Is there a New Path to Peace in Afghanistan?
(February 23, 2021, Ambassador Ali Jalali)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Ambassador Ali Jalali served as Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Germany and designated Special Envoy to NATO. He served as Interior Minister from 2003-2005, overseeing the creation of a trained force of 50,000 Afghan National Police and 12,000 Border Police to work effectively in counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and criminal investigation.
He recently served as a Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University in Washington D.C. His most recent book is A Military History of Afghanistan from the Great Game to the Global War on Terror (2017). A former officer in the Afghan Army, Col. Jalali served as a top military planner with the Afghan Resistance (Mujahedin) following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
He graduated from high command and staff colleges in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.A published writer in three languages (English, Pashto, Dari/Farsi), Ali A. Jalali is the author of numerous books and articles on political, military and security issues in Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia. He is the author of The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War (2010).
Ali Jalali has taught at higher education institutions of Afghanistan and extensively lectured at U.S. National Defense University, U.S. Army War College, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the British Army Staff College, Camberley, England.
During his VOA career from 1982 to 2003, Jalali directed broadcasts in Pashto, Dari and Farsi (Persian) languages to Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan. As a journalist, he covered the war in Afghanistan (1982-1993) and the former Soviet Central Asia (1993-2000). He previously spoke to the Westminster Institute in 2019 on the subject of Is Peace Possible in Afghanistan? and in 2018 on the subject of Afghanistan: From the Great Game to the Global War on Terror.
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Bob Reilly, its director. In a deal with the Taliban made by the Trump administration one year ago this month, the United States promised a phased withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan so that by May 1 all foreign troops would be gone, including the remaining 2500 American servicemembers. The Taliban committed to starting peace talks with the Afghan government, which only just now resumed after having been canceled in January. The Taliban also pledged to end attacks on American forces and to publicly renounce all ties to Al Qaeda and other extremist groups.
However, the U.S. Treasury noted last month that Al Qaeda is “gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection.” The U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told NATO ministers that, “the United States will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan that puts their forces or the alliance’s reputation at risk.”
A congressionally-mandated Afghan Study Group (ASG) final report was issued this month by the U.S. Institute of Peace. Dr. Ali Jalali was a senior adviser for the report. He is a distinguished professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. Ambassador Jalali was Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Germany and designated Special Envoy to NATO. He also served as Afghanistan’s Interior Minister from 2003 to 2015. A prolific author, his books include The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War (2010), Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces in Transition, and most recently, A Military History of Afghanistan from the Great Game to the Global War on Terror (2017).
Ambassador Jalali will discuss the final peace report and address the question: is there a new pathway to peace in Afghanistan? Ali, thank you for joining us.
Thank you very much, Bob, and thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my views on this very important topic that you have chosen to be the topic of discussion today. As you know, earlier this month on February 3 the Afghan Study Group (ASG) released its final report of policy recommendations to the new administration of the United States.
The time was very good for the release of this report. The Biden administration announced that it is reviewing the peace process or the Doha peace agreement with the Taliban, and also the declaration at the same time released with the relationship with the Afghan Islamic government. It will take some time for the new administration to see how this deal made about a year ago is going. Currently, it is stalled in any kind of definition that you give to it. But this report is giving some recommendations to what the new administration in the United States — given the current situation on the ground, in the experience of one year of the peace process — what choices the United States will have to review this, to continue this, to change it or to make adjustments to it.
The Afghan Study Group was actually established about a year ago. It was December 2019 by Congress. It is a bipartisan group. It was tasked with identifying policy recommendations in consideration of how the peace settlement in Afghanistan or the failure of a settlement can affect the future of Afghanistan, and also United States commitments, resources, and its dealing with the region and Afghanistan. It is a bipartisan group, as I said, with fifteen members led by Senator Ayotte and also General Dunford and Nancy Lindborg, the former USIP director. And then it also has twenty-six senior advisers who started working in April.
The Doha Peace Agreement
The ASG or Afghan Study Group started its work right after the deal that was made in Doha about the peace process in Afghanistan. Now, a few words about this deal. What is that deal? Some people call it a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban. It is not a peace agreement. It is an agreement to facilitate peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government because ultimately the peace should be made by Afghans themselves.
For years, actually, the Taliban were arguing that they were refusing to sit for peace talks with the Afghan government or anybody as long as there are foreign troops present in Afghanistan. So in order to find a way to cut through this kind of obstacle, the United States talked to the Taliban, agreed to withdraw its forces in fourteen months from Afghanistan.
