Afghanistan on the Ground

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Contributing Writer, New York Times Magazine; Author, The Naked Don't Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan RefugeesFormer Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Distinguished Fellow, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security; Senior Advisor, Atlantic Council; Former Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States and Indonesia

 Chief, Political Affairs Service, UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)


National Security Correspondent, Washington Post; CFR Member

Our panelists discuss the situation in Afghanistan nine months after the U.S. withdrawal, including the state of Taliban control, the status of women's rights and education, and what to expect in the months ahead.


RYAN: Good afternoon. My name is Missy Ryan, national security reporter with the Washington Post, and I am thrilled to be here today for this discussion of events inside Afghanistan with this really insightful group of panelists.

I’m going to introduce our panelists and then we’re going to have thirty minutes of moderated discussions before we open it up to the audience for questions and answers.

First, I’m joined by Matthieu Aikins, who is a contributing writer for New York Times Magazine and the author of the book, The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees.

I’m also joined by Scott Smith, chief of the Political Affairs Service of the United Nations assistance mission in Afghanistan.

And I think at any moment we are going to be joined by Roya Rahmani, who was the Afghan ambassador to the United States until last year, and she is a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security.

So we’ve got a lot to cover so we’re going to get started and, hopefully Roya, who, like me, is in Los Angeles right now for the Summit of the Americas, will join us at any moment.

Scott, I’d like to start with you. What can you tell us about the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan? It’s a subject that we heard a lot about in the months following the U.S. and international withdrawal last year.

We heard about dire conditions—food insecurity, shortages of potable water and medication, and the increase of people who have been forced to, basically, go out into the street and beg for money.

But now, I think, in recent months, at least here in the United States, a lot of that has been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine. What can you tell us about the conditions for everyday Afghans?

SMITH: The situation that you just described is, you know, largely, still the situation that many Afghans face, and when the republic fell and the Taliban took power in August of last year, that—addressing that humanitarian situation became the main focus of our efforts.

We were—it was in August, but we were heading into a winter period. There has been several years of multiple droughts in Afghanistan that affected the lives of millions and, you know, if you see the—for example, the hunger statistics, you know, they’re quite alarming. They were then and they still are.

So, because of the need, first of all, that was our principal area of engagement after the Taliban took over, but then also because the international community—and maybe we’ll get to this later on—was a little bit divided about how exactly to engage politically with the new de facto authorities.

So, and, obviously, the support which had been provided to the government previously—the budgetary support—had stopped and, basically, we were sort of left to address most of the humanitarian emergency.

Then the winter passed and, you know, I think we saw some horrific things but I think, overall, we were quite confident that what we had delivered was—you know, perhaps, staved off what could have been a much worse situation.

But the problem with humanitarian assistance is that it’s short term. It’s sort of providing direct assistance rather than supporting institutions and sort of, you know, local coping mechanisms. It fosters a crisis of—or fosters dependency and it’s expensive.

So we had, initially, an appeal in September of last year of about a billion dollars, which was, I think, more or less fully matched. We had another one in March for about 4 billion (dollars) to, again, you know, address the continuing crisis. And that was matched at only, I think, around 50 percent or a bit less, which means that I think we’re going to head into another situation where—you know, August is not far away. We’ll find ourselves in a very similar situation, perhaps, to where we were before with significant humanitarian needs.

Let me just add one more quick point, which is, in the meantime, we asked the Security Council for permission, and got it, to also begin addressing what we call basic human needs, which is trying to support local coping mechanisms and local systems without directly supporting the de facto authorities in order to try and overcome some of these problems with humanitarian assistance that I mentioned—the expense, the dependency, and so forth.

But that’s only just beginning right now. So, basically, almost a year later we still have—you know, we may be back close to square zero.

RYAN: All right. Well, I want to just briefly welcome Ambassador Rahmani, who, I believe, is in the Los Angeles airport.

