The Strategic Consequences of the Failure in Afghanistan
(Amb. Ali Jalali, August 22, 2021)
Transcript available below
About the speakers
Ambassador Ali Jalali served as Afghanistan’s Interior Minister from 2003 to 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 also served as Afghan Ambassador to Germany and Designated Special Envoy to NATO. He is a Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. His most recent book is a military history of Afghanistan from the Great Game to the Global War on Terror. A former official in the Afghan Army, Col. Jalali served as a top military planner with the Afghan resistance after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo is the Founder and Chairman of the Westminster Institute. He has served as Advisor to Permanent Joint Headquarters United Kingdom and as Cultural Adviser to Regional Command South Afghanistan and to ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, Afghanistan. Dr. Sookhdeo has been a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Defense Academy in the UK and a Fellow of the Security Institute also in the UK. He received his PhD from London University School of Oriental and African Studies. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Unmasking the Islamic State and Understanding Islamist Terrorism.
Dr. Hy Rothstein recently was a longtime faculty member at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He spent considerable time in Afghanistan and is the author of Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare. He also contributed to and edited Afghan End Games: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War. Dr. Rothstein served in the U.S. Army as a special forces officer for more than 26 years. He is a graduate of the West Point Military Academy.
Robert R. Reilly:
I am Robert Reilly, the director of the Westminster Institute, and I would like to welcome you to our program today on the consequences of the strategic failure in Afghanistan. I am joined by three distinguished guests for presentation and discussion amongst them. The first is Ambassador Ali Jalali, who served as Afghanistan’s Interior Minister from 2003 to 2005, overseeing the creation of a trained force of fifty thousand Afghan National Police (ANP) and twelve thousand border police to work effectively in counter-narcotics, counterterrorism, and criminal investigation. He also served as Afghan Ambassador to Germany and Designated Special Envoy to NATO. He is a professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. His most recent book is A Military History of Afghanistan from the Great Game to the Global War on Terror. A former official in the Afghan Army, Colonel Jalali served as a top military planner with the Afghan resistance, the mujahideen, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo is the Founder and Chairman of the Westminster Institute. He has served as Advisor to Permanent Joint Headquarters United Kingdom and as Cultural Adviser to Regional Command South Afghanistan, and to ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, Afghanistan. Dr. Sookhdeo has been a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Defense Academy in the UK and a Fellow of the Security Institute, also in the UK. He received his PhD from London University School of Oriental and African Studies. He is the author of more than 20 books, including Unmasking Islamic State and Understanding Islamist Terrorism.
Dr. Hy Rothstein recently was a longtime faculty member at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He spent considerable time in Afghanistan and is the author of Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare. He also contributed to and edited Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War. Dr. Rothstein served in the U.S. Army as a special forces officer for more than 26 years. He is a graduate of the West Point Military Academy.
Gentlemen, thank you for joining me today to discuss: The Strategic Consequences of the Failure in Afghanistan. Ambassador Jalali, please begin.
Thank you very much and pleased to be here, and I appreciate giving me this invitation to share with you my thoughts mostly about the situation, the current situation in Afghanistan and the dramatic changes that are taking place there. Well, I am sure that all of you follow the media, the news about the situation in Afghanistan, and the crisis there and the sudden change of everything in that country, the sudden takeover of the Taliban of the Afghan capital, the collapse of the Afghan government. They all came at the same time in the last weeks of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, which by itself created a major problem and major chaos in Afghanistan that you can see in the media and on the TV screens. And the optics is not very good. The optics are very disappointing.
One question is how [and] why the Afghan national security forces crumbled so quickly in the face of the advancing Taliban, and how the Afghan government was collapsed so quickly. Well, it was quick, it was surprising, but at the same time one has to go back several months to maybe a year-and-a-half back to see that the process was set in motion in 2020 on 29th of February in Doha when the United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban, giving them some concessions and pledging that the U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan in 14 months with a major part of it leaving in four months.
In return, the Taliban pledged that they would sever ties with the Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, and will not allow these groups to attack, to use Afghanistan’s soil against the United States’ interests and other allies and will enter the negotiation with the Afghan government in order to reach a settlement, a political settlement to end the war.
Well, this agreement actually gave the Taliban an opportunity to wait out the withdrawal of the U.S. forces. The process that was expected to take place was very difficult to [do and] control the country and forces. For the U.S. it was very clearcut. They would withdraw forces on a calendar basis. The date was there. For the Taliban, they could take time. Their negotiation with the Kabul government and their pledge to sever ties with the Al-Qaeda were not timelined, were not benchmarked, so they can use that. When the U.S. said that the United States [and its forces are] leaving in 14 months, they just tried to run the clock.
They actually showed that they were serious to talk with the Afghan government, but one excuse after another to delay this. In fact, they were running the clock and they believed that with the withdrawal of the U.S. forces they will have a victory. On the other hand, they pledge that they would not attack U.S. forces for these 14 months, but they continued the violence. They were killing Afghans, not the Americans. So, by continuing this violence with the reduced U.S. support of the Afghan security forces, it meant that they will have major military gains, which will enable them to win either a military victory or a peace deal on their own terms. That was going on for that time. The cutting of ties with Al Qaeda and other extremist groups did not take place, according to [the] UN and others. They never sat to discuss seriously the peace with Afghan government. They continued their violence, so it means that gradually the Afghan security forces lost them.
Some people said the Afghan security force did not fight. They fought very well. They fought very hard. In the past five years forty-five thousand Afghan soldiers and police were killed in this fighting. Forty thousand civilians were killed or injured, and while the Afghan government security forces were dependent on support from outside, the Taliban continued to enjoy support from Pakistan, their safe havens and material support.
