Is Peace Possible in Afghanistan?

Is Peace Possible in Afghanistan?
(Ali Jalali, November 13, 2019)

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.

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).


Robert R. Reilly:

I’m very delighted to welcome tonight our speaker, Ambassador Ali Ahmed Jalali, who is a distinguished professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University. He also recently served as Interior Minister of Afghanistan and Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Germany, a place from which he just returned because of the 30th anniversary conference on the fall of the wall.

Previously, Ali served with the Voice of America for more than twenty years, covering Afghanistan, South and Central Asia, and the Middle East, including assignments of the director of the Afghan radio network project and chief of the Pashto, Dari, and Farsi services. Ambassador Jalali is a prolific published author in three languages. His most recent books include – this from 2017 – A Military History of Afghanistan from the Great Game to the Global War on Terror from Kansas University Press, and Afghanistan: National Defense and Security Forces: Mission, Challenges and Sustainability. Ali attended higher command staff colleges in Afghanistan, the United States, Britain, and Russia, and has lectured very widely.

I leave out the best part for last. I had the great privilege of working with Ali at the Voice of America when he was undertaking his great work there. I’ll only add in the question session, we will be passing out the microphone for you to ask your questions. Please join me in welcoming Ambassador Jalali.

Ali Jalali:

Thank you very much for this introduction. It gives me a lot of pleasure to be back here at the Westminster Institute. I was here back more than two years ago. That was a time when this institute was really kind enough to publicize my book at that time, which was just published by the Kansas University. It has been translated into Persian and also into the Pashto language.

Now, the question is: is peace possible in Afghanistan? Afghanistan has been at war for mostly about for decades, but it was a different war at the time. In the past twenty years, this war has seen so many different phases and contexts. Just last month, the U.S. involvement, the U.S. war in Afghanistan entered its nineteenth year.

Four Phases of War

The one question is why is it a long war? It is not a long war, it is a continuous war. It is a war in different phases. I think I can identify four phases for this war. The first phase started with 9/11, after 9/11 when the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York by a network of Al Qaeda that was based in Afghanistan and was hosted by the Taliban who were in power there. Actually, we made this intervention of the United States and other allied countries into Afghanistan. The purpose of this phase of the war was to dismantle or disrupt the Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan that were responsible for the terrorist attack and killing of three thousand innocent people in the United States, and to overthrow the Taliban who were hosting them, to take them out of power. How long did that phase actually last? It lasted less than two months.

The first bomb that landed in Afghanistan was on October 7, 2001, less than a month from 9/11, and then at that time I was in Washington. I was an analyst at that time. And many friends were thinking that it’s going to be a long war because they thought the Taliban was well-entrenched, Al Qaeda is well-entrenched, it’s a mountainous country, and we have the experience of the Soviet Union who were fighting the war in nine years and still they were not able to dominate that country or at least to establish some kind of stability in that nation. So people in Washington at that time were thinking that it is going to be a long war. My argument at that time was you know three things brought the Taliban to power, three things are going to take them out of power.

The Taliban

Why did the Taliban come to power? Because of the chaotic situation in 1990 after the Mujahideen came. In the wake of the fall of the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan, they started fighting each other over power. So the Taliban was a by-product of a very chaotic situation. People thought the Taliban could save them. Three things helped the Taliban to come to power. One: they thought they would disarm the fighting and warring factions. Second, they would unify the country, eliminate the people who created turf battles and created their own small fiefdoms in Afghanistan. And the fourth was finally to establish stability in the country. So disarming the militias or the warlords, unifying the country, and disarming these people. People liked that.

But then when they came to power or at least controlled part of the country or most of the country, three things were actually working against them. First, they interpreted Islam the way that Afghans were not familiar with it. Afghans are very moderate Muslims. Islam is a way of life in Afghanistan, not a kind of dogmatic ideology. Second, they actually violated a secret contract between the people of Afghanistan who tolerated each other. They actually violated that. They went against Hazara Shias, against other ethnic groups, so they violated that. And the third was they brought foreigners to the country. That was Arabs, Al Qaeda, Pakistanis, and others in order to fight.

Many people were against them rather than those supporting them. Therefore, I think it was in February of 2001, seven or eight months before 9/11, I published an article in Parameters, the senior professional journal of the U.S. Army published from barracks, Army War College. That was the anatomy of the Afghanistan conflict. In that article I said that the Talibans are not ten feet tall. There are so many factors in Afghanistan that will work against them, so it’s not really a long war.

The 2001 Invasion of Afghanistan

But Washington was afraid that it’s going to be a long war. Even when in October the first rocket landed in Afghanistan, there was no idea what was going to happen once the Talibans are out. It was later on when the situation developed so fast, the Taliban would fall, and then what is going to take place? It is putting together a very hasty kind of political dispensation in December 2001. In any case, the war in Afghanistan that was started to dismantle Al Qaeda network and also overthrow the Taliban who were supporting them ended in December 2001. So if the aim was to do that, we achieved this in two months.

