Transcript of a Panel Discussion on Afghanistan 2020

Jonathan S. Landay, National Security Correspondent, Reuters
Said Sulaiman Ashna, Afghan Service Reporter, Voice of America
Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum, Director for Pakistan Studies, The Middle East Institute
Kristyn Hartwyk (ESIA MA ’21), World Bank

Moderated by Ahmad Shah Mohibi, Founder, Rise to Peace

Washington D.C. December 11, 2019.


Afghanistan 2020:

Kristyn:

Good Evening Everyone,

I would like to welcome you all to tonight’s event, Afghanistan 2020, hosted by Rise to Peace at the Elliott School of International Affairs. My name is Kristyn Hartwick and I’m a graduate student here at the Elliott School pursuing a master degree in International Development. In addition, I am an analyst at the World Bank and support the operations team of Rise to Peace. 

Rise to Peace is a nonprofit organization that works to empower peace, education, and tolerance to prevent extremism and terrorism around the world. We pursue our mission by working and engaging with local partners in affected communities as well as those in positions who can facilitate change. Rise to Peace conducts field research to provide analysis and hosts high-level discussions to share our findings with the public. This is our tenth high-level discussion and our last one was in Kabul, Afghanistan this past March. We have over 300 publications including 5 special reports on topics such as terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, Taliban drug trafficking, and countering neo-Nazi ideology in the United States. Our team at Rise to Peace consists of over 45 international and national research fellows, analysts, advisors, and interns. If you are interested in learning more about our organization, please go to RisetoPeace.org. 

Tonight we are joined by a group of esteemed panelists to discuss the future of Afghanistan’s political environment. Our first panelist is Jonathan Landay, who is an award-winning journalist and senior national security correspondent at Thomson Reuters. When working with knight-ridder, Landay was ambushed with US Marines in a remote village in the Kunar province of Afghanistan. He also survived the Battle of Ganjgal. In his current post at Thomson Reuters, he covers terrorism, nuclear weapons, and arms control policies with a close focus on US foreign policy towards Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

Said Suleiman Ashna is an award-winning Afghan-American journalist and has been covering Afghanistan for over a decade. Mr. Ashna is a reporter at Voice of America and news writer and editor with Tolo TV in Afghanistan and a group program manager at Armaan FM 98.1. He formerly worked as the Assistant Managing Director and News Director at Gems TV and was Managing Editor and Editor and Chief at Lamar TV.

Dr. Marvin G Weinbaum is the Director for Pakistan Studies at the Middle East Institute. He worked at the University of Illinois for 15 years as Director of the Program in South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies focusing on national security, democratization, and the politics of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has also served as a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and was awarded a Fulbright research fellowship to Egypt in 1981 to 1982 and Afghanistan in 1989 to 1990. His areas of expertise include state-building, political culture, political economy, and national security in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Dr. Weinbaum has a BA from Brooklyn College, MA from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University.

Last but not least, Ahmad Mohibi is the Founder of Rise to Peace. Ahmad previously spent over a decade assisting the US mission to rebuild Afghanistan. Ahmad remains an active human rights campaigner through the support for community engagements around the world and his involvement with diverse humanitarian causes. He holds a master’s in International Policy and Practice from the George Washington University and a BA in Government and International Politics from George Mason University.

Without further ado, I would like to hand it over to Ahmad Mohibi. 

Ahmad: 

Thank you, Kristyn, for the warm introduction. Thank you for coming here in this cold weather, and a special thanks to our distinguished panelists for taking the time to appear on such short notice. There’s so much to talk about with Afghanistan and we’re not going to talk about every aspect of it, but it’s a country with unpredictable moments. 

This morning, as most of you may or may not know, the Taliban has turned to a hospital near Bagram Airforce Base, the largest US base in Afghanistan. They killed two people and wounded sixty-five while US officials were talking to the Taliban about peace negotiations and ceasefire. This could have led to negotiations of peace or it could turn into Afghan dialogue. It could end Afghanistan’s 4 years of war or 18 years of the US-sponsored war. 

Since this is an unprecedented peace talk, I was in Afghanistan in June of 2018 and saw the Taliban and Afghans eating ice cream. That was the beginning. 

Since then, 9 rounds of peace talks took place in various cities in Pakistan, Moscow, many different places; Doha. This past September, President Trump called it off because of the Taliban’s intention of peace while they are still killing. He thought, “What’s the point of having you talk to my diplomats if you’re still killing civilians and US soldiers?” In a surprise visit this past this month, President Trump was in Bagram and announced the resumption of the peace talks in Afghanistan. This is day five of the peace talks in Doha. Today was one of the other big days for Afghanistan and they were about to announce a presidential election that took place about two and a half months ago. Thirty-four million people, 9.5 million registered to vote, 2 million voted, so that is another discussion. Please keep that in mind and any questions you may have, please feel free to ask our distinguished panelists. There are a lot of problems in Afghanistan, and Afghans are confused and uncertain about the future of their country. 

The World Bank estimates that half of the country lives in poverty but if you look at it and actually go to the villages, it’s actually closer to about 70% living in poverty. There is a lack of opportunity, jobs, improper infrastructure, and it leaves Afghans uncertain. On top of that, the Taliban are killing left and right and the US policy in Afghanistan is kind of lost. The government is trying their best to bring peace in Afghanistan but no one knows how. Peace costs money, yes, but war costs more. 

Over the 18 years, I’m sure most of you may have read this past Monday, the Washington Post reported about how American officials were not telling the truth about the progress of the Afghan War. At the same time, how the Afghan officials were saying the same thing to the Afghan people. So the past 18 years, a lot of people have been talking about the progress that has been made, but nothing has worked. Well, I’m not going to talk more about that, I’m going to give the panelists an opportunity to speak about what’s happening in Afghanistan. I look forward to it and I want to say thank you again, and I appreciate it.

I’ll end this way, there are a lot of achievements and we will be talking about those as well, not just the criticism. I see a lot of Afghan folks sitting here and it’s the changes and transition that has allowed Afghanistan to connect with the rest of the world; technology, women in school, news, TV, radio stations. So there is a lot of achievements but with that 1 or 2 trillion dollars spent, there could have been more achievements. We are not taking sides, distinguished panelists are here from different agencies and we are going to be focused on the peace talks. Keep your questions as specific as possible. We are going to start with about 45 to 50 minutes of discussion with a panelist and then towards the end, we will give about 45 minutes to Q&A. Please keep your questions brief and specific. If you’re watching this on Facebook, please send your questions towards us, and if you are on Twitter please follow #AfghanPeace and engage on there. 

Since I’m here, I’m going to start, and if we could focus on the recent attack by the Taliban. It raises a lot of questions about their intention of peace. Can we talk about the Taliban and the ceasefire agreement, or how do you see the impact of the Taliban’s attack against the airforce base? Should the Afghan people trust the Taliban? What do you think?

 

Ashna: 

Thank you for inviting me, and thank you everyone for coming. I was thinking about this earlier this morning for the panel. The Taliban and group within the negotiations table were on very different pages during the first hour. After 3 or 4 hours many were wondering who did this, and I thought, okay so it may not just be the Taliban that needs to talk, and there may be many other groups involved. One may have a connection between these groups like the Kurdish Waukesha or somewhere else, and another group may be getting guidance from some mastermind elsewhere or a third party. This is how we see it, because it is impossible to have the Taliban right at the negotiation table within the same time and the same experience that collapsed the last time. So if there are different people, they take responsibility and they want to show their position and power. 

 

Ahmad:

Thank you, thank you, I want to ask Dr. Marvin, if you could put this conflict in Afghanistan into three factors. One, the afghan factor, ethnic, political rivalries and all the other issue that’s happening there. Second,  he’s saying that there may have been a mastermind outside of Afghanistan, Dr. Marvin what do you think about that and how will it impact the people? 

 

Dr. Weinbaum:

I’ll make it easy, I don’t believe that, no. I think that it’s not that, there aren’t external elements that are exacerbating some of these problems. However, it’s the idea that somehow it’s not our fault as this is just being done to us. No, I’m afraid you’re going to have to take responsibility and if you have any doubts about it look at what’s building the electoral process. Let me suggest why the Taliban are fighting and attacking at this point. I think you have to see that the Taliban have a two-pronged approach. One is and has been that the military keeps the pressure on and make it such that the international forces will get tired and they will leave. It’s just taken a lot longer than they thought but that remains and that’s why we’re not going to see a ceasefire anytime soon because the pressure has to be on them. But more recently, what has also worked for them is a diplomatic approach and both of these play together the fact that they are stronger on the ground than they have been, the fact that they know the US is itching to get out, and the fact that they can see for themselves that there is this unity among the Afghan political class. These factors give the Taliban a sense that we could reach our goals, which I believe is an emirate. We can reach our goals politically, diplomatically, as well as militarily, and together we’ve got a better chance. They are not contradictory, they are complementary.

 

Ahmad:

Okay, so what you are trying to say is basically that the Taliban are winning and manipulating, they are playing a game?

 

Dr. Weinbaum: 

As they have played the diplomatic game, they have gotten enormous legitimacy beyond anything they could have imagined. Countries everywhere are rushing to them, knocking on their door, and nobody is doing the same in Kabul. So at the same time that they have gained such enormous prestige by playing the diplomatic game, they’ve done it at the expense of the Kabul government which has been cut out of the negotiations and very likely will not be a major factor in intra Afghanistan. On top of that, we have the side of what is going on over the elections, so I think they feel that although they suffered some losses, they think they are winning and need to get the Americans out, that’s the key.

 

Ahmad:

Dr. Marvin, I have a follow-up question on that. When you said that the Taliban are moving fast and forward; Ashna’s point was there may be a mastermind outside. I’m going to give you a real example. This past Tuesday, Senator Lindsey Graham said on Fox News, “look if we have to stop negotiating with the Taliban and negotiate with Pakistan.”  They were created and formed in Pakistan, they moved from Pakistan, Osama bin Laden also. President Trump canceled aid to Pakistan, correct, so the Southeast Strategy all focuses on that. How can an insurgency group or political group be that powerful to operate in Afghanistan and claim seven percent of Afghanistan if they are just a domestic issue? There has to be a mastermind or big sponsor outside.

 

Dr. Weinbaum: 

Obviously I don’t share that point of view. I believe that Pakistan, and I know there’s almost a basic belief Afghans, I’ve spent enough time as we all have talking to people and I spend a lot of time in Pakistan as well. There’s a belief that the Taliban could be turned off tomorrow if Pakistan really wanted. Let’s not fool ourselves, that can make a difference, they can must make it much more difficult and 10-15 years ago if they wanted to cut off the Taliban at the knees they could have. But today, the Taliban is far less dependent on Pakistan than they used to be. They don’t have to go back for assistance, they are able to maintain themselves on the basis of smuggling and extortion. Of course they probably got the resources together with those that they get from the country to be able to sustain themselves now, even if Pakistan were to let up on them. But Pakistan won’t let up on them because it still believes it needs them because Pakistan is convinced that everything’s gonna fall apart and when it falls apart, it needs friendly allies. As long as they think that the end is not going to be a favorable one, they want to hold onto them as insurance policies.

 

Ahmad:

Jonathan, I wanted to ask you. As Ashna and Marvin have said, there may be masterminds outside and there is a military approach and diplomatic approach. Is he trying to say the American government has failed the war in Afghanistan? This past Monday a Washington Post report came out and they talked about 2 or 1.1 trillion dollars, 775,000 used at one point in Afghanistan. Rob Williams, a former Army infantryman who served in two deployments in Afghanistan said that we didn’t know who we were fighting. If you could elaborate and give to the audience, did the American government fail or are we going down the right path?

