Academic Webinar: The Road to Peace in Afghanistan

Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Caren Firouz/Reuters

Senior Fellow, Center for Global Affairs, New York University


Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Rina Amiri, senior fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, discusses prospects for peace in Afghanistan, including the fate of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, Afghan women’s roles in peace and security, and the outlook for intra-Afghan negotiations.

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to the last session of the CFR Fall 2020 Academic Webinar series. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Today's webinar is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website at CFR.org/academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. We're excited to have Rina Amiri with us today to talk about the road to peace in Afghanistan. Ms. Amiri is a senior fellow at New York University's Center for Global Affairs and Afghan researcher and advocate. She has served as a senior expert in the UN Standby Team of mediation experts and as a senior advisor to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Previously, she was director of Afghanistan and Regional Policy Initiatives at the Open Society Institute. From 2002 to 2006, she served as a UN official in Afghanistan. She is one of the founding members of Inclusive Security, an international coalition of more than two thousand women leaders advocating for the full participation of all stakeholders, particularly women, in peace processes. And she's also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

So, Rina, thank you very much for being with us today. Today's topic is very timely. We have now heard President Trump announce that he is withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq as the countdown to Inauguration Day, January 20. Can you start by talking about what the implications of this will be on the region and for the negotiations underway with the Taliban?

AMIRI: Thank you very much, Irina. It's a pleasure to be here with the Council, and I'm delighted to be with the academic community again. And I'm really glad that you also injected the issue of the region, because I think it's really critical to look at Afghanistan within that broader context. I think too often we look at Afghanistan almost like it's an island unto itself and when we do that, we don't appreciate the significance and I think it's a really important point to go back to. Afghanistan is a landlocked country. It is a poor country. But it is a country that the U.S. has been engaged in, not just for the last eighteen years. Afghanistan has been in conflict for forty years and the U.S. has been involved for over twenty years of that beginning in 1979. And it is because the country is of geographical significance. It is in a region that has four nuclear powers. It connects the Middle East to Central Asia. We have Russia and China as its key neighbors. So its geopolitical relevance is something that cannot be understated.

In terms of the troop numbers, now often one of the things that I've been critical of is, and I think, too much of our discussion about Afghanistan has been reduced to troop numbers. That being said, I think it is at a critical point right now. I think we have failed to understand sort of the broader requirements of ending the conflict and to the U.S. audience, we focus largely too much, I think, on troop numbers. And right now, this reduction of twenty-five hundred, in terms of at the operational level, it will have an impact, but that's not where the greatest implications are. It is, as you note, the signaling that it's giving to the Afghan government, to the Taliban, and to the region.

We have done some really important work under the Trump administration in terms of having the first substantive peace process since the Bonn Agreement of 2001, which was a victor's peace, if you will. And now we actually have a substantive peace process underway that the intra-Afghans talk element of it, which was the greatest hurdle, was initiated in September. And the troop withdrawal, whatever levers we have, and the troop issue is a key lever, the carrots and sticks have to be used in conjunction with the peace process. And I think that's one of the greatest, I think, shortcomings of this decision are is it's not couched within the overall political strategy, it is not couched within an overall regional strategy, and it really undermines some of the good work actually the administration has been doing in Afghanistan in terms of really putting together a more meaningful peace process forward.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. Can you talk a little bit about the peace process, and tell people where the negotiations are?

AMIRI: Absolutely. You have excellent reading material, which I trust that most of you have at least been able to skim through. So I'm not going to go into too much detail except to note that it is part of Ambassador Khalilzad, who was appointed in September 2018 as a special U.S. representative for reconciliation in Afghanistan. There were two components of this agreement. One was the agreement with the Taliban, and as a component of the agreement with the Taliban, which was signed in February of this year, was starting intra-Afghan talks. This was incredibly challenging because the Taliban refused to recognize the Afghan government. And when I was in the Obama administration, we did a great deal of work to try to get them at the table. And that bore fruition in September of this year when the two sides finally sat down and met.

