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This is Afghanistan, 15 years since the beginning of the US-led military intervention

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More than 15 years since the start of the international intervention in Afghanistan, the time has come to make a few remarks about the main mistakes made during these years as well as the expectations for the future.

Is there room for peace negotiations? Will the new American administration stick to its engagement or it will decide to accelerate its withdrawal, thus opening space which other countries will try to fill.

These are among the issues discussed with Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, Ahmed Rashid, among the most important and well-known scholar of the Taliban movement, and Daoud Khattak, a journalist from Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.

Although with different backgrounds and nuanced positions, they all seem to share the same disillusion about the future of the country, a strong criticism toward Ghani’s incapacity to adapt its policies to Afghanistan’s reality as well as poor confidence about the new US administration’s willingness to focus its effort in order to promote the peace in the country.

A widely shared pessimism which leave us with one fundamental question: was it really worth it? 

Which is the worst threat facing the country over the next months/years and which are your expectations for 2017?

Ruttig: “I actually think there is not a single worst threat for Afghanistan, but a complex range of conflicts which all relate to each other: security-related, socio-economic, political/institutional. Of course, the most acute threat is the ongoing war, as it undermines the solution of the other issues and the confidence of Afghans that their country is going in the right direction: the overwhelming aid dependency of Afghanistan (which is the highest of all countries); the dire socio-economic situation, lack of jobs and investment – and low chance of any investment to be sustainable, as there is the immediate danger of it being either destroyed in the war or coming under the influence of the war economy. Politically and institutionally, the national unity government has proven to be rather ineffective, due to internal self-paralysis, and has proven itself unable to hold timely parliamentary elections, delegitimizing one half of the state institutions (the legislative), and at the same time undermining the still upheld claim that Afghanistan is a democratic country or at least one moving into this direction. Another thing that israrely considered is the government’s lack ofquality; the president’s analytical ability has often been mistaken for a quality of the government as a whole, and it has also been overlooked that analytical capability does not necessarily translate into adequate political practice. This is no surprise, really, given the nature of the Afghan ‘parallel state’ systems: the official government, and the political networks at play in the background, which practically supersede the official institutions.”

Rashid: “The military situation is extremely dire and dangerous but so is the long running political crisis in Kabul between the President and the opposition, which may reach a climax by the spring. Also, Russia’s new-found intervention in Afghanistan is likely to replace the declining influence of the US.”

Khattak:” 2017 is not going to drastically affect Afghanistan. Peace or war will depend on international and regional politics. We need to review the policies of big powers such as US, Russia and China and regional actors such as Pakistan, India and Iran plus Saudi Arabia. If they come to terms, which is an unlikely scenario, Afghanistan will get some sort of peace. In other case, there will be more bloodshed. But I don’t see any Taliban takeover. The biggest threat is the presence of warlords, which promotes militancy, smuggling, arms culture, ethnic rivalries, nepotism, corruption and injustice.”

Do you think that Afghanistan will be able to hold elections in 2019 or even before?

Ruttig: “Officially, the plan still is to hold parliamentary elections in 2017, which is unrealistic, given that election experts, from the UN, say you need at least twelve months to prepare meaningful elections – and this if everything goes well. This would put the next realistic date for parliamentary elections at spring 2018, as before that, winter limits accessibility in some regions of the country. Now there is even some discussion about merging presidential and parliamentary elections and holding them in 2019. Apart from that, the electoral reform process is still very slow, bogged down in tensions between the executive and legislative branches of the Afghan state (with an independent judiciary lacking), even the reforms envisaged so far are far from being sufficient to guarantee successful elections that might end the current institutional crisis. If this continues, Afghanistan actually runs the danger of becoming a failed state institutionally, which could lead to a tendency of more centralism and even more authoritarianism, as checks and balances to control the executive are undermined.”

Rashid: ”Given the present military crisis in the country with the Taliban holding one third of territory I don’t think elections will be possible but Ghani should call the Loya Jirga as he promised to do but failed to implement.”

Khattak: ”I am optimistic about the election in 2019 as long as the international presence remains in Afghanistan. Also, the youth of Afghanistan is more supportive of peace than war.”

Which is the biggest error made by Ghani since his elections?

