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Negotiating with the Taliban
"Regimes like the Taliban have never survived throughout history. As dark and grim as the current situation looks— it's going to pass. Society will walk out of this. We're going to get through this."
The subject of this interview was personally involved in the negotiations and wishes to keep his identity anonymous for security purposes.
Faisal: How did you come to be involved in the negotiations between the United States and the Taliban?
The peace negotiations in Afghanistan— or the peace process as we called it, had two components. The first one was the US/Taliban direct negotiations, in which the Afghanistan government officials did not have any role. Usually, what would happen was that the US special envoy back in the day, which was Zalmay Khalilzad, would come to Kabul and brief the President, the chairman of the National Reconciliation Council, and some of our political leaders on developments of the negotiations. There were elements that involved the Afghan government, and they [the Taliban] would run it by them, or at least they claimed to have run it by them and have their approval. Sometimes it proved contentious and controversial. Once the US/Taliban agreement was signed in February 2020, the agreement provided that there would be direct negotiations between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. That round of negotiations started in September 2020. It was supposed to start in March, but because of the delays in the Fresno Exchange and all the other issues that were supposedly thought of as preconditions, the actual negotiations started in September 2020 and lasted until August 2021, when the Taliban returned to power.
My involvement was with the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban because I was working with a government agency that was called the “State Ministry for Peace.” This was the key organization in the Afghan government that was tasked with coordinating peace efforts. The peace architecture in Afghanistan had a council of leaders, the National Reconciliation Council, which was led by Dr. Abdullah, who was an election rival to President Ghani, to resolve the impasse. The reconciliation council basically gave that big high-level political decision-making authority to the council, which was composed of dozens of senior political leaders from various backgrounds and communities. Then there was a 30-member negotiation team, which in many ways was a very tokenistic team because it included representatives from different workforces, as opposed to being a very coherent team of top-notch negotiators that you would send, for example, in an international trade negotiation. There were representatives of the President, the chairman of the council, and other political parties. Then there was the State Ministry for Peace, which was this administrative body that was supposed to coordinate all of this. That was supposed to provide administrative, logistical, financial, and technical support in terms of research analysis, both to the Council for decision-making at the political level, and also to the negotiation team. I dealt a lot with American and European ambassadors, regional ambassadors, and our embassies abroad, trying to coordinate efforts and attract resources, but also to think about post-peace development and peace dividends.
Faisal: What are your thoughts on the United States’ withdrawal? Do you think it should have happened? What could have been done better?
I think there was an understanding that it was neither expected nor even welcomed for the US to stay in Afghanistan forever. People wanted the conflict to end, and people wanted the Afghan government to act in a much more independent and direct way— on its own terms. But the way the withdrawal happened, I'm not sure if it was done in the best way. A lot of people, when they talk about the fact that the withdrawal should have happened differently, they usually talk about timelines. People say the US should have stayed longer, and the withdrawal should have been done in phases. I'm not entirely sure how much of a difference that would have made. I think there were at least two components of this withdrawal that were managed badly. One of them was the political agreement that the United States signed with the Taliban. Because the fundamental premise of the agreement was that it would address counter-terrorism concerns of the United States and that it would provide for a meaningful political direct negotiation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. As a result, there would have been a more broad-based government, including the Taliban, and maybe some sort of constitutional processes at a later stage that would incorporate the Taliban's banking into the system, the conflict would end meaningfully, and there would be a ceasefire and cessation of hostilities. None of that happened.
In many ways, the political agreement did not serve any purpose that it promised to. It did not do any good for anybody except the Taliban— to a significant degree. It legitimized the Taliban because, for two decades, they had been saying that the government in Kabul was an American puppet government. It did not have authority and legitimacy, and they wanted to talk directly to the Americans, who they claimed to be the authorities who actually called the shots in Afghanistan. The minute they sat down at that table, directly across from American officials, they proved their point to everybody. Particularly to their own constituency and their own fighters. They took this as an opportunity to reinforce their idea that, “Hey, what we've been telling you is right because now we're talking directly to the American government.” You would see the effect of that in much more robust and tangible terms when the American negotiations ended, and the Afghan government negotiations started. The Taliban would act as if they had finalized everything with the United States, and they really did not have to do anything in the direct Afghan negotiations. That they were part of the negotiations with the Afghanistan government only as a measure to fulfill their commitments in the previous agreement with the United States, not as a meaningful engagement.