The Afghan negotiation team is—I'll talk about some of the positive elements. It is an inclusive team. It is a team that includes, I think, a broad reflection of the diversity of Afghanistan. It has four women on the team, four very substantive and competent women. It includes the ethnic diversity, the political diversity. And on the Taliban side, it does include some of the key decision makers. They have been meeting in Quetta, they're still and—sorry, in Qatar—and they're still there. The talks have been stalled, which should not be surprising, it had taken a while to get here but they've been stalled on a number of issues, from procedural issues in terms of what to put forward on the agenda to more substantive issues in terms of how you refer to the Taliban, Islamic Emirates, what the ultimate state may look like in the future, what the role of Islam would be. So some of the key issues that we expected to be stumbling blocks have already emerged. It began, I think, quite positively in terms of an establishment of goodwill between the negotiation teams. But it has stalled for the time being. But it is very much the beginning of the process, and I keep on reminding people we gave war in Afghanistan eighteen years, or maybe, let's say sixteen years. We need to give the peace process, at least I would say, let's give it at least five years. It's a country that has been at war for over four decades. And I do think that this peace process, despite the fact that it has a lot of shortcomings, it is the beginning of something that people in Afghanistan, I think, are both worried about and hopeful about. And it needs to be given the requisite tools to at least gain more traction.

FASKIANOS: And this is obviously looking into the future, but do you expect the Biden administration will continue the negotiations and will continue to move forward?

AMIRI: Yes, I have been in discussions with members of the incoming team for several months now. And yes, the Biden administration is committed, just as the Trump administration is, to bring the troops home and I don't think that President-Elect Biden has made any secret of the fact that that is his goal as well. But he recognizes that it needs to be couched in a political strategy, that it should be done with a broader understanding of how to actually use the number of troops that we have in a way that really advances the peace process. And there is a real commitment to working with the negotiation teams to give the peace process more—to bolster it—and to do what is required at a diplomatic level to make it go forward.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. All right, I will stop asking questions, although I do have more, and we'll go to the students and professors on the call. We have a great group assembled. So, for all of you, if you want to ask a question, please raise your hand and I will call on you. You can click on the participants icon at the bottom of your screen. If you're on a tablet, click on the "more" button and you can also type your question in the Q&A box—so we'll alternate. Please do identify yourself and the school you're affiliated with so that it gives us context. So the first question goes to Qazi Shahid Mehmood and unmute yourself, please.

Q: Thank you so much for taking my question. And thank you so much, ma'am, for your presence in a wonderful session. My name is Qazi Shahid Mehmood. Basically, I am a PhD visiting scholar from Pakistan at Emory University. So I have been doing my research in the field of security studies—securitization and the security dilemma between the United States of America and Pakistan. So my question is to be expected as an analyst, how did this, basically, when we talk about reduction or the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, will it be reckoned as a failure or success on the part of the United States of America? And basically, it's the first question, basically, I just want to ask, will it be considered—a second part of the question—will it be considered a positive indication for all the stakeholders in Afghanistan? Ma'am, the short question, the second short question, and where do you see Pakistan's role in the overall peace process? Thank you so much.

AMIRI: I didn't entirely get your first question. Irina, if you might be able to—

Q: The first part of the question, when we talk about the reduction or the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, will it be considered a failure or a success on the part of U.S. strategy?

AMIRI: Thank you. No, I really think the troop withdrawal on its own has to be couched within a larger understanding of the policy strategy and policy objectives of the troop withdrawal. I think you need to frame it within that in order to actually give it meaning. There is an expectation both within the international community in the region and Afghanistan that the troops ultimately have to be withdrawn. And I think that the population even actually welcomes that because the idea is that it should be part of signaling an end to the conflict and an end to war. But for that to be translated effectively, as I noted before, it would have to be part of something more meaningful linked to the intra-Afghan talks, which, unfortunately, when it's not done within that larger policy strategy, I think it leaves a great deal of concern certainly in Afghanistan and, I think, in the region and a reminder of what happened historically in Afghanistan with the Geneva Agreement that was signed in 1987 and the withdrawal of Soviet forces that the international communities—the U.S., the Soviet Union, and others—just simply walked away from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the region and it was seen as a betrayal. And it was seen as something that was a harbinger for much worse to come. And I think that's what is creating a great deal of anxiety. The region, I think, particularly if you look at Russia, and China, and Iran, they are eager to see that there isn't a permanent U.S. footprint in Afghanistan. But at the same time, all of these actors have said that it has to be a responsible approach. And it has to be part of the broader strategy. So when it's done without those elements in place, it does create a great deal of concern as to what this means in terms of the U.S. commitment to the region, not just Afghanistan, but to the region.