There was no symmetry, that with the reduction of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan, there would also be a reduction of support from Pakistan to the Taliban. That was a one-way deal, not a symmetry. It was a signal that this should happen, negative symmetry, but it did not take place, so gradually, in the [last] year-and-a-half the Taliban were gaining and the Afghan security forces were losing, particularly when the Air Force of Afghanistan dependent on outside contractors, foreign contractors, for technical support.
Those 18,000 contractors were supporting the Afghan Air Force, the main instrument of fighting terrorism and insurgency in Afghanistan but with withdrawal of these contractors, the Air Force’s actual efficiency and its capabilities were gradually degraded. Today, if you are looking at the Afghan Air Force, most of the attackers, the aircraft and also the helicopters, were 100 percent supported and maintained by contractors, outside contractors. With their departure the air force lost its grip. On the other hand, Afghan security forces were poorly led by the government itself. It was the political interference, lack of co-coordination, and the lack of logistics support and supply, actually, gradually degraded efficiency of it.
So, when the other date, the 14th of April, when Washington announced that the U.S. forces will leave by 11 September, and later the end of August, this gave them, the Taliban, another opportunity there. They thought that while the U.S. is packing up, this is the best time to escalate their violence and they did. In one [sense] the Taliban are an offensive force whereas the Afghanistan security force is a defensive force, defending districts, defending cities, but the Taliban do not do [that].
They actually concentrated against these targets consecutively, one by one, and they destroyed [them]. And finally, with the withdrawal, I think they demoralized the Afghan security forces, impeded the supply of flank security posts. In many cases some security outposts in areas ran out of bullets, out of food, out of gas, and therefore, then comes something, a traditional mechanism in Afghan society. That is the conflict resolution, traditional conflict resolution.
The tribal leaders and community leaders intervened, and when they saw the situation is such that Afghan security forces are isolated, they cannot get the supplies, the United States and NATO, who actually they were dependent on, are leaving, so they made local deals. That is always something in the history of Afghanistan, making deals. Most of these areas, district centers, and provincial centers fell to the Taliban through local deals. Many, many troops saw it [as] very futile to continue the fight without any kind of support. With the fall off these supports, the Taliban took over.
Now, what is going to happen?
Taliban in their public statements are saying the right things. It shows that they are changed from the 1990s. They want an inclusive government. They want to respect the human rights and norms, they want to protect the rights of women, they want the people to have a chance, the women to work, to go to school, to [have] a free media, all these things. Whether they are saying this in order to win international support and recognition or that they have really changed, maybe a young generation were exposed to some new experiences or change, but their ideology has not changed, so we will have to wait and see what is going to happen.
I think there might be change. They say openly that their ideology is the same but its implementation would be different, that is why people are uncertain. The mood in Kabul and other cities is now one of shock, fear, anxiety, and maybe some rays of hope [over] what will happen, so only this [coming] few weeks will tell us what is going to happen.
The leadership of [the] Taliban [is] back in country in Kandahar, and they are going to go to Kabul to discuss with the other politicians of Afghanistan, including former President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah, who is the Chairman of the National Council of Reconciliation and Mr. Hekmatyar to discuss the structure of the new government. People hope that this will take place soon.
Otherwise, they are now suffering in their day-to-day lives. The banks are closed. They cannot withdraw money. The prices of the commodities are going up. The exchange rate was going up. At the same time the security: the Taliban freed all prisoners in all these provinces, thousands and thousands of people, maybe ten thousand of them. Many of them were Al-Qaeda terrorists who were incarcerated by the old government. Some of them are criminals.
Today, there are many reports of criminality in some cities despite the fact that Taliban so far, their fighters, have shown some kind of discipline. They are not involved in illegal activities, no looting, no misbehaving. They are treating the citizens well now, but the situation can change when all these freed criminals and terrorists come back.
And then in Afghanistan in the past two months ten thousand foreign jihadists came to Afghanistan, and they are some of the jihadists who were freed from Kabul, [who] were received with open arms by their people in Pakistan, who went to Pakistan now.
So, we do not see what is going to happen. We do not know what is going to happen. Now everything is very uncertain and I hope that the Taliban will make good on their promises to agree to an inclusive government, protect the civil liberties, and the women’s rights, and also more important, they will not allow these foreign jihadists to get a foothold again in Afghanistan and use the Afghan soil for their terrorist projects.
One has to realize this is the final word. The final point I want to make is that the international jihadist groups use local insurgencies to advance their own global agenda, and local insurgencies are using these global jihadists to come to advance their own local agendas, so that the cooperation between them is something very organic. We will see what happens in Afghanistan. Thank you very much. I will stop here. Back to you.
Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo:
What the Taliban has shown is that they have what I would call strategic patience. They have resilience, they can emerge out of defeat 20 years ago, continue to fight an insurgency, and ultimately succeed. And I believe that this has been one of the great weaknesses, not just of the U.S. but of NATO, to understand that. When I was in theater, I remember well one of our most senior generals, British generals, whom I had served, outstanding. He was parachuted into Afghanistan with General Petraeus to use the tribal aspect that was done in Iraq as a way in which they could defeat a Taliban insurgency.
He went to the Pentagon and gave a lecture in which he said, “This Taliban, what are they? They have this dirty white garment, dirty AK-47. We will wipe the floor with them.” He could not understand Pashtun tribal culture and this concept of strategic patience and resilience, that can keep fighting against all the odds. I think, furthermore, what Taliban has shown is strategic thinking, planning, and policy in a way in which the U.S. and NATO could not comprehend.