If the United States had withdrawn without signing a deal with the Taliban, the United States would be in a better place right now. Afghanistan, its government, and its people would be in a much better place right now because the agreement killed the morale of Afghanistan's defense and security forces. It boosted the motivation and incentive of the Taliban that ultimate victory was very much within reach, that if they were patient just a little longer, they could have everything. If the United States wanted to withdraw within that time period, if it had been forthright with the government in Kabul that the US wasn’t willing to fight this fight anymore, planned to leave, and it’s up to the Afghan forces to fight back and establish peace as best they could, things would have been in a much better place.
The second issue is that the withdrawal happened in an extremely chaotic, disorganized, and mismanaged way. Even within the time period that the political agreement with the Taliban provided for the American forces to withdraw from Afghanistan, there were opportunities for the United States to coordinate with its international allies and partners: the Europeans, Arab members of NATO, and regional actors. More importantly, they could have coordinated with the government in Afghanistan in terms of handing over the responsibilities, the bases, and the military equipment and settle on a much more solid and sober transition plan that would ensure the sustainability of the military efforts against the Taliban by the government of Afghans and its security forces, which they did not.
When they left the Bagram air base, they just left it empty without telling anybody in the government of Afghanistan. It took a couple of days for people to notice, and then a team— a very small team of soldiers from the government and security forces— went to occupy the base. In some parts of the country, when they left, they dismantled, for example, the Kandahar airport satellite system and air navigation system. In some parts of the country, the Americans leveled the bases to the earth. They ruined every building, which didn't serve anybody. The coordination of it could have been done in a much more effective and efficient way. And I think that those two were the key problems from my perspective.
Faisal: Why do you think that we, the United States, essentially sidelined the Afghanistan government and dealt primarily with the Taliban? Are you saying that you would have preferred it if we didn't destroy the weapons and the bases, but instead helped to transition it over to the government powers that be in Afghanistan?
We do have to acknowledge that the government in Kabul was not necessarily the very best partner for the United States at the time. That mutual relationship had been deteriorating for a long time. By the time we got to the point of the withdrawal, the political agreement with the Taliban, and the peace process, the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, had a very problematic relationship with the government in Washington. In Washington, you had a government that was led by Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and the likes of them. There was not a lot of space for engagement and negotiation. President Ashraf Ghani was very self-centered and, in a lot of ways, a delusional personality. Because of his experience of living for decades in the United States, teaching in top American universities, and working in big institutions, he thought that he knew the Washington environment very well and that he would be able to develop much wider relationships in the political scene in Washington, which of course failed. I think that diplomatic relationship was a component of that.
When President Biden came to power, because of a huge misjudgment, I would say, officials in Afghanistan, top military and political officials, particularly those around President Ghani, thought that if President Biden had come to power, he would revoke the Doha deal, the agreement the United States had signed with the Taliban. And that he would reinforce the American commitment to stay in Afghanistan for longer, that the withdrawal would basically come to a halt. That was a very misplaced optimism because President Biden not only had a contentious relationship with Afghanistan in recent years, he was one of the people that, even as vice president in the Obama administration, was fighting to get out of Afghanistan. He had lost that battle to the likes of Hillary Clinton, Robert Getz, and others. It was one of the key policy issues in the Obama administration where Biden's views were ignored very robustly. And when he became the President, he wanted to handle that portfolio the way he wanted. In a lot of ways, it was something very personal to him. In addition to that, he had a long history of projecting a very specific way of thinking about international politics; his comments and positions from the Vietnam War times all the way to Iraq and Afghanistan were in many ways, very consistent. When President Biden came to power, he stood by the deal that the Trump administration had signed. Not only did he stand by the deal, but in many ways he capitalized on it; then it became very problematic because the expectations in Kabul were the opposite of what he did. So I think those were some of the reasons that made it very, very problematic.
Faisal: Is the Taliban a reliable ally in the fight against terror? Do you anticipate Afghanistan becoming a hub for ISIS and other groups now that they're in power?
