Healing the wounds of Kandahar and Kabul: Searching for Peace in Afghanistan
Usanas Foundation organized a webinar on the topic ‘Healing the wounds of Kandahar and Kabul: Searching for Peace in Afghanistan’ on 30th October.
Webinar No. 12
By Usanas Foundation
Afghanistan has been called the ‘Graveyard of Empires’. In the 19th century, the British tried to control it and failed. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union tried to impose its will on Afghanistan and was ruined economically and politically. Similarly, it has become a sore in the eyes of the United States of America in the 21st century as the US tries to find the elusive peace for Afghans. The recent US-Taliban agreement is one of the last efforts to bring peace in the region. But will it succeed? The Usanas Foundation organized a webinar on the topic ‘Healing the wounds of Kandahar and Kabul: Searching for Peace in Afghanistan’ on 30th October. The session was moderated by the CEO of Usanas Foundation Mr. Abhinav Pandya
Amb. Amar Sinha
Ambassador Amar Sinha shed light on the agreement signed between the US and Taliban and how it has brought Afghanistan a silver lining of peace in years. This is the first-time a certain set of conditions have been placed between the US and Taliban before the Intra -Afghan talks could commence. Such negotiations are made possible because the US and Taliban's interests have coincided in terms of reducing US troops in Afghanistan. After a long 19-year protracted war, the US looks for a graceful exit from the region. Future reduction of US troops is condition-based to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and embrace the peace process. Unfortunately, the agreement has an inbuilt tolerance for violence against Afghans and zero commitment has been given by Taliban to reduce violence particularly towards the Afghan government. The Taliban has justified violence on the pretext of removing foreign troops from Afghan soil and since it considers the Afghan government as a proxy of Foreign powers, the struggle is continued until they are uprooted and an Islamic Emirate is established. The support for an Islamic Emirate is less than 10 percent according to a survey conducted by the Heart of Asia, an initiative of Republic of Afghanistan and Republic of Turkey. With US announcement to negotiate with Taliban there was a mad rush among other countries to reconcile with Taliban. So instead of Taliban reconciling with the Afghan government, it is the Afghan government that looks weak and hollow in the agreement which was finalized at Doha. Amb. Sinha believes that most Afghans want Taliban back but not the Talibani leaders with the same religious fervor. Afghanis also want the Republican system to continue which could be assured by external powers. The consensus among stakeholders is that there is a need to make Taliban accountable and honest in its approach. E.g. Taliban gave assurances to US that they have cut ties with Al-Qaeda which is not true as a lot of financial transactions have taken place between these two groups. The historical relationship on the other hand has strengthened. The agreement also does nothing to make Taliban cut links from its support groups outside Afghanistan. By leaving out Taliban’s rogue friendship with ISIS and Al Qaeda unchecked peace would be elusive and a burden on Afghan government. It seems more like a US withdrawal agreement from Afghanistan than a peace agreement. In the end, Amb. Sinha was not pessimistic but also not overly optimistic about the peace deal.
Dr. Michael Rubin
Dr. Michael Rubin started by reminding an old Soviet joke about the negative definition of ‘optimism’ i.e. he was optimistic in the sense that things could always get worse for the US. Americans are inward-looking and tend to consider diplomacy against the backdrop of the American political calendar. American diplomacy with rogue regimes is more involved with the process than peace. The end goal is often lost in ensuring the continuity of the process. Examples are spread throughout history in the case of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea or the Islamic Emirates of Taliban. The US is willing to keep the diplomacy alive and willing to ignore that Taliban might not be sincere in the peace process. History is important in understanding Afghanistan as no precedent of negotiation exists with Afghanistan in modern times. But as US economy falters and the strategic cost of remaining in Afghanistan goes up it would be wishful for any American diplomat to say that financial commitments to Afghanistan will continue. The mood in Congress is sour and hopes for an early exit regardless of Trump or Biden administration. He also explained that for the Taliban, it’s difficult to cut links with Al Qaeda as it’s like cutting links with ‘brothers, fathers and cousins.’ The US has to recognize that the association will continue and there is an unlikelihood of certain promises to be kept. Countering Taliban's demand for expelling foreign fighters, he points out the Pakistani and Chechen fighters who are fighting from the side of Taliban should be excluded and sent back to their countries for the success of the peace process. Cracking down on Pakistan is important so that it could not inflame Taliban for its interests. The removal of Pakistan from ‘Major non-NATO ally’ and continuing its position in the Greylist in FATF is a step in the right direction. On the question of whether peace would be achieved Rubin bluntly says that US is prepared to leave a mess on India and Russia's hands. US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad says that Taliban has changed a lot and has become nationalist but the change has not been observed yet by Rubin. He concluded by observing that things could always go bad from the present situation.