We’re going to get to you in a moment, Ambassador. But just a really quick follow-up, Scott, for you.

You mentioned the challenges associated with trying to funnel the massive amount of international assistance that has been a mainstay of the Afghan government’s and economy’s operations in the last twenty years. How well is it working in sort of staunching the immediate humanitarian needs of Afghans?

SMITH: Yeah. As I said, I think that—I mean, again, the huge generosity of the international community and then, frankly, quite good access across the country, that’s been one of the stories I’m sure you’ve also seen, that we’ve been able to go to places in Afghanistan that we had not been able to before and reach these sorts of communities.

So, you know, given those two factors, again, I think we staved off something that could have been much worse and we also were able to slowly—and this is still work in progress, but one of the key problems was, you know, how do you get cash into Afghanistan when you have a government which is heavily sanctioned and a central bank which wasn’t functioning.

So, again, that was a big part of what we were working on in the fall—how do we actually physically bring in cash for payment of salaries on the ground and so forth. So at least that has been resolved, which will make things a bit easier as we go into this next round of continuing drought and then, you know, another possible winter emergency.

RYAN: Thanks. Thanks, Scott.

Matthieu, I’d like to go to you next. I understand you just returned from a reporting trip to Afghanistan. You’re in New York right now. What can you tell us about the state of the Taliban’s governance?

One of the big questions that, I think, everyone had was how well the Taliban would be able to transform from insurgent operation that, you know, was its focus and, you know, the extent of what it was able to be for twenty years and successfully transition into a modern state, deal with the sort of changes that have occurred since its previous stint in power.

What can you tell us about how well the Taliban is governing Afghanistan?

AIKINS: Well, I was, indeed, just in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan and I did spend a fair bit of time speaking with members of the Taliban—you know, members of the new government, the de facto authorities, as people kind of refer to them—and I can tell you that they are very much grappling with this question themselves.

You know, they are trying to figure out how they are changing what this new government means for their movement, you know, which, of course, they’re known as guerrilla fighters, basically, you know, as Islamic revolutionaries, in their minds, and, you know, very often that transition was the guy being in the office, you know, with his rifle watching as, you know, they tried to figure out the new computer they were installing.

So it’s still very much ongoing. When you step into these ministries you sense this transition that’s taking place, in general, with the help of the existing, you know, civil servant apparatus. Most Afghan civil servants weren’t evacuated. They didn’t get out. They’re there, despite salaries barely being paid. They don’t really have any other option but to come in and work for their new political masters.

So one of the things that we’re seeing is that some of the aspects of the Taliban movement that were strengths, perhaps, as an insurgency are now turning out to be weaknesses as a government, for example, their extreme secrecy, which, fair enough, it makes sense when you consider the drone raids and drone strikes and night raids that they were targeted by for decades.

But, you know, it’s gotten to the point where we haven’t seen the supreme leader’s face. You know, he’s hiding out, basically, in Kandahar, even from members of his own government who can’t get access to him, obviously, hampering decision-making.

You know, the other—another thing that they’ve been—has been very important for them over these years is the—their unity and consensus. There’s been many predictions over the years that the Taliban could be fragmented or would fragment. Those all turned out to be more or less false.

They’ve maintained their unity but, again, it’s come at the price, I think, of being able to adapt to bring in outside members of the government, you know, to have a more inclusive cabinet. And the one, I think, very interesting case study for this transition, the struggle they’re having right now, is the decision or, we could say, lack thereof around allowing Afghan girls to return to secondary education, obviously, one of the top issues for the international community, possibly the biggest stumbling block to international recognition of the new regime, which they do definitely desire.

And so this was a case where you had the majority of the cabinet that was in favor of reversing, you know, what was a de facto ban on Afghan girls being allowed to return to secondary education, right.

When the schools reopened last fall boys were allowed back. Girls weren’t. This was example—you know, exhibit number one for, you know, what critics labeled the Taliban’s misogynist repressive policies toward Afghan women.