 

Landay:

Thank you very much. Just very quickly, my background. I have been covering and going to Afghanistan since the Soviets were there, so I’m giving my age away. My first trip into Afghanistan was with the Mujahideen in 1986 and 1987. I was in the first group of Western journalists who were allowed into Kabul by the Najibullah regime to cover his so-called Loya Jirga. Getting to your question, I went back to look at sources that I have written over the last decade in light of the Washington Post as if they are the papers that have documents that the Washington Post obtained. Those of us who have been going there and writing about Afghanistan for as long as I have, there was nothing jarring or exceptional about what was disclosed in The Washington Post, except for the fact that a lot of the officials that I talked to over these last 15-18 years gave me what they were giving the American people and at least finally in when we read about their interviews with the Special Inspector General, they tell the truth, as opposed to what they were telling us over the last 15-18 years.

I went back and looked at some of my stories from the last decade, this is random. September of 2009, US military leary of Afghanistan escalation with no clear goals. February of 2010, probes over the role in costly Afghan battles. June of 2010, Obama’s Afghan strategy remains plagued by problems. July of 2018, after a discouraging year US officials expect a review of Afghans strategy, in other words, there’s nothing new in what was disclosed at least to those of us who have been covering Afghanistan for as long as I have. Has the United States been defeated? No. Has the United States won? No.

We all know that it’s been a stalemate since the Taliban came back into Afghanistan from Pakistan and we they had gone for asylum after the US invasion. It is interesting because one of the other articles that I found I had written for the 20-year anniversary of the Soviet invasion, I wrote an article when I was in Kabul:  “Is The US Repeating Soviet Mistakes in Afghanistan?” I wrote that based on disclosures of documents that the same group that this university obtained from the Soviet Union and the deliberations that the Gorbachev government is having with the Soviet withdrawal, and the same group that obtained the documents at the Washington Post. The United States’ strategies have failed. The United States’ prevention of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan have not, and we are at a stalemate.

I don’t see an end to that stalemate regarding the idea that there’s some kind of mastermind. Let me point out that Pakistan now has a seat at the table in Doha in the form of Anas Akane, so they’re already there. The problem with the talks now, beyond the domestic crisis and political crisis in Afghanistan is the US ability to negotiate and compromise has been narrowed by the President of the United States. What I mean by this is, when President Trump called off and cratered the peace effort in September he tweeted that there must be a ceasefire and that is the line he has repeated. Since then he repeated again at Bagram Air Force Base when he was there for Thanksgiving. That is a position that has put a major constraint on a basket of Khalil Asaad who gave up that position in the first round of nine rounds of talks that resulted in this draft peace agreement and the position of the US. He gave up a complete ceasefire and settled for the Taliban’s demand of a reduction in violence and no attacks on American troops during the withdrawal. He has now been constrained by the fact that President Trump has brought that demand back and put it back on the table.

I don’t see as Marvin has already said, the Taliban agreeing to that because violence is their main leverage in these talks. Let me point something out and I’ll talk about what happened today at Bagram. Yes, what the Taliban did was a dastardly thing. But let’s not forget that the pace and intensity of US-backed operations against the Taliban have also increased to an enormous extent to the point where there are more civilians being killed now according to the UN by US and UN operations than in the past. So both sides are escalating and using violence as they try and negotiate an agreement.

 

Ahmad:

Yes, so I want to look at some data. At Rise to Peace we have an Active Intelligence Database with data that comes from a great team. In 2019, there were 4,978 dead civilians and in 2018 there were 3,900. We see there has been an increase, but you all mentioned something about how the US did not defeat them and currently being in a stalemate. Ashna, going back to that mastermind question, could you elaborate about why the Taliban are continuing to use violence? Is that something that Afghans want? The Afghans think they are trustworthy. 

 

Ashna: 

I lived in Washington DC in 2006, I came for myself in 2004 and I know what the mentality in Washington is. I’m the person who lived under the Taliban regime,  I was an immigrant in Pakistan for several years. I was in a civil war, I grew up in that. I’m from the eastern part where we are mostly Daesh people. Let me explain the Taliban issue, the Taliban mentality is to most in the youth we are using in years the Taliban mentality is completely consuming 70% of Afghanistan telling them to fight the government or to kill civilians. They destroyed education from the basic services from everything because of the world, because of the sewage, because of so many things that happen in the region. Also because of this decision where people are crossing each other because of one family and then and the waters no one is governing them.

The Taliban groups with arms, strength, and knowledge are challenging the strongest superpower on earth, the United States. This, we have to accept. There is a mastermind, I’m giving you the examples. I’m the witness of this war and I’m the victim too and I have some friends around the same facility in the same life, they understand who the Taliban are. I know there are good people in the Taliban, they’re the victims of this war.

We have to listen, the United States must listen to them, the Afghan government must listen to them and how they have been used by some other people or some other governments or the establishment for their own benefits. In Pakistan by 2003, there were almost 7,000 mother cells. I’m giving you these figures from the Gotham City Center, between that 3,000 of them are completely supported by foreign funds from the Gulf countries from inside Pakistan and from the establishment and individuals and Europeans. Somewhere else who’s looking for their own idea to promote in their region. So 3,000 others by average 1000 students of the Taliban at age 10 were training for jihad and they were training how to fire an RPG. A boy who was almost like 15 pounds, and he is carrying the same way. Look, these things work for someone and now that the generation is 20 or 25 years old, they’re trying to recruit others to achieve their goals, we have to understand this.

If we are saying the Taliban are completely open-minded people and they’re good and will become our friend, no, we are wrong. So just let me finish with this. It is because in six years with the Taliban, they’re using the most progressive technology on the earth, how is that possible? With the high-quality video they are sending right after suicide attacks. Where are they located, and where are they getting all of this equipment and things? We have to work, I’m not saying you don’t understand, but we have to rationalize these things and think. If they want peace and this is their country, then why aren’t they going to the Afghan people or coming to talk to the president? There are so many Afghans, even their own generation of jihadi leaders that will respect that, they can sit and talk in Afghanistan, but they don’t. 

 

Ahmad:

Okay, so let me just say one thing, we’re going to talk about what needs to be done because there’s a problem happening there. Jonathan and Dr. Marvin I want to touch base with you since you have been covering Afghanistan since the Soviet Union’s invasion. A situation happened there, it was a communist regime, and now there’s a capitalist and Western-backed government. We had the mujahideen fighting against the government and now we have the Taliban. Communists were killing innocent civilians and they are still being killed. So, let’s talk about this. Do you think the Afghan war is only a domestic issue, and what factors play a role?

 

Dr. Weinbaum:

They see the Taliban as a valuable instrument even though they recognize that a united peaceful Afghanistan could also be in their interest, but they have been involved in the training from the very beginning and today it’s gone beyond that. In the 1990s, it was Al Qaeda who was doing much of the training. Let me put it this way, the Taliban want peace, I don’t think there is any question that they would like to have peace, but peace on their terms. If you want to sit down tomorrow and provide a system in which they can have their values and their governmental structures be the dominant ones they will accept that tomorrow. It is a bigger interest, they would rather not fight if they don’t have to. We have to go back to the nominees, and by the way, I go back to Afghanistan more than 50 years ago.

My family and I first arrived in Kabul in 1970 so I saw better days too. I didn’t see much of it under the Taliban. I was in Kabul after they took over Kabul, though, and I did see it in terms of a dead city in a dead country. Never able to do anything about poverty today, tomorrow, or in the future. We have to recognize that Pakistan has all along played a facilitating role but it’s the Afghans themselves that are the deciders. When I was doing the Intel at the State Department on Afghanistan, it was very clear that the Taliban would accept what Pakistanis were saying only up to a point. You could never get them and that would remain the case, you could never get them something which they felt was fundamentally against their principles or objectives.

You could bring the Taliban to the table, but you can’t get them to compromise on issues which they have for 19 years plus been fighting about, they’ll never sell that to their commanders. They don’t want to have a power-sharing arrangement, they don’t want to have so many governorships, so many cabinet positions running as political parties. They have been crystal clear but we haven’t wanted to listen that what they want is to have it on their terms. So how do you get them to change that, that’s the big issue and that’s why I think that we are where we are. One thing about this agreement, I think we will see an agreement between the US and the Taliban and I think we’ll see it fairly soon because it needs to be done. The agreement has to be done before the election.

 

Ahmad:

So, Dr. Marvin, you started talking about the agreement. The Taliban want a complete US troop withdrawal. Jonathan, if you could talk about this if you want. They were formed in 1991, an Islamic Emirate mentality. What they want is an Islamic Emirate and the battle of the Taliban. What they want is the preconditions to inspire them to stop killing innocent civilians, stop attacking bases, and respect the articles of the agreement and we could have a deal. President Trump called it off this past September so if Dr. Marvin is saying that an agreement is likely to be reached, how likely is it that they will attack again? Every day they attack and every day they kill innocent people. So how likely, how hopeful are you that the US will have a deal and that they will leave Afghanistan? When we compiled Rise to Peace data, 75% showed in Kabul and 12 provinces that the United States should stay. They do not want another extremism or battleground for extremism like Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to happen again. So, what does the future look like to you? Do you see a path forward, do you think it is going to happen? 

 

Landay:

Right now, I disagree with Marvin. I don’t think right now we’re going to see that simply because there are a couple of things going on. One, the President of the United States has laid down a marker that he wants a ceasefire and he said it with President Ghani sitting next to him at Bagram.

That is a really solid agreement where he can pull out and he would encounter the same kind of uproar that he encountered when Khalid Al Saud announced the draft agreement and the president tried to pull out of Syria. He made this deal with everyone that you heard from his supporters including Lindsey Graham and other Republicans in Congress. He would be facing backlash if he was to concede his demand for a ceasefire to the Taliban. You also have the domestic political situation in Kabul itself in Afghanistan over the election and the fact that things are so unstable. This is because of the opposition demands at the Abdullah camps’ refusal to accept and allow the vote County to take place. Also, the demand for the elimination of 300,000 votes, doesn’t sound like a lot but given the small turnout for the election, the winner will be decided by the margins of the vote so that 300,000 could be quite significant.

It is a very brittle situation now, I also should point out that I believe that that ambassador Carlos Dodd has some constraints put on him in other ways. There is a member of the National Security Council who has been with him in Kabul and in Doha who was not present virtually, except for the very first meeting, I believe, in the last round who I believe is deadly opposed to the way the draft was put together and announced in September. So that’s a constraint on ambassador Carlos Dodd’s ability to negotiate and compromise on what the President himself has now stated very clearly.

I don’t know that I see any breakthroughs anywhere, on either side. Both sides have dug in, neither side is winning, neither side is losing, and the winning will take place in the political sphere. Neither side can afford right now, I believe, to lose on the political agreement and as for Pakistan, definitely, I still think Pakistan does play a role. That is why Haqqani Network is now getting onto the negotiating team. He represents the number one tool that the Pakistanis have been using in their strategy in Afghanistan which is the Haqqani Network. You have noticed that Zow went to Islamabad any number of times. But I also agree with Marvin that there is a limit to what the Taliban is willing to accept when it comes to Pakistan’s priorities, and we saw that in the fact that the Taliban initially refused to meet with Kawan Assad in Islamabad. He went to Islamabad and asked to bring the Taliban leaders to Islamabad and they refused to attend that meeting.