What happened after that? After that was the problem. The second phase was from the time the Taliban was overthrown to the end of the bombing process in 2005. That was a roadmap that was adopted in a conference where Afghans got together in order to chart out the future of their country. What was the idea of this period? It was to establish a kind of stability in Afghanistan, help Afghanistan, reconstruct the country, establish its own institutions which were destroyed during the war. That was a great idea, however, the aim was high, the resources allocated to them were not enough.

I remember at that time, Bush said we are going to have a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan for reconstruction. It was a Marshall Plan in name, although the resources after that were enormous, but Afghanistan was different from Europe. You know, Europe was advanced, developed countries, and they had the capacities, the institutions to help very quickly in order to reconstruct after the second world war. If I gave you some figures, you would be amazed. The Marshall Plan cost the United States at that time thirteen billion dollars. With today’s money, it would probably be $110 billion .In Afghanistan until last year, only the United States invested $130 billion. Still the country is not stable, and [why that is] I will talk about later, it was different.

Now, the second phase was not done in a more effective way during this phase from 2001 to 2005. The Taliban were overthrown but not defeated. They crossed the border into Pakistan and started to regroup. When they saw that Afghanistan was neither reconstructed nor stabilized, they came back. In 2007, we saw an upsurge of insurgency in Afghanistan. Sometimes I call this the ‘second Taliban war’. Then, gradually the U.S. and NATO forces increased in Afghanistan until 2009.


In 2009, it was realized that Afghanistan cannot be stabilized through military means, so the other option was a surge of forces to blunt the momentum of the Taliban and build the Afghan forces to the capacity that they could deal with the situation independently. That is transition; Afghanization of the war. Like Vietnamization of the war, Afghanization of the war. A lot of resources were invested in this case. The Afghan national security forces were increased up to 350,000 troops, the police and the army. However, the limited time that you have between 2010 and 2014 that was the deadline for the withdrawal of the bulk of the international forces from Afghanistan. The fourth generation was good. We created a lot of battalions. You could reach that limit of 350,000 troops, but qualitatively they were not able to take over the responsibilities after 2014 when the bulk of the international forces left.

Changing Context

Now we are talking about four wars in Afghanistan even if you do not take the war before the intervention, which was a war between 1979 to 1989 when the Soviet Union left Afghanistan. So when we talk about peace in Afghanistan, the context is changing. The context was easier in 2010 or 2005 than the context today because not only have the Taliban regrouped, they became stronger.

But at the same time, the international environment has changed. The regional actors are now not willing to cooperate the way that they were willing to cooperate in 2002 and 2001. In 2001, when U.S. forces intervened in Afghanistan, many countries in the region and also the international forces were all on the same wavelength. They cooperated, but now it is different. Now we are talking about whether peace is possible. Possible or not, this is the only way to bring some kind of situation that ends this war.

The Taliban always claimed that they would talk peace when the international forces leave Afghanistan. So a year ago, maybe in October 2018, the United States started to shift, to talk to the Taliban about the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan as a prelude to peace in Afghanistan because peace was used as leverage to pave the way for other elements of the peace process. Other elements are ceasefire, talking about the Taliban in the Afghan government in order to bring some kind of an understanding for the future of Afghanistan, and third, for the regional actors to support the establishment of peace in Afghanistan.


From October 2018 until September 2019, nine rounds of talks took place between the negotiators of the Taliban and also the top negotiator of the United States, Ambassador Khalilzad. In these nine rounds, two issues were agreed upon: first, the timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s guarantee that they would not allow Afghanistan to become again a base for the terrorist groups that attack the United States and its allies.

Now, these two issues also related to other issues. One was a comprehensive ceasefire and the other, the talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. However, when the two issues were about to be resolved, about to be agreed upon, the Taliban’s attacks in Kabul and the increasing violence led to President Trump canceling talks with the Taliban. Since then, there have been a lot of international movements to revive these talks with the Taliban because the talks at least paved the way for other issues, for other elements of peace. In the past two months, the Chinese, the Pakistanis, NATO, and the European Union all tried to help the two sides to renew the talks.

An Informal Dialogue

Recently, two issues were promising for the revival of talks. First, the Taliban and the Afghan government and the Afghan people all want the talks to be renewed. Secondly, in order for talks to be renewed, some measures of confidence building were put in practice. One was the exchange of prisoners and the other one was the United States, China, and the Taliban starting a kind of informal dialogue between Afghans and the Taliban, between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Chinese initiative is going to take place in a few days and Afghanistan has a delegation. The Taliban has a 12-member delegation. We are going to start an informal dialogue in China.

Prisoner Exchange

The second is the exchange of prisoners. Two professors of the American University of Afghanistan were kidnapped by the Taliban in 2015. And then yesterday it was announced that there would be an exchange of three Taliban members who were held in Afghanistan since 2014.

See the rest of his talk…