Now, in fact, girls were going to high school unofficially in many parts of the country. They were in university. The Taliban were having an internal debate about allowing them to go back as well across the entire country, people like Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Baradar and Mullah Yaqoob.

So all three of the deputies, very powerful members of the movement, were, reportedly, in favor of allowing the girls to go back. The minister of education was in favor of allowing them to go back. They were sending very strong signals that girls would be allowed to go back. There was a kind of, I think, a bit of self-deception on the part of the internationals.

But there was, basically, a belief that on March 23 Afghan girls would go back to school and that, obviously, didn’t happen. It was a complete disaster in terms of publicity for the regime because there was all these, you know, media cameras at schools where girls were turned away crying.

And what had happened was that they just hadn’t reached a consensus and they hadn’t had a decision from the supreme leader, who sits in a kind of theocratic role above the cabinet, and that’s very much the old structure of the resistance, of the insurgency.

And so at a three-day conclave in Kandahar where they discussed a number of issues—the cabinet had been summoned there—the supreme leader, basically, agreed, sided with some hardline clerics who raised objections, you know, on, allegedly, Islamic grounds and said if there’s not consensus, well, we’re not going to reopen the schools.

And when I was in Kabul I was really surprised at the amount of frustration and anger among members of the Taliban, criticism that they made, you know, off the record, of course, of the supreme leader himself. But that decision so far hasn’t been made and I think they have really failed their most important test as a government thus far, even by their own standards.

RYAN: Thanks, Matthieu.

I want to follow up on that really important subject, Ambassador Rahmani, with you not only because, obviously, the fate of those women and girls is incredibly important but also because I think it is a really telling indicator of the extent to which the international community is going to be able to use its carrots and sticks, namely, you know, the access to these frozen reserves and the international aid to shape Taliban governing decisions.

So, Ambassador Rahmani, what are you hearing from your contacts and friends and relatives in Afghanistan about the—how the Taliban’s approach to women’s rights is affecting their lives and, specifically, do you think that we should hold out hope as the Biden administration is doing and a lot of the European nations that there will be a reversal to this decision and then the following one on women’s clothing?

RAHMANI: Thank you, everybody, and my apologies for arriving in late. When you’re rushing nothing really works.

So on this very important subject, let me first set the scene by saying this. One of the—one of the reasons that international community has continuously disappointed and—(inaudible)—is the assumption or the perception that they have of how logically things would normally work or that perception that any government or any group coming to power would like to do certain things in certain order in order to receive funds and provide services to their people and this is how the governance (is ?).

So, basically, approaching this whole idea of a relationship with the Taliban from a very logical point of view, which is misleading. It is not what people really think that they should be acting now that they are in power because they don’t act like that. Their unpredictability was one of the reasons that—one of the factors, basically, that helped them win, in addition to many other reasons.

So having said that, I’m trying to—I’m, basically, attempting the question in a reverse order. The carrots and the sticks from the international community does not necessarily work. We haven’t seen it work very well. We saw what happened with the announcement of the reserves that have been released, have been allocated to the victims.

But at the end of the day, these people, the way they function, as Matt was referring to, they still function the same way that they did before. They are not—they have not changed their priorities, their position, and they have that sets of belief.

What I am hearing—what I understood why that decision was made in terms of the girls’ education was, number one, faith and belief. So, probably, they really do believe that this is not the right thing to happen. It’s bad. It’s against their religion. It’s against their belief.

The second thing was politics. What I understood, in fact, through some people who have connection, they said a group of people went and they had this meeting in Kandahar and they thought that do you remember what happened a long time ago in 1980s how girls were protesting and that led to the collapse of the previous regimes and that, in fact, there was a role for Afghan women in each time that there was a change in the regime.