I think there are too many moving parts right now. I could be very wrong, but I just see this cycle repeating itself. One thing I also need to throw out there is that yes, President Trump could use the announcement of some kind of agreement politically as he runs for reelection. But, I also don’t believe that Afghanistan’s election is a major issue here in the United States. I don’t think it’s going to turn many votes, one way or the other in November of next year. I should also point out that one of the reasons why, and I don’t want to sound callous but I’m just trying to be realistic, there are more Americans who are killed every year in mass shootings in the United States than there are in Afghanistan. We see that there has been no give in terms of gun control reform on the part of the White House or the Republican majority in the Senate. So, why, where is the pressure on President Trump to make concessions to the Taliban?  I agree with Marvin, the Taliban have never compromised on their basic demands, never. They certainly aren’t now and to have an agreement now, or shortly, it could easily go wrong before November of next year. This is a great political risk that I think the president would end up having to take.

 

Ahmad:

You touched base on President Trump’s advisors in the background, so it created a lot of controversy in Afghanistan that well, how come he came to Afghanistan and visited military heroes at the base? As well as a lot of issues like that you make, you may have heard of that. So your point is that basically President Trump was kind of endorsing President Ghani. So tomorrow, the Independent Election Committee in Afghanistan may announce one of the candidates a winner, in this case, most likely President Ghani. What do you think the role is, this is one question we received on our Facebook, of international communities and how can the US respond? Back in 2014, Secretary of State, John Kerry, brokered a deal: national unity government. Afghans call that a national disaster government, so do you think it is going to be a national disaster government again, or it may be a civil war. What do you think Is going to happen?

 

Landay:

Again, I don’t want to make any predictions because making predictions these days is a very risky thing. But let me point out, you raise a very good point. President Trump, perhaps inadvertently, by not asking Abdullah Abdullah to come to Bagram and to appear solely with President Ghani that may have poured fuel on the domestic political crisis in Afghanistan. This is because the Ghani camp used that in a way to say “See, look who the Americans want as the winner of this very contested election.” You then saw a hastily put together with effort, a repair effort, launched by Washington. You had a phone call that was made by Secretary of State Pompeo to Abdullah Abdullah to try and tamp down the outrage in the Abdullah camp. I believe one of his senior advisors who was the former head of the Independent Election Commission, went on Tolo to say if Ghani is announced as the winner of the election there could be some very severe consequences. You saw this effort by the Americans to try and repair the damage that was done and it very likely could have been inadvertently done by the president, not having Abdullah join him at Bagram.

You had Zalmai Khalilzad going to Kabul to discuss the next round of talks with the Taliban, but I suspect that it was also part of this effort to try and repair the damage that had been done by the president’s visit asking Abdullah to join him at Bagram. Where this is going to go, again it’s very risky to say. There have been opposition leaders who have proposed some kind of national unity government. I believe president Ghani has rejected that, I don’t think that the Taliban would accept that. I don’t think they’re going to accept any results, Ghani is the legitimacy of an election of the Ghani victory. But also, let’s not forget we’re only in the first round here. I believe it has to go to a second round, they can’t vote in Norris Tong because there’s too much snow. So we’re talking about that whole eastern/northeastern part of Afghanistan, so if there’s going to be a second-round we’re talking about April or May and so there’s a lot that could happen. That is why I don’t want to make any predictions. 

 

Ahmad:

It is just like the same picture we have up here, Afghans are confused and uncertain about the future of their country. That is exactly what John did, he perfectly laid out. I spent 45 days in Afghanistan, I was born and raised there. I still didn’t know, I was born and raised in war just like Ashna and we just didn’t know what was going to happen. That is what we’re trying to find out. So Ashna, what Jonathan perfectly laid out was that we could say the domestic factor, the political rivalries and favoritism of President Trump, that could be an obstacle to the Afghan peace process.

 

Ashna:

Let’s see this, if any deal is made, for instance, next week, there will be a legitimate government in Kabul. What the Taliban will do is face the legitimate government, whoever is taking over after Abdullah. The Taliban must sit with that legitimate person and yet their only condition is that they’re not facing that one government, they don’t want to. They call it entrapment and I remember in 1995 or 1994, this happened and look at the repeat effect with the peace talks. We don’t have the answer, we could not predict this because who knows, the peace talks will come with results or the election will come first; they will help each other but how? We don’t know, the difficult part is the Taliban because they don’t accept the legitimate government.

They don’t want to sit with government, they want to take over their ‘96 era. Dr. Marvin said they don’t compromise, they are looking for everything. Okay, the question is here. How did Washington invest all these resources, and now blood? How did they give up all these things with 340,000 soldiers of army, police, and intelligence scholars that were trained here and now are in the first stages? We support the Afghan government and we’re strategic allies, but we cannot promote democracy. You will make up an honest model for the world, we are looking for women’s rights, children’s rights for so long. Do you think we have to compromise if the Taliban doesn’t? I don’t think so. And as I said, it’s like just saying “okay, I’m closing my eyes, no one is going to see me.” That is not right. If any backlash happens, it will be worse than 9/11, it will be much worse because this is a technological era. There will be so many bad things if we just say ok give up and think they are good people and they are sitting with each other because they think the same way. No, we have to find that foreign element. What is going on, why are they getting so much power, these are the questions to be answered.

 

Ahmad:

It is an obstacle and the Taliban are not trustworthy and we don’t know what’s going to happen. Dr. Marvin, when it comes to the Afghan foreign actors, we could focus on Russia, China, and we could talk about India and Pakistan. They could be one of the factors that fuel the war. How do you see the role of Russia and Ukraine and their impact on the peace talks in Beijing? There are original actors on the ground and then we have the United States as a measure clear, and then we have Pakistan next to Afghanistan. So if the Afghan conflict has not been solved among Afghans and we do not see a future, we do not see any progress right now, how effective do you think the peace talks will be? Do you think the Taliban are happening playing with our hearts and minds, and with regional actors building their reputation worldwide? 

 

Dr. Weinbaum:

We know they’ve succeeded. As far as the other players here, the idea that somehow once we leave regional players will step in and they’ll be able to do what we could not do because we were part of the problem. Now what’s happened is they recognize a vacuum when they see it. They see that the United States is leaving and the United States in effect, would like them to step in but there is no way in which the Taliban are interested in having any external forces structure their future. I don’t see that happening at all. What I do see happening is that we are at the first step toward any kind of solution.

What the US is doing in negotiating with the Taliban is a side piece. It is to suit American interests, it’s to suit the Taliban’s notion about what it’s going to take for them to succeed. All of the decisions about where the future lies has to come from intra Afghan discussions but there’s the road. The more people that you include in that the more difficult it is to reach any kind of agreement. It is much easier if you have two people negotiating like Baghan and Sadat and they decided this is the compromise we reach. Now, what we have here is a situation where it is just the beginning. It took 11 months, a year, nine rounds to agree on two points: the timetable for US withdrawal and enough assurances from the Taliban that they would not cooperate with al Qaeda and their likes. It took a year to get that. When you sit down to discuss and negotiate what the future of Afghanistan is going to look like, then you have the crashing of two very radically different perspectives. That means that on every single item, from how many should sit here, what are his powers, and you could go on endlessly, every one of those has to be negotiated. Now, if you think that that sort of negotiation takes any less than months or years, then you haven’t been following this history of these kinds of negotiations.

One further thought. I think we’ve got the wrong model here. The Taliban are not going to step in as the government steps out. The idea that this is the 1990s when the government collapsed and the Taliban walked in is an outmoded way of looking at it. At that time, there was leadership on both sides and at least to some degree the Northern Alliance was held together and the Taliban were all very much under the wing of Myanmar. You don’t have that anymore, you don’t have that kind of leadership. If and when the government fails, and the state is in trouble, the Taliban will not walk in and take over as they did then. What you have then is a free-for-all among elements of the Taliban, not to mention Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Then you have all of these people who are now in these security forces with their guns and their know-how, going back and joining various militias because there’s nothing else they can do. They don’t have any other jobs. Then you have the basis of fractionalization in the Taliban. All of this adds up to not a transition that occurred in the 90s, but a civil war and that’s why we have to do everything we can to avoid that because that’s the worst of all possible outcomes.

 

Ahmad:

Thank you, Dr. Marvin. You mentioned that we are using the wrong model. If you look at history we have three peace talks between the Mujahideen and Soviets and the communist regime and then we have Karzai and the Taliban. In the past, if you look at it, none of them worked. The past nine rounds of talks that the Taliban are having with US officials, Afghan representatives including former President Hamid Karzai and pulling the leaders in different places. It didn’t work. You are meeting to drink your coffee while they are killing innocent civilians. Jonathan, do you have any model for that, what model do you think would work well in Afghanistan?

 

Landay:

I’m not sure. You asked about the external factors. Certainly, Ambassador Khalilzad has made huge efforts to get Russia, China, the Gulf states, and Europe to buy into this peace agreement. It is not even a piece agreement, yet we keep calling it a peace agreement. It is an agreement for the withdrawal of US forces that hopefully will lead to peace talks between the Afghans themselves. But at the same time Russia, China, and Iran have been hedging their bets. Where did Bouleradi go just before he started these talks with Kalazad? Where has Kalazad been going in between the talks in Doha? He has been going to Europe, he has been going to Pakistan, he has been going to Russia. We have seen the track to the talks between the Taliban and civil society take place in Moscow, there was supposed to be around in China, correct me if I’m wrong but that didn’t take place.

So these countries involved are hedging their bets because I think they are looking at the scenario that Dr. Marvin shared and that I think people throughout the US military, the State Department, and even the White House believe. If you know Afghanistan, you know that this is a very very dangerous scenario. So what model? I’m not sure. As long as Taliban are refusing to talk to the Ghani government, then I don’t see a peace agreement happening. You can contest the legitimacy of the Ghani government, but nevertheless it is the government and you don’t get a peace agreement unless you have buy-in from the people who control guns on the government side, and that is President Ghani. Until the Taliban compromise on that, and who knows if they will, as Marvin mentioned it took nine rounds to find the timetable for a US withdrawal, and this idea that the Taliban somehow is going to prevent Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a launchpad for attacks on the United States and its allies, I would offer the idea that I don’t know how anyone can have any faith in that.

Particularly now that you have Ghani sitting at the table and the Haqqani Network really being the conduit to Al Qaeda. The intermarriage that has taken place between the Haqqani fighters and the Al Qaeda fighters, it is just too great and the bond goes well beyond cooperation on attacking Americans. There are family bonds, there are cultural bonds, how you break those is just beyond me. Then, we also have to throw in the ISIS factor. Yes, it appears that they’ve been defeated in the Khorasan district where they started, but they’re by no means defeated in eastern Afghanistan despite what President Ghani claimed a couple of weeks ago. So, again I’m not going to make any predictions here, there are too many moving parts to this picture to really be able to responsibly predict. 

 

Ahmad:

So you mentioned Anas Haqqani, there are iconic photos of humans that were blown up by Jalaluddin Haqqani and there is no doubt that the terrorist organization in Afghanistan is a threat. A lot of American Afghan soldiers got killed and shot by their snipers. You could search it online. After the defeat of the Soviet Union is accused by the Afghans of selling tanks to Pakistan. Asha, let’s talk about this, how can Afghan representatives trust Haqqani and do you think President Ghani and the US government should make this a specific goal? How can they be trusted and how will this Impact the peace talks?

 

Ashna:

They don’t trust the Haqqani Network at all. They are with the Taliban leadership under a big umbrella because of the Taliban and Haqqani Network and there are so many more groups inside which they’re supporting. They support Pakistan and somewhere in the line they’re crossing, especially the middle-level Taliban leadership. They don’t trust them because there are so many groups within the Taliban name. Recently you heard in the news of the killed civilians, and the Taliban said they did not do it. That was really a symbol of civilian, so who killed him? Who has the power to kill five people and an important person who was completely giving his life for almost 600,000 people? So who killed him? There is another power so in this case, we have to try to listen to the Kabul government because they think it’s not only the Taliban but there are more than 20 groups here.