And during this period the Taliban made a commitment to not allow any terrorist groups to use Afghan territory against the United States’ interests and its allies, and also to sever ties with Al Qaeda and other interest groups, and at the same time to start negotiations, peace talks with the Afghan government in order to achieve a kind of political settlement that will bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. This would pave the way for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from the country.
That was an agreement to facilitate peace talks, not a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban, which some people believe. At the same time the United States actually issued a declaration with the Afghan government that actually recognized the Afghan government’s legitimacy as the government in Afghanistan, and also a commitment to support its institutions, and to support the Afghan government in its talks with the Taliban to reach a commitment, a resolution.
That walk was actually supposed to start ten days after the agreement was signed in Doha on the 29th of February 2020. However, unfortunately, it took a long time. First of all, in the agreement there was an understanding that in order to bring some kind of confidence between the two sides for the talks, the Afghan government would release about 5000 Taliban prisoners, and the Taliban would release 1000 prisoners in their custody. That took a long time because the Afghan government argued that they were not part of that deal, so therefore they took several months to release or free the Taliban prisoners. On the other hand, Afghans would argue that the Taliban should guarantee that they will not return to the battlefield.
Among those on the Taliban’s list, there were several who had issues and who were accused of criminal activities against other countries, particularly Australia and France, who were objecting to their release. So it took some time in order for the Afghan government to release these five thousand, maybe more than five thousand, Taliban prisoners in their custody. That delayed the talks.
The talks that were supposed to start on the tenth of March of 2020. It took them many months after September to start. And then after September it took another few months to agree, so during this period where the Taliban was dragging its feet, where the negotiation was stalled, the United States continued to withdraw troops from Afghanistan because the U.S. troop withdrawal was calendar-based. It was supposed to release about over five thousand in three months and fifteen days and the rest would be released by May 1st 2021, but as the negotiations stalled, and the Taliban increased their violence in Afghanistan and they did not honor the promises or the commitments that they made, this peace process became a very difficult process, and had so many obstacles.
Now, what is the problem here? Now, we are in the beginning of March and two months before the full withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which was called for in the Doha accord, while there is no single item of progress in the talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. So the Taliban actually are accused of running the clock, and they are not committed, they are not honoring their promises, so therefore there is a new revision that should be made. That is actually one of the topics, that is one of the issues that the Afghan Study Group was looking at.
There are many observers in Afghanistan and the region who believe that if U.S. troops leave on the May 1 of this this year, then it will give the Taliban a disincentive to continue talks with the outbound government or to return to talks. On the other hand, the Taliban are insisting that the Doha agreement should be honored, all troops will be gone, should be withdrawn by May 1, while they themselves have not stopped fighting. They have not severed their ties with Al Qaeda according to the sources in the United States, also in Europe, and also in Afghanistan, so they have not honored the commitment. Therefore there is a problem with this accord.
The Afghan Study Group was also looking at this and I believe the new administration in the United States also is looking at it and what to do. So what was the data? It was not when the Afghanistan study began its work. The situation was different from today. At that time there was a hope that the peace process would continue and during the process, gradually, the U.S. forces would be able to leave Afghanistan while the two sides would reach a kind of agreement for peace, and then that would lead to a peace settlement in Afghanistan, and that will on the one hand reduce the threat of terrorism from Afghan territory against the United States interest and its allies. On the other hand, it would be a kind of a catalyst to bring stability to the region, and also it would be an opportunity for Afghanistan and the region to integrate Afghanistan into the region, which would actually be a key element in the future development of Afghanistan and stability in the country and in its economic prosperity.
This did not happen. So now we come back to what was the mandate of the Afghan Study Group and and what is now the recommendation? The Afghan Study Group was tasked with as I said earlier to identify policy recommendations in case the peace process succeeds or if the peace process fails. Now, the peace process has not failed, but it has not succeeded, so therefore a revision is needed. The Afghanistan Study Group believes that eventually peace should be made between the Afghans themselves. However, the United States can play a key role.
The opportunity now for a peaceful resolution of the Afghanistan conflict is there. However, the forces of fragmentation are still very strong. The kind of cohesive policy of the United States and an opportunity to support this process can increase the chances for peace. A dash and precipitous withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan actually decreases this chance and increases the chances of the breakdown of the government, which actually destabilizes the region, and eventually it actually heightens the threat of terrorism against the interests of the United States.
So therefore now there are two issues that we have to look at. First, what immediate things should be done in order to stave off the eventuality that the U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan while the peace process is not there. In this case I think there are a number of suggestions that the Afghanistan Study Group suggested and it says that the first one is the immediate diplomatic effort to extend the current 2021 withdrawal date in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result. This actually has some challenges. There are some challenges involved with this.