Prof. Madhav Nalapat
Prof. Madhav Nalapat believes that history gets repeated more than once and Afghanistan has proved it. He broadened the scope of the argument beyond Afghanistan and discusses China’s involvement in the politics of the region. The Bush administration and 9/11 came as a godsend for China as US involvement in the area brought a lot of leverage for China and weakened the US in the long run. China became allies with Pakistan Army, befriended Turkey and Iran, and hence expanded its Central Asian outreach. Mr. Nalapat points out that US has got certain weaknesses towards Wahabism, they used it in Arab countries, used in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, etc. Now under Turkish President Erdogan, Wahabism has triumphed and so is US willing to negotiate with them for a peaceful solution. Signaling is important in diplomacy and US' act of leaving Kurdish fighters at the mercy of Turks despite Kurds being allies creates a trust deficit. It is unfortunate for US as it would be difficult for them to partner in Asia in the future. Similarly, the signaling of the agreement with Taliban is a rollback to Wahabism. Prof Nalapat does not support the deal with Taliban and calls it a disaster for Afghanistan. He believes that Afghanistan for a long time was a very moderate and tolerant country for a fair part of its history. Giving the reins to Taliban will push Afghanistan again into darkness. Given the chance, Afghan citizens do not want to go back to that misery under Taliban. He also believes that Taliban's linkages with Al Qaeda will not go away which would be a greater threat to the world. Pakistan Army has been instrumental in cultivating ties between these two groups and also rewarded for its nefarious activities. Under the Bush administration, Pakistan took undue advantage of the freehand it got in Afghanistan to strengthen its position. Clintons made the Taliban and trusted Pakistan and Trump seems to be repeating the same mistake. On India’s role in Afghanistan, Nalapat believes that India has always prioritized development, helping the Afghan government in the region, and will continue to do so as it has interests in peace in Afghanistan. India cannot be safe as long as Afghanistan is in turmoil and therefore India would have to take measures to ensure peace. Finally, he concluded that the peace agreement is a mistake and will be a disservice to the people of Afghanistan.
Q&A session followed with the panelists.
On the question of whether Americans leaving Afghanistan is a great opportunity for China, Prof Nalapat answered that China has played its game well and established friendly relations with Wahabis and would help them in achieving their goals. China is very friendly with Turkey and Iran and if they can’t be blamed for global jihadist activities, they are also not curbing them rather empowering countries who export terrorism.
On the question of Indian stakes in Afghanistan and India’s emerging security concerns in Afghanistan, Amb. Sinha explained that Taliban acts as a cheap option for the Pak army to wreak havoc in Afghanistan and India. The war would not have lasted 20 years if Americans had looked at the genesis and resources of Taliban itself. But during these years India has built its equities in Afghanistan and Taliban has recognized it. India’s development efforts have been applauded and Taliban has given reassurances to India. But India should take it with a pinch of salt and observe the situation. India also has to hold Pakistan responsible for the selfish meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs and ensure in the future that the Taliban could not be used against India in the future. Amb. Sinha also advocated for a strong central government in Kabul which would deny outside actors to play the state and create instability in the region.
Mr. Pandya asked Dr. Rubin about the strategic miscalculation of the US establishment in Afghanistan, failure to understand Pakistan’s true intentions, and Secondly what next should be the US policy towards China? Rubin claimed that US judgment was clouded by the Cold War-era trust between the US and Pakistan. The lobby of Pakistan was strong in the State Department as they became allies of the US against the War on Terror. It changed after the Abbottabad incident and the US has been drifting away since. Concerning China, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has broken the image and illusions that were associated with China in Washington. The United States is slowly recognizing that Pakistan has become a vassal state of China and would be no longer dependable if peace is to be ensured in the region.
On the question of an independent and assertive policy of India in Afghanistan, Amb Sinha answered that the US has been a stabilizing factor and India expected a systematic and organized withdrawal of US forces. Even though with the early exit, India has engaged US in the region by partnering in the Indo Pacific construct. In the case of the Taliban coming back to power and breaking rules of the agreement, US will pose greater trust in India this time so that regional peace is maintained.
- Ambassador Amar Sinha, Member, National Security Advisory Board, Former Envoy to Afghanistan
- Madhav Nalapat, Strategic Affairs Expert, Editorial Director, Sunday Guardian, and NewsX
- Michael Rubin, Former Pentagon Official, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the webinar belong to the panelists and not necessarily to the Usanas Foundation.