In many senses what has happened in Afghanistan today must be laid at the doorstep of the U.S. and her allies. Let me just illustrate this. If you take the U.S. allies in the Gulf, let us take Qatar, which is very significant for NATO, for America, UK, Australia, and others because we have our major base there, Qatar gave legitimacy to the Taliban, not just to house them but projected them onto the international scene, and so there was a legitimacy which they did not have.
Let us take the Gulf states. Taliban needed weapons. They needed money. The flow of money to the Gulf states and then the weapons that came back via Pakistan. We all knew that. When I was there, we had crates of money being shipped out of Kabul airport to the Gulf states, and it was accepted.
Then we come to the role of Pakistan. The Pakistan military and its intelligence service, ISI, is an industry in itself. The Taliban leaders were hosted in Pakistan. Their soldiers, their fighters, often went there for recruitment or for health reasons, and it was known that Pakistan was involved in this whole area.
I remember a major battle in which I was involved with as the advisor both for the Afghan forces and for NATO forces. The evening before the battle I asked the Afghan Brigadier, do you think Taliban knows what we are coming? He says in cryptic words, of course, and where would they go? The next day we attacked. They were not there because they crossed the border, and so this ability to use Pakistan as a springboard, to retreat and a springboard, we all knew it. We had the signals, the intelligence, but NATO chose to do absolutely nothing about this. We allowed a state of affairs to develop. We allowed our very allies in the region to be used in such a way as to give, let us just say, to strengthen Taliban.
Take the issue of finance and taxation. Taliban was able to create an alternative financial system in the country by indirect taxation, and this was known. Again, when I was in Kandahar, every lorry that entered the base had to pay $1500 U.S. Dollars. I think it was $15 billion dollars that was paid out, and we knew and yet we accepted it as normal. Those who benefited were the foreign contractors who used U.S. aid and all the other money for themselves, those policy-makers and others in the U.S., and some Afghan leaders, so when we think of corruption apart from strategic thinking, I think it is wrong to lay the blame wholly on the Afghan government and the failure on the Afghan National Army. I think this is very, very wrong. I think the U.S. and her allies, including the UK, must put their hands up and plead guilty.
I am speaking from personal experience. I think of a colonel in one of the Kandak battalions. I was asked to go and sit with him, meet with him, and discuss policy. He was a very unhappy person. He says I have nothing to offer my guests but potatoes. The insurgents out there are living very, very well because effectively NATO is feeding them. I cannot feed my guests and I cannot feed my own men.
And the issue of the payment of soldiers, for example. I remember there was a big issue of a banking structure and enabling soldiers in a battlefield situation to know that their money would be coming in so that they could feed their families.
I think what my experience and what I think we see now, like many of us who are very, very unhappy, is the fundamental failure of a nation and not just a nation, a group of nations bringing into being ISAF, NATO, and believing that they can transform a country, something which has not been done before. The graveyard of empires; it is known that you can conquer Afghanistan, you cannot hold Afghanistan, and to impose a Western system of democracy, of civil order organizations, it is not possible in a culture rooted in history, rooted in its own customary laws, its own sense of honor and shame.
And I think if one lesson can now be learned, it is that the U.S. and NATO, I think particularly of my own country, the UK, must have humility and they must recognize that their experts do not know as much as they claim to know, their policymakers are not very good, and their military may be good for fixed generation warfare, but when it comes to stabilization, to fighting an insurgency for an irregular warfare, they are not suitable for it, and ultimately, the strategic patience of an insurgency group will win.
Now, the problem that we have is now that many insurgency groups around the world know this. They have seen the strategic failure of the U.S. and now they begin to think they have a chance of success. Many now look at the issue of trust. Can the U.S. be trusted? Can Britain be trusted? The answer is no, because they will be used and then discarded, and so why become involved with the U.S.? Why work for her? Why be engaged if you know at the end she is not as great as she thinks she is, she can lose, and more than anything else she will betray you.
And this issue will impact heavily as we think of global insurgencies that are now developing, using, as His Excellency Ali Jalali has said, that the localized can impact on the international, and the international can impact on the local, and the insurgency movements that are developing across Africa, across some parts of Southeast Asia and South Asia are now going to be affected by what has happened in Afghanistan. Of course, there are those who say, well, these insurgent groups will fight against each other, there will be Sunni versus Shia, Al Qaeda versus Islamic State versus Taliban. I think this shows a lack of understanding of a much, much deeper issue of what culture means for a people, for nations, for tribes that are religious based and honor-based, and how they see the U.S. and the UK, not as a friend but ultimately as an enemy and one that they can never trust.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hy Rothstein, you quite some time ago predicted this outcome and this failure in Afghanistan. Can you now predict the consequences of the strategic consequences of this failure?
You know I think it was Yogi Berra that said, you know, trying to make predictions is very difficult, especially if you are talking about the future, so the answer is no, but as both of your guests have said, what has happened is not good for the United States. Most importantly, it is not good for the people in Afghanistan.
Let me just start by saying, first of all, it is really a pleasure to appear in this forum with you gentlemen, so thank you for the opportunity, and my comments are going to be both mostly based on my frustration with how the United States has engaged in Afghanistan over the almost last 20 years and to paraphrase, you know, Winston Churchill, I think we can say that for the United States, at least from my perspective, this is our most shameful hour.
We hear on the news, and then we read in the newspaper, current and former political, military, and intelligence officials, trying to pin the responsibility for this devastating outcome on everybody, you know, but themselves. I heard one former NATO commander, you know, say that we should have built the Afghan security forces more like the Taliban. People are saying this was inevitable. Even the president most recently blamed the Afghans themselves for what has transpired, as well as his predecessor.