The Taliban has announced that if U.S. troops do not leave by May 1 of this year, they will resume attacking international forces. They are already attacking Afghan troops and Afghan forces. But they stopped attacking international forces per the Doha agreement most of the time. They threatened that they will resume attacking the international forces.
At the same time they also have started a kind of a diplomatic effort with some other countries. Recently, their delegation visited Iran, they visited Russia, they have visited Pakistan, and they contacted China in order to drum up support of these countries to call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces by May 1 as was called in the Doha agreement. However, even Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China want U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan but not before there is some kind of a political settlement that will prevent the deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan and become a destabilizing factor for the region. So all these countries want the U.S. to leave Afghanistan, but they do not want them to leave before there is some kind of a settlement.
The countries have always tried to call the Taliban as a political element, an important element in Afghanistan, but none of these countries have supported the return of the Taliban’s Emirate to Afghanistan. Even Pakistan does not want to see the Taliban dominating the political power in Afghanistan because in that case they cannot control them. So there is some kind of a consensus in the region that the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan should be as an end in a process, not a condition for the process to go forward. So the key objective of the ongoing U.S. military presence should be to help create conditions for an acceptable peace agreement, not a kind of condition for the continuation of the peace process. This is another recommendation for immediate policymaking.
Then the third is continued support of the Afghan state, including security institutions, while continuing to message the Afghan partners that the support is not open-ended and as conditions on progress in the peace talks. Actually, peace talks between the two sides of Afghanistan, the Afghan government and the Taliban, should be invigorated through incentives and disincentives. The incentive for the Taliban that is the most important is the presence of U.S. forces in the region, and also the financial assistance of the United States. Without that assistance, no government in Afghanistan can survive for long.
Now, if you look at this year’s budget for Afghanistan, you will see that seventy-five percent of the budget, of the operational budget and development budget is supported by the international community, and of the Afghan security forces, four to five billion dollars are provided by the international community, the United States and Europe. So without that kind of assistance, until Afghanistan can develop its revenue collection, and the system becomes self-reliant, it is very difficult for any government. Even if the Taliban take over, they cannot continue to operate effectively, so that is an incentive. The disincentive could be also the cutting of the stuff, and then the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is also an incentive for the Taliban to talk. On the other hand, withdrawal is also an incentive for the Afghan government to be interested, to genuinely talk peace with the Taliban. So these incentives and disincentives should be used to give some kind of a dynamism to the peace process.
The fourth is the continued support for the dynamic members of the Afghan civil society, who have been instrumental in securing essential gains in human rights, education, and health, who have been and will continue to be a key supporting force sustainin the peace process. The Afghan civil society is a major, major power now in Afghanistan, major influential power in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s society has changed in the past fourteen years, and if you look at the twenty years that Afghanistan was supported by the international community, it is a new Afghanistan. About seventy percent of the population is under the age of thirty, and there are many educated people. They are people who believe in human rights and democracy. These are people who have been very dynamic in all sectors of life in Afghanistan, so it is not possible for the Taliban anymore to return, to turn the clock back to 2001 and have their way the way they had in the 2001. So it is a different Afghanistan, so supporting the civil society of Afghanistan is a major element, is a key element that can influence the peace process in Afghanistan. Continued support of the international community for Afghanistan’s civil society is going to go a long way toward supporting and sustaining any peace deal that eventually could be made between the two sides, and then a re-emphasis on diplomacy in negotiation, including a regional diplomatic strategy implemented over the longer term.
Afghanistan is living in a very difficult neighborhood. The security of Afghanistan is going to be very important for the security of the region. However, there are regional countries looking at the security and stability in Afghanistan from their own perspective. Some have deliberate interests and some have opportunistic interests. If you look at these actors in Afghanistan, it is a combination of different powers, different actors.
There are four categories of these actors. There is the war between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and then the second group is those who are supporting directly these sides. The United States and NATO is supporting the Afghan government and Pakistan is mostly supporting the Taliban.
Then there are the countries who are affected by this war, mostly it is Iran and India. India has a problem with Pakistan, a conflict with Pakistan. It does not want that kind of a peace that Pakistan will have a dominant role in the country. Iran has a problem with the presence of the United States in Afghanistan. It does not want a peace in Afghanistan, it is not in support of a peace in Afghanistan that perpetuates the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan unless the situation changes.