FASKIANOS: Okay, I'm going to—go ahead and the second question was on Pakistan, I believe.

AMIRI: Pakistan. I'm glad you brought this up because, yes, absolutely Pakistan is key. Pakistan has been playing a really important role in the intra-Afghan talks and is absolutely vital to the process. Now, I'm going to give you maybe a little bit of a longer answer. I'm also Afghan American so I'm going to give you the other perspective as well, which is, I think, Afghans would like to absolutely see Pakistan as critical but what they don't want to go is back to the 1990s with Afghanistan strategies outsourced to Pakistan. So a balance of some sort is important. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, I'm going to go next to Heidi Hardt.

Q: Hi, my name is Heidi Hardt, and I'm a professor at the University of California Irvine. I'm really interested in hearing more about the representation of women in the negotiations moving forward.

AMIRI: Thank you for asking that question. I think it's a really important question. As I noted, there's a great deal of, as you can imagine, a tremendous level of anxiety among women in terms of this peace process. As much as they support peace, they're very anxious in terms of what the future political order will bring to bear and whether the return of the Taliban to the political order will mean that they are going to, once again, be deprived of their fundamental rights. The Afghan government, the Ghani administration, I think, has to its credit, it's been very vocal on this issue and quite supportive. And the four women that they have at this point, they're women who both have a lot of political weight on their own but at the same time they're activists on women's issues. They know the issue critically well, they're linked to Afghan women's civil society, and they have the confidence of Afghan women. Now, at the same time, Afghan women are very eager to see more than this limited, track one negotiations and have been calling for additional mechanisms in the talks to enable not just women but women victims' groups, civil society to have a more of a voice in the process. And Ambassador Khalilzad has indicated and as well as the Afghan government—both indicated that as the talks progress that there would be possibility for track two discussions and other types of mechanisms to be put in place, which I think would be very necessary.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to take a written question from Jim Harrington, who is a professor of economics at Nashua Community College. He says, "I've followed the Afghan conflict since before Kipling." And his scholarship focuses on Central and Latin America and their actions between 1979 and early twenty-first century. So his question is, "In Central America, the peace became seriously discussed when the U.S. left the table and turned over mediation to the UN. Is that the model to follow here in Afghanistan?”

AMIRI: I think that's a good question. So far, the talks in Afghanistan, sorry, the Afghan talks are direct. The talks are between the two negotiation parties directly without even the U.S. necessarily in the room, but at the same time the U.S. is the 800-pound gorilla outside of the room. And, I think, the UN in some ways would be well situated—and personally I'm an advocate of the UN getting involved in a much more prominent way in the process than it has been to date—but the UN still needs the levers of power that come from the U.S. For example, in the Bonn agreement of 2001, the UN, with Lakhdar Brahimi as a special envoy, did lead those talks. But at the same time it had the U.S., and again Ambassador Khalilzad was there in another capacity as well as Ambassador Dobbins, as a special envoy, and they were able to do the real politicking outside of the room in order to get the parties to comply or to be more forthcoming. You need those carrots and those sticks in order for—the UN is only as strong as the support that it gets from its member states. So you would still need the U.S. to play a strong and meaningful role. So my hope is that you would have the UN play some sort of role in terms of being a facilitator/mediator or sort of a reservoir for regional mechanism for more expertise and the U.S., and other key actors, involved in the process as well in a meaningful and substantive way.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to take the next question from Buba Misawa. So if you can please accept the unmute prompt.