It's not so much up to my anticipation or expectation of how the Taliban will perform. The Taliban will not be a reliable partner for anybody in the world because of the specifics of their political and religious thinking. But it’s not August 2021 anymore. We're not in September 2021. We're not even in December. We have more than one and a half years worth of the Taliban being in power and evidence to point to. There are enough reports from credible sources, be that the American military officials, the UN Security Council's Sanctions Monitoring Committee, annual counterterrorism reports, and the central command's reports that indicate there has been an unprecedented upscale of terrorist activity in the country and it is returning to a hub for regional and international terrorist networks. People from Central Asia and Pakistan are moving to Afghanistan for this reason. The authorities in Kabul have not only turned a blind eye to this, but they have welcomed it.
There are credible reports by the UN Security Council that the Taliban have issued passports to leaders of regional terrorist networks, be they from Pakistan, China, or from Central Asia. The major incident when the US military carried out a strike in Kabul that killed the leader of Al-Qaeda was a very clear example. It's corroborated by multiple reports now that he was there in the protection of very senior Taliban leadership. That he was welcomed there. His family had moved months ago to the city and they had access to resources. But that's one case and not the only case. That's one case that became very public, and a lot of people might prefer to read the outcome of that incident as proof that the Taliban is a reliable partner or that the United States has the capacity to act from a distance. These so-called over-the-horizon capabilities work for counterterrorism. But the actual fact is that it showed the scale of the threat that's developing in Afghanistan. The fact that you might be able to control or pinpoint one incident, one of these people, two of these people… it becomes too many at some point, and it's going to become very difficult to even navigate that space to get enough information about what's happening. The more time passes, the more uncompromising, inflexible, and intransigent the Taliban becomes. This is not only on political and human rights matters, on issues of, for example, women's liberties, freedom of expression, and broad-based governance, but it also relates to issues of security and counter-terrorism.
The more time passes, the more irresponsive the Taliban becomes to international and American demands and requests on characterism issues.
Faisal: How do you think the international community should respond?
I think the difficulty of that environment, and the acknowledgment of that difficulty, is the first step to doing anything better. The international community has to acknowledge that it cannot go on with business as usual. It cannot pretend that there are things that it still can achieve with the same approach. I think there are a series of specific things that the international community can do. The first one is coordination. Internal coordination among credible members of the international community. Because from what I am seeing, I don't see that.
Internal coordination is very, very important. I think the international community has to stop sending dozens of envoys to the Taliban every week. From almost any European country to the United States, Canada, and Australia— major Western countries, there are two senior diplomatic officials that are dealing with Afghans, and each of them has their own agenda. Americans, for example, have a representative for human rights and women's issues, and then they have a charter affair in Doha. Then there are UN officials. There is a humanitarian coordinator. There is a special reporter for human rights. There are special representatives of the Secretary-General. So you see how chaotic this space is. Coordination of those efforts and actions would translate in two ways. First, the UN office in Kabul should become the only address for international engagement with the Taliban in Kabul. That engagement should only happen through the Taliban's so-called Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I think the international community should stop going to Fandahar; they should stop going to Taliban leadership because we should not get ourselves embroiled in the internal politics of the Taliban. That only gives them an upper hand to play the good cop/bad cop, and it minimizes international leverage.
If there is a second one outside Kabul, they should only talk to the Taliban political office in Doha, because that political office does not serve this purpose. The international community should work with the Qatari government to close down that office. The purpose of that office was to be the address for political engagement for peace negotiations. Now that it does not serve that purpose, there's no point in having it. Those two are important in terms of structures and processes. In terms of substance, the international community has to have a clear list of demands, although it might not be the most appropriate word, but the list of things that it wants to see in Afghanistan.
