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Berlin conference: Bleak views on Afghanistan’s prospects…

June 10, 2019

Summary: Bleak views on Afghanistan’s prospects from two of the best experts you are going to get.  Thomas Ruttig from AAN is deeply negative about the progress of democracy in the country, talking about a deep institutional crisis and an erosion of democratic institutions…no rosy picture and a risk of civil war.  The failure to fully implement the Bonn Agreement and the international community’s tendency to interfere in the electoral process for expediency are key causes.  Michael Semple thinks that claims that a peace agreement can be delivered in this current process are “shallow” and “implausible”.  Both believe that, in as much as the Taliban do think at all about a “post-US Afghanistan”, it is based on the flawed assumption that the Taliban will return to monopolise power and that the Western-based government structure will simply collapse once the US pulls out.

I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the Academy for Cultural Diplomacy’s symposium on Afghanistan: “Understanding Afghanistan”.  The highlight for me was getting to hear Thomas Ruttig from the Afghanistan Analysts Network and Michael Semple from Queens University Belfast on the same bill.  The messages from both seemed bleaker than I can recall from their previous talks and writings.  My comments are inserted as square brackets.  I have highlighted key points that leap out in bold.

Dr. Lutz Rzehak “Observations on Cultural behaviour in Afghanistan”

  • Dr Rzehak has been studying Afghan language and culture for decades. He has travelled extensively (and independently) across the country.  “If you don’t want to embarrass yourself, be like society” – attention to clothing, headgear and general appearance (beard).  But it is almost impossible to fake an identity’
  • Age is advantageous – much respect is accorded to older people – gray hair an advantage!
  • Some Afghans use western clothing and appearance to show status (eg working at a university). Western clothing can be seen as denoting an official.
  • Legendary Afghan hospitality (“A guest is a friend of God”) but when travelling it is important to have a local Afghan as a guide/interlocutor to smooth the trip in advance and make preparations and also en route.
  • One Baluchi group in Zaranj (Nimruz) actually built a small house specifically for the Dr to use then and for his anticipated future visits!
  • Avoid travelling at night.
  • Importance of greeting rituals.

Thomas Ruttig spoke about “The State of Afghanistan Democracy in the light of the upcoming (and previous elections)”