They are fighting here because of their own grievances with their own governments so we are not alone. If you define deal with the Taliban, there are more to come and that’s why every person is completely scared. How do we know this, some of the Taliban are dimensioned in their houses, their family, and are completely living inside a box. But the mastermind, how do we deal with and trust that? You cannot trust the Taliban if they say they will not follow Al Qaeda any more. We will physically see the fact that they use troops. But how do you see that someone is not in connection with Al Qaeda, making and plotting another attack somewhere? You cannot guarantee this. When you’re talking about this, it’s good. But you have to follow through with it, you have to come up with these discussions. 

 

Ahmad:

So you have to find out the problem. As Ashna mentioned, there’s over 22, and this is data in Afghanistan: Lashkar-e-taiba, ISIS. I was in a rehabilitation center in Kabul this past March and I interviewed two of these children. One of them was telling me that he got recruited with several others. In the case of a negotiation, in agreement with the Taliban, the last question from everyone here. In case of a negotiation, think about what happens with the US and Afghanistan and it turns into intra dialogue. Do you think Afghans will see a possible peace in Afghanistan in the next decade or so? 

 

Dr. Weinbaum 

I have a different approach. That there is a third wave where we might see some kind of accommodation. Some may call it a sellout, others might say very realistic. I can imagine the following: that if there is no early agreement, if this goes on, especially if the US is leaving, it’s air power is going to be gone. They are going to emerge from within Pakistan’s political class, those who are ready to strike their own deal with the Taliban. In Moscow, when those meetings were taking place, there is good reason to believe that a number of the auditions sat down with the Taliban and said in effect, “okay if we give you something like an emirate, what’s in it for me? And that is so characteristic of the way in which power elites have worked in Afghanistan, that may be for some the saving grace here. Now, they’re fooling themselves because like Iran and Khomeini, they think that they have bought themselves into a coalition but if I would cement that as soon as the Taliban were able to consolidate power they’ll get rid of these guys. So they’re fooling themselves, but that that idea that it may be the best we can get is to make sure that we can come out with some residual powers. 

 

Landay:

You know, it comes down to the Afghans themselves. No one can make peace, no one else can make peace but the Afghans. They have to make it themselves. They have to abandon this idea of zero-sum, that I win, you lose. That is the way it’s been, and you see what the results have been. I have friends who are thirty-five, forty, forty-five-year-olds who have risen to positions of responsibility in Kabul and it’s going to be up to them to make these compromises. At the same time, this generation doesn’t want to lose what they have now and I have to agree with Marvin. The first time I went to Kabul in 1987, there was one multi-story building in the entire city, the Ministry of Telecommunications. I got to Kabul 5 days after the Taliban were pushed out by the Northern Alliance and it was even worse. The house that my fellow journalists and I rented, the electricity went out and we needed to get the guy to come and fix it. He shows up and he walks to the side of the road and there are two cables coming out of the dirt that he has to fix. I’m looking at him and he’s putting these things together and I’m thinking this is what it’s come down to. The place was it was an absolute ruin. Fast forward to today and the changes are unbelievable. There’s something I have to say that was not mentioned at all in the Washington Post story. Yes, there’s corruption and crime and poverty is terrible, but the changes that have been wrought in Afghanistan over the last eight-ten years are undeniable and people don’t want to lose that. I don’t know if that somehow can be used as a lever to try and compromise but losing that would just be devastating.

 

Dr. Weinbaum: 

What Jonathan is saying is that there is human capital value in the country that has never existed before. Many of the people here in this audience are the products of that and people like you have invested in this new government however good or bad it is, it’s your investment to lose. Whether the Taliban care at all, whether they see you as simply products of Western influence is another matter, and it may very well be that way. Anyone who fails to recognize the difference here and I can compare it, a few people have gone to Columbia University and it was so thin. The capital investment that I remember that the place people wanted to live was Negro Reon. Are you kidding me? 

 

Ahmad:

I think we have about 30 minutes, we’d like to open to the floor but there are some things I’d like to mention. We don’t know what the future will be like, we cannot predict, there’s no model. Afghans need to fix their country. Pakistan plays a role, regional actors are influential. You have the United States struggling and doing everything. After 18 years there has been a lot of achievements and improvements. I want to say, with technology and the rise of everything on the computer, we have ISIS, we have all these different terrorist groups who rely on social media and propaganda. If you look at the Taliban, they use news station and platforms. So want to open it to the floor. Please keep your questions short, ask some questions from India and different places. We could maybe take a couple at the same time if that works for you guys. 

 

Audience Question:

Thank you so much for giving me the floor. I want to relate my question to Dr. Marvin. He stated that the Taliban want peace and I believe they want peace and power. Let me start my question like this, to all members of the panel, if we look back 18 years ago to 2001 post 9/11, the United States was able to decide to go to Afghanistan. I was there in front-line, side-by-side with Americans as well as journalists so I witnessed how quickly and effectively the government of US military and Afghans were able to work with the Taliban while they had Al Qaeda with them. What is the difference between now and then, that the United States was able to wipe out the Taliban?

 

Landay:

Let me correct your question. The United States never wiped out the Taliban. The Taliban did what most guerrilla groups do, they run away so they can fight again another day. So let me explain. As I said, I got to Kabul five days after the Taliban was forced out, I then took a very hazardous trip to Jalalabad and from there I started going to a place called Tora Bora. I spent 10 days up in Tora Bora and sort of watched the quote-unquote victory against Al Qaeda and then from there I went to Pakistan. Do you know what I found in Pakistan? I found the Taliban. There are black turbans everywhere on Friday after the Mosque. My car was surrounded by young men in black turbans. So, the difference is we don’t have as many troops there anymore. The difference is that it is self-sustaining and I agree with Martin. At one point they were totally reliant on the Pakistanis, I don’t believe they are anymore. They have the drug trade, they have the money from the Gulf coming in, they have shakedowns and kidnappings and all sorts of other ways that they’re raising money. There is no more “fighting season” this also is a myth. The fighting season existed when the Mujahideen were based in Pakistan and you’d have the snow and it would block the mountain passes, but they’re in the villages. The Taliban are in more than 50% of the country and they’re now running parts of the country that they control. They are the government, they are running schools, they have got deals going on with the provincial governors about running hospitals and taking care of people. So it’s more of a self-sustaining resistance to the government than it was back then. That is a big difference you have this more self-sustaining organism and fewer American troops. 

 

Audience Question:

My name is Sam and I’m a graduate student here. I was interested in the discussion about lower-level concerns with Afghan citizens. I think there is a lot of focus around obviously state-level issues. Do you think that the US framework and strategy towards Afghanistan has been largely focused on the issue of the Taliban? If so, do you think the Taliban is the legitimate single issue? 

 

Ahmad:

Let’s have one more question.

 

Audience Question:

My name is Afar and I work with different organizations while I’m here until I return back to Afghanistan. Why is the US government being a hypocrite basically because the previous administration there was a term and now the US has taken the lead. The Taliban is saying we don’t want to talk to them because they are the puppets, which the US is proving them right. The US is taking the back seat by saying that Afghanistan has to figure it out themselves. 

 

Ahmad:

Let’s take one more question.

 

Audience Question:

Is it safe to say that nobody wants peace? I understand there are major players and factors in Iran and Pakistan being the major player in the past 18-19 years. We saw that from Sadam to Qaddafi’s Mubarak to Arab Spring all these great leaders that have control of the entire country but they are no longer in power. In the past 19-18 years a group called the Taliban which nobody knows where the source is. Why don’t we just stop them at the source, we don’t have to negotiate with them. I just think nobody wants peace because Afghanistan being the way it is beneficial to Iran, Pakistan, India and the United States.

 

Ahmad:

So the first question we have is “US policy funding the Taliban, and then is Afghanistan just a battleground for everyone”?

 

Ashna:

For the first question, I think yes. The South Asia strategy with the thanks women somehow. The first element that we were actually engaged people of the first days Afghan officials in Washington, some from the State Department mostly they were saying the first element is to talk to the Taliban. You have to solve this problem in Afghanistan within the government and then you can support it.

From the United States and some other sources to a government, 5.1 billion dollars until 2024 for is confirmed so we should see the Taliban or any changes that come to our monitoring in the near future. We have to be in this perspective. Secondly, the big issue was with Pakistan because when we heard the Trump speech, 90% was focused on Pakistan. The condition that we are not talking with the Taliban the same thing was in the speech with Pakistan to remove Al Qaeda, to remove radicalization. We will see if an exhibition, one by President Trump is going to be forced or implemented for this strategy. All the requirements or the conditions that they are mentioning from Washington, Kabul is needing and sometimes they’re supporting. The only thing in disagreement with Taliban agreement. I think they could focus more on the sources as you mentioned. The sources are out and they killed the first leader, he was crossing from Iran. He was supporting an official in announcing jihad against the new strips but we will go and fight for you because they have no borders.

Their own interpretation of Islam so all these are completely relevant and connect to that one source. If you didn’t stop, let me put it an example. We have an old saying, “how you believe in God?” If someone is so polished and replies, you have to see the powers, I mean the light manner by everything. So if you don’t believe that they don’t have sponsors from somewhere, see from where the Taliban or all these jihadis, who benefited? Who got enough money? The guy who was sitting in Islamabad protesting? The bounty was ten million dollars and he was standing in his table in front of the Parliament and saying he did it for America and US state what when officials were coming and asking Pakistan to release him. They said we don’t have legitimate reasons because their party is a different name. And they would know everyone in 2008 Mumbai attacks and all the immigrants are here so this is one example. If you see, you can find the source, you can stop that the source that is fueling these things, otherwise we will not get peace. The United States has a different definition of peace. I’m Afghanistan, people sitting in Kabul enjoying their University, watching TV, going to restaurants with their family that is peace. 

 

Ahmad: 

Jonathan, you perfectly laid it out earlier that the problem is going nowhere and that the Taliban want their old fight. A question we have is the United States only dealing with the Taliban and if so, what about foreign actors? 

 

Landay: 

I think they’re not dealing only with the Taliban. We’ve seen billions of dollars poured in at various times to try to serve the hearts and minds approach. A lot of the money, 25% of contracts, are siphoned off for security payment to the Taliban not to attack projects. A lot of the projects have been wasted, schools built where there are no teachers, hospitals built were there no doctors, but there has also been a great deal of development. I’ve seen it over the years that I have been going to Afghanistan. The discussions with the Taliban didn’t start with this administration.

The Obama administration switched gears, let’s not forget after the surge, they were the ones who released the five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl with the objective of starting negotiations. It didn’t go anywhere, but that was the objective of the Obama administration, to try and kickstart peace talks. They had a different approach, afghan-led, the Americans were not going to hold direct talks with the Taliban. That position changed, I believe it was with this administration first to where Americans would assist in the direct talks and then realizing that that wasn’t going anywhere, they drop that. Then they say we are going to have these direct talks on US troop withdrawal as the negotiations delegation that would allow the Taliban to talk to the government.

Again, the idea of negotiating with the Taliban did not begin with the Trump Administration. The Taliban, let’s not forget, in 2001-2002 there were senior leaders that approached the United States and said we want to negotiate, we would like to actually see whether or not there’s some kind of way we can join this new government. Vice President Cheney said no way we don’t negotiate with enemies. 

