Afghanistan: missed opportunities and threats for the future. Interview with Thomas Ruttig.

More than a year after the elections, Afghanistan has finally managed to form a government. We interviewed Thomas Ruttig, co-founder of Afghanistan Analysts Network, on the situation of the country and the prospects that the new executive branch can make to solve national and dramatic problems of the region.

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Q: After more than six months, Ghani and Abdullah were finally able to set up the Government, even if the Defense Minister is still lacking. Which is your opinion about the cabinet and which are your expectations about its ability to satisfy the huge needs of the Afghan population?

A: Well, it's too early to say it because the cabinet has just been composed and comprises almost entirely of new faces. So we need to give the new Government the benefit of the doubt and see what it can do. There are some ministers who have governing experience – up to the level of deputy ministers which speaks for some professionalism. But it took a very long time to compose the cabinet and it has disappointed a lot of Afghans, including many of the voters and even people who belong to the team of the President, who had been hoping that the cabinet comes into place much earlier and starts working.  

Q: Maybe it was very difficult also due to the problems that Ghani and Abdullah have in their cohabitation. Do you think that it will last?

A: What will last is that this form of cohabitation, which was only a shortcut out of problems both sets were not able to solve, even with the help of the international community, will continue. It's not so much because of the two personalities at the top, but it is because of how Afghanistan's political system have been structured over the past 12/13 years, meaning: particularly under President Karzai, patronage networks have been well entrenched in the Afghan political life while formal institutions remained weak. So there are a lot of powerful people, with arms, militias and money which, at least partly, comes from illicit economic activities, and because both sets have mobilised such people and the networks to gain votes during the elections again both on the legal way and through illegal means, Ghani and Abdullah have made themselves dependent on these people and according to the standards of the Afghan political life it's working. The problem is that these people demand that they are paid off for their help during the election, in form of influential posts. This not only contradicts of course what particularly President Ghani and Abdullah have said, i.e. that they want to cut through this old patronage networks, but also undermines professionalism and merit-based appointments.  

Q: According to you, this situation could have been avoided? Don’t you think that it was too early to put the organization of the elections into the hands of Afghan authorities?

A: I fully agree with you. I think it was too early for the Afghans to organize good elections. There was only one problem: the Afghan Government insisted that it would do it itself, and the international community washed its hands too early from any political responsibility in this process. But again, I think it was not in accordance with the reality and it also had to do with the fact that Afghan politicians had learnt during earlier elections that if you organize that yourself and try to control or at least manipulating the system, than you can win the elections. We had two competing camps which were both very strong and who both also used large-scale manipulations without any doubt. But they are not able to agree on a result and the fact that we do not have an official end result with figures, it is also a sign for what I said earlier that the institutions are very weak and that patronage networks are stronger than them. 

Q: Let’s talk about the regional situation. Since his election Ghani has tried to restore good ties with both USA and most of all with Pakistan. Do you think that betting on Pakistan was a good choice?

A: Up to now, of one of his major points – starting talks with the Taliban - he has not achieved anything. Pakistan has not delivered on promises ‘delivering’ the Taleban to the negotiating table. (The recent meeting in Qatar involving – in their personal capacity – people from the Taliban and other political and social groups in Afghanistan was not an initiative by the Afghan government – editor’s note.) I am not sure whether it was a good or a bad choice, but it was definitely a risky choice, even if it is also understandable, because Pakistan plays a very important part in supporting the Taliban, both logistically and politically, so a major road towards a political solution goes through Islamabad. The thing is that Islamabad also needs to put the traffic lights on green, but despite some positive words it has not materialized.  

Q: Do you think that Pakistani authorities are sincere when they say that they are trying to cooperate with the Afghan Government in negotiations with Taliban? Or maybe this is just a strategy in order to influence the situation but without delivering too much?

A: Yes, it looks like it. I think the national interest of Pakistan as it is defined by the military establishment is remaining as influencial as possible in Afghanistan, continuing to use the Taliban as their main card. Even if there are promises that they would change this, we have not seen tangible results. So we still need to be doubtful of the position of Pakistan. Yes, I'm skeptical, but I wish it would change and that the Afghan Government would achieve the aim of convincing Pakistan that it is also in their own interest to end the war in Afghanistan.  

Q: Do you think that negotiations with Taliban is the only way to give to Afghanistan a real chance of peace?

