of troops in Afghanistan is not as important as empowering Afghanistan’s economic potential.

Antonio Giustozzi:

  • Peace in Afghanistan is unlikely to come through a US-led political process (and watch for the Russians, flush with Syria success?)
  • From Giustozzi’s own engagement with the Taliban, what happens to them as an organisation after a peace deal is very important. Most of their funding comes from foreign sources – they fear losing this (around $1.5Bn a year).  The Taliban need guarantees over their income and they want political jobs and power on a par with other Afg govt members.  You will not see this as part of an official peace proposal but it might end up looking something like a Bonn Agreement…
  • Some Pushtun tribes see the Taliban as vehicle or their own tribal interests.
  • Perhaps two-thirds of the Taliban favour talks with the Taliban government – many of the local Taliban are not really fighting any more – not focussing on taking Ghazni or shifting from guerrilla to more conventional combat.
  • Peace – may not be the official UN-preferred version – diverse interests have to be secured – likely to be a gap between official peace and reality: “someone with big pockets will have to come and take care of the Taliban”. Russia is perhaps the only country that can talk to all the regional actors.

Discussion, Q&A

  • Inevitable heated exchange between Afg and Pak delegates over the extent to which the Taliban are proxies controlled by Pakistan. Rubin observed – there are no independent actors but also no puppets.
  • Giustozzi – if the US was going to win the war militarily they would have done it earlier, when they had 110,000 troops back in 2011/12. But if the US pulls troops out, Afghanistan will only last a few weeks before collapsing – only US mil spt prevented the complete loss of Farah and Ghazni.
  • Fair – views on UK govt and policy to Afg: either a) clueless, b) contempt or c) colonial
  • Pakistani army – not a professional force, it stages coups, elects PM – Imran Khan is the “Mayor of Islamabad”, critical of Pakistan but Afghans should not put all the blame there.  Everyone should work to hold Pakistan accountable, but there is a two part problem: Afghan policies do not help (eg policy on the Durand line).  Afghans must also take responsibility – Afghanistan’s problems are both internal and external.
  • Debate over who control s what part of the country – “control” of districts or what does “contested” mean? Running local government, taxes??
  • Fair – Pakistan’s problems are mainly inward, with itself: religion, partition, the army – Pakistan needs a new narrative for itself
  • Rubin: 3 realities cannot be changed – Afg is landlocked and without much water, more or less the poorest country in the world (barring SSA), its neighbours do not change.
  • Also to Afg – do not have misplaced hope in the US to fix everything ,you have to live with your neighbours…
















4 Comments leave one →
  1. sues57 permalink
    September 26, 2018 5:44 pm

    Comments are coming!

  2. sues57 permalink
    September 27, 2018 5:37 am

    I was intending to write a long comment, but as usual, life gets in the way. I’m curious whether Barney (or anyone), may have suggested that the promotion of economic development in Afghanistan, might be an area where the Taliban could get on board? They seem to be open to paths to economic independence, as remote as that might seem. Of course, the participants suggested that the current government will collapse without outside support, that’s not contested by anyone! But what are the chances that one possible opening for Taliban integration might be non-idealogical, but rooted in development, with a stake for regional actors, as the US needs to acknowledge. (Good point by Dr. Fair, “need to protect Chabahar from Trump”!) We all know that the Taliban is both cohesive *and* fragmented, so making sure that there is some economic security for demobilized fighters might be something to build on…

    • September 27, 2018 8:51 am

      Hi Suzanne – great point. I don’t think the issue was raised specifically, but the importance of Afghanistan’s economic and resource situation was stated very clearly. As was the difficulty of the Taliban in envisioning what they might look like after any peace deal – particularly in terms of their power, position and financial resources. I really think these are the sort of questions (economics, social, employment, resources…) that should be continually pressed on the Taliban to force them to think and speak about this and to get them away from the language of blowing people up. But, as a counter to that, the Ambassador declared that the Taliban are only united by war – the implication I took from that was maybe the Taliban are accustomed to this current lifestyle and don’t really understand (or are very worried about) an Afghanistan after peace. Why then would they try too hard to talk?

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