So they said that this is a dangerous thing. So, basically, there was—girls are dangerous. If they’re ever empowered and they go to have education, this could open the door for many other things. And they decided not to open it. And now, as it was said, there was a conflict between the Haqqani Group and the Kandaharis and they were, basically, trying to pretend one group is the reason that they’re not allowing the girls to school versus the other.

The reality is that this group is still functioning in a very—the same way that they always did and they should not be expecting any better. What people are telling me on the ground it’s not—at this point, it is not only the education. It’s also women who are barred from going to work.

It is their ability to participate in the economy, and the security, which no more people are talking about, the security concern is as concerning for women and girls as is the issue of schools, as the issue of dress code.

So it is pressing them from every single direction. Their problems are mutating. There’s nothing in total here. In fact, I have an aunt who is a teacher. And she told me firsthand that she goes to her school and from time to time there would be a dozen Taliban appearing and checking their uniform, making sure that they are fully dressed in black, that they have gloves on, that they have the masks on—the black mask—and also the black glasses. And right in front of where they go to sign in as they are coming into the school if they are not dressed according to this dress code they are going to be dismissed, like, permanently dismissed of school. So this is the situation.

RYAN: Thank you, Ambassador.

I want to definitely follow up on some of those issues but—and talk a little bit more about the security concerns affecting everybody, including women, in Afghanistan.

But first, Scott, can I go to you again with another political question? I know this is what you’re focused on in your base in Kabul, which is where you normally are. What can we say at this point about the internal tensions and dynamics that Matthieu addressed in his comments on the schooling decision?

Do we know—how much do we, as the international community, know about how those are going and what factions are likely to prevail on which issues?

SMITH: Yeah. I mean, I think that the decision to ban secondary education for girls, which was taken in March, was—as Matthieu described, was sort of eye opening because up until then we had been given all kinds of assurances that the Taliban understood this was a key issue for the international community.

They understood that if they wanted some kind of eventual recognition, obviously, this would be a very—you know, a very preliminary step. But this was a red line that we had put to them and they had seemed ready to allow that.

And then exactly the way that Matthieu described, right, there had been a conclave in Kandahar. The emir, who had not pronounced himself on many things up until then, took this decision, basically, reversed the decision that had already been announced by the cabinet allowing girls to go to school and that—as I said, it was eye opening because up until then we had had a fair degree of decent cooperation on a number of practical issues with our interlocutors in Kabul.

What we realized then, and when we’ve made this point that the Taliban don’t like it, but what we realized then was there do seem to be two centers of decision-making and the more powerful one is the one in Kandahar and, perhaps, what we consider to be the more practical issues are the ones in—you know, were taken in Kabul and that sort of was eye opening.

It revealed to us—I mean, we always sensed that there were some divisions but it made it very clear sort of what some of the key lines of division were inside the movement. I think, uncomfortably for the Taliban, they are—who have been—who were very good as an insurgency in sort of masking these divisions, now they’re not only open but they haven’t been healed.

And, I mean, we could go into an endless discussion about how the divisions are but, you know, basically, you could call them between the hardliners and pragmatists, between pro-engagement anti-engagement, even between Kandaharis and Haqqanis, which has been in the media, I think, one of the more classical ways, so to speak, of seeing them, but also generational.

And I think that, you know, there is a younger generation of Taliban who see themselves having power, perhaps for the rest of their lives, but, you know, in order to do that they need for Afghanistan to be viable.

And then you have another older guard, which is more focused on, you know, what could be called a martyrdom or victory dividend, which is to say when a decision is put to them the question they ask is, is this what tens of thousands of Taliban died for as opposed to is this what is going to make Afghanistan work.

And, again, I think that, you know, if you—I guess both—probably all Taliban would say this victory was, you know, a gift from God and then some would say, and therefore let’s not get too progressive and waste it, but the other side, which was said, you know, publicly by some Taliban figures, which was, but let’s also not make people hate Islam. And that’s sort of, I think, the main lines of division that they themselves have to continue to negotiate, and right now that negotiation process is sort of going on.