 

Dr. Weinbaum:

But at that point in time, they had nothing, they were defeated. So you can say anything you want and there was no way in which they could have been part of the negotiations. The Northern Alliance said these guys we’ve defeated them. Pakistan has enormous spoiler power and we’ve kind of distinguished between the spoiler power and the ability to make things happen the way they or anybody else wants. There is no question they can, and that’s why they’ve got to have friendly people sitting there at the table like us, they’ve got to have them. The fact that the US was willing to negotiate, if it did anything, it weakened the possibility that the Afghans themselves could have a successfully negotiated outcome. We gave away one of the real leverage that we had and that is the idea that if you don’t settle we’ll be here forever. As long as you then come to the conclusion that we’re not going to be here forever then it’s a question of waiting us out or giving us a deal which would enable us to leave sooner but it doesn’t, as Jonathan points out, it doesn’t change the facts. The realities here are affected by what the United States and Taliban are doing.

 

Ashna:

If the United States signs a peace deal with the Taliban, do they accept all this?

 

Landay:

That’s one of the reasons why you had so much opposition from the White House. But from bipartisan, it was quite something. The uproar from Congress and the US military too, over this draft deal. So you are still facing, that constituency is still there. I want to just quickly pivot to your question about whether the people just simply want to keep fighting. No, I don’t think so at all. People don’t want to keep fighting. People want, regardless of what side they are on, want the same things that we do. They want security, they want safety, they want their families, they want to educate their children, they want to be able to work, and have an honest life. The problem is that is this zero-sum approach which is if I lose, you win and I can’t let that happen. I’m going to be the winner and that mitigates against compromise on both sides.

 

Dr. Weinbaum: 

This is an existential conflict. You have two different bodies of values here competing and that’s been going on ever since the 1970s. There have been six consecutive civil wars and in every one of them, there was an Islamic force challenging the state, in every case. In every one of those, there was never any compromise reached and all of these ended the way existential conflicts always end, and that is one side wins and the other side loses. Sadly notice that we never talk about negotiating with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, why not? Because we do recognize in that case that there is here an existential difference nor did we, in the end, want to accept anything but unconditional surrender of Japan and Germany in the United States. So it doesn’t mean that every conflict aside here that if we can’t have a military victory then we have to have a political compromise, nonsense. That is not what happens when you have this kind of clash.

 

Ahmad:

Thank you Dr. Marvin. Let’s take three questions and then look at our questions on Facebook. 

 

Audience Question:

I will share a personal experience from last year. I was in Afghanistan and I would say peace is possible because somebody started speaking here from Toradora in 2001 all the way to here. I was very pessimistic and I wouldn’t believe that peace is possible. Last year I was working a position Palace I heard real-time intelligence of the Taliban being in the city. I didn’t believe it. After ten years, I was able to go and visit my birth city with my children. They enjoyed it and to be honest that was the happiest moment and the most beautiful moment of my life. So I think peace is possible. Now, coming to the question, is this peace possible only with Afghans or does it have to be imposed? My suggestion of what I believe is if this war is imposing Afghans, then there has to be peace. It has to be imposed or enforced that’s why we have UN Security Council chapter 7. If everybody thinks that Afghans are fighters, don’t you think that there is a mechanism or a third party to enforce the peace? Is peace and abundance impossible without any enforcement mechanism? 

 

Audience Question:

Has the United States miscalculated its strategy of invading Afghanistan in the first place that lead the US to make a distinction between the Taliban? Do you consider that as a miscalculation, not bringing them on the table at that time? 

 

Ahmad:

Another question, please. 

 

Audience Question:

I have a comment, not a question. I work for the Afghan government for the past decade and in October I was in Kunar province. When you are in Kabul sitting there eating your food and you hear an explosion you say, “oh it was the Pakistanis, it was a suicide attack.” I think this is a scapegoat you know that’s how we deceive ourselves. There are many factors to Afghan conflict but the Afghans are the source of the problem. As long as we deny the realities of Afghan communities, the poverty, the divide, the political elite, it will get worse. I have traveled to all the provinces and I’ve seen firsthand development in Afghanistan. The Taliban are fighting and they may be a minority but their mentality is the majority of the country. That is one thing that I have learned working for the past decade in Afghanistan. So what I would say, even for one moment, imagine that there is no US troops in Afghanistan and even if there is a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government which is highly concerning that their authority, legitimacy, and their capacity. Can you imagine one day of peace for those in Kabul? I’m not very optimistic about that. We are raised in war and are very unfamiliar with peace so if we are going to take a step towards building sustainable peace, if we are fighting for 40 years, it may take a few more decades to learn how to coexist. The first step is for accepting the problem that, yes we are poor, we are illiterate, so we are divided. Let’s work together.

 

Audience Question:

Given that there are a crisis and stalemate, how can we come out of this crisis? 

 

Ahmad:

Yes. So how can we solve this crisis, do we see peace in the future, and did the United States miscalculate their strategy?

 

Landay:

Yes, we have made very serious mistakes. I think the original mistake was the fact that we invaded a second Muslim country before we had even been able to pacify the first one that invaded. The fact is that when the Bush Administration first went into Afghanistan, they went in with the wrong assumption. They went in with assumptions based on the Soviet experience, they hate foreigners, it’s the graveyard of invaders, we can’t stay very long. The only plan to stay wasn’t to still be there 18 years later.

The reality of the situation was that whereas in Iraq, we were not welcomed with flowers and sweets, in Afghanistan we were. So that I believe it was probably the first time in Afghan history that a foreign military power was welcomed in Afghanistan. The joy that I saw, and men going to the barbershop and having their beards shaved off, they were making satellite dish and tennis for satellite television out of flattened coca-cola cans. You could go down to the market and you can see these coca-cola cans antennas for satellite dishes that were being made. Music, Hindi movies, it was quite unbelievable and the United States wasted that opportunity. Now, had we not invaded Iraq, would we still be in Afghanistan 18 years later? I do not know? But I do know that the chances of succeeding there would have been a lot higher had we not invaded Iraq, had we not diverted money, soldiers, time, sweat, and blood to that other conflict. Also, had the United States military adhered to the counterinsurgency doctrine that was developed by General Petraeus which we never did, we never adhered to that strategy. Perhaps things would be different. So if you want to talk about the basic mistakes that the United States made, that’s it.

 

Ashna: 

The idea that we hate each other, that’s the element, not the cause, and that’s why it costs more. I was six years old when the Russians bombed my house, and I was in the house. We escaped from there and then we migrated elsewhere. So the Mujahideen can be mobilized by someone in the same format that’s against the US We cannot just ignore this fact, okay, that’s what happened. All these, the backbone of the group comes from the one source because they use social media, they use small groups, and they’re injecting ideas. The bad thing is, educated people are following this. They don’t understand coexistence, there are more benefits. Most people are really really brainwashed by these. They were mobilized by someone else and I accept that responsibility for this part and this comes back to the civil society. I can point back to Mr. Shafi, as an example, he went home, he worked, he also traveled. The same mental forces in any part of the country the same message comes to him too. Don’t put all the blame on Afghans, because this is very imposed and we have to accept this. You are saying that if you leave it to the Afghans themselves, the war is far.

 

Dr. Weinbaum 

The idea that if you leave it to the Afghans themselves and get rid of all this foreign influence it can be settled. I want to take you back to 1992 if there ever was a time here when the international community wiped its hands of Afghanistan and the Pakistani who thought they would be able to manipulate them. Remember, it couldn’t deliver with him. When he came back, he did what the Pakistanis found absolutely important, he said come to New Delhi and he said protect being against Pakistan. So the idea that if you simply leave it to the Afghans themselves they’ll sort things out, I think history has indicated it has not been pleasant. I think that if there is to be any kind of enforced negotiations it has to be enforceable, there has to be an outside element. I don’t know where that’s coming from, the US would be obvious but they are discredited now with good reason.

What would have happened in 2014 had Terry not gone, I ask you what would have happened, I don’t know, but it wouldn’t have been pleasant. So there has to be mediation and intercession by outside parties because that’s the only way in which we can see there has been any kind of if not resolution, at least a modus vivendi where people can manage to limit themselves for a while. But don’t forget that from ‘92 to ‘96, this was the Afghans destroying themselves, nobody else could take credit for that and that was of the worst kind because as you know, Kabul was virtually untouched during the jihad but destroyed by Afghans themselves. From survivors or artillery into the city, that was there. That wasn’t the Pakistani service, that was this guy who wanted very much to be part of the system except he wanted to be the right, and that’s the difference between them and the Taliban and that stupid deal. When he couldn’t do anything from the outside, he was let inside so he can cause trouble and that’s exactly what he’s proven to do and his forces who agreed to disarm when they came in have never disarmed before. But the US we’re behind that agreement and it would have never taken place without them.

 

Ahmad:

That is one of the problems, Pakistan always gets upset. If we could end this with a final thought, what can we expect in the future? What next?

 

Landay:

I’m gonna repeat myself. I don’t know. After 2016, I’m certainly not going to make any predictions about where this is going. I shouldn’t say that actually since I’ve covered Afghanistan you can’t make any predictions and I agree with Marvin. There has to be outside mediation, I don’t know where you’re going to get any kind of enforcement but it’s up to the Afghans themselves to make the compromises that are required to end this. 

 

Ashna:

I believe that when the Afghan people will have the president he will sign half of some, not the full, agreement within 3-4 weeks between the US and Taliban. That would be the green light because there is a lot of confusion in this because the Taliban set conditions of not meeting with the government, so that’s difficult. How would you fix this element? This is completely new for Khalilzad – they thought okay we will pick the date for you, and limit the troops and reduce the violence, and everything will be okay together. But, the third element is completely different and needs to be addressed another time. People have to have their own president, which makes it more difficult because of what happened with Bagram. 

 

Dr. Weinbaum:

I just think it’s very healthy. First, to have these kinds of discussions and even when we differ I think we learn from the experience. We learn about others and it forces us to examine what we ourselves think. You can’t come in close-minded here and it’s forums like this that make it possible.

 

Ahmad: 

Well, thank you. I want to say thank you all for coming here. I know it was such short notice, we have a big crowd so thank you for coming. If the Taliban keep going with that game theory and killing left and right, they are going to lose credibility. We have the foreign factors laid out perfectly and the domestic factor. We have transnational terrorism. So, the Afghans are going to continue to hope and struggle for peace.  I think there’s no easy fix. The U.S. didn’t lose, they didn’t win, Afghans didn’t win, Afghans are struggling just like the picture here, Afghans are concerned. Please follow Risetopeace.org for more. Thank you so much for coming. 


Rise to Peace hosted the Afghanistan 2020 panel discussion at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University on December 11, 2019. 

China terrorism

The Global War on Terror framework and its relationship with the Chinese model of counter-terrorism.

The narrative of the ‘Global War on Terror’ – famously coined by the Bush administration post 9/11 now appears to be adopted by the Chinese government to legitimize its campaign against terrorism in Central Asia and abroad.

In response to growing international criticism against China’s counter-terrorist policies (in particular, the use of training centers for alleged re-education purposes, the issue of mass state surveillance and the restrictions on religious practice and customs which include a ban on “abnormal” beards and wearing of veils) in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Chinese officials often liken such policies to the American ‘style’ of counter-terrorism.

For example in 2018, amidst a barrage of accusations of human rights abuses and calls for targeted sanctions, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States defended the use of vocational training centers, denying the claim that such centers were used for detention purposes, but instead for the rehabilitation of individuals deemed vulnerable to extremism, alongside improving their employment opportunities by honing their vocational skills.

More recently, the leaked government documents known as the ‘Xinjiang papers’ highlight the same thing, revealing that some officials held the perspective that recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, in particular, were a result of policies that favored “human rights above security” and the Chinese President, Xi Jinping allegedly encouraged the emulation of certain features of the American ‘War on Terror’ campaign. 