  • Ruttig has lived and worked in Afghanistan for around 13 years – he is still a little dismissive of the “Kabul bubble” of international and diplomatic communities
  • In regard to Dr Rzehak’s presentation and subsequent discussion about breaking of cultural and religious norms he noted that Afghans do break the norms and this generally happens in connections with issues of power – those that have the Kalashnikovs…
  • He gave an interesting anecdote about the Afghan’s perspective on foreigners. He said that, whichever international job he had held in the country (diplomat, journalist, UN), once Afghans knew of his nationality, it was presented as “ah, the Germans are back”, with an expectation that his main agenda would be to continue whatever historic political, aid or development project had been undertaken by Germans previously in that area.  [comment: makes me think about how easy it must have been for the Taliban to construct anti-British propaganda messages when British forces arrived in Helmand and southern Afghanistan “British Empire back to try and conquer us…”]’
  • There is a slightly racist overtone to some Western views on the people of Afghanistan in relation to elections and popular will: “Afghans can’t do democracy”, “Afghanistan cannot be Switzerland”. But the Afghan constitutions have strong and clear statements – 2004 constitution “Peoples will and democracy”.  Social justice, human dignity, rights and democracy have all featured strongly.
  • But the democratic process seems to have been in reverse gear for some time now – this is not only because of the Taliban and conflict. There is a deep institutional crisis and an erosion of democratic institutions.  This is tilting towards increased use of executive power and a crisis of legitimacy.  On 22 May , President Ghani’s official tenure as president came to an end and has been extended to September because of the failure to prepare for the election in good time.  The system is full of holes – the Parliamentary system has many irregularities.  Ghazni province in particular struggled with a protracted dispute about how best to divide up the Pushtun and Hazara constituencies – as a result no elections were held.
  • There is a growing risk that an authoritarian system is being strengthened – President Ghani is the only authority officially elected.
  • The situation is not looking good – and the elections are now being prioritised over the peace talks with the Taliban.
  • Historical recap – Bonn Conference 2001 re-established provision for Afghan democratic institutions (Ruttig emphasised “re-“ established, rather than simply “established”, noting that the Afghanistan 1964 Constitution was probably Afghanistan’s most democratic document). But the post of Prime Minister was cancelled, creating its own institutional problems.
  • The Bonn process made provision for a lot of things – a census, voter registration, disbandment of militias, justice, addressing war crimes. This was all positive and embraced by Afghans.  At the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga (which Ruttig and Semple have both worked on) no one was saying “democracy is a bad idea”…).
  • But progress faltered: women lost out and the warlords still held a lot of sway. In the end, the Bonn Agreement was only partially implemented – the census did not take place, militias were not properly disarmed (a warlord was made head of the Disarmament of Illegal Armed Groups – DIAG – operation).  Furthermore, the US began re-arming militias from around 2006 (eg “Afghan Local Police”, or ALP).
  • There were protests over the 2014 presidential election which brought Ghani to power – no one could say how many people voted, how many votes were counted, what the extent of fraud had been – multiple reports of the stuffing of ballot boxes and being able to buy voting forms in the markets. Furthermore, the result was never announced – a deal was struck (brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry) that Ghani would be announced as the winner.
  • Many social problems – unemployment, poverty. 54% of the population are under the poverty line: after $100 Billion USD of effort, the number of people in poverty is still more or less the same as it was in 2003.
  • If the Bonn Agreement had been fully implemented things could have been quite different but unfortunately even the UN was “part of the game” of bending democracy. Warlords have captured democracy and there are still no effective political parties operating in Afghanistan.  Electoral reform is being blocked and President Ghani is circumventing most of the checks and balances.  The people making the decisions are not democratically legitimate.
  • There is no rosy picture and there is a danger of civil war.  There is a widespread tiredness with “this kind of” democracy in Afghanistan – the post-2001 kind that is continually manipulated by the international community.  Many in Afghanistan now do not want democracy – this is not just older people, but also some youth groups who reject democracy as “against Islam”

Michael Semple spoke on “Taliban, Culture and Peace – how understanding Taliban political culture helps us assess progress towards an Afghan peace”

  • It is very important to be sensitive to the importance of understanding culture. On a 2019 visit to Kabul, Semple was invited to a meeting between [I think] the Afghan Ministry of defence and the US military.    Semple brought an Afghan researcher with him.  After a short period they both realised that the translations being given between the US and the Afghan government teams were appallingly garbled and greatly hampering the ability of both sides to understand the other [I think the implication was that the translators were not bad at their job, but that the Western military terminology and acronyms was hard to convey].  Semple observed how little important lessons are learnt – translation problems might have been understandable in 2001/2002 but surely not in 2019…
  • Without recognising and understanding the filter of culture, understanding becomes difficult. And culture is also evolving, disputed and manipulated – Hamid Karzai was good at this – making a show of traditions – Loya Jirgas and suchlike – to appeal to cultural traditions but ultimately intended to close off discussion.  Semple suggested that where he and Thomas Ruttig wear Afghan clothes as Westerners, by taking on the culture it undermines the potential to monopolise culture manipulation.
  • In terms of the Taliban and peace talks there have been “bouts of extreme hope”. In February 2018, Ghani made a prepared speech to the Taliban inviting them to come and join the political process.  This made diplomats very hopeful, but nothing came of it.   In the summer there was another flurry of hope with Ashraf Ghani’s unilateral ceasefire that the Taliban joined in for three days.
  • This was more significant, but from the Taliban leadership perspective it got out of control.
  • The Taliban leadership had told its fighters to “stop fighting” but the Taliban fighters then went into the towns and villages and fraternised with the police and the population (one local warlord said that he was hosting 150 Taliban fighters to a lunch). The Taliban leadership were worried that this undermined the war effort.  [In May 2019, the Taliban have ruled out a similar ceasefire for this year].
  • In September 2018, Zalmai Khalilzad began talks with the Taliban. The have been six sets of talks in Doha, with another set coming.  Messages have been projected that “peace is nigh” and that “good progess has been made but more dialogue is needed”.  Everyone (including the Afghan population and the Taliban fighters on the ground) is reading intensively what the media has to say about the talks and trying to understand what is really going on.
  • Semple is “broadly optimistic” – it is possible for the war to end very quickly. But it is perhaps “more likely” that the war will continue for the moment.
  • But Semple is “deeply sceptical” of the current peace process. There are some cultural clues – the shifting of timetables [presumably the pushing back of timetables?].  Semple was aware that at one point the US negotiating team had been telling the US military to start preparing in the event of a ceasefire.  The annual fighting season begins after the opium harvest is in [approx April/May] – there was therefore a hope that peace might come in the Spring of 2019 – or, if not a formal peace, but at least the suspension of the Taliban’s annual announcement of their Spring Offensive.  This did not happen.
  • Culture of the Taliban In the 1970s the Taliban were the poorest of the poor but felt superior because they had extensive religious knowledge. This created tension with sections of the Afghan population, in particular the rural vs urban divide.
  • Claims that a peace agreement can be delivered seem very “shallow” – “implausible”.
  • The Taliban are still a centralised, organisation and their mission is to take over the country. A top down peace solution may not be possible between the Islamic State of Afghanistan [i.e. the Taliban central command body] and fellow Afghans but a reconciliation between individual local Taliban groups and local Afghans may be achievable.  At the leadership-level, peace negotiations have stalled.  The Taliban are refusing to embrace a ceasefire or seriously pursue a political settlement.
  • Semple showed a photograph of a local, village-level, Taliban commander sitting alongside a local, village, level police chief. They are attending a wrestling completion together and were respectfully and pragmatically discussing local security issues and concerns.  Semple suggested that if there was more local-level dialogue of this sort, then the fighting might just simply die away.