To me, these statements are just infuriating. If these people knew that what has unfolded over the last few days was inevitable, why did they not reassess and adjust policy and strategy accordingly? If they knew what was going to happen and they did not make these adjustments, you know, I think they are criminally negligent for sacrificing the lives of thousands of people over the last 20 years, and if they were unaware that U.S. policy and strategy were not working, then they are just plain incompetent. You know, those are really the two choices for all of the people in senior positions that were involved.
So the fall of Afghanistan from my perspective, and I think both of my colleagues on this program have said the same in different ways, but the fall more than anything else I think is the result of U.S. political and military arrogance and incompetence at the senior levels over the last 20 years, and statements trying to attribute the disaster to Afghan corruption or their lack of will to fight or that a political solution was the only way that peace can be brought to Afghanistan, I think are all smoke screens. And the Biden administration’s claim, that the outcome would have been the same regardless of how long remained in Afghanistan, or the choice was simply between fighting the Afghans’ civil war or ending U.S. involvement, I think is also nonsense and a false choice.
Afghanistan could have been a success story, so the failure and I have talked about this before in this forum, but the failure really is a result of a fundamental design flaw in U.S.-Afghan policy that shaped the way the government in Kabul is or was, and the idea of imposing, you know, strong centralized, authority in a country like Afghanistan actually generated the insurgency against the country.
And the presence of security forces in the countryside that were non-locals were viewed as defenders of the central government and not defenders of the local population, so this policy of centralization really left the Afghan countryside, where almost 75 percent of the population lives, unprotected from the Taliban, but the United States fell into the pattern on insisting that contrary to the way Afghanistan has run in the past, we were going to impose a type of government and a type of security force that was really alien to the way things work in that country. So the American formula that was forced on the Afghans was never a formula for security, it was really the cause of instability and the growth and strength of the insurgency. This is why all of the money and resources that the United States poured into the country never thwarted the Taliban.
Now, I think we knew this. I mean it did not take long to see the evidence that the U.S. approach was not working, but rather than adjusting the approach, every administration either ignored the evidence or chose to reinforce failure. The U.S. military continued to rotate units into that country as if Afghanistan was an extension of the military’s national training centers. And then, you know, just inexplicably, winning was eliminated from the American political-military list of acceptable terms, and leaders started focusing on how do we get out of that country with some semblance, you know, of honor.
And this created a very bizarre situation under the Trump administration. The United States was talking directly with the Taliban, the enemy we sought to remove from power almost 20 years ago, and the Afghan government, a government that we helped create, was a government of our creation, was excluded from the negotiations because the Taliban demanded it, and to make things worse, the United States pressed the Afghan government to release thousands of Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners as a gesture of good faith.
American leaders seemed to be oblivious to their culpability in the deteriorating situation and in undermining the will of the Afghan security forces. If there is such a thing as a diplomatic do not do checklist, the United States violated every element on that list, and as a result, the Americans reinforced the Taliban’s claim that the Afghan government is nothing more than a puppet regime. All of this in my estimation dishonors the sacrifice that Americans and Afghans have made, who fought for decades to try to create a better country in Afghanistan.
And the Biden administration gave the Taliban the final green light in its announcement of an unconditional exit and the elimination of all meaningful combat support, and they did this with enough time for the Taliban to take action to make the 20th anniversary of 9/11 an important celebration for them, so while this failure is not an orphan, President Biden’s assertion that under his leadership the United States is back at the head of the table really rings hollow.
I think his actions have made allies feel that the United States cannot be trusted, and it has given our enemies reason not to fear us, but also, I think a signal that this administration really does not care about the lives and futures of other people, so the United States will be lucky to get a seat at the table and [it] would be very justifiable if the United States is not even invited to the next big meeting at all.
Robert R. Reilly:
Could the speakers address the question of the strategic consequences of this failure, perhaps not just for the United States, which you have already alluded to, but let us start with Central Asia. What does this mean for the countries contiguous to Afghanistan? Ali Jalali, is this just a victory for Pakistan and the ISI or do they have worries in the long run for what success means for the Taliban in Afghanistan? What about China and Russia or the Central Asian nations and Iran?
Well, thank you. I think this is a very good question, good topics to discuss. I think in the coming weeks and months this will be discussed at different forums and also think tanks. First state, Pakistan. Pakistan is, of course, happy that the Taliban that they have supported for a long time and they have influence over them and they have leverage over them is finally in charge in Afghanistan, but on the other hand, they should also realize that the victory of the Taliban, which in many countries, including Russia, the UN, Europe is still on the books as a terrorist organization.
This can galvanize other jihadists in the region. They galvanize the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, the other extremist groups with [the] Taliban, and Taliban has known that for many years they wanted the Taliban to be used to create a strategic depth in Afghanistan in their confrontation with India, but now there is also a possibility that Pakistan could become a strategic depth for the Taliban, for the extremists. Well, I do not know how Pakistan sees it, but some day this [may be] a possibility.
On the other hand, Central Asia. The thinking in Central Asia has always been influenced by Russia. Russia for a while were spreading the sphere of the instability in Afghanistan that will spill over to Central Asia, and therefore they [think] that Russia is the only country in that region to help them. And I think in the past few weeks when the Taliban actually made inroads in the north, Russia supported and reinforced the border forces of Tajikistan, which has 1500 kilometers of border with Afghanistan. And also, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, where some of these Central Asian countries are part of with Russia, they also met in Russia and promised that they will help them.