I think talking to the Taliban on an issue-by-issue basis hurts the international position, and, more importantly, only increases the suffering of the people of Afghanistan. Because if you look at the day that the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, the world was talking about an inclusive government, freedom of expression, women's political participation, and all of these issues. Right now, all of those demands have been retracted by the Taliban. They allow the women in Afghanistan to work with the UN agencies, but not with the local NGOs; women aren’t allowed to go to high school or university, they aren’t allowed to work in the government, have political participation, and have no freedom of expression— they are only working with the UN agencies. Nearly 20 million women in Afghanistan are reduced to minimalistic and survivalist job opportunities of probably 5,000 or 3,000 women in the UN agencies. That doesn't help the people of Afghanistan. It doesn't help the situation, and it only makes it worse for the future. There has to be a more comprehensive negotiation strategy with the regime with specific incentives with leverages to pull.
We constantly hear from American and UN officials that enforcing travel sanctions is very difficult, and they cannot do it. It's up to the different and various countries to abide by them. But while they cannot enforce the sanctions, they can use other levers to pull with the countries who violate those sanctions, right? If a country in Central or South Asia or a country in the Middle East invites the Taliban constantly to different meetings, Taliban officials who are on the sanctions list, there have to be consequences for that.
The money that goes to Kabul, the weekly $40 million, there is growing evidence of issues with that. The money is not dispersed efficiently, effectively, and equitably. There are communities that are deprived of humanitarian aid, and there is a lot of waste in that. That money finds its way into the Taliban's hands, and it has growingly become a major source of Taliban survival. This is on top of whatever resources the Taliban collect in return, to which they don't offer any public service in terms of education, healthcare, security, or anything of that sort. These humanitarian development economic efforts have to be calibrated much more effectively to find intervention points and areas where you can actually target the regime and force them into better behavior. There are ways to facilitate the survival of voices who resist the Taliban in this environment.
Women, in particular, who, against all odds and in the face of all the threats, continue to take it out to the streets and demonstrate.
Faisal: We have seen significant pushback, not just from women, but also from men who walked out of universities when women were banned. Do you think any of those efforts are going to move the needle at all or have any impact on the Taliban, or are they probably just going to keep doing business as usual?
I don't think it's going to change much in the actual Taliban calculus in terms of how they want to govern society. I don't see any possibility of that.
Faisal: Some point out that the Taliban are ruling over a very different population than they were previously. Do you think that will impact how they operate or how the people respond to their rule? There has been a significant influx of people into the country recently. How do you think that's going to affect things?
The change in the population they rule over does not necessarily mean that the Taliban will change fundamentally in how they govern or how they think about the state, society, and issues of this nature. The Taliban strongly believe that one of the reasons they've been able to survive this long is their very strict adherence to this sort of medieval thinking and policies. If anything, the change in the society and their resistance would only push the Taliban further to become more rigid, to hold their ground so that it doesn't fall apart rather than admit this is a different society in which we have to develop a new relationship with the people they want to govern. I think it's going to lead to the opposite, and we've been seeing that for the past year and a half. They've only been getting more brutal, more uncompromising, and more isolated. The Taliban understand that a Taliban regime that's accepted as a conventional member of the international community will also be a Taliban regime that's going to be extremely vulnerable to outside forces and to the people.
In a lot of ways, the isolation is what helps the Taliban to govern. It's not the type of regime that cares so much about people's well-being and education. They're not running any sort of economic, health, or education analysis to see how the country will do 10-20 years from now, what the needs of the economic market are, or how to produce, for example, human capital. They want to be there in power to make society more Islamic. So if anything, they're going to spend all of their resources building madrasas as they already are and trying to undo whatever progress the country has made for the past two decades in terms of education, health, civil liberties, freedom of expression, and pluralism.
Faisal: Is there anything that gives you hope for the future of Afghanistan right now?
My answer might be a little bit too idealistic and not very practical because I am from Afghanistan. It's extremely difficult for me to be hopeless about the country because we all need something to hold on to. Regimes like the Taliban have never survived throughout history. As dark as the current situation looks, as grim as it is— it's going to pass. Society will walk out of this. We're going to get through this as every other society has. One of the things that I see in this crisis is a widespread sense of self-awakening among the people in Afghanistan, who are questioning a lot of fundamentals of our collective sociopolitical life. Out of that sort of collective introspection will come a much more clear society, a society that's much more clear on its values, its future, what it wants, and how it wants to achieve it. I think the Taliban's brutality and the Taliban's radicalism will continue to push Afghans toward questioning extremism in all its forms.
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