A: Of course, I do not see how you can reach a political solution without figuring in the Taliban. You cannot ignore that a military solution has not worked and it is also not desirable, given the human and economic costs of continuing years of fighting. You already see all the destruction which has happened in Afghanistan without insurgency being ended, so there is no way around the Taliban. President Ghani knows this, and I think that support for this by Pakistan and also China would be very useful.  

Q: According to you, the divisions among Taliban can be useful or they represent an obstacle to the negotiations?

A: I think they are an obstacle in two ways: one, if there really is a larger group of, let's say commanders’ networks, who are against the negotiations, they can of course sabotage them; secondly that also if there is a settlement it would make it difficult to bring on board or to stop the fighting across the board, although I always have argued and I will continue arguing that even a reduction of violence by – say – 50% would be good for Afghanistan, but of course it is better to have a comprehensive political solution, which includes at least a large majority of the insurgents.  

Q: How deep these divisions actually are?

A: That's very difficult to say. This discussion is also part of psychological warfare that comes from a long tradition of some western allies and also in the Afghan security apparatus to split and weaken the Taleban. They think that splitting the Taliban makes the job easier to defeat the Taleban, which I doubt.  

Q: Don’t you fear that this division could help the Islamic State in gaining a foothold in Afghanistan?

A: Well, if the divisions are not as deep as some commentators or analysts conclude, then it is also more difficult for the IS to get the foothold. When we look at what has happened so far, there was much talk about IS, and the use of IS symbols, without us really knowing whether these people are really aligned with the IS. Actually, in many cases my organisation has analysed, there is serious doubt. I think alleged IS affiliation is more used as a tool by certain fringe groups to scare people, because people in the moment are more afraid of the IS than of the Taliban. Criminal networks have done the same when they maskeraded as Taleban. I think the Taliban are still the strongest armed group and the biggest problem in Afghanistan. But of course if there are divisions and people decide to leave the Taliban, then of course in the form of IS they have a new alternative which did not exist before. On the other hand I also have to say that I find the Taliban relatively centralised and also by the way they function with religious legitimization of Mullah Omar, as Amir al-Mu'minin, it is very very difficult for a group of the Taliban to leave that movement because they would lose a legitimization. This is not working with the IS, at least not in Afghanistan.  

Q: Which is, according to you, the biggest threat for Afghanistan's future?

A: There are two: the war and the dire economic situation. The war has from my point of view two main reasons. One is the insurgency, and that it has external support, and that it is also sustained by shortcomings, and that is a very soft word, in the Afghan Government. The return of the Taliban as a strong armed insurgent movement was only possible because of the flawed strategy of the US and their allies as their fight against what they call remnants of the Taliban made no distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which was a mistake because they have different and even contradictory aims; and also by corruption of the Government and by exclusion, partly violent exclusion, of whole social, political, ethnic or tribal groups from governing the country in the first years after 2001. This played into the Taliban’s hands to gain strength again. So there are external and internal factors for the insurgency, and this is a combination which is very difficult to contend with. Secondly, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a growing social gap and 100,000s of young people coming from schools and universities every years without a chance to find a job. At the same time, the Afghan economy is shrinking, international aid (and attention) is dropping, and the new government has not been able so far to stop also the drop of domestic revenues. There is enormous social conflict potential in this, even if the insurgency would end.  

Q: Do you think that inviting the Taliban at the Bonn conference in 2001 could have avoided the war and could have given Afghanistan a better future?

A: That's very difficult to say. I was on the UN team then. What I saw, it was not possible to invite the Taliban to Bonn. The US and other countries and the former Afghan mujahedin were fully against this. But the point which I really want to make is that there were later chances to involve the Taliban in a political solution, after Bonn, during the Emergency Loya Jirga in 2002 and even as late as 2007/2008 when there was a very strong discussion in the Taliban whether their strategy of increasing suicide attacks wasn't actually unislamic. There was than a majority which thought this was not the way to go. But then the US troop search escalated the war, put the Taliban into a defensive position and ‘forced’ them to fight back and stregnthened the ‘militaristic’ wing . This spoiled probably the biggest chance of a political solution.    

Thomas Ruttig is co-director and co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. He was a diplomat at the GDR Embassy in Kabul (1988-89) and later worked as a political affairs officer for two UN mission in Afghanistan (2000-03). This included assignments as UNSMA head of office in Kabul, adviser to the Afghan Independent Emergency Loya Jirga Commission and UNAMA head of office in Islamabad and Gardez. He then worked as the Deputy to the EU Special Representative for Afghanistan (2003-04) and as a Political Adviser to the German Embassy in Kabul (2004-06). Thomas speaks Pashto and Dari fluently.

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