Ruttig: ”Although his analysis was correct, that the war needs to end in order to tackle the other parts of the Afghan crisis, his hope to be able to push Pakistan – through the quadrilateral process, and particularly China, with US interest fading – to push the Taliban to the negotiating table was over-ambitious and unrealistic. It resulted in an all-or-nothing outcome, and in the moment, there is nothing to support peace talks. This derives from a long-existing but mistaken view among Afghans: the one-sided view that the Taliban are nothing but puppets of Pakistan. The throwback was exacerbated by the US killing Taliban leader Mansur who, against official claims, was not against peace talks or even direct talks with the Afghan government.”

Rashid: “Too many schemes and plans and not focusing on the single issue of improving security.”

Khattak: ”Ghani is a committed person but his team do not seem to be well versed in political and diplomatic matters. That is his weakness. The team consists mostly of young men who sometimes take emotional decisions. Ghani also needs to take tribal sensitivities in mind before taking any key decisions – after all this is Afghanistan!”

Relations among Pashtuns and other ethnic communities have worsened since Ghani’s election. Do you expect a further deterioration over the next months?

Ruttig: “It is not primarily between Pashtuns and others; it is for example also between Tajiks and Uzbeks, or among the Hazaras. We also should not confuse an ethnic group’s political elites with the ethnic group as a whole. There were tendencies during the first round of the 2014 presidential elections that parts of a younger, more educated electorate had started looking and voting beyond ethnic boundaries. This shows that at least parts of the ethnic constituencies are politically more mature than their leaders. No wonder, as the leaders depend and thrive on the existing political structures and the last thing they want to do is to change this. On the other hand, unfortunately, there are no well-working political institutions that could articulate those political tendencies and – more importantly – translate them into political action, as the current political system is rather hermetic and dominated by old and some new leaders.”

Rashid: ”As the security threat worsens and the Taliban and others target the Shia Hazaras I fear the sectarian and ethnic climate will worsen.”

Khattak: “Ethnic trouble could be a problem but not the major problem right now. The major problem is that the Afghan government is not delivering properly on any front, be that security, employment, good governance, justice etc. If it delivers on those fronts, ethnic problems will not emerge. If not, then vested interests will cash in on the ethnic issues to create problems.”

Are you optimistic about the resumption of negotiations? How could the relationship between the USA and Russia affect the situation in Afghanistan as well as in the rest of the region?

Ruttig: “We need to be realistic: a quick breakthrough is not at all likely. However, one needs to be organized. Therefore, the international community should take stock of what has happened and what has not happened on this issue over the past 15 years, and why – that would be a good start. Maybe the UN should be put back into that role. However, will the biggest power allow this?

As for your second question, we should distinguish between general bilateral relations between two states, and individual topics. The US and Russia (and China and others) could cooperate on an Afghan solution, even if they choose not to become closer to each other. What would be needed are diplomatic skills to bring a solution on track, and – more importantly – the political will to have a peaceful solution in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the country had become the arena first for super power rivalry and later for their mutual revenge taking. At the moment, Russia just wants to spoil Western attempts to stabilize Afghanistan (which were often so faulty that it was easy to do), as the West did before with Soviet engagement in Afghanistan which, in a sense, was also a modernizing and state-building attempt, only in the Soviets’ own interest in the context of the Cold War. This is not a constructive policy. In addition, whether the incoming US administration has any interest in Afghanistan remains to be seen. If one looks at the personnel chosen for foreign relations, defence and intelligence leadership, it looks as if a military-solution type ‘faction’ will be in charge.”

Rashid: “If the international players would help Kabul resume the negotiations I would be hopeful but so far there is nobody playing such a positive role and talks have collapsed. I doubt if Trump is interested in resuming them.”

Khattak: “I am not sure about the success of negotiations in the near future. Yes, this could be a way, or the only way out in the longer run. But to make that possible, the first and foremost thing is to stop all kind of foreign interference in Afghanistan. There must be UN guarantees for that and only then could negotiations work. If not,  it will continue to be as useless as it has been so far. Much will depend on the new US Administration. Also, China is coming forward for a pro-active role and any guarantees from China will be helpful. If China stops Pakistan from supporting the Taliban and the US uses its influence to stop India from interfering, the situation may improve.”

@daniele_grassi_

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