On the other hand, Russia is the only country that is making some kind of positive statements about the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, so Russia has been changing all the time. [When] the U.S. intervened in Afghanistan, they supported them. Later on they were happy, they wanted to let the U.S. bleed in Afghanistan, and later on they took after the withdrawal of forces in the transition they became active to use it for their benefit in Central Asia and in Afghanistan. Now, one reason that Afghan security forces became demoralized was the recent support from Russia to Taliban, and the support of Iran, Russia, China, and Pakistan to the Taliban, so I do not know what will happen.
If the Central Asian [states] believe that Russia can save them if the situation deteriorates in Afghanistan further, they should realize that in Badakhshan, [the] northeastern province of Afghanistan, many of the Taliban are Central Asians. They are from Tajikistan, and one of the people that we know from the past that he was part of the Tajik extremists is in charge of security in some districts bordering Tajikistan. In the same way, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were working together with Taliban so they have to be aware of these developments. It all depends what happens inside of Afghanistan.
If the Taliban are the way they say, [that this] is something that they seriously are committed to, maybe that will improve the situation to some extent. If they say they are not going to allow anybody to use Afghanistan territory against another country, but can they do that? Can their internal structure such that they can come up with a unified policy or not? Can they control all the ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan or not? So, as I said earlier, I think the global jihadist groups are going to use this situation in Afghanistan to boost their recruitment operations, propaganda, and information warfare. We will see. The situation may change in the next few months, but still that threat, that situation is still there.
Robert R. Reilly:
Dr. Sookhdeo, would you care to comment?
Yes, I just have a few thoughts to share. Dr. Rothstein has spoken of the failure of centralization. What may well happen is that given the force strength of Taliban as such, maybe seventy, seventy-five thousand fighters, they will be unable to hold the whole of Afghanistan, and the ungovernable spaces may well drift back under local rule of warlords, local autonomous groups, etc., which will not be able to be controlled by a strong center because that strong center may not be there, and at that point we may well see emerging elements which could cause us difficulties in the future, and those elements could be linked to outside elements.
I think that would be the first. The second is the Russian Ministry of Defense recently issued a report on Taliban’s linkage to Turkmenistan, and so Taliban are fighters being seen in the capital and others, so I think what we already are seeing is an extension of Taliban into certain Central Asian contexts and with some governments trying to shut close their borders, but I do not think that is possible.
I think Russia will be in a very difficult position. On the one hand, they are conscious of terrorism right on their doorstep because of their experience of Chechens and others. I remember Chechens had a very significant role in Afghanistan, so they are going to want to neutralize terrorism. At the same time, because they are the center of a security architecture for Central Asia, they are going to have to, let’s just say, adjust policies to ensure that extremists do not move into an Afghan context, which may well mean accepting elements which they are not happy with, and they are going to be pragmatic, I believe, and play both sides of the game.
When we come to Pakistan, I think Pakistan’s principal problem has always been the Durand Line and the divide between what is technically Afghanistan and technically Pashtun land in Pakistan, and so Pakistan is driven by the fear of an internal collapse because Pakistan is not a unity, whether it be the Baloch, whether it be the Punjabis, the Pashtun, they all want some kind of governance.
The Punjabis, of course, are the key players in all of this and so the dilemma facing any Pakistani government is if they take a hard line in Afghanistan, this could come back to bite them in Pakistan, so it is better to see a Taliban in place in Afghanistan, which they can then relate to, and then be the mouthpiece of internationally by actually positioning themselves as the greater, let’s just say, play on the world stage to represent interests all around that area. And I think that is what may well emerge to contain their own dissidents within Pakistan itself and I think that ethnic issue has not been probably understood in America and the West. They see it purely as Taliban, being played off by ISI or being used by ISI and the military.
I think when we come to China, China’s, of course, great fear is Xinjiang and a potential insurgency there, which could be fueled by Taliban in Afghanistan, and so I think what Russia is beginning to do is to say, look, we are not interested in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. We have never been there. We have never been a nation that has sought control of others, but what we want are good relations and we want economics. Now, I remember the $10 billion dollar deal, which the Chinese struck with the Afghan government for copper, and I think given the vast mineral resources, particularly lithium and others, China will be looking at an economic engagement within Afghanistan.
Now, Chinese policy has been based on, in terms of the Muslim world, internal and external, internal dominance of Han, which means oppression of a Xinjiang identity, external to bolster every group there on an economic basis. If Xi uses that same approach which is used in Pakistan, Turkey, and elsewhere, then Taliban may not pose such a threat as we would expect it to do, so I do not think we really know what is going to happen. We do not know how it is going to be played out. I think we are in very, very uncertain times, but I think we have to look at every option and that is going to require a totally different kind of analyst to interpret those kinds of trends and events.
Robert R. Reilly:
Yeah, I think the first thing is our enemies, China, Russia, Iran, are elated in the outcome of events in Afghanistan. The Indians not so much so because their influence and their investments in Afghanistan will probably go up in smoke right now because Pakistan will probably insist on that, which means tensions between India and Pakistan may intensify. As Patrick mentioned both the Russians and the Chinese have their own issues with Muslims and Islamist extremism, and at some point, the Taliban is going to have to reconcile any relations they have with those countries with how those countries treat their own Muslim populations, so that could be a potential, you know, hot spot, also.
And again, who knows how what has transpired will affect Pakistan. Pakistan itself has had problems in the past with their own extremist Taliban elements, and they dealt with that fairly ruthlessly in the past, so the Afghan Taliban has been acceptable to Pakistan in the past, but not any radical Taliban elements that operate in their own, you know, tribal areas, so I think the consensus is we do not know how things are going to work out, but I think there are a lot of potential areas where tensions in the region can increase dramatically, which would result in ungoverned spaces that possibly could foment terrorism against the United States and our allies.