Q: Thank you, Irina. Thank you, Ms. Amiri. My name is Buba Misawa—Washington and Jefferson College—and I'm a teacher of U.S. foreign policy. If I'm not mistaken or not understanding what you're saying but also in terms of the peace process, what would be the strategic imperative for sequencing the peace process, A, between Taliban and the government, and then the second one, the intra-Afghan talks. Why are we sequencing that especially when the Taliban sees itself now as a senior partner because its negotiating directly with the United States? Why we are arranging that? Is there a reason for that?

AMIRI: Thank you for that really important question. I think that's an excellent question. It is a source of controversy and debate. The Afghan government clearly was very unhappy with the sequencing. And I do believe that the U.S. government earnestly wanted that sequencing to be different. I can tell you that when the Obama administration tried very hard to get the Taliban to sit down with the Afghan government in direct talks, the Taliban simply refused. And despite the fact that the Afghan government, both under the Karzai administration and the Ghani administration, really made a great deal of effort to get the Taliban to sit down across from them. And it was simply something that the Taliban refused to do. For them, their narrative is that the U.S. is their direct partner and the Afghan government is the puppet regime. I certainly don't agree with that narrative. I don't think Afghans agree with that narrative. But that was their position and, quite frankly, I think the assessment was that this was the only way to get the talk started. Now, there are some who would argue that what should have taken place rather than just direct talks between the U.S. government and the Taliban is perhaps you would have proximity talks or something where the Afghan government was given much more of a role symbolically at the outset so that it wasn't seen so clearly outside of the room. And yes, the Taliban, I do believe, have been very much advantaged in this process, and they've become much more emboldened and it's become problematic. But, there's a quite a bit of debate even within the U.S. government, both those within this administration and those outside of the administration, who really questioned the design of this process and the extent to which it both weakened the U.S. hand and the Afghan government. But I can note that it is incredibly complex and the previous efforts have failed to date.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. So to follow up, there are a couple of questions from Morton Holbrook in Kentucky about the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and from Gary Prevost, who's at the College of Saint Benedict, about the relationship between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. It's my sense they are more powerful than al-Qaeda and at odds with the Taliban. So maybe you can dig a little bit deeper into these different pockets here.

AMIRI: In terms of the relationship with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, that it is, from your reading, that it is one of the conditions of the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban that they would have to formally break ties with al-Qaeda. And it's not been done to date in a sort of a formal public way and there's a great deal of concern in terms of this peace agreement—does it really address U.S. security concerns. The Taliban  have made the case that if the U.S. troops withdraw, that they would prevent Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for extremists and terrorists as was in the past. But there's quite a bit of debate certainly within the security experts and others who've been looking at the conflict very closely from the counterterrorism angle, whether or not the Taliban, one, is willing to deliver or even able to deliver in that regard. And there are some reports that have been produced over the last couple of months that shows that the linkages are still very much there.

Now, there are those that argue that this is the Taliban's lever right now and the Taliban is not simply going to give this away in the middle of negotiations but that ultimately, they will eventually break those links when it's suited for them politically within the negotiations. In terms of IS and its links to al-Qaeda—I mean one of the things that I do want to note is that  these groups, both IS and the Taliban, yes, particularly with the Taliban, there is a real structure there, but within the course of the last four decades, what you see on the field is that there is a changing of hats. There's a great deal of opportunism and less ideology and more financial opportunism that drives which hat these various actors put on, whether they're with a government or they're with IS, sorry, not with the government, with the Taliban or with IS, and there's a financial component, I think, that is not entirely, I think, it's understudied but that there is that element of it. I wouldn't be able to tell you in more detail in terms of whether IS has stronger links with al-Qaeda, certainly the ground forces, than the Taliban do. I tend to see them as there's a conglomeration of different actors including some that are coming from Central Asia as well. And those groups are very active in Afghanistan and not just in the east but in the north and other parts. The terrorism threat is very much alive, and it's one of the reasons that right now you hear both from Republicans and Democrats a lot of concern about pulling out troops without really tackling this very important issue in terms of how much have we addressed the terrorism issue and the al-Qaeda links of both the Taliban and IS and others.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go next to Wallace Ford who has raised his hand and also written a question, but Wallace why don't you ask it yourself? So if you can unmute yourself that would be great.

