The Managing Editor of Registan.net talks about lessons to be learned from the US engagement in Afghanistan, the new Russian strategy in the Afghan and Syrian conflicts and the threat of militant Islamist groups to Central Asia.
- Kabul just hosted the “Quadrilateral Coordination Group” meeting to identify ways to initiate direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Members of the group – the US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan itself – were optimistic, stressing in their joint statement that they “made progress on a roadmap” toward peace talks with the Taliban. The Taliban itself, however, calls the group meetings “useless.” What do you think about the idea of making a deal with the Taliban and its prospects this year?
- Afghanistan has been in a state of conflict for some forty years now, and it’s difficult to imagine that enough has changed this year to bring it all to an end. Maybe the most significant change in the past year, though, is an official leadership change for the Afghan Taliban that at least gives us someone with whom to potentially negotiate. The splintering within the Taliban movement in response to the leadership change also gives the new leader, Mullah Mansour, some motivation to come to the table if he sees the opportunity to gain allies against breakaway factions, at least one of which has aligned with ISIS – which gives the Afghan national government and the Taliban a common enemy for probably the first time.
But no side is going to exhaust its resources anytime soon and be forced to negotiate anytime soon. Both the Afghan government and the Taliban are resupplied and refinanced by foreign funders, and neither is likely to be able to break the military stalemate that this post-2001 phase of the conflict has become at any time in the near future. Meanwhile, ISIS is already fully engaged fighting on two fronts in Iraq and Syria, and is likewise unlikely to suddenly pivot to the Afghan conflict to an extent that would really force the Taliban and the government to cooperate against them. So while we have a better chance of seeing negotiations than we did when the Taliban was officially led by a dead man for the past few years, and new Afghan leadership in Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah seems more genuinely interested in negotiating than the ever-paranoid Karzai was, so far we don’t have any new developments that might incline either side to make the serious compromises that would probably be necessary for a negotiated peace.
One of the biggest roadblocks is that the Taliban want to govern, and will likely want at least a power-sharing agreement (and probably want territory they would control, even if it nominally remained under the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan). No matter how much the current Afghan constitution leaves to be desired in terms of human rights, inter-ethnic equality and women’s rights, it’s still difficult to imagine the Taliban as a whole agreeing to abide by it. It’s likely that if some faction of its leadership agrees to accept the constitution and participate in the democratic process, the movement will further splinter and it may take many more years to militarily defeat or co-opt dissenting commanders. So, to make a long answer a little shorter, there are no quick and easy answers in Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan have suffered so much in these forty years of conflict, though, and they deserve a chance at peace. Coming to the point where there are at least some actors on each side who agree on that basic fundamental is some kind of progress.
- The US has been fighting the Taliban since 2001, but surprisingly the organization is not on the US “Foreign Terrorist Organization” list. Why? In general, how would you evaluate the US involvement in Afghanistan during the last 14 years? What successes it has achieved and what are the failures?
- The Taliban are not on the State Department Foreign Terrorist Organization list, but that is only one of several official lists of terrorist and criminal organizations that under US law authorize military, law enforcement and/or financial measures against members a designated organization. Under Executive Order 13268 the Taliban have been designated a terrorist organization since 2002, building on several earlier orders including one from 1999 issued by President Clinton . So the US government has actually designated the Taliban as a terrorist organization in one form or another since before we became involved on the ground in 2001, and they are clearly regarded as such by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in their public materials. And regardless of whether it was a good idea or a bad one, American, Canadian and European soldiers have sacrificed their lives and their health and spilled their blood fighting the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan and continue to die. We do make distinctions between the Afghan Taliban and some of its allies, including the Haqqani Network, the Pakistani Tehrik-e Taliban (TTP), and of course al Qaida, and the differing lists used by different government agencies perhaps reflects some of those distinctions. One of the most important of these is that unlike those other groups, the Afghan Taliban is really only interested in governing Afghanistan. Despite claims made by some of the Central Asian governments, we don’t have any evidence that they have ever conducted operations north of the Afghan border or elsewhere or that they have any particular interest in doing that. The same cannot be said for those other groups and other Taliban allies. Making this distinction may help create incentives for the Taliban to reject those allies and lay down arms in an eventual resolution to at least the main part of the conflict in Afghanistan, which would severely weaken the position of its more globally-focused allies.
Many books have and will be written about the successes and failures of the US intervention in Afghanistan over the last 14 years, so I won’t attempt to answer that in a few sentences. I think we can objectively say, though, that perhaps the biggest lesson we have learned from the past 14 years is that even a full-scale military occupation by the US and its allies was not enough to quell the insurgency, end the threat or revolve the conflict. The attempt cost many American, British, and Canadian lives as well as the lives of other allies, not to mention exponentially more Afghan lives caught in the crossfire. The lesson here, for me anyway, is that we cannot solve the problem of insurgency or terrorism by military means. It doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t use military means or lethal force judiciously, but it will never be enough. We cannot defeat a single insurgency, much less the complex problem of trans-national terrorist groups, with guns and bombs alone. This should give us pause and some sense of perspective and humility as we consider how best to deal with the problems that still face us and other states targeted by terrorist and insurgent groups around the world. As more and more actors become militarily involved in Syria and other conflict-ridden states I think this is a lesson we all need to keep in mind. The Kazakh scholar Erlan Karin, whom I respect a great deal, said in an interview about Syria a few months ago that in the international community, everyone “is talking about [more] war, no one is talking about peace.” [“ Все говорят о войне, и никто не говорит о мире.”] I think the long and brutal experience of foreign military intervention in Afghanistan should stand as a strong example of why we need to consider other pathways to resolving these incredibly complex conflicts other than pouring more gasoline on one part of the fire or another.