RYAN: Yeah, and, certainly, if the victory dividend, as you say, is going to be the metric for decision-making you’re, certainly, going to get different outcomes than if it is international recognition or financial engagement.

Just before we move on to security, Scott, are there particular issues, just briefly, that you are tracking that would be good sort of litmus test issues for which of these factions will prevail that you described?

SMITH: Well, yes, and—I mean, yeah—

RYAN: In addition to the women. Excuse me.

SMITH: Right. Right. No, I mean, there are a whole series of issues, one—because, basically, there are three sets of issues. One are issues of the Taliban, one from the international community, but the international media is not yet ready to concede, right. So that would be recognition. That’s, you know, direct aid to the government, removal of the sanctions, and so forth.

Then there are a set of issues that the international community wants from the Taliban but the Taliban have demonstrated so far they’re also not willing to concede and those would be the girls’ education, the human rights, women’s rights, more inclusive governance, and so forth.

And then there’s a set of issues in the middle where we sort of tried to work with them on a more pragmatic level, which includes trying to get the central bank to function. You know, there’s this decision on the airport, which has just been, apparently, reached that had been pending for some time. But, again, sort of more practical things.

But, fundamentally, even if we can make progress on these practical issues, if we can make progress on some of the issues that for us are normative and fundamental, there will always be that kind of blockage, so to speak, in the relationship and those sort of are, you know, very key issues for all of us.

RYAN: OK. I’m going to—we’re going to quickly go to the security and I’m going to ask Ambassador and Matthieu, either of you, to jump in, or both of you. We have about five minutes before we need to open it up to the to the audience, and, essentially, I wanted to see what you can tell us about what we can conclude up to this moment.

You know, we, in a few months, are going to be a year into the Taliban’s rule. What can we conclude about their ability to impose security and law and order? We’ve had, as our listeners probably know, a series of horrifying attacks mostly targeting religious minorities, some of which have been claimed by ISIS-K.

You know, I think it’s important to note that not even the United States and NATO with tens of thousands of troops was able to prevent all of those attacks.

But what can we say about the Taliban’s approach to security, even as—echoing what we said before—they’re trying to transition their insurgent fighters to a more orderly police and military force?

RAHMANI: Well, if I can—if I can jump in, what I understand and hear, the security situation is a lot worse than what is getting reported. The members of the Taliban are acting out of grievances that they had or the previous issues that they had with the people, as well as trying to target the former members of the security forces.

You have the security forces that was—or, that were members of the forces under the previous government are continuously getting targeted. Themselves, their family members, their relatives are subject to imprisonment and torture and killing. Targeted killing is really there and it’s happening all the time. People do not even report it because they are fearful and the local media doesn’t act—cannot report it either. And so this is a real issue.

One of the reports that I saw from a very indirect source—one of the regional countries, in fact—was that on daily basis there is between twenty-five to twenty-seven targeted killings happening, and it could be a lot more. But that’s on one hand.

On the other hand, these bombings that you were referring to, I also hear from people on the ground that these are some of the branches of the Taliban and the government, that they are unhappy. They are—they do not think that things are going the way that they predicted.

As we are moving forward, what we see there is a real sense of a deeper civil war breaking up. There is a deeper sense of regional countries continuing to do what they have been used to over the decades in Afghanistan, meaning that nobody can fill out the vacuum—the footprint that was left behind, and as a result they do what they know how to do, and they’re good at it, is hedging.

Everybody is trying to provide weapons and resources to the groups that they are accustomed to and they are going to continue to be the insurgency now.

So the tables have somehow turned around and there would be these groups of insurgencies mushrooming and the Taliban may not necessarily be empowered to control them, with increasing poverty.