Q: Okay, great. We are officially unmuted and thank you very much. And thank you, Ms. Amiri, for your excellent presentation. My question really has to do with one that I've been—oh, yes, I'm a professor at Medgar Evers College, part of the City University of New York in Brooklyn. And I don't certainly consider myself to be an expert with respect to the situation in Afghanistan, but I certainly have been observing it for, now what is it, nineteen years. And my question really becomes is the United States kind of like caught in this riding-the-tiger kind of situation where if the United States does indeed withdraw troops fully and leave, or even half the troops as being proposed by President Trump, do we find ourselves in a position where the Taliban, we learned that the Taliban was just playing for time on this and using a sports analogy, at some point, the other side is just going to give up, wear out, whatever it is, and then, whatever commitments may have been made as part of these negotiations really evanesce at that point? And so the bottom line of my question was, is there a way that these commitments, particularly what I read with respect to what may happen with women's rights or human rights and freedom of press, the list kind of goes on, and oh, yes, terrorism issues, as well, is there any way that these commitments can be enforced without U.S. or some type of international presence going forward?

AMIRI: Thank you. Thank you, all great questions. This is a concern both inside Afghanistan and for those who have been working on Afghanistan in the region for a long time that the commitments that the Taliban make are going to be very challenging to enforce and that there is very much that perception that once the troops withdraw that they are going to be pushing their very conservative and extremist agenda as they had when they were last in power. And certainly the fact that the Taliban are enacting very regressive measures in areas that are under their control inside Afghanistan contributes to that fear. Now, there is also the argument that the U.S. cannot stay indefinitely in Afghanistan to protect women's rights and human rights and it becomes sort of, I think, an argument of polarizations of one side saying we need to leave because we can't continue just staying there indefinitely to support women and minorities and protect our other more vital interests and others that says, no, we have to stay there forever. I believe that we need to anchor those commitments much more in this peace agreement and there's a long way to go. We're just at the start of this process. Now, what are the Taliban's interests? The twenty-five hundred troops, they are important in some ways in terms of infrastructure, they're even more important in terms of once the troops leave, the financial support for Afghanistan is also likely to really decline because where the troops are, money follows. That's the other issue. And then, of course, there's issues of infrastructure and our ability to maintain military infrastructure in the country. Those are the concerns that I have. And then, of course, the broader messaging and sort of the psychological component of the U.S. withdrawal depending on how it's done.

In terms of our levers, I don't think it's our only lever at all. What do the Taliban want? The Taliban want troop withdrawal, but they also want financial aid. They recognize that they will also—Afghanistan is a heavily financially dependent country. It will need even after the peace agreement up to anything from $2 to $8 billion, probably closer to $5 to 6 billion, I think, annually. And this is not a country that is self-sustaining at that point, so they will need that. They want international legitimacy. One of the things that I think really stings the Taliban is the fact that they were made an international pariah for so long. Right now they are loving the fact that they have this international legitimacy and they don't want to lose it. So I think that we would still have some levers on the Taliban in terms of protecting the interests that are important to us, certainly on terrorism, but also the social and political gains achieved. What I would like to see is with the troop withdrawal couched within the political process is that we continue to work with our partners inside Afghanistan—incredibly courageous women, and civil society leaders, and media leaders who are really at the frontlines—and lend them support in terms of leveraging them, giving them political space, as well as ensuring that there's going to be financial support for these groups to advocate on their own behalf.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. So there are a couple of questions that are dealing with women's rights in the chat. So from Camilla Ravagnan, she's a master's student at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, wanted to talk a little bit more about the role of women in the peace process and do you think the achievements of increased woman participation are at risk if the Taliban gets more power at the national level? And then Joan Kaufman asks, "What legal protections through the police and otherwise will be put in place or should be to protect women's rights once the Taliban resumes power?"