Then there are other powers. Some are opportunistic, they have opportune interests. Some have issues with the United States in the region or elsewhere. These are China, Russia, and the other Gulf countries. Russia actually wants Afghanistan to be a stable country, but does not want a long-term presence of the United States in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Russia actually is supporting the peace process, but as a low-cost activity, not risky activities, because it does not want to intervene in Afghanistan by force because it had a bad experience. It is also because of limited resources. They are always supporting a low-cost approach to peace in our country. China is looking at a peace in Afghanistan through its relations with Pakistan. It has conflict or tension with India and also in its opposition to the long-term presence of the United States.
So therefore China is in support of a regional kind of approach that all these other actors will buy into. Iran shares some of the concerns of the United States in Afghanistan with terrorism, particularly Da’esh, the Islamic State, but at the same time it does not want the longer presence of the United States in Afghanistan. So Iran and Russia in order to pressure the other actors in Afghanistan continues to have a collaborative relationship with the Taliban for two reasons. One, to use it as as as leverage in any kind of a peace in Afghanistan, and second, if the Taliban comes to power, becomes part of the power, they are on the soft side of the Taliban.
In the Gulf region all countries are supporting the peace process and the political settlement in Afghanistan. Only maybe Saudi Arabia is also concerned of the increasing role of Iran in Afghanistan. So while you look at all these difficult actors, so therefore actually it makes sense that the Afghan Study Group suggested continued regional diplomacy to bring all these countries together in order to support the sustainable peace in Afghanistan.
What immediate measure should be taken? The most important is to extend the May date of the withdrawal of the U.S. forces. Now, how long? I think it should be condition-based. If the peace process succeeds and the two sides genuinely and with some commitment set to resolve this conflict by peaceful means, and bring peace to Afghanistan, then that is fine and just paves the way for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. However, if it drags on and on, you cannot make it a calendar-based, as it should be a kind of mission-based withdrawal, it should be a kind of a mission-based withdrawal.
Now, is it possible? I think it cannot be done unilaterally. It can be done unilaterally, but it has some kind of obstacles because if the Taliban does not agree and they withdraw from the peace process, this can give an opportunity to Russia. They will have an initiative of peace. They can step in and that is going to discredit all the efforts that have been done so far in the peace talks. On the other hand if the Taliban withdraw from these peace talks, they said that they would resume fighting in Afghanistan.
They are already fighting in Afghanistan. They have actually escalated the violence in Afghanistan in the last few months, but the only difference would be that they say they will attack foreign troops, which they have not done since the Doha agreement. In that case they lose all political legitimacy. Taliban as a fighting force in many countries on the books they are still considered as a terrorist organization, including Iran, and they have been under major sanctions and if they withdraw from the peace process, they will lose their legitimacy as a political force committed to peace. Then they will become a kind of a fighting force, and then the Afghan government can withdraw assistance from others, including even from countries who are supporting the Taliban.
Therefore regional diplomacy is needed. Pressure the Taliban to agree on extension of the forces. This will also give them a disincentive, dragging their feet in the peace negotiations will actually cause the perpetuation or the longer term presence of the foreign troops in Afghanistan. This is something that we will see, how it has materialized, how it actually plays out in the region after the United States, the new administration, reviews the policy on Afghanistan and the Doha process.
Okay, now if the peace process fails, the scenarios are very unfavorable for Afghans themselves because although the Afghanistan Study Group looked at different scenarios, they do not support them. Now, we support the continuation of the presence there in order to support or to provide conditions for the success of the peace negotiations. Eventually, the Afghanistan conflict should be resolved through peace talks with the Afghans themselves, and other actors should facilitate that by providing the conditions to incentivize and disincentivize measures so that the two sides finally reach an agreement, but if that does not work, then the United States probably will have three options.
First, we will need to remain committed to the Afghan state. Should the negotiation fail, the outcome be deemed unacceptable. In this pathway the United States would continue to maintain a force in Afghanistan and support the Afghan state through the war, possibly increasing assistance until the opportunity for meaningful talks, preferably would strengthen the Afghan state, pretty much.
The other scenario, pathway, is a managed withdrawal from Afghanistan under which the United States would remove its troops but would not be indifferent to the outcome in Afghanistan. It would seek to use non-military leverage, including regional diplomacy, to secure as many of its state goals as possible. This scenario accepts and would accommodate the likely possibility of an eventual Taliban ascendance.
And finally, the rapid troop withdrawal irrespective of conditions on the ground and essentially indifferent to resulting outcome. None of these scenarios were considered available at this point. They were inadvisable at this point, but all were carefully studied by the group and could be adopted in the future.