AIKINS: May I just say that I think that it might be helpful to draw a distinction between persecution, which is definitely happening—you know, people, particularly members of the intelligence service and the security forces of the former government who themselves were involved in assassinations and torture against the Taliban are being persecuted. But the general security situation for ordinary people is drastically improved. We can’t forget this conflict has almost entirely ceased.

You know, all the data that we have from humanitarian groups like emergency, the Red Cross, there’s not fighting happening in most of the country and what is happening in places like Panjshir is on a very low level and I think it gets disproportionate amounts of attention in the media.

So if you travel around the country you will be struck by how much peace has come to the countryside and how people in the rural areas are being able to farm, for example, in places where they weren’t able to for years. So I think it’s important to keep that in mind as well.

RYAN: And thank you for raising that, Matthieu. And just quickly, before we open it up, what do you hear from Afghans when you’re talking to people in those areas where—you know, that were sort of no-go areas for aid workers and all of that for a while?

How do they measure the positive security implications of the Taliban rule with other effects? I’m sure it varies from community to community but I’d be interested to hear a little bit about what you’re being told.

AIKINS: Yeah. It really does vary. I mean, that’s the thing, and I haven’t traveled the length and breadth of the country and I don’t think we have great access to a lot of the country right now just because people aren’t going.

You know, the Taliban are, for the most part, allowing foreign journalists to work in the country. I’m aware that we have a very privileged position. But I think we should be using it to get around the country and witness what’s happening.

So if you go—you know, if you go talk to a farmer in Wardak province you’re going to get a very different answer from a farmer in Bamyan province, maybe, where, you know, Hazaras are suffering from ethnically-based persecution.

But in a lot of swaths of the country that were, you know, Pashtun or supported the insurgency people are definitely happy about security. They feel a lot safer. They were afraid in their homes at night from drone strikes, from night raids by the government, and they don’t miss those things at all.

But one thing that everyone’s worried about whether they’re in Bamyan, whether they’re in Wardak, whether they’re in Kabul, is the economic crisis the country is facing. People, you know, can’t feed their families. They’re being fed by humanitarian agencies.

The entire country is on humanitarian life support right now and that’s all that’s averted a famine. You know, the WFP went from feeding 1 (million) to 18 million people a month over the winter. It’s staggering.

So everyone is afraid of the economic crisis and, yeah, they are worried about a future resumption of the civil war.

RYAN: All right. Thanks.

RAHMANI: Just on that point—

RYAN: Yeah. Please.

RAHMANI: —I want to come back and say for sure the night raids are no longer happening because the Taliban are not there and the suicide bombings that were happening to the extent that hundreds of people continuously were being—get killed every couple of months and on a daily basis it’s not there.

However, the majority of people, based on what I hear, they live in fear. OK. They are not getting killed but there is such a sense of fear, whether they are in the rural areas or in the cities, that they really can’t function and a lot of people do tell us that they are hiding, and this is a lot worse in the northern provinces.

Like, what was happening for a very long time in Baghlan was quite serious. People were hiding and then they were moving. The number of displaced people is increasing because of this. But it’s—of course, there is not enough reporting to say that.

I’m not saying the numbers of people getting killed and injured are the same because they—that is no longer there. But it is, definitely, a sense of fear in addition to the economic situation—(inaudible).

RYAN: No, thank you, Ambassador, and I think all of this really underscores the extent to which, you know, it is really hard to draw definitive conclusions on most of these topics because it has been only such a short period of time and things are still playing out internally as well.

So we are going to open it up to audience questions right now. As a reminder, as you can see in the Zoom chat, please click the raise hand icon on your Zoom window, and I think that we are going to hear from our CFR colleagues about what questions we have coming our way.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will be from Shirin Tahir-Kheli. Please remember to state your affiliation.

Q: Yes. Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Thank you for this panel. I have a question based on the fact that very few people actually have access to the Taliban leadership in Kandahar, Kabul, or elsewhere. But since, particularly, I think, in terms of the U.N. and UNAMA mission, maybe that’s one angle