[Interview] Afghanistan at the Crossroads

After more than twenty years of war, the rival sides in Afghanistan now have an opportunity to settle the conflict. The Western-backed government in Kabul is being urged to hold direct talks with its enemy, the Taliban, just as NATO and UN forces prepare to withdraw from the region.

This leaves a tantalising prospect for peace. But other countries, including Pakistan, Iran and Russia, have been accused of supporting the Taliban.” And so far, there’s no promise that the rival sides are prepared to negotiate a compromise.

The Kootneeti’s Kavita Sewda has been discussing the issue with BBC Pashto Radio Editor, Dr Dawood Azami.

Kavita: It’s been alleged that Russia has been offering money in the form of bounties to Taliban-linked militants to target US troops in Afghanistan. Why is Russia doing that?

Dr Dawood Azami: The claims that a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants in 2019 for killing US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan were made in the American press quoting unnamed US officials. We have not seen the evidence if Russia has really done this. Both Russia and the Taliban have categorically denied these allegations and the US officials have said they were investigating the issue further. If it was really the case, then perhaps Russia might have wanted to revenge the US and NATO for the harm it feels it has received over its actions in Ukraine and its role in Syria and elsewhere. Or it may have wanted to put more pressure on the US or to keep the Western alliance more engaged in Afghanistan. But it is generally seen as an extension of the US-Russia rivalry and their strategic competition for more influence in the region.

Although the evidence about Russian bounties has not been made public, it is clear that Moscow has improved its links with the Afghan Taliban over the past few years. Russia has also made it clear that it wants the end of  Western military and strategic presence in its neighbourhood.

Here, the goals of the Afghan Taliban, Russia and several other key players in the region converge, in that they want the US and NATO forces to leave Afghanistan. Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan are against a permanent or long-term US/NATO military presence in Afghanistan and want the US and NATO to withdraw their troops from there but in a responsible way, that doesn’t create a security vacuum.

Russia says it wants to play a constructive role to end the conflict in Afghanistan. It has hosted a number of meetings about the Afghan peace process and invited some of the key players, including the Taliban representatives, to Moscow. So, it is in Russia’s interest to see a peace deal which will end the US/NATO military presence in Afghanistan.  It is also important to note that the allegations about the Russian bounties are mainly about 2019. So, many things have changed since then. The US and Taliban signed a peace deal in February 2020 which says that the US and NATO will withdraw all of its forces within fourteen months.

Kavita: What do you think the position of the United States is at the moment?

Dr Dawood Azami: The United States has realised that the war in Afghanistan is not yielding the intended benefits and that there is no military solution to the conflict. The original aim of the US military intervention was to eliminate Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Instead, what we have seen over the past few years, is that although those groups have been weakened and disrupted, new groups have emerged, such as ISIS and many other smaller groups. 

The US wants to end this war and focus more on great power competition especially its competition for global dominance with China and Russia. The Afghan peace process has now reached a key stage, which is called the intra-Afghan dialogue which means the Taliban and the Afghan government talking about reaching a political settlement.

Kavita: What are the chances that the former enemies, the Taliban and US-backed Afghan government, will be able to reach a deal?

Dr Dawood Azami: Well, the problem is that they haven’t been able to start a dialogue yet. The US and the Taliban signed their peace deal on 29 February which says that the intra-Afghan talks would start on 10 March. But several issues including disagreements about the prisoners’ swap have delayed that process. When the Taliban and the Afghan government as well other political parties and civil society groups do finally sit together as part of the next stage of the peace process, they will also discuss the kind of political system they want and the amendments they believe are needed to be made in the constitution.

The Taliban might want to re-establish an Islamic emirate. But the government side wants to maintain the Islamic republic. So, when they sit together, there must be some sort of concession from both Afghan sides. But the challenge now is to start the dialogue. It’s up to the two sides to negotiate which option is best for Afghanistan and what compromises need to be made to reach peace in the country. 

One scenario could be an interim or caretaker government and then the formation of an independent election commission and a fresh election. Another option could be that this government completes the remaining four years of its term before elections are held. The third option could be for the Taliban to join the current government. There are several options both sides can consider and discuss. 

Kavita: Being a multicultural country, Afghanistan has its own ethnic fault lines. What is the nature of ethnic strife in the country, for example, Pashtun vs Hazara? Also, the Taliban is not a homogeneous group and its members come from different ethnic backgrounds. How do ethnic differences affect current issues in the region? 

Dr Dawood Azami: Ethnicity is not the biggest factor. There are many countries in the region that are multi-ethnic. Afghanistan is not an exception. Look at India, Pakistan and Iran. In some countries, there are separatist groups which are campaigning to have their own separate states. This is not really the case in Afghanistan.  

The best thing is for representatives from all sides to sit together and reach a conclusion that is fair and just from the perspective of all ethnic groups. So, again I say the priority should be to end the conflict because for as long as it continues, there will be more injustices. 

Kavita: There is a possibility that if no agreement is reached, the US might pull out without a peace deal. Would this leave a power vacuum in which militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State would thrive?

Dr Dawood Azami: Yes, you are right. There could be a power vacuum, so the US and the NATO forces should withdraw responsibly and there should be a political settlement before the withdrawal of foreign forces is completed. At least there should a permanent ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan government. 

When the two Afghan sides reach a settlement and make peace with each other, they then should be able to handle the spoiler groups like Daesh or ISIS which is not a major player in Afghanistan. Yes,  ISIS has sleeper cells, it has fighters and members in certain parts of the country but it is a much smaller group in comparison to the Taliban. The number of Taliban fighters is said to be more than sixty thousand. But ISIS has only an estimate three to four thousand active members in Afghanistan. The Taliban has already promised in their agreement with the US that they won’t allow any group such as Al-Qaeda or Daesh to use Afghan territory and pose a threat to other countries.

The main problem is the conflict which has given birth to a number of problems including narcotics and has made it easier for groups like ISIS to operate in the country.  There are many parts of the country which are outside the control of the Afghan government so militant groups can hide there and establish their safe havens. And a lot of the government resources are diverted towards the conflict with the Taliban. 

On the other hand, the Taliban are also fighting on many fronts including the Afghan government and ISIS. So, if the two major players in the Afghan conflict – the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban – join hands after the peace deal, they could handle  Daesh and other violent extremist groups.

Kavita: What about the trade in illegal drugs?

Dr Dawood Azami: Drug production has increased in Afghanistan over the past two decades and this problem is directly linked to the ongoing conflict. The issue of drugs should become part of the peace talks with the Taliban. The Taliban banned poppy cultivation in 200o  and the group could use its power and influence not to allow the production and trafficking of drugs in areas it controls. In general, peace in Afghanistan should be incentivised because the region and the rest of the world will also benefit from it in many ways including the reduction and/or elimination of drugs and terrorist activities. But for that to happen, state actors involved in Afghanistan, especially regional countries, need to use their influence on various Afghan actors to make the necessary compromises and reach a political settlement soon. Otherwise, another round of chaos will most probably be more dangerous and devastating both for the Afghans and the rest of the world.

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Dr Azami was among the panellists discussing Afghanistan’s future at a webinar organised by the Democracy Forum, held on July 20th, 2020. This interview is published in association with the Democracy Forum and Asian Affairs magazine. 

Edited by Duncan Bartlett – Editor Asian Affairs Magazine

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Kavita Sewda

Kavita Sewda is a Research Associate at The Kootneeti

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