Now, the conflict in Afghanistan is entering the twentieth year. It spans fourth U.S. administrations and it is the longest U.S. war. In fact, it surpasses the length of the war in Vietnam. Therefore what lies ahead? I think for Afghans it is a choice between talking to each other, coming together, finding a way to live together or continue this situation that can eventually become a kind of an isolated war. If the international community cuts their assistance, then the regional countries can enter and fight their own proxy wars in Afghanistan, and the people will suffer more. The longer this conflict continues, the more pain will come to Afghans themselves. This year, the last quarter of this year, was the bloodiest quarter for the Afghan civilians. This country has been at war for forty-two years now.
Now, why this country you know? This country has suffered a lot. You cannot find any country in the world that has in the last one hundred years had three major powers intervene military in this country. In 1919, Great Britain, which at the time was dominating in India, [intervened militarily in] the third Anglo-Afghan war. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union, actually, for more than nine years was fighting in Afghanistan with a lot of destruction. 1.3 million died, the countryside was totally destroyed. In the thirteen years since the last Soviet soldiers left Afghanistan, the first U.S. soldier landed in its place. It is a long war for Afghans themselves.
And this is the problem that reminds me of Arnold Toynbee, who says that if you want to look at the roadmap from the old world, the westward route passes through Aleppo and eastward it passes to Bagram. Bagram was the base of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and Bagram is now the major the base of the international forces. So this country has been unlucky in the context of different countries. It has always been subject to competition between digital power and global powers.
I was talking to an old man in Ghazni a few years back and he was complaining about the international community. I said, “why are you complaining? Without the international community’s assistance you will not be the way you are now.” He says, “No, I am not talking about now, I am not talking about the assistance. I appreciate the assistance.” He said, “I know that the intervention in 2001 was a risky operation, but I am talking generally about our fate.”
He said, “Look, before 1978, Afghanistan was a peaceful country, a small country. It is not rich, but it was happy. There was a kind of harmony, ethnic harmony there. The people could travel easily, freely.” He said, “A young woman could travel without an escort from Kabul at night through Herat. It was no problem and people were happy with whatever they had, but then one superpower came and invaded us. The Soviet Union invaded us, they destroyed our country, and the other superpower came and brought all these other elements who became the extremists, and to fight the superpower. The country was destroyed, but the legacy, actually, is haunting us now.”
He said, “Now look, those people who come from all around the world, supported by counter-Soviet powers, they came from all over the world to fight the communists with the same fervor of ideology. Okay, there they trained, indeed, now they have become Al-Qaeda, they became the Taliban, they became whatever exists, and they are now fighting us.” He said, “But I wish somebody could undo what they did to us, but it is not possible.” So I think peace is more important for Afghans than anybody else. I mean I think there is a hope that the international community, including the regional countries who have some stake in the Afghanistan conflict, will eventually. Here, we say that the United States is a major actor, is a key factor. The United States by a kind of a coherent, responsible actions, messages, and policies can create the opportunity to increase the success of a peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict. However, the United States also can increase the chances of chaos by leaving precipitously or cutting its aid to the institutions in Afghanistan.
Robert R. Reilly:
Great, Ali, thank you so very much for that extremely comprehensive treatment of the current situation, the various stakeholders inside Afghanistan, and the surrounding countries. I believe it was February 15th was the thirty-second anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. A statement was issued by the ‘Taliban Emirate’ in which the the Taliban said, ‘just as Dr. Najibullah was executed after the Soviets withdrew, so too will Ashraf Ghani be executed,’ presumably when the U.S. withdraws, whether precipitously or not. That remark does not betoken well for negotiations to say the least. That is one point. They seem to be as bellicose as always.
Second of all, when you mention the very promising developments in Afghan civil society over the past twenty years and particularly the experience of young people today, nonetheless, in the areas where the Taliban has been gaining ground, such as in the west around Kandahar’s countryside, they seem to be behaving just like the old Taliban. They are banning music. They are doing the things that they have said they purportedly will not do if they are ever brought back to power. So I guess what I am asking you is about the character of the Taliban movement itself and how genuinely susceptible it is to any settlement that is short of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
Thank you, yes that is a very good question and the problem with trusting the Taliban is that what their leaders say, what those who are involved in negotiations say, the message is not going all the way down to the rank and file. In order to get some kind of a legitimacy they say they have changed, they are going to respect the human rights, they are going to have to share power with other groups, respect the other political forces in Afghanistan. They even say that they are also not against the Shias in Afghanistan, which was one of the major issues left between them and the Shias when they were in power. However, this does not communicate down the way to the rank and file for two reasons.
First off, the Taliban do not want that because the moment that they go down to the rank-and-files and say they are from the peace process and they are going to make compromises, they will lose the support of some of these people, who believe that they are winning because they were given for years this idea that they defeated the Soviet Union, now they are going to defeat the United States. They do not want to communicate this to them in order to keep them in their trenches.