AMIRI: Thank you. It heartens me that there's a lot of concern about women's rights. It is an issue very close to my heart. I think realistically, yes, women's rights are under incredible threat. And sadly, not just from the Taliban. You also have conservatives inside of the country who are not really happy with how much gains that women have made. And so their rights are going to not simply be under threat from the incoming Taliban regime, but it's going to create a climate of where it becomes permissive to once again crack down on women's rights. I think it's going to be far worse outside of urban centers, in parts of the southeast and south and east. I think you're going to see much more a reduction of rights, even the rights, and unfortunately in those parts of the country, particularly in poorer and more isolated areas, those rights never materialized beyond what was on paper. But the places where women have made tremendous gains in urban centers at the political level, yes, already the Taliban have been very cunning in their own language, they say that we're going to give women's rights according to Sharia but fail to articulate how their interpretation of Sharia has changed since they were in power in the 1990s where they enacted the most regressive and draconian measures in the Islamic world.

So, yes, there's a lot of concern in terms of what could be done to protect those rights. Right now what I'm encouraged by is some of the work that's being done among civil society and women leaders and also political leaders. I'm in contact with a lot of the activists and what they're trying to make the case to men is, you close the door to our rights and it's going to be the beginning of the closing of many other doors. Women have been sort of the entry point for a broader and more inclusive and more moderate Afghanistan. The Taliban didn't just crack down on women's rights, they cracked down on men's rights as well. Men were not allowed to practice their religion as they saw fit. Minorities were targeted that weren't from the Hanafi school of Islam. I think the women are making the case that it's not just about us, it's about what is going to happen to the country as a whole. And they're incredibly courageous and they're leaning on male allies and political leaders. But I think what we as the international community can do, what is critical for us, is the signaling that we give about why this is an important issue. It was the international community really coming together unequivocally saying, since 2001, that women's rights is a priority and posing aid conditionality that leveraged women's rights. And women have made tremendous gains where the same conservatives that, I think, would not speak to a woman outside of their family  they were sitting next to them in Parliament and having political discussions with them and women were in the media. And suddenly they saw that women were capable of so much and the image of women in Afghanistan changed in the last eighteen years. And it did, I think, the women themselves did it but the political leverage that the international community gave, the financial incentives that the international community created was really key to keeping that space open. I think that space will close to some extent, but there's still a role for us in our advocacy and our partnership with women and civil society.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go next and Muizze Kamran.

Q: Can you hear me?

FASKIANOS: Yes, we can.

Q: Thank you for giving me a chance. And thank you for this brilliant, excellent presentation. My question is, like, obviously looking from the hindsight, we can say that the strategy that the U.S. adopted in solving the conflict in Afghanistan wasn't the right strategy. We can say that it took eighteen or nineteen years for the U.S. to realize that the [inaudible] was not the solution and we should talk with all the actors. So my question is, what are the lessons that we can learn from the strategy that we have now taken? After eighteen years of conflict, we have now realized this was not the right decision. Maybe we should have directly negotiated with the Taliban at the start. So my question is what are the lessons because obviously this won't be the last conflict that we will be seeing in the world. So what are the lessons that we can draw from this conflict?

AMIRI: Thank you. I'm so glad you're asking that question. Yes, I do think that one of the things that people often say is, oh, Afghanistan, we failed again because it's the graveyard of empires. But no, I think that's a very lazy approach. I think there are tremendous mistakes that we made. We looked at Afghanistan solely within the lens of counterterrorism. And when we did that, we did a lot of shortcuts that undermined governance even as we were trying to help establish a state that would be counter to the haven of extremism that it had become. But because our agenda was counterterrorism, we made deals with some really corrupt leaders with terrible human rights records, terrible records in terms of corruption. We did nation building on the cheap. And I know that that probably sounds appalling because of the over $18 billion that we've spent in Afghanistan. But what I mean by that is we didn't have a broader vision in terms of how do you create a state that is going to be solid and strong enough that it can advance in a way that becomes sustainable where we don't need to just keep troops indefinitely in the country. I think we could have started this—I don't agree that we should have talked to the Taliban directly earlier on. I think when we had maximum leverage there was a golden opportunity to bring the Taliban into the peace process.