Robert R. Reilly:
What can we say about Iran’s interest? They have always seen themselves as protectors of the sizable Shia population of the Hazaras up in the Mazar-e Sharif area. Can we expect the Taliban to respect Iran’s interest in that way or will they revert to the way they behaved before, which is a Sunni suppression of the Shia there?
I have discussed this in my article which is published this month in the Middle East Journal, “The Geopolitics of Afghan-Iranian Relations.” The relationship of Iran with Afghanistan had always been underpinned by its geopolitical interest, but the policy of Iran has never been devoid of ideological and nationalistic trends either, so Iran has followed a civil track policy in Afghanistan. On the one hand, it reached out to the Afghan government, supported the government in reconstruction projects, and at the same time security along the border in order to stem the flow of narcotics, but at the same time it reached out to minority groups like Hazaras and Shias. They created [and] they subsidized the educational institutions, religious organizations, media, and also even used money to influence elections and other activities in Afghanistan.
Now, all this was being done to offset the influence of the United States and any threats from the presence of the U.S. from actually coming to Iran from Afghanistan. At the same time Iran established [a] calibrated relationship with Taliban, not because ideologically they see eye-to-eye, but to use them as an offset against the United States presence there. Now, historically, Iran has been doing this. Iran has been doing this in this Middle East with proxies, and then during the war with Iraq they created a militia from the Afghan Shias, that they used against Iraq.
And then later on in Syria they created the Fatimid division of the Shia Afghans in Iran who fought in Syria, numbering from ten thousand to twenty thousand. Some of them returned to Afghanistan, and although after the war with ISIS they claimed that they had dismantled it, [in fact] they maintained some of it. The Iranian Foreign Minister openly said a few months back that these Fatemiyoun militias can be used in Afghanistan against ISIS or Daesh. And at the same time, Iran also helped some of the small, armed militias inside Afghanistan, central Afghanistan.
But now what is going to happen? The Taliban so far showed that they are accommodating to Shias and Hazaras. Even now, it is the holy month of Muharram, and Shias are celebrating in special ways, and Taliban went to sympathize with them, even helped them with this. They also even went to some Hazara areas to tell them that they had nothing to do with Hazaras, although in their rule in 1990s they massacred Hazaras.
Now, is this, as I said earlier, does this mean that they have changed, which I doubt, or it is just a kind of a propaganda or a kind of strategic ploy to win the support of the international community? When the Taliban establishes itself in Afghanistan, then Iran probably will be looking at the regional competitions, probably with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is one of the countries that was also involved in Afghanistan in the past few years, and in some cases, they were competing with Iran, but now Iran is in a bitter position geographically. It is next door, same language, same culture, and Saudi Arabia is far away.
At the same time, Iran will be looking for any regional competition, and also, Iran is now very much interested in this market in Afghanistan. Currently, the trade of Afghanistan, the majority of trade is done with Iran. Iran has actually dominated the markets in Afghanistan. In the past, it was Pakistan and China, [but] now it is Iran, so therefore, Iran will be interested to get involved in Afghanistan and also confront any competition that can come from Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hy, do you have any comments on [this]?
Yeah, I was going to [say that] Ali Jalali really has the expertise in this, but from what I have been able to observe over the years along the border between Afghanistan and Iran, they have made accommodations for generations, and trade with one another, and seemed to have, again, a relationship based on a combination that has endured for a long time, even when the Taliban was running the country a long time ago. And I suspect it will be the same today, so yeah, there is going to be ideological differences, but I think there is a practical reason to have cordial relationships with the people living in that border area, and that will be consistent with what I think has transpired in the past.
I would support both of what the two speakers have said. I would only add the following, that I believe that national interest comes first, followed by regional interests, and then navigating the ideological differences, and for Iran, her great issue at the moment has to do with Israel and the U.S., given that she is going to be looking at the regional interest of Afghanistan, is she going to want to pick a fight with Afghanistan? Is [the] Taliban going to pick a fight with her? I doubt it. I think what we see in Pakistan is Pakistan’s national self-interest coming first in terms of Afghanistan, may well be played out in Iran as she considers her self-interest and her need to have friends, allies, and others, and I think that may well mean that ideological differences, although they are there and they are acute, may well take a backstage position, a secondary position in favor of what is ahead.
And I think this is where the U.S. is going to be in a very, very real dilemma because with the loss of Afghanistan, the sense of failure and shame, how is she going to deal with Iran? There are those who will say take an even harder line so you do not fail again with Taliban in Afghanistan, withhold the seven-and-a-half billion that are currently in the U.S. banks and starve her to death with much greater sanctions. Is she going to take a harder position? Is Mr. Biden going to redeem himself by coming out now as the great fighter or are they going to have that ability to step back and not react as the U.S. did, I think, in 9/11. Without giving much thoughts to what to do, they engage in a reaction, which has led us where we are. The danger now is such a reaction. I think the U.S. will need to look at both Iran and Afghanistan from a different perspective, and not to be seen as the cruel victimizers full of vengeance, and really wants just to destroy. I am very, very concerned that the U.S. now does not overreact and Mr. Biden suddenly becomes the ultra-strong person.
Robert R. Reilly:
There have been several references to the internal situation of Afghanistan, that there are ungoverned spaces, that the Taliban forces only number some seventy thousand. Does that create an opportunity for any opposition groups that remain to mount an armed struggle against the Taliban or are they too demoralized to the point that there will be no opposition and the Taliban will be allowed to consolidate its complete control of the country?