On the other hand, the moment that they give this message that they are about to make peace with the Afghan government, for years they called it a heretic government supported by foreigners, then probably some of them will leave their trenches because in some countries many of them are on the fences, and they will go to the winning side. If they say they are losing, why should they stay there?
That is why they are reluctant to accept a ceasefire. Ceasefire means the moment they stop fighting many of their fighters will leave and they cannot bring them back. So yes, what they did, these threats that you mentioned, are something, but the situation is totally different today from the old days. When the Soviet Union left Afghanistan, the mujahideen did not overthrow the Afghan government. The Najibullah government was destroyed from within because as the Soviet Union stopped supporting Najibullah, and the Soviet Union itself was dissolved, some of the elements of the Afghan government of the Najibulah government made special, separate deals with the mujahideen leaders (with Ahmad Shah Massoud, with Hekmatyar), and they actually surrendered to them.
This does not mean that the mujahideen came and overthrew the government, it does not. It is not going to happen today either because the Afghans are willing to make peace, but they are not going to compromise certain values that they cherish and they are not going to compromise certain achievements that they had during the past twenty years.
On the other hand, the situation from the region is different. Even Pakistan, which is supporting the Taliban very much, they do not want them to be a dominant force in Afghanistan because now if they are part of the government, they can use them for their own purpose. They can influence them for their own policy choices, but if you are dominant, they cannot control them.
In summer of 2001 the Taliban took their flag and put it in Mohmand Agency. They said this is part of Afghanistan’s territory at that time, so it was a very different time, but there is one thing to note, that Najbullah’s government collapsed because the assistance from outside stopped.
On the other hand, in 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed for a negative symmetry that they would stop supporting mujahideen. The U.S. pledged to stop supporting the mujahideen and the Soviet Union pledged to stop supporting the Kabul government. The Soviet Union stopped that assistance because they could not continue that assistance, and the United States stopped. However, some countries in the region like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan supported some elements, some fundamentalist groups in Afghanistan and this balance actually was disrupted.
Today, again, some in Afghanistan argue that if the United States leaves Afghanistan, fine, or curtails its assistance, fine, but if at the same time Pakistan closes the pieces of Taliban in on its territory and stops supporting them because they are based in Pakistan, without that then they cannot have that kind of effectiveness in fighting inside Afghanistan.
They have their infrastructure in Pakistan. They have their hospitals in Pakistan. They go for medical treatment in Pakistan. They took their wounded to Pakistan. They have their families in Pakistan, and they have a huge network of madrassas that they can recruit fighters from [in] Pakistan. So this is something that we have to take into consideration.
For the Taliban I think it was a few years back in the Track II talks with the Taliban, Afghan government and Taliban and the civil society, I thought that Afghan government missed two opportunities for peace. One was at Bonn that eighty percent of the Taliban wanted to be part of the process because they had lost their popularity in Afghanistan. You know, some people believe that Taliban had control in Afghanistan, but they they had lost popularity. They [lost popular public support during] the final two years of their presence in [areas that they] controlled. And the second was in 2003, which I mentioned earlier.
But I said now you will eventually if you do not think about peace talks, eventually you will lose that chance. I think they will if they now do not take advantage of this peace process. Today I had an interview with the VOA Deewa, which broadcasts to Pashtuns in Pakistan. I said all these countries will lose this opportunity. Pakistan lost opportunity before and they will lose it again. Taliban lost [their] opportunity before. They would lose it again and they will not gain anything. Maybe they will continue to fight, but they will not get anything, something that would be honorable for them, something that would bring peace and stability to them, their families, to the next generation in Afghanistan.
So it is a different situation now. I think there is no other alternative [but] to support this peace process in Afghanistan in bringing some kind of stability and sense of normalcy to Afghanistan through peace talks through compromises by both sides.
Robert R. Reilly:
Ali, two questions. Number one, how much of Afghanistan does the Taliban control today?
Well, this is a very difficult question, you know. You have different kinds of figures. Now, [the] Taliban have control in the rural areas and they do not control any center of the provinces, the major urban areas. In fact, they are in total control of 27 districts, and then Afghan government controls probably 160 districts. The rest is disputed, there has been fighting. In the rural areas the population, is you know, more sparsely distributed than in major cities. For example, in Afghanistan 20 percent of the population of the country is in Kabul and also Kandahar, Mazar, so population-wise they do not control very much of the population, less populated, but rural areas they control.
