A recent seminar hosted by The Democracy Forum at London University addressed the challenges facing Afghanistan as it navigates the complex road to peace.
Lord Bruce, President of The Democracy Forum, opened by thanking H.E. Ambassador Tayeb Said Jawad for giving his time and TDF for conceiving the seminar topic. He said the present situation of the Afghan people and Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbours are a recurrent concern for The Democracy Forum and Asian Affairs magazine, as are the consequences of global power politics for its internal security. He spoke of Afghanistan’s ‘unique set of challenges’ that reflect and reinforce circumstances of its historical geography. He explained how the British rulers of India, Lansdowne, had created the Durrand Line as a Line of Control that was arbitrary and which divided Afghan areas and left motives for future tensions. He spoke about the ethnic and ideological fragmentation that impedes unification under a single Afghan government. Facile optimism is out of place, he said, but, in light of recent ceasefires and the US mission to Doha etc, there is some hope for a negotiated settlement and a glimpse of hope for the future.
His Excellency, Ambassador Tayeb Said Jawad, referred to the seminar’s ‘ambitious agenda’ of discussing all Afghanistan’s challenges in one afternoon, but he looked forward to the speakers’ recommendations. He expressed appreciation to western countries for their help in Afghanistan. He then spoke of conflicting reports on peace in Afghanistan and of alternatives to the traditional wisdom that exists about how to proceed with the peace process. The Afghan government is often asked if it has a peace plan. The answer to that is yes, but it is a public relations document rather than a roadmap. A peace concept is needed, rather than a peace plan. Ambassador Jawad argued against the frequently expressed view that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict – there is always a military solution, he said, if you or your enemy can afford it. Therefore, one enters into a peace process only as a result of weakness on both sides. Ultimately, a practical, strategic (not tactical) approach to peace in Afghanistan is vital, including talking to terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network or IS – this is the reality of war. There is a need to engage, he said, but that once the process began there would be rapid progress.
Before introducing the first two speakers, Chairman Dr John Hemmings of the Henry Jackson Society drew comparisons between North Korea and Afghanistan regarding issues of sovereignty, security and economic prosperity, as well as the importance of the art of diplomacy,
Dr Barnett Rubin, Associate Director, Center on International Cooperation at New York University, said that ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’. He looked at international aspects of conflict in Afghanistan and focused on questions of what the strategic position of the country would be after a peace agreement, especially the role of the US and US military forces. He spoke of the Taliban’s desire that all foreign forces should withdraw from Afghanistan. He went on to say that this was also the desire among neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Iran and China. So there is a ‘convergence of interest’. Dr Rublin also talked about the political importance of Afghanistan’s inability to produce enough resources to fund its own state and so it relies on foreign assistance.
He described Afghanistan’s historic status as a buffer state between the British and Russian empires as well as the Durrand line as buffer zone. Dr Rubin went on to say that Afghanistan was now even more dependent on foreign assistance because it is facing a higher degree of threat from its environment and also because there is more demand for social services from the Afghan population. He also spoke of internal breakdown in country, the exclusion of the Taliban from the Bonn process and China’s important role through its broad economic and security interests.
During a Q&A, Dr Rubin was asked to suggest a future counter-terrorism platform for Afghanistan to counter Haqqani, IS and related groups. He replied that there was a need for a global perspective on the conflict. One Afghan member of the audience accused Pakistan of responsibility for thousands of murders in his country through its support for Haqqani and other terrorist groups. This brought a reaction from a Pakistani audience member and there were heated exchanges for several minutes. Chairman Hemmings eventually brought the debate back to order.
Emily Winterbotham, Senior Research Fellow, RUSI, said there is a lot of confusion in Afghanistan concerning the future with numerous efforts to bring about peace over the years.
But, she said, there ‘does seem to be some momentum’ and alignment these days. There were both opportunities and spoilers at the present time. Regarding obstacles, Winterbotham asked the question, ‘Is the Taliban ready to talk?’The recent escalation of attacks suggested there was no sign of stopping the military campaign. Another stumbling block, she said, is the US approach to Afghanistan. It is ‘too black and white’ and fails to acknowledge the complex nature of the ground situation and its local dynamics. She spoke of the increasing fragmentation of the national unity government and internal divisions between other coalitions. Power brokers benefit from the current system and stand to lose if the Taliban is brought into government. Those who benefit from the status quo have no incentive for the conflict to end. Another obstacle to peace is Pakistan and its role in the conflict. The question, she said, is what will Pakistan do next?