As I noted, the 2001 Bonn Agreement was a victor's peace. Everyone that sat in that room were all political representatives that had been fighting the Taliban. The Taliban was out of the room but in 2003, as early as 2003, President Karzai, as well as Lakhdar Brahimi, who was the special representative of the UN, they both wanted to bring the Taliban into another peace effort. And the Taliban at that point, where the U.S. leverage was at its maximum, were very eager to come in and, at least a large part of them, and to be part of the peace efforts. But the U.S. and some of its allies were very punitive and they did not create a space for the Taliban when the Taliban was very eager to make peace with the government and with the U.S. It was only after the Taliban really gained tremendous strength and leverage that we started looking seriously at peace and also when our leverage was declining. And now we are at our most limited level of leverage and we're talking to the Taliban, which is—my background is as a mediation and peace expert and peace advisor. This is not what you do. We are really doing things the opposite of what we should do. That's one. So our limited counterterrorism lens that we try to do this through counterterrorism, not using our leverage, trying to simply win when peace was at the table is another thing. The third point is, I think, we haven't really developed a proper narrative that we can explain to the American public as to why are we in this country. Why is this country important to us? What are we doing there? We continue to talk about, we're going to have a hundred thousand troops or reducing ten thousand. It becomes all about these—our boys in Afghanistan, why are our boys in Afghanistan? What are we trying to achieve? Why is this poor country of strategic relevance to the U.S.? What is at stake regionally? And we don't make those arguments. Even inside Afghanistan we and our partners, the Afghan government, failed to actually make the case why are we fighting the Taliban because some of them said, oh, the Taliban, they said they wanted to make peace and we're still fighting with them. And even the president, President Karzai himself, was not convinced of this. So those are, I think, our big mistakes and the other one was really not taking the region to account as we should have. Under the Obama administration, we went from Afghanistan to Af-Pak. The only way that we're actually going to achieve a sustainable peace in Afghanistan is if we develop a regional architecture around the peace process. And I think that's another part that we really need to get much better than we have been. I could say more but I’ll leave it there for the time being.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go to John Sabella next who has a written question about China emerging as a key player in the region with the withdrawal of American forces. How does Afghanistan pursue broader relations with China while maintaining ties with the incoming Biden administration?

AMIRI: Thank you. China is absolutely key and Afghanistan recognizes it—President Ghani, I think his first trip when he took power in 2014, I think, it was either his first or second trip was to China—because they recognize that China is not going to go away. It's their neighbor. There's no option of just walking away. China is also the great engine right now between potential economic development sort of both in terms of a regional infrastructure and economic infrastructure in the region. And Afghanistan has been quite desperate to get China much more involved and interested in Afghanistan. And already China has been engaged from early on in terms of investing in different mining opportunities. It's critical partner, of course is Pakistan, it's not Afghanistan, it's still largely looks at Afghanistan through Pakistan's lens. The other lens that it looks through is making sure that extremists remain on the other side of the border and don't infiltrate or don't influence what's going on in China. But Afghanistan would like it to become much more—an economic investment would be a really key part of that.

I don't think that the U.S. —there are elements that the U.S. in the past has been concerned about that, we fought this war for nineteen years and now China is going to come in and reap all the benefits through particularly in terms of the minerals and the economic potential that comes with Afghanistan’s minerals. But at the same time, I do believe that the U.S, that both the Obama administration and the Trump administration, one of the few areas where they've been able to engage the region and to work very collaboratively on, is Afghanistan. We have had, I think, a pretty constructive engagement both with China and with Russia and even with Iran, not so much with the with the Trump administration, but certainly in the Obama administration, of bringing the region together to support peace efforts. I think much more of that could be done. And I am really hoping that, there are a couple of areas where there's going be a lot of significant overlap of interests between China and the U.S. The climate issue, of course, is the key issue but Afghanistan could be one of those issues as well where there could be a coming together and developing sort of a regional framework around the peace process.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go next to Saad Latif. Please unmute yourself and identify yourself.