The the issue is the Afghan government’s operation is very costly because they provide services and there is a government. For [the] Taliban it is less expensive because they do not provide services. They are there. They only tax people. They have the enormous income from the drug trafficking and drug taxing [of] traffickers, and also the labs that they have, so they collect revenue but do not spend a lot except for the fighting.
On the other hand if you look at the recent Asia Foundation survey, 13 percent of the people want the Taliban to come back as they were before. 13 percent, and that is to not want. There are many people that are living under the Taliban, but they they have to live there, that is all. They do not prefer the situation to continue, it is interesting enough that in rural areas the number of the people who favor the Taliban are less than the number of people in urban areas who favor the Taliban because in the countryside, in rural areas, the people are under the Taliban. They see them, but in the urban area they are not, so in urban areas they want peace and they favor Taliban to be part of the government, but the number of people who are favoring Taliban in rural areas are less than what they are in urban areas.
Robert R. Reilly:
Thank you, Ali. Back to the subject of Pakistan, which seems to always have been the key in terms of its support of the Taliban through its ISI. But you say that Pakistan is seeing its interests slightly differently now in terms of their desire not to see a government in Afghanistan dominated by the Taliban. You also mentioned that the Taliban continues to have a strings of madrassas in Pakistan where there remain I believe a million-and-a-half Afghan refugees. And of course, Pakistan has at least in the past long supported a radical style of teaching in the madrassas that indeed as you said leaves a resource for continued Taliban recruitment. Has Pakistan changed its view to the extent that it is doing anything about that?
I think the main objective that the Taliban has not changed, but the means probably are different. They want to always have some kind of influence over Afghanistan, not only because they do not want a major presence of India in Afghanistan, but at the same time for other purposes; the Pashtuns who live in their territory, the water issues in Afghanistan, the refugees as you mentioned, the Durand line. For these they want to have some kind of a leverage in Afghanistan, and what they used to call the strategic depth.
It is not because they want strategic depth against India, they want a strategic depth for their own, you know, interest that I have mentioned, the water issues. Pakistan is a very pressed for water supply for their increasing population. They have this problem with India in Punjab, and also with the Kabul river and Kunar river, that Afghanistan is building dams on it. The people in Peshawar Valley actually survive on the water from the Kabul river. The Durand line on the other hand, particularly these days when the Pashtun Protection Movement is becoming a major power in the Pashtun areas, this Durand line is another issue, so the access to Central Asia through Afghanistan, these are their interests but they want some leverage in Afghanistan.
In early 2000, maybe in 2005 when I was in the government, at that time the Pakistan was using the Taliban, they regrouped them, they helped them in Pakistan as President Musharraf actually acknowledged because at that time they thought that the United States supporting a government in Afghanistan, which is dominated by the former Northern Alliance — the Northern Alliance during the 1990s was supported by India, by Russia, and by Iran against the Taliban at that time, so they think that the U.S. is supporting a government which is dominated by the former Northern Alliance, and that would be a gateway to India, and India will use Afghanistan territory against Pakistan.
And then they do not know when the U.S. will be there. Maybe the U.S. will leave in one or two years and then India will be there, so they actually adopted the Taliban, regrouped them, and sent them to Afghanistan.
Today, it is different. Today, Taliban is an established military power and also it got some kind of political legitimacy with the different government, and they have a relationship with the world. They believe that they can have this leverage through the inclusion of Taliban now in Afghanistan. They feel themselves in a very difficult situation, but they do not want the coming back of the Emirate of Afghanistan. That will provoke another civil war in Afghanistan and maybe instability will continue, and this time I think they will be on the losing side, so there is some kind of a change there, but they still want to have a leverage in Afghanistan.
And with regard to India they will prefer probably a conflict in Afghanistan without India over a peaceful Afghanistan where India has a major presence. They can manage a conflict without the presence of India but cannot manage a peaceful Afghanistan where India has a major influence.
Robert R. Reilly:
You mentioned China briefly before, but you did not talk about what China’s economic interests in Afghanistan might be, particularly some of the agreements on mining and minerals that they have already made. Could you talk about the economic side of the interests of the regional states, starting with China?
Yeah, China initially, you know, invested in the economic sector of Afghanistan in mining, but China is always looking for low risk and low cost projects there. And initially their contract was several billion dollars in the copper of Logar, Mes Aynak, Logar, but later on the security situation deteriorated. They asked for renegotiation of the contract. They actually stopped that. Initially they thought, well, now the international community is there. The situation when I was there, in fact, was relatively calm, secure, security was there.