Hy Rothstein:[I am] not sure who would support such a potential insurgency at this point. I cannot imagine the United States trying to do so, nor can I imagine any of our allies trying to support the resistance movement in that country now, so I think the likelihood of an insurrection is fairly low. Now, when you mentioned ungoverned spaces, Afghanistan, again, and you know from my reading, and again, Ali Jalali can probably shed some light on this, but when we talk about ungoverned spaces, we are really saying not governed from Kabul, but that does not mean that they are ungoverned.
They are normally governed pretty well, and whether or not the local people and local government and local security forces in those areas accept Al-Qaeda or ISIS or whatever really remains to be seen. You know they are not particularly inclined, I think, to accept outsiders like Al Qaeda to begin with. Those areas may be very well-governed locally and quite secure locally, and not a threat to the West.
You know, it all depends on what transpires in Afghanistan. You know in [the] 1990s, three factors helped the Taliban to win the support of the people very quickly. In a matter of two or three years they were able to control 90 percent of the Afghan territory. The reason was first, they promised that they will end the in-fighting of mujahideen groups, that they were fighting in each city and even in streets, every street of the cities, and the second, to disarm the militias, that they were creating insecurity for people and third, to unify the country.
This were things that people liked after the civil war in Afghanistan, after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and that has helped them. Three other factors actually contributed to their downfall. First, their hardline and harsh interpretation of Sharia for the Afghan people, who were unfamiliar with it, and the suffering that people had experienced because of this. Second was their discrimination against certain ethnic groups, Hazaras, Shias, Tajiks, which in Afghanistan traditionally they all lived in peaceful coexistence. They actually crossed that line. The third was they brought the foreigners (the Pakistanis, the jihadis, the Al-Qaedas) and when the United States intervened, that whole machinery of Taliban collapsed in two months because people, many people, did not want them. The B52 helped them to make it happen.
Now, again, if Taliban, as they say, are changed, probably then the situation will be different. If not, you will see that the resistance will start coming. Today, in three provinces of Afghanistan in Nangahar, in Khost, in Kunar, when Taliban raised their flag and brought down the national flag of Afghanistan everywhere, there were major demonstrations in these three provinces. They raised the national flag of Afghanistan and brought down the flag of [the] Taliban, and they reacted [to the] Taliban, and some clashes took place in Jalalabad. One person was killed, and a writer says three people were killed.
This is going to continue, that kind of the reaction. A woman yesterday actually came out and said we are here, still here, if you believe that it is the 1990s, it is not. Then in Panjshir, which is not under Taliban control yet, the First Vice President of Ghani, [Amrullah Saleh], said that Ghani is gone now, [and] according to the Afghan constitution, I am the president now of Afghanistan. And he invited all the soldiers who stopped fighting to come to Panjshir. They are opening a new front against the Taliban, they say.
Well, these actions may be at the beginning now not very strong, but if the Taliban behavior continues, oppression continues, and their policies later on when they establish themselves become very suppressive, then you will see that kind of resistance come up. This is in the blood of Afghans. When that takes place, then regional actors will intervene. Iran will do the same thing as they did in Yemen, in Lebanon, and in Syria. They will revive the Fatemiyoun to fight on their side. India will intervene. Pakistan, too. Then the situation will become something like what happened in [the] 1990s, so I do not know. I hope this does not happen, but this is the dynamics of society in Afghanistan.
Will the Taliban Impose a Strict Interpretation of Sharia?
Robert R. Reilly:
Ali, you expressed some skepticism as to whether the Taliban has changed its stripes. If they have not [changed], will they attempt to enforce as severe an interpretation of the Sharia as they did before, which alienated so much of the population, particularly now after 20 years when the population has not been under that kind of legal rule?
That skepticism is there. There are two things to look at. First of all, from [the] 1990s many things have changed in the region and also in the minds of the people. This is a new generation of Taliban now. This is not only the only Mullah Omar-Taliban, this is Mullah Ghani Baradar’s Taliban now. They are young, they were exposed to modernity during these years in the Middle East, in Qatar, in Dubai, and for one thing in [the] 1990s they were against technology, against TV, and they even banned taking pictures. Today, there is all [of the] social media and also all the electronic media to express themselves.
Yesterday, the Tolo News [channel], a private TV [channel] in Afghanistan, had an interview. The Taliban spokesman was interviewed by [a] woman journalist. [That is] something unprecedented. Does it mean change? Maybe, there is a change, but whether this will translate into action when they establish themselves or not [is unknown].
On the other hand, [the] Taliban also do not deny that their ideology is the same. They say ideology or the Islamic character of the state is still the same, but the implementation might be different, so we do not know. I think it is too early to take the Taliban by their words and to believe what they say. I think that will take time to see what is happening. On the other hand, Afghanistan’s society has changed. The resistance against that kind of suppressive action that was in 1990 is quite possible, so I think we have to put all these together and see what is going to happen in Afghanistan. Thank you.
Robert R. Reilly:
Taliban’s Deobandi Understanding of Sharia
I would like just to – and thanks, Ali, so much for what he said, which I fully support. I just want to make a comment on Taliban’s understanding of Sharia based on their Deobandi interpretation. I listened to one of their senior leaders yesterday, who put forward a very interesting proposition. He said, we know that we have killed many people and that we did wrong, and we are asking for forgiveness, that you forgive us.
Now, intriguingly enough, in Deobandi Sharia theology that is an issue.
There are two key principles. One is that if you are going to develop an ethical framework, you must first look at the consequences, and only after you have understood the consequences or arrived at that, can you define the ethical framework. And the second arises out of that in terms of action and is separated between what is permissible and what is honorable, so if what is permissible is someone has killed my brother, it is permissible for me in Pashtunwali tribal culture to kill him, that is not the honorable thing to do. The honorable thing to do would be to forgive him because of the potential consequences.