  • Qatar is not a bad location for talks – it at least partially removes the Taliban from Pakistani influence.
  • The Taliban are not the only bad actors in the peace talks – the warlords as well. Many groups have an interest in conflict remaining.
  • Thomas Ruttig pushed back slightly on Semple’s suggestion that local dialogues might cause peace to break out spontaneously. He saw the Taliban as being a centralised command that was hard to challenge.  It was difficult to see local sets of dialogues having much impact.
  • I asked to what extent the Taliban think of a “post-US Afghanistan” and what their intentions might be after the US military pull out. Ruttig felt that the Taliban’s prime desire is to monopolise power – they will not turn into a political movement.  When Semple talks to the Taliban, he starts with a simple proposition for discussion that “there is no justification for the further killing of Afghans”.  Semple felt the Taliban have not had a change of heart.  The Taliban do think about a “post-US” Afghanistan, but their thinking is poorly informed and not well-developed – they see the US withdrawal as the prelude to the Taliban’s return to control of Afghanistan.  This is “wrong thinking” but this is what they believe – once the US departs the existing government and institutions will collapse and the Taliban will be back in power.  All those Western-educated Afghans in the government will simply disappear – returning to Europe, etc.

Comments and Outlook

Is it just me or is this some of the bleakest assessment from two of the best analysts of Afghanistan that I have heard in years?  Thomas Ruttig has not given up on the democratic process, but he is deeply pessimistic about how it has been perverted by outside influence and internal, non-democratic elties. “most of the checks and balances have gone”.  He blames the UN and other international bodies for bending democracy in aid of expedient election results.  Michael Semple sees claims of a peace settlement being delivered as “shallow” and implausible.  Both judged Taliban ultimate intentions were still best characterised as a monopolistic return to power.  Michael Semple said that the Taliban believe that once the US had left the Afghan democracy experiment will simply collapse and the Taliban will be back in power.  I have read carefully though my notes.  With the possible exception of Michael Semple holding out that a peace deal could theoretically come quickly (and perhaps through grass roots dialogue), neither were able to offer any optimistic route forward.  This doesn’t look good.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. sues57 permalink
    June 11, 2019 5:25 am

    Great, my long comment was erased. WTF WordPress, why do I need a *password* to comment?? I guess I’ll try again tomorrow.

    • June 11, 2019 9:11 am

      Sorry to hear that – I will look out for your comments! My hard-won experience tells me to write and save any comment of any sort onto a Word doc first for these eventualities 🙂 No idea why a password is needed, seems an extra artificial layer of complexity. I gave up trying to give book reviews on Amazon because they insisted on credit card details…

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