Background and historical context

Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism

In response to unrest within the XUAR, the Chinese government has periodically implemented counter-terrorism initiatives at both national and provincial levels. These measures fall under the wider umbrella of the nationwide Strike Hard (da fa) campaign with the main objectives of safeguarding the region’s peace and stability against what the central government has called the ‘Three Evil Forces’; which are separatism, religious extremism, and terrorist forces.

Key policies passed under this campaign include the 2016 National Counter-Terrorism Law, the 2016 National Cyber Security Law and the 2017 National Intelligence Law. From 2016 onwards under this security ‘package’, the Communist Party Secretary for the XUAR, Chen Quango, introduced a number of new security measures, most of which are heavily reliant on advanced technology such as facial recognition and biometric data.

Such security measures introduced in Xinjiang have been widely criticized by the international community, with the most prominent issue being the use of vocational training centers – as it stands, access for foreign observers to the XUAR is highly restricted, hindering the possibility of an independent and impartial assessment of conditions in the training centers.

In 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern over reports of the detention of over a million ethnic Uighurs and testimonies from various sources allege the use of systematic torture and complete physical and mental control over individuals in the centers, with claims of indefinite detention, restricted communication to family members and attempts of ideological transformation. 

The extent of China’s ‘Global War on Terror’

These counter-terror policies are not exclusive to the XUAR, as similar practices have been observed in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Globally, there are extensive discussions regarding the extent to which China can export its model of counter-terrorism, often discussed through the lens of its intercontinental investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

As Chinese commercial interests abroad continue to expand, so too does its vulnerability to international terrorism, with notable cases of abduction and deadly attacks against Chinese citizens occurring in Pakistan and a number of African countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

In the context of the BRI, not only does China have a justification for a more global campaign against terrorism, but it also has the necessary means to forge alliances with countries that share similar security concerns. In 2019, the United States’ proposal to withdraw its troops from African countries was met with concerns regarding a potential reduction in counter-terrorism collection efforts in the region, as the drawback would essentially further open up space for China, who is already a key player in the region. 

The exportation of the Chinese model of counter-terrorism abroad raises some important points for further consideration. For one, there is the prevailing criticism by various states and international organizations, such as the United Nations, that China’s domestic counter-terrorist approach constitutes significant human rights violations.

Prominent Chinese researchers have already argued that external counter-terrorism policies would not be “unilateral but must be in collaboration with the local government”, raising concerns not only about a disregard for human rights under the guise of counter-terrorism but also on the overall efficacy of China’s global counter-terrorism campaign.

The Uighur predicament has been used in Islamist extremist propaganda, with videos and articles featuring calls for solidarity with Muslims in China and threats for revenge against Chinese actions in Xinjiang. Like the problems that plague Western counter-terror efforts, growing disenfranchisement and resentment amongst the Uighurs within China’s borders only serves to provide ammunition for external terrorist organizations, casting doubt on the overall effectiveness of the Chinese approach to international terrorism.

It remains to be seen how China envisions its ultimate foreign counter-terrorist campaign, but what is evident is that human rights must be at the forefront of such strategies to maximize efficacy to ameliorate the impact of the “self-fulfilling terrorism prophecy”.  


Alya Mohamed Roslan, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow, Rise to Peace 

Could Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani’s Death Open the Pandora’s Box in the Middle East?

A US drone strike near Baghdad airport killed the Commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Qassem Soleimani and the Deputy Commander of Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This move — more important than the assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi yet of similar significance to the dispatch of the former leader of al Qaeda Osama bin Laden —  is a clear sign that the United States raised its bid in ongoing Iran-US tensions. It will be a defining movement in the future of Middle Eastern affairs which could trigger other events in the region.

Escalating Tensions

The escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran had three critical breaking points in recent weeks: attacks by the PMF against US bases in Iraq and Syria, US air attacks against the PMF bases, and the showdown by Iran and the PMF in an attempted raid against the US Embassy in Baghdad. It was reminiscent of the 1979 US Embassy takeover in Tehran as these protesters attempted entry as well.

The international community was surprised by the Trump’s administration bold response to the escalating crisis in Iraq. Soleimani had been the commander of the Quds Force — an operational extension of the IRGC that has been responsible for the Iranian irregular warfare in the Middle East — therefore he was not a common general in the Iranian military.

Quds Force has been very active in training, equipping, and operationally supporting Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as well as bringing other proxy extensions from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Throughout the years, the Quds Force developed country-specific strategies to expand and deepen the Iranian sphere of influence in the Middle East. For instance, while Quds Force has been militarily active in Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq, their agents have recruited Turkish citizens in Turkey to target intellectuals, journalists, and Iranian opposition figures within the country.

Policy Shift and Regional Implications

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent statements regarding his efforts to build a common understanding against Iranian aggression followed by these developments are indicative of other measures and a major turning point from a passivist Middle East policy of the US.

This policy shift places substantial pressure on Qatar and Turkey; states with close relationships with Iran. The ‘either you are with us or against us’ paradigm would be enforced on these two countries and force others to make certain quick decisions about continuance of their relationships with Iran. Under such pressure, Qatar will most likely return to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) orbit, but Turkey’s choice would be more difficult given the depth of Iranian involvement in Turkey. Not only has Turkey deepened its relationship with Iran, but it openly targeted Saudi Arabia by aligning with both Iran and Qatar. Under US pressure, Ankara and Erdogan would make concessions with Saudi Arabia, and more importantly, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In this case, Erdogan’s position would be weaker though.

Soleimani had been one of the most critical individuals in Iran’s regional affairs. The other individuals killed in the strike represent the main goal of the US decision: a policy that targets Iran’s proxy operations in the entire region. Arrests of PMF leadership also indicate that targeting Soleimani is part of a larger operation to weaken Iranian affiliated groups in Iraq.

Whether these operations spur tensions or cause larger-scale military confrontations between the US and Iran remains to be seen. Iran managed to expand and deepen its footprint in Iraq and Syria where thousands of members of different proxy groups have been established over the years. Soleimani’s  death could have ramifications in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen, but more importantly, it is a very critical threshold in the future of the Middle East.

American interests in the region, such as military bases in the Gulf states, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, as well as several embassies could be directly targeted by Iran or indirectly by its proxies in a more probable scenario. Key actors in the case of a military confrontation include Lebanese Hezbollah, PMF, and other groups who have been recruited from Afghanistan and even Pakistan.

Clearly, targeting Soleimani is an attempt by the US administration to show the Iranian regime that the US military could retaliate and undertake more serious initiatives against Tehran’s aggression. Nonetheless, in response, if Iran chooses to escalate the conflict, the entire region would be affected, and Israel could be one of the primary targets.

The Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure policy’ aimed to corner the regime in Iran so that Tehran makes concessions in regard to its nuclear ambitions. These recent incidents could be considered the peak of maximum pressure policy. In a way, such a policy is also being tested, and the outcome will be revealed in coming days or weeks.

Qassem Soleimani was a point man of the regime in Iran and Ali Khamenei. By targeting him the US administration has sent a very clear message to the regime and its proxies in the Middle which could open the Pandora’s box in the region.

The Afghanistan Papers: What Do They Mean for Peace in the Region?

A recent Washington Post investigation — three years in the making — exposed a multitude of falsified positive views and deceptive action directly taken by the United States government and military officials over the course of the war in Afghanistan. Hundreds of interviews with US officials led to condemnation of the war which has cost 3804 Afghan civilian lives in 2018 alone.

“For 18 years, America has been at war in Afghanistan. As part of a government project to understand what went wrong, a federal agency interviewed more than 400 people who had a direct role in the conflict. In those interviews, generals, ambassadors, diplomats and other insiders offered firsthand accounts of the mistakes that have prolonged the war. 

The full, unsparing remarks and the identities of many of those who made them have never been made public — until now. After a three-year legal battle, The Washington Post won release of more than 2,000 pages of “Lessons Learned” interviews conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Those interviews reveal there was no consensus on the war’s objectives, let alone how to end the conflict.” 

In summary, the government deceived American citizens about the progress made during the war. Bob Crowley, a retired Army colonel who served in Kabul from 2013 to 2014 stated,  “The strategy became self-validating. Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible.” The fact that this was allowed to continue covertly for an extended period of time reflects the well-planned nature of the disinformation campaign, especially if one considers its effectiveness through three separate presidencies.

Setting aside the inevitable investigations and questions that will follow, it is important to assess the impact this exposure will have on the ongoing peace process in Afghanistan. This exposure will affect negotiations between the US and the Taliban, bilateral relations between Kabul and Washington and public opinion of the US within Afghanistan.

The Trump administration will need to make changes to their Afghan strategy in an attempt to rectify these mistakes. Conversely, they could seek to divert attention away from the Afghan Papers, but this will have a particularly strong effect on how the peace process unfolds. Speculation in the media that President Trump plans to withdraw additional troops from Afghanistan may be ‘part of the plan’, but it may be a rushed decision to avoid further public criticism. A quick withdrawal will have a major impact on Afghan security and regional stability. It is important that all parties put security above politics, especially in such a fragile region.

In an effort to keep the documents classified, the US State Department argued that the release of portions of certain interviews could jeopardize negotiations with the Taliban and therefore jeopardize efforts to end the war. The Washington Post, however, argued that these documents were classified only after the Post pushed to have them published, indicating a blatant attempt to cover up mistakes.

Despite differences of opinion over the reasons behind the secrecy classification, the release of the ‘Afghanistan Papers’ will undoubtedly influence negotiations with the Taliban, an organization that has been testing the US government long prior to the talks. For example, in an effort to demonstrate strength, the Taliban carried out an attack that killed a US soldier in September. Washington deemed this a step too far and consequently compelled Trump to cancel a secret Camp David meeting. The re-establishment of peace talks — after what can only be described as a cooling-off period — exemplifies that each side pushes the other over acceptable terms and those deemed unreasonable to accept.

Statements within the Afghan Papers that accuse the US of uncertainty and a lack of control over their Afghan strategy gives leverage to the Taliban; an organization so eager to gain power over an enemy that they have struggled to match on the battlefield.

“Was al-Qaeda the enemy, or the Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? What about the Islamic State and the bewildering array of foreign jihadists, let alone the warlords on the CIA’s payroll? According to the documents, the U.S. government never settled on an answer.”

Thus, whilst the US may have tried to keep the Afghanistan Papers hidden for security reasons or to save face, it will undoubtedly affect peace talks with The Taliban as both sides take time to reassess their respective strategies based on the new information available.

In addition to negotiating with the Taliban, the US strategy for peace in Afghanistan has revolved around the development of a close relationship with the Afghan government built on financial and military support. The Afghan government sat patiently at a distance whilst the US negotiated with the Taliban, however, accusations of fraud and corruption within the Afghanistan Papers will provoke the Afghan government to reassess their relationship with the US at the very least.

Sustainable peace in Afghanistan is distant, but it is achievable. It is integral to maintain effective security whilst at the same time allowing Afghanistan to take control of their peace process. As the US slowly relinquishes its duties in the region, they must reassess the outcome of their withdrawal and make assurances that policies and resources remain in place to ensure peace prevails at every opportunity.

Lessons from Tetsu Nakamura’s Legacy in Afghanistan

Tetsu Nakamura, a Japanese doctor who devoted his career to improving the lives of Afghans, was killed in an attack in eastern Afghanistan.

A biography published by the Ramon Magsaysay Award described how Nakamura was initially drawn to the Afghan-Pakistani border region in pursuit of his interest in entomology and posed the question, “Who would have thought that beetles and butterflies would lead a Japanese doctor to his life’s work? only for current circumstances to stir new queries. What can we learn from the life of Tetsu Nakamura? How can his example help us find peace in Afghanistan?