So, listening to the Taliban leaders yesterday, what struck me, what they had actually traversed into that Deobandi theological position, which is very much in Catholic theology, Aquinas. It is remarkable, the similarity, which leads me to wonder whether there are now new thinkers within Taliban that are more theologically versed, particularly in their extreme interpretation of a Deobandi theology, but is willing to enter that pragmatic area where they are separating customary law with Sharia law.
Now, if that be the case, then I think there is a very, very slight possibility of hope for a change because they may well be saying to their fighters, do not practice revenge, forgive, and they are saying to others, please forgive us because we are going to have to find a way together, and I think we need to remember that Taliban fighters have mothers, they have sisters, they have families, they have communities, and many of them will want to go back home and build their lives. I know that seems pie in the sky at this time, but they are also human beings, and I think somehow, we have to find a way of allowing space.
Now, do I trust them? The answer is no.
Do I believe that there is an inherent change? That may not be the case, only time will tell, but I was impressed yesterday by this discussion on forgiveness, which goes into Deobandi theology in terms of ethics. That gives me a very, very small degree of hope.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, [that] Tolo TV is still operating is interesting in and of itself.
Yeah, yes, it is operating here.
Will the Taliban Cut Ties with Al Qaeda?
Robert R. Reilly:
The remaining U.S. interest in Afghanistan is that it not become a base for terrorist action and the Taliban gave the United States a pledge that it would actually fight the Islamic State in Afghanistan. On the other hand, there are reports that when they let the prisoners out of the Bagram Air Base prison, it included releasing ISIS members, so, Ali, first you. Do you think they will hold that pledge?
I think, yeah. I think if they are looking for international recognition and outside support, which Afghanistan needs, I think they will try to confront or not allow terrorist organizations to use Afghanistan’s territory against the U.S. interest because they know very well that the United States still has over-the-horizon capacity to attack them, and then in that case, there will be sanctions. And is it worth it for them to do that? Therefore, maybe they will be encouraged to do that if they are looking for [recognition]. I do not think they are [such an] ideologically-based organization anymore [that they would] sacrifice everything just for an ideology, so I believe that there is a possibility that they will fight ISIS there in Afghanistan.
Robert R. Reilly:
Thank you, Ali.
I agree with what Ali is saying. Conflicts are already emerging between ISIS, Taliban, and AQ, and it may well be that at some point they may unite, but at this moment in time, given Taliban’s accord with the U.S. and statements concerning insurgencies, particularly ISIS, this has annoyed ISIS very much with Taliban. Now, those prisoners have been released. It will be difficult to detain them. The question is what happens with those prisoners, where do they go, who are they going to be allied with, so I think in the short-term Taliban will be thinking pragmatically.
Again, to give an illustration from yesterday, [during] the press conference, behind the speakers was a painting of people. Historically, the Taliban would have destroyed all pictures of people, yet they did a press conference with that. Now, that could be they are presenting a soft face, but it could be that ideology is beginning to take a second place. And the first point is going to be them establishing a state, getting some kind of economic policy going, unifying a nation and finding a way forward. I would not dismiss those areas and perhaps, Professor Ali, Your Excellency, given your position is whether it is possible to influence that direction. I know that will be very, very difficult to do, but it may well be that breathing space could allow for hope for the future.
International Sanctions on the Taliban
I think, as the European Union said today, that even if they do not recognize Taliban government as a legitimate government, they will continue to engage them in order to protect the rights of people and also to kind of moderate their policies, so this can continue. But if they are not recognized as the legitimate government, they cannot hope that they will be helped or that United Nations sanctions will be lifted. For the time being I think they will try everything in order to get these sanctions lifted and get some support from the international community.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hy, any closing thoughts before we sign off here?
You know, my experience in Afghanistan, with dealing with Afghans, is they are probably the most practical people that I have ever met anywhere in the world, and [with] the Taliban Pashtuns there is also a practical nature to them. And the reason why they fell so quickly in 2001 and 2002 is they lost the practical nature of what it is to be an Afghan. I am hoping they do not make that mistake again, so I suspect they will be practical enough to survive in the international community, but I do not see them in any type of liberal order in the future. Hopefully, again, the changed society that you both spoke about will force the Taliban to accept the nature of that change, especially among a very high percentage of the Afghans who are very young right now and who have grown up under some degree of freedom. Again, if they are practical, they will accept that and go with it.
I would just make a very quick comment on sanctions in the U.S. I would hope that the U.S. does not apply a blanket approach to sanctions. If she can release, for example, the seven-and-a-half billion [dollars], but somehow find a way in which that money could go to assist the people of Afghanistan, [with] education, particularly, food, health, and others, and not be diverted into military, if that is possible.
I think if the U.S. goes for a blanket approach to sanctions as she has done in Iran, for example, this will only hurt the ordinary person, who will be extremely vulnerable because if you look at the GDP and their income, it was dependent very much on the U.S. If they are hurt, this will only increase radicalization and hatred for the U.S., so I think that would be my closing comment, that somehow the U.S. will have to navigate the economic issues that support the peoples of Afghanistan and not a military architecture of Taliban.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, thank you very much. I am afraid we are out of time. I want to thank our three speakers, Ambassador Ali Jalali, Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, the Chairman of the Westminster Institute, and Dr. Hy Rothstein for joining us today to discuss the strategic consequences of the failure in Afghanistan. I invite our viewers and listeners to go to the Westminster Institute website online to find our other videos on our YouTube channel, discussing not only Afghanistan but Russia, China, and other urgent, contemporary, national security and geostrategic issues. Thank you for joining us. I am Bob Reilly, your host.