On a positive note, the consensus is shifting to aneed to talk between the US and Taliban. The recent ceasefire demonstrated more unity between Taliban than previously thought. Winterbotham said the Taliban’s success does not rely on their own popularity but rather on the unpopularity of others. The Afghan people are willing to compromise in the interests of peace, even if this impacts on human rights – the main appetite in the country is for stability.
Dr Christine Fair, Associate Professor, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, spoke of ‘protecting Chabahar from Trump’. She said that the US government is lying to the public about how much of Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban – they are peddling a ‘blatant canard’ that the US is winning in Afghanistan.Dr Fair said that, while cutting aid to Pakistan because of their duplicity is something she supports in theory, it is a concern if Pakistan cuts off access to the GLOC(ground line of communications)or airspace which the US uses to supply Afghanistan’s national security forces. That would be a big problem if no alternative route was found.There is need for access to a deep sea port for a Northern Distribution Network to be viable – hence the importance of Chabahar. But Trump withdrawing from Iran nuclear deal means Chabahar is at risk. Afghanistan is a rentier state, Dr Fair said, dependent on foreign economic aid but also resource-rich.
Yet it is landlocked and the only access to warm waters is through Pakistan, which has not often been helpful in allowing Afghanistan to use Pakistani territory for the movement of goods. In particular, Pakistan has taken advantage of its geography to preclude India from engaging in heavy trade with Afghanistan. So Chabahar Port is important to India for transporting goods as well. A functioning port is key to an economically viable Afghanistan. If a void is left, she said, do we really want China stepping in? Dr Fair was scathing about CPEC because it is not economically viable and itfoments corruption. Dr Fair finished by stating that; ‘we are asking wrong questions’ regarding troops and conflict in Afghanistan. There is no solution to the Afghanistan question if we cannot find a way for Afghanistan to pay for itself.
Dr Antonio Giustozzi, Visiting Professor, King’s College, London, looked at ‘the shape of peace to come’ in Afghanistan, asking, ‘Is the red carpet about to be laid out for inclusive, democratic and enduring peace, or are things more complicated?’ Of course they are more complex, he said. Peace is not likely to come through a diplomatic process led by the US. He spoke of the role of Russia as a positive player in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s ‘business’ aspects, also how the Taliban thinks about what peace in Afghanistan would mean for them. Dr Giustozzi went on to say that the vested interests of various groups within Afghanistan would have to be secured – not only those of the Taliban but also other stakeholders.
During Q & As, one audience member said it was disappointing to hear so much credit being given to the Taliban, as they are controlled by Pakistan.Another asked what role there was for both India and Pakistan in Afghanistan regarding safeguarding their own interests?
Emily Winterbotham said Pakistan would not be happy with a peace process that would not allow them strategic depth in Afghanistan.
Christine Fair said she had only contempt for those who respect the role of the Pakistan army, as professional armies do not wage coups or run countries behind the scenes. Official British silence when they were in Helmand was the ‘height of cynicism’ as they knew full well Pakistan was behind the Taliban. But, she said, Afghans do also tend to externalise their problems. Some things cannot be blamed on Pakistan, bad as they are! Stability in Afghanistan is not possible if you ignore internal as well as external problems.
Rubina Greenwood from World Sindhi Congress stressed the need to look at the root causes of Afghanistan’s problems, and she highlighted Pakistan’s role in marginalising their own people such as the Sindhis and Balochis.
Barnett Rubin said ‘be careful what you wish for’ – weak states only become strong through ugly political and military processes and Afghanistan will be reliant on its neighbours, who will not change. He said the real role of the US is to help Afghanistan to make better deals with its neighbours in order to become stronger politically and economically.
Barry Gardiner MP (Shadow Minister for Trade) closed the seminar. He said there is a need to talk about problems of identity politics in Afghanistan which can bring a sense of conflict that is incompatible with peace. He congratulated the speakers on their expertise and ended by saying something that was very relevant to Afghanistan: ‘The fundamental question of politics is how do we live with our neighbours.’
A large audience of 80-plus people attended the event,including several embassy representatives (Afghan, US, Russia, Indonesia, Japan, Uzbekistan), FCO people, post-grads, students, members of think tanks including Chatham House, media, activists and people from NATO and the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group.