Leaders from around the world condemned the attack. President Ashraf Ghani expressed “utmost grief and sorrow” and ordered his security agencies to find the perpetrators. Nakamura’s death is a great loss to Afghans that lived in regions touched by his work. Hamidullah Hashemi, a resident of Khewa, stated, “I feel like they have killed my closest family member. They left us without Nakamura.”

Nakamura opened multiple clinics to provide medical service in Nangarhar Province. He identified malnutrition as a major cause for the health issues in the region. As a result of this, he broadened the scope of his work into agriculture and irrigation, such as his focus on building canals in eastern Afghanistan. Whilst discussing his irrigation projects, Nakamura stated, “A hospital treats patients one by one, but this helps an entire village…I love seeing a village that’s been brought back to life.” His work indeed brought villages back to life. Reuters reports:

 “some 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of the desert has been brought back to life, making Nakamura such a widely revered figure in Afghanistan that earlier this year he became the first foreigner awarded Afghan citizenship.”

Nakamura’s influence means that communities now face a lesser risk of certain diseases that ravaged the region in comparison to his arrival in 1984. The infrastructure set in place by Nakamura’s projects remains a valuable asset that Afghans will continue to use to tackle malnutrition and other health issues in the region.

His life’s work is a lesson for other stakeholders in Afghanistan. While leaders speculate about the perpetrators and security forces investigate the attack, the importance of Nakamura’s lasting legacy and how it ensures a better standard of living for generations to come must be understood. The New York Times reports:

“The killing (of Nakamura) came on a day the State Department announced its peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, was on the road again after President Trump declared the resumption of talks with the Taliban, which he had called off in September. After meeting Afghan leaders in Kabul, Mr. Khalilzad was set to travel to the Qatari capital, Doha, to resume negotiations with the Taliban.”

It is essential that the United States take Nakamura’s work into account as they continue negotiations with the Taliban and the discussions over troop withdrawal. The United States must leave behind established infrastructure to ensure peaceful and effective governance.

Regional stability currently rests on the very fragile shoulders of US and Afghan security forces, therefore their withdrawal without the provision of necessary support may lead to violent instability. The US must ensure that its longest war ends peacefully.

Rise to Peace polls and interviews reveal that the majority of Afghans support a strong US presence in Afghanistan due to the fragility and controversial history of the Afghan government. However, it is important that Afghans rebuild and take control of their nation. Crucially, the US must continue to support Afghans in capacity building, education as well as the economy, so Afghans remain resilient against any extremist regimes that jeopardize the national security of Afghanistan.

Nakamura’s legacy, especially in Nangarhar, will remain an important reminder to the US and other stakeholders in Afghanistan that the creation of infrastructure allows Afghans to rebuild and achieve peaceful solutions.

President Trump resumed peace talks with the Taliban on his first trip to Afghanistan

President Trump recently travelled to Afghanistan for the first time and announced the resumption of peace talks with the Taliban just three months after he called them off. At Bagram Air Base, Trump told US troops that the Taliban “wants to make a deal very badly.”

“We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal, or we have a victory, and they want to make a deal very badly,” Trump said, “The Taliban wants to make a deal — we’ll see if they make a deal. If they do, they do, and if they don’t they don’t. That’s fine.

However, analysts are led to one key question: Is that what they really want?

In short, the Taliban do not want peace and their sole objective is an Islamic Emirate — a government-controlled by them and sponsored by radical actors with anti-liberal democratic philosophies. Women would not be permitted to study, work in the government nor engage in other social activities like journalism or singing under such a regime.

Simply put, the Taliban wants to instill a system of coercion and devoid of any development of Afghan society. They are capable of such an achievement as long as they have strong financial backing and hideouts to retreat to during the wider resistance to US and Afghan forces.

President Ashraf Ghani joined Trump in Bagram and emphasized: “if the Taliban are sincere in their commitment to reaching a peace deal, they must accept a ceasefire.” Further, the Afghan president said, “We also emphasized that for any peace to last, terrorist safe havens outside Afghanistan must be dismantled.”

Trump must stop legitimizing the Taliban if he has any hopes to end the United States’ longest war in Afghanistan. It is impractical to devote attention to the Taliban as they continue to engage in terrorism — which consequently augments their reputation — amidst the scenario where the Afghan government remains engaged in combatting them. As a result of this, the Taliban emerged as the key victor after nearly two years of peace talks and an unprecedented ceasefire in June 2018. The ceasefire meant little as the Taliban continued to target civilians and casualties tripled.

The Taliban continue to heighten their demands anytime the subject of peace talks is broached by U.S. officials. An increase in demands highlights the fact that the Taliban feel emboldened due to the attention focused on them. It is a similar case experienced by the Afghan government between the 1980s to the early ‘90s.

In the 1980s, Afghan mujahidin (fighters backed by the US to counter the Soviets) reportedly refused to speak with the communist Afghan government in favor of the Kremlin — the actor they considered to be key powerbroker. The mujahidin demanded that the Soviet Union withdraw and only at that point would they make peace with officials in Kabul. This was not the case and Afghan soon fell into civil war in 1992. The Taliban emerged in 1996 and continues to engage in this intra-Afghan conflict that escapes resolution. It is apparent that this scenario is essentially familiar, however now, the Taliban wants US troops to leave so that they can dismantle the Afghan government.

Therefore, the US must be hesitant in placing trust in the Taliban as history demonstrates ulterior motives are often at the core of such decisions. Going forward, the US should continue to apply pressure on the state-sponsors of terrorism outside Afghanistan by implementing the 2018 South-East Strategy while aiding the Afghan government.

Uncertainty is the best word to describe the current situation in Afghanistan. Any public perception of peace has been quashed by the Taliban’s terrorist attacks and ongoing peace talks. The US must choose its positions and policies carefully in regard to Afghanistan as it would be detrimental for Washington to be manipulated by the Taliban.


Ahmad Shah Mohibi is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi
Trump

Trump’s Visit to Afghanistan and a Revival of Peace Talks

On November 28, President Donald Trump paid a special Thanksgiving visit to American troops stationed in Afghanistan. It marked his first trip to the country amidst a period of recent developments, including a prisoner swap with the Taliban.

Could Trump’s surprise appearance signal positive developments in the Afghan peace process and progress towards a future resolution, despite stalled talks and sense of hopelessness?

A recent poll conducted by Rise to Peace revealed that respondents did not consider the prisoner swap as an important factor in any further peace negotiations. This result likely stems from the abrupt end of productive peace talks in early September. However, as Thursday’s visit demonstrated, an opportunity for a negotiated peace settlement remains.

“We will see if the Taliban wants to make a deal. If they do, they do. If they don’t they don’t. We were getting close” Trump stated.

Trump’s visit follows unofficial talks in Doha where Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander, told TOLOnews that discussions began, but “official negotiations were not underway like they were in the past.” Despite the secrecy of the talks and lack of formality in the revival of the process, Trump’s optimism suggests that negotiations will continue.

“The Taliban wants to make a deal,” he told troops stationed at Bagram Airbase.

Whilst in Afghanistan, Trump said he hopes to reduce the number of troops to 8,600 from the current 14,000. This will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the morale of Afghan security forces who rely on US support in the region.

Trump also met with President Ghani and confirmed the potential revival of peace negotiations. However, it was unclear whether the Afghan government would be involved in the resumption of peace talks.

As long as the Taliban and the Afghan government are unable to hold bilateral talks, the US will remain a key player in the peace negotiations. This complicates the process. Firstly, the intervention of foreign actors means that negotiations will no longer be intra-Afghan, but rather focus on ending the war.

It is unsurprising that Trump wants to make good on his promise to bring his troops home, but what does this mean for the Afghan government that struggles to counter the Taliban militarily even with US support?

In conclusion, as long as the peace talks remain informal or ‘secret’, Afghans will continue to be skeptical of the negotiations. Whilst the US will no doubt be looking to bring its troops home, Afghanistan is facing a period of great uncertainty, especially with the fragility surrounding the September 2019 elections.

Support for Afghan security forces will remain integral to the maintenance of peace in the region, even after talks are complete. Thus, if the Taliban remain unwilling to accept anything apart from a total withdrawal of American troops, the potential for successful peace negotiations slips away.

Afghanistan

An Afghanistan peace might be in reach, after all

It is a rational assumption that President Trump is likely to resume peace talks in Afghanistan after comments made during a Fox News radio interview. Trump said that the United States is “working on an agreement now with the Taliban” as well as “Let’s see what happens.”

The impetus towards this change of heart is rooted in recent events in which two university professors — an Australian and an American — were released this past week in exchange for the top three Taliban commanders, including Anas Haqqani. 

This past September, Trump abandoned the peace agreement with the Taliban due to the death of an American soldier and the high level of violence in Afghanistan. A subsequent United Nations meeting with the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and the latest hostage release compelled the US to pursue an agreement with the Taliban. 

Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander, told TOLOnews that “the talks right now are underway secretly and I think that they are in favor of Afghanistan.” He added, “based on my information, official negotiations are not underway like they were in the past.”

Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said that “this time, we are in agreement in the sense that our goals and priorities for peace are completely clear, with issues like a reduction of violence which will result in a ceasefire, and, ultimately, the start of direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.”

Any effort to reduce violence in Afghanistan is in the best interest of all sides of the conflict, including the Taliban. With or without a peace deal, no circumstances justify the targeting of civilians.

A Civilian’s View

While the secret meetings are taking place, Afghans are confused, discouraged, uncertain and lost over the future of their economically unstable and politically corrupt country. Key factors fomenting these sentiments include:

  1. a lack of election results for the presidential elections that occurred two months ago
  2. a peace process without a true destiny that only results in violence
  3. withdrawal of US troops and the potential development of Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorism and a battleground for regional rivalries.

Afghan citizens remain hopeful and willing to make sacrifices for peace as it has been the norm over the past 18 years. However, dealbreakers include political manipulation, destruction of schools, mosques and the lives of their children.

Political Complications

Taliban are not the only problem in Afghanistan; political, religious and influential leaders contribute to political instability as well. Historically and culturally, Afghans have been at war with each other as the result of toxic politics and ethnic conflicts provoked by foreign interventions continue into the present day. 

Afghan domestic rivalries remain a serious concern and an obstacle to peace. The incumbent Afghan government is posed to be the victor in the latest elections and consequently aim to extend terms. Conversely, opposition parties currently boycott the election counts, are engaged in building resiliency and regrouping for a possible state of emergency in case of any attempts by President Ghani’s team to shift results in their favor. 

Opposition candidates like Abdullah Abdullah (current Chief Executive of Afghanistan) and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (leader of Hizbi Islami party and presidential candidate) chastised the government over any efforts to meddle in the elections. In any case, political leaders will lead Afghanistan into a state of chaos jeopardizing any peace effort, and more critically, contributing to a strengthened Taliban.

A clear solution requires Afghan political leaders to commit to a unity government whilst combating transnational terrorism and making peace with the Taliban.

Lessons Going Forward

The Trump administration must heed lessons learned over the past 18 years. This includes the decisive support of a specific candidate and signing any peace agreement with the Taliban.

Two points are crystal clear and require serious attention. First, the Taliban are in a war for their reputation. They want to manipulate the situation to demonstrate a significant victory in their favor. The group continues to grow and regroup due to funds generated through drug trafficking, illicit resources and donations from foreign donors to ensure the continuation of ‘jihad.’

Making peace at the macro-level is good, but it is imperative to pay closer attention to the sources of Taliban financing. This is important to stop the insurgency from gaining strength and subsequently challenging local governments.

The likelihood of the peace process is significantly reduced if the Taliban continues to fund its operations through illicit means at the same time as it negotiates with the American and Afghan governments. It is vital to cut their finances (especially assistance from wealthy foreign donors) and block their drug trafficking routes.