And they were happy that the the investment was protected by 10th mountain division of the United States, and the police were paid by Japan, so it was a low cost and low risk investment. They did it. The moment that security situation changed, they renegotiated the agreement. The same with others. Yes, they used these small investments for some kind of maintaining a kind of a relationship with Afghanistan, but their major interest is in Pakistan.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is important for them, and it bypasses Afghanistan, and also the Silk Road. Their economic interest is mostly with Central Asia, and Russia, and the One Belt, One Road initiative. It bypasses Afghanistan, actually, it goes through. They say that if the situation improves, then the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) could be connected to Afghanistan, but they do not take that kind of a high risk and high cost projects in Afghanistan anymore. They probably are following the regional consensus on bringing stability to Afghanistan where Pakistan has a major influence over it.
But their concern is security, security with the Xinjiang area, and some of these groups were trained in Pakistan and also in Afghanistan, and therefore they do not want to see an irredentist kind of a nationalism of Xinjiang in Afghanistan. A few years back the Chinese even proposed to build, to help create a mountain brigade in Badakhshan province’s border to check on the infiltration of Xinjiang extremists into their territory, but that did not materialized. So they are concerned about security more, but are not interested in taking a kind of a high risk and high cost projects. Their dealing with Afghanistan is shaped by their special relationship with Pakistan, their problems with India, and also with the longer presence of the United States in the region. This context shapes their approach to Afghanistan.
Robert R. Reilly:
Ali, if I may close with a rather tricky question. You mentioned the nostalgia for the pre-1978 Afghanistan, which was perhaps a poorer place but a safer place, a happier place. Some have suggested that one of the central problems was that the community of nations, once the Taliban fell, espoused a centralized government into Afghanistan, which was contrary to let us say the character of the Afghan people and the structure of their prior political order, which was highly decentralized and tribal, and this graded against them and indeed, the dissatisfaction with it really created an opportunity for a Taliban resurgence. Now, is that still a problem? Is that still going to fester in the future of Afghanistan even if some provisional peace agreement is [reached]?
I have faced some problems with this, some over-centralization, but it does not mean that centralized government did not work in the past. In fact, for centuries even from the 18th century we would say the system in Afghanistan was a centralized control of decentralized entities. These centralized entities in the peripheries, tribal areas, had their own institutions to work with, to provide services, and provide actually protection in others, while the centralized government was an arbitrator between them. Nobody in the peripheries wanted the absence of a government in the center. [They] always wanted the central government because the central government because of the limited resources they had they could not provide services to the peripheries. But the institution and the peripheries peacefully co-existed and complemented the state institutions.
In 1970 I went to resolve an issue. I had just returned from education abroad to [resolve an] issue between the two tribes in Paktia province, Mangals and Zazis. [I] went there. There was government. There were courts, but there were also tribal jirgas and tribal shuras and others. I used both of them. All these complemented each other and resolved the problems. When I was in the government now with the new constitution, yes, people doing the loya jirga wanted it because the chaos that continued because of the deterioration of the state institutions and strong men – during the constitutional jirga most people wanted the strong central government to reduce the power of these local strongman, but this does not mean that forever that will be the case. I think eventually the provinces should elect their own government, should have some kind of a capacity to deliver services to people.
Today, in Afghanistan [the] governor of a province does not have a political, financial, or administrative authority that the government should have. Politically, it is appointed by a person in Kabul. By one stroke of pen he is the governor, by one stroke of pen he is not the governor, so he does not represent the government as a political figure. Financially, he does not have a budget. The budget of a different department and province are allocated by the ministries in Kabul. In the budget of a province the connection with some of the budget of all these departments, which the government does not have a control over.
And then the government does not have administrative power because it cannot appoint people to these departments. They are appointed from the ministries in Kabul, except very low level employees. So my suggestion is that this distance between the center and provinces should be removed. Eventually, a governor should be an elected official. It has to have a budget. It has to have administrative power. Police should go to the provinces. Now, police are under the Ministry of the Interior and they are [sent] to provinces, they are not under the government, they are under the Ministry of the Interior.
So these adjustments should be made, but not to the kind of a situation that will make the promises in a chaotic situation, a kind of a formula for disintegration. You have to balance it, and I tried at that time and still believe that it is possible in the context of the constitution, but you know as long as the war continues if all the conflict is there, it is very difficult to make that kind of adjustments. We call it the modification in law.
Robert R. Reilly:
Alright, well, Ambassador Ali Jalali, thank you so much for that illuminating talk on the prospects for peace currently in Afghanistan. We are delighted to have you back to the Westminster Institute and I encourage our audience to go to our webpage. Just look up the Westminster Institute and you will see the other recent lectures we have had as well as the catalog that includes several other talks by Ambassador Jalali in the past. Thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you very much. Thanks for giving this opportunity. I am always happy to be there.