Q: Hello, I'm Saad Latif. I'm speaking from Rutgers-Newark. I'm in the international affairs program. Thank you for this presentation. I wanted to ask a question, go back to what you talked previously about ISIL, IS-K, I guess, Islamic State in the Khorasan province. And I mean, not just recently but within the past few years, we have seen more and more brazen and deadly attacks not just against women, but sectarian attacks against the youth, against civil society that's literally destabilizing Afghanistan but it's also causing humanitarian catastrophe. And the way I see it is, as the Taliban have become more mainstream, there have been these more and more radical groups that are trying to carve out of place for themselves. So my question is, do you think going forward, even if hopefully, inshallah, if a peace process does happen and the Taliban and the Afghan society are able to come to the table and agree on some semblance of common goals? Do you think these kind of radical groups will be a spoiler going forward or continue to cause conflict as in Afghanistan within these ethnic minorities because there has been this thing for the last forty to fifty years that there has been a lot of groups that do not have their place, and now they have some kind of stake in the government? But, so yes, sorry, kind of all over the place.

AMIRI: Thank you, Saad. You are Afghan, right? I think I recognized from the way you speak you might be from Afghanistan. I agree with your assessment in terms of the potential to play a spoiler. And also the fact that as the Taliban have been engaging firmly in the peace process that the more radical groups are aligning with IS. The spoiler behavior is something that we certainly anticipate is going to be an ongoing issue. And the targeting, particularly of minority groups, Shia groups in particular, IS has carried out heinous attacks, most recently on Kabul University came from IS, and that's something that, yes, unfortunately, will be part of the landscape. And the Taliban have assured the U.S. that they would have the capacity to be able to manage this and I think that's what's been attractive for some external groups in particular about the Taliban is that they could potentially take on and manage IS. That is the hope and expectation. And the Taliban itself have said that they would want to have force threat capacity to be able to manage IS. But I do worry, like you, that there are going to be elements like IS and others that are—and already, I think, there are dozens of groups that are operating in Afghanistan even right now where we have troops inside the country. Dozens of terrorist groups that are coming in from Pakistan, from Central Asia, from Syria, and as the international community walks away, I only see that propensity to grow and that the threat of terrorism that the U.S. had, that is why the U.S. went into Afghanistan, that that is still very much alive and a threat not only to Afghanistan but the region and internationally.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question would be from Morton Holbrook, "If the Taliban really wants international assistance and international respectability, why are they enacting what you described as repressive measures in areas they control?" And Morton is at Kentucky Wesleyan College, a professor at Kentucky Wesleyan College.

AMIRI: Thank you. We should make a distinction between the Taliban political leadership and the Taliban fighting forces. The Taliban political leadership are the ones who recognize, they want to make sure that they address international interest, U.S. interests. They're being very careful in terms of their language but they're also playing to two audiences. One is the international community. Two, their fighting forces that do believe that what they're fighting for is to bring back the Taliban ideology, to bring back this very conservative brand of Islam, which includes severely restricting, separating the sexes, restricting women's mobility, and access to public space. And they are enacting that and they are the foot soldiers of the Taliban. And that is a concern that even if the Taliban were able to make these commitments at the talks, to what extent are they going to be able to really enforce that when right now, what we're seeing is that women are being targeted for working outside of the home, they’re restricting women's access to public space, restricting women's mobility. And so there is that spectrum within the Taliban and the question of whether, one, how genuine are they in terms of enacting something that would be more progressive? How much have they changed? Because they say that they've changed and recognized that Afghanistan is a different country from when they were last in power. And to what degree can they actually really enforce that down the chain with their foot soldiers and their local commanders.

FASKIANOS: Well, we are at the end of our time, and I'm sorry I could not get to all the questions. But Rina Amiri, this was terrific. Thank you very much for this timely discussion. We really appreciate it.

AMIRI: Thank you. It was a pleasure being with all of you.


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