As long as drug trafficking remains profitable, the Taliban will continue to buy weapons, ammunition and pay fighters, which leads to a continuous cycle of war. Bankrolling the Taliban means they will not enter peace process negotiations in good faith.

American interests must determine whether the Taliban’s true intentions are peace or manipulation of the entire situation to ensure a shift of dynamics for their benefit. A deal should be struck if Taliban leaders promise to reduce violence and leave civilians unharmed. At the same time, the Taliban must respect the peace talks process. They cannot engage in lethal attacks and expect to gain the support — and hearts — of Afghans and American negotiators. All sides of the conflict should work to build trust and confidence. 

Each side desires disparate conclusions. The Taliban wants all US troops to withdraw while Afghans want American forces to remain. This is a serious issue and it cannot be pushed aside. Afghanistan is not ready for the US to leave or simply trust the Taliban to rebuild Afghanistan through a negotiated settlement.

American support is required to ensure the country does not develop into a safe haven for terrorist organizations with a wider regional reach. Simply put, the US is the main actor in this situation — acknowledged by both the Afghan government and the Taliban — so they must stay as long as it takes and broker a deal.

Second, the US should be cautious about choosing a preferred president in the next Afghan government. Any attempt to support a specific candidate in the context of a fraudulent vote and with a negative reputation will further jeopardize the US presence in Afghanistan. It is best to gain respect while implementing US foreign policy focused on combatting terrorism, building Afghanistan and stabilizing the region. 

Realistically, 2 million votes are not a true representation of a 34 million population. US decision-makers must critically think about how they will manage scenarios in which the Afghan election committee announces one candidate as the victor, nationwide protests erupt or how to quell angry candidates with strong local ties. 

Bosnia Needs a Smooth Repatriation Process to Benefit Counterterror Efforts

Bosnia and Herzegovina initiated significant steps recently toward repatriation of its citizens accused of being foreign fighters in the Syrian conflict. Security matters in the small Balkan nation are already complex, however this development highlights the need for deradicalization and reintegration programs, especially in a state that struggles to achieve cohesive unity. It is only through these measures that Bosnia can challenge any new allegations that it is a key source of foreign fighter recruitment in Europe.

A Short History

Bosnia is no stranger to the sensationalism of violent acts for terrorist recruitment. Barbarous events committed against Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-95 Bosnian War — part of the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia — compelled those at home to take up arms, but provided terrorist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda, with an opportunity to usurp a domestic tragedy and turn it into a transnational recruitment campaign too. The foreign Bosnian mujahideen rose from this situation. Arrival of foreign fighters from the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and the United States provided violent extremists with a preliminary foothold in the Balkan nation.

For the most part, Bosnian Muslims were immune to radicalization efforts because they follow a tolerant version of Islam. However, those that were continued to espouse extremist interpretations of the Islamic faith. They retreated to mountain villages in the north and detached from wider Bosnian society. It is in these villages that children are instructed in an extremist curriculum organized by private entities, such as clerics linked to terrorist organizations.

These factors led Bosnia to be considered a terrorism hotspot in Europe and a security failure on the brink. For instance, French President Emmanuel Macron recently expressed, “If you’re concerned about this region, the first question is neither Macedonia, nor Albania, it’s Bosnia-Herzegovina. The time-bomb that’s ticking right next to Croatia, and which faces the problem of returning jihadists.”*

Leaving Home

By 2015, it was widely reported that approximately 300 Bosnian citizens left to fight in Iraq and Syria. This was an alarming number for a country with a relatively small population of 3.3 million. Analysts highlighted that this ranked the Balkan nation as the top exporter of foreign fighters per capita in Europe. Further, continued political instability and a government often in deadlock led many to believe that the security situation would quickly deteriorate in Bosnia — as well as the wider region — were these foreign fighters to return home.

Daesh recognized the unique qualities inherent in recruitment in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Villages that purposely disconnected with Bosnian society provided recruiters with ample young minds. Extremists breathed new life into past injustices of the Bosnian War to remind confused youth that only a caliphate would protect Muslims. Some religious leaders went so far as to command that defending the caliphate was the only proper path. Fighting for a greater cause offered young Bosniak men an occasion for “self-validation, self-respect, group belonging, and purpose” in a nation struggling with ethno-nationalist divisions, economic development and unemployment. Propaganda emerged that directly targeted Bosnian citizens to travel as foreign fighters or engage in attacks at home.

To further complicate matters, many women joined to become wives of fighters. Many claim that they were manipulated whilst others fully embraced the radical ideology of Daesh. Nonetheless, it is the children of these unions that are often considered to be the most problematic, as they are stateless, as well as raised in a questionable system of beliefs.

Countering the Threat

Despite these developments, it would be unfair to deduce that Sarajevo has done little to address extremism. The country passed legislation in the early 2000s that outlawed participation in terrorist organizations and their funding. In 2014, Bosnia amended its Criminal Code to extend prison sentences for those convicted of terrorist recruitment to ten years. Those condemned for fighting overseas faced a three-year prison term. It became the first country in Europe to implement such severe penalties.

Further, Bosnian intelligence and law enforcement agencies actively conduct investigations and raids on those suspected of engagement in terrorist organizations. Extremist clerics face conviction in the courts, as demonstrated by the widely covered trial of Husein ‘Bilal’ Bosnić. These combined efforts contributed to the collapse of the number of individuals that left Bosnia to fight in foreign lands by 2015.

Repatriation Problems

As it currently stands, approximately 260 Bosnian citizens remain in detention camps holding those that travelled to be a part of the Islamic State. On November 11, Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektić announced that Sarajevo would accept all confirmed Bosnian citizens accused of involvement with Daesh and initiate legal proceedings against them. The Bosnian initiative to transfer these individuals spurred Macron to utter his prior statement and highlighted the need for Sarajevo to pursue specialized deradicalization and reintegration schemes once again.

A number of issues must be addressed so that Bosnia can have a smooth repatriation process for all foreign fighters returning home. Such an effort would extend into a broader counter terrorism endeavor that would benefit the entire country. First and foremost, Sarajevo must invest heavily in the development of deradicalization programs, especially in the prison system. Foreign fighters that return home — without psychological supports — will find their kin with others incarcerated and consequently remain active in terrorist movements. Additionally, clerics that speak out against extremism should be supported, consulted and their messages applied to those seeking non-extremist interpretations of Islam in Bosnia. These are more common than the loud voices of extremism.

Reintegration programming is key, however Bosnia has not exerted much effort in regard to these objectives. The fact remains that even lengthy prison sentences come to an end and former fighters must reengage with the community around them. It is a difficult task, especially for youth, that entered the battlefield young and with little life experience. Therefore, reintegration of children of Daesh fighters and wives is of paramount need. They must be exposed to common social interactions, education and civic opportunities to ensure their futures do not involve extremist rhetoric or violence. It is the only way to quash such tendencies in the future.

In general, Bosnia and Herzegovina faces significant domestic problems separate from the return of foreign fighters. The country remains chronically economically stagnant, therefore social programming in this regard may not have been high on the agenda, especially under the spectre of weak government institutions. Nonetheless, it is palpable that Sarajevo comprehends the wider consequences of mishandling the repatriation of fighters, their wives and children. Rather than a focus on the issue being a ‘ticking time bomb’, it is best to present it as an avenue towards development of a strong deradicalization and reintegration strategy, with lasting effects.

  • While a contentious term, jihadist was kept to retain the integrity of the direct quote.

Was President Erdogan’s Visit to Washington D.C. a Success?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington D.C. last week received stanch opposition not only from the Kurds and pro-democracy groups in the United States, but also both aisles of the political parties in the US Congress.

The meeting between President Trump and Erdogan included several points of tension between the United States and Turkey: Ankara’s purchase of the S400 missile defense system from Russia; their suspension from the F-35 fighter jet program, military incursion into northeastern Syria; a federal court case against Halkbank (the Turkish state-owned bank) and a Congressional sanctions bill including investigation into Erdogan’s family assets.

Erdogan has a special interest in the case against the state-owned bank due to alleged involvement of his inner circle in the scheme. Halkbank “was charged … in a six-count Indictment with fraud, money laundering, and sanctions offenses related to the bank’s participation in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.”

Another obvious important agenda item was the Turkish military incursion and its implications on the future of the Kurds in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the region in general.

For Turkey, any form of Kurdish autonomy in Syria is considered an existential threat. For the United States, however, the Kurds are reliable allies in the fight against ISIL and their situation became one of the contested issues between Washington D.C. and Ankara. Erdogan pressed the position that the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) are the same and the United States should not be aligned with the ‘terrorists’.

Further, during the press conference, he tried to discredit the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Ferhat Abdi (a.k.a. Mazlum Konabe). By discrediting him, Erdogan aimed to discredit the PYD (offshoot of the PKK). This move aligned with the objectives of the Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria.

While Erdogan and Trump responded to questions from journalists, Erdogan explicitly criticized Trump and US officials for inviting Mazloum Kobane to the White House. Trump responded to Erdogan by stating “A lot of that is definition – what’s your definition of the various groups within the Kurds. You have various groups and some like them and some don’t.” He implicitly reaffirmed the US position that they consider the PYD very differently than the PKK.

In other words, Trump and the entire US administration have a consensus on the idea that the PYD is a legitimate actor and the sole representative of the Kurds in Syria. Mazloum Kobane and the PYD have now become more legitimate than ever in the eyes of the international community despite the objections of Erdogan and Turkey.

Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government push a narrative that was meant strictly for domestic consumption which created an opposite effect and elevated the PYD’s position. In fact, Turkey’s military incursion acted as catalyst for PYD’s legitimacy and popularity. Using the remnants of al Qaeda affiliated militants as Turkey’s proxies further damaged Turkey’s image in the international community. This had a detrimental effect because Turkish-backed forces have been accused of committing war crimes against civilians in northeastern Syria.

As discussed in my previous piece at Rise to Peace, the US withdrawal and the Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria have already created turmoil that has taken its toll. According to the Pentagon’s Inspector General report “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of US troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”

The S400 crisis is another major issue which has overarching implications, including Turkey’s future in NATO and Western Alliance. The purchase of the S400 defense system represents a blueprint of a major shift in Turkey’s axis. Seeing that there has been no concrete response from the United States, rather than considering it as a concerning issue, Erdogan’s leadership started to use the S400 crisis as leverage and exploit it against the United States and the European allies.

However, Erdogan is walking a thin line between the United States and Russia. While he is trying to contain the tensions with the United States, he also does not want to galvanize Russia which could become very costly for him domestically and internationally.

In his most recent remarks, Erdogan downplayed tensions between the United States and Turkey. He reiterated Trump’s critical position and emphasized the importance of US-Turkey relations. For Erdogan, his visit aimed to focus on “the areas of cooperation instead of deepening the chronic problems.” He also reemphasized that Turkey would not take a step back from the S400 deal with the Russians.

So, has Erdogan gained anything from his visit to Washington D.C.? The answer is a soft yes because he did not aim for complete success anyway. Erdogan’s most important gain was to have facetime with President Trump at White House which he desperately needed. In fact, Erdogan’s entire strategy relies on President Trump’s continuing courtship.

Turkey claims that neither Russia nor the United States kept their promises and threatens to expand its area of operation in northeastern Syria. Such an attitude would again create the opposite effect which would bring Russia and the United States against Turkey. In any case, the worst scenario could be deepening instability in the region in which ISIL benefits.

As for the Kurds in Syria, Erdogan’s visit confirmed that US support is firm and will continue notwithstanding the strong objections from Turkey. While concerns over ISIL resurfacing in Iraq and Syria are rising, Turkey’s ability to maneuver and pressure the Kurds will weaken.