- On December 23 President Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan unexpectedly for many declared that the Taliban’s interests in defeating the Islamic State “objectively coincide” with Russian ones. How do you assess these developments in Moscow’s strategy? Do you think it will help to restore peace in this country?
- To me, this and other recent Russian statements sound a lot like Russia may be exploring opportunities to become involved in the Afghan conflict again, which sounds very much like looking for a chance to pour more gasoline on one particular part of the fire in the hope that it might overwhelm another section. We have tried all this already in the Afghan conflict. Russia – that is, as the “leading state” of the Soviet Union – has already tried full military occupation and propping up a loyal (and totally aid-dependent) government in Kabul and it not only failed spectacularly but arguably helped create the conditions of out of which the Taliban movement arose in the first place. They could, and do, make the same argument about the United States. I don’t think any more outside military intervention or support – whether that means troops on the ground or simply finances and weapons -- by any other foreign state is going to meaningfully help solve the Afghan conflict. It only gives the warring sides less incentive to negotiate peace. It strikes me as very interesting that in Syria and now potentially in Afghanistan the Russian government is doing exactly the thing it criticizes the US and NATO so much for doing – intervening in a foreign conflict. If NATO intervention in these conflicts won’t fix them (and I agree that it hasn’t), I don’t understand how Russia could genuinely believe that their own intervention will. We were all supposed to learn the nightmare scenarios for foreign military intervention in domestic conflicts in the 1980s because of how badly everything went in Afghanistan. In Russian you have that ingeniously visual saying, “ Наступить на те же грабли,” which has no equivalent in English that could do it justice. International cooperation is vital and necessary to restoring peace to Afghanistan and Syria, and Russia could be an invaluable partner in that effort, but I hope that doesn’t mean more military intervention (or worse, counter-intervention) from any foreign partner; this seems like a grabli we could hopefully all stop stepping on.
- Over the past year, Russian politicians, experts and media have frightened Central Asian countries with growing threats emanating from Afghanistan. According to them, significant forces of Islamist radical groups – IS, IMU, Ansarullah and others - have concentrated on the northern Afghan border and can any time cross the river. In your understanding, how real are these treats to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other CA countries?
- This question is particularly interesting in light of the previous one, since the shift in Russian assessments that you alluded to is that almost the entire community of “ekspertiza” spent most of the past year telling Central Asians that the Taliban and ISIS had formed a non-existent alliance, which in turn formed the basis of this narrative of a “growing threat to Central Asia emanating from Afghanistan.” The phrase itself has been used so often, particularly in article after article in the Tajik press, that I feel like someone should trademark it. In fact, I was sitting in the room at the Countering Violent Extremism conference held in Astana last June when one of these Russian experts featured on the keynote panel, chaired by no less than Prime Minister Masimov, told the audience that this purported alliance between the Taliban and ISIS was an imminent threat and even cited a specific number of militants – I think it was 4,000 that day – that he claimed were now “massed on the northern border” waiting to invade. I am not accusing all these Russian experts of deliberately lying -- perhaps they received bad intelligence or information that turned out to be incorrect and now have changed their stance in response to more accurate information. But I am deeply skeptical of all these related claims that some significant force of allied jihadist groups is poised to invade Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, or Turkmenistan.
Part of the problem with discussion of these groups – which I have covered at much more length elsewhere as part of the Harvard/Carnegie Islam in Eurasia project – is that so much of the press coverage and the resulting public discourse about them (both here in the US and in Central Asia) is just “experts” citing “experts,” and very few of these “experts” have any real independent sources of information or have the language skills necessary to read or listen to the material the jihadist groups publish about themselves. When we look at what the jihadist groups themselves are saying about their own plans or their own situation, we find that the IMU freely admits it has lost most of its manpower and funding and has splintered into tiny fragments that spend a lot of their energy arguing with one another. They complain bitterly that the Afghan people rejected them on their attempt to return to the country – so much so that they say some of their women and children froze in the mountains last winter when Afghan villagers refused to shelter them. Ansarullah is an even more marginalized group that has never claimed to have more than a few dozen members based in Pakistan, and while a lot of these small groups (including one faction of the IMU, but not Ansarullah) have pledged some sort of allegiance to IS in Afghanistan we have little to no evidence that ISIS is giving them manpower or funding in return or in some cases that ISIS leadership is even aware of their existence. ISIS factions that we can sort of verifiably identify, like Mullah Dadullah’s militants in Zabul (very far from the northern border), are encircled by the Afghan National Forces (ANF) and the main Taliban group, all of whom they are trying to fight at the same time just to hold on to a portion of Zabul province.
In short, I think the “growing” threat from Afghanistan (to Central Asia, at least) is vastly overstated and has been instrumentalized by Russian security commentators and by regional governments and some of their supportive “talking heads” because it fits a political narrative that each of these groups finds useful, in much the same way as the threat of the IMU or IJU – and more broadly, the “threat” of any Islamic religious belief not closely managed by the state -- has been instrumentalized for the past fifteen years. Same story, different acronyms.
Noah Tucker is managing editor at Registan.net and associate at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs Central Asia Program. He has worked on Central Asian issues since 2002 specializing in religion, national identity, ethnic conflict and social media and received an MA from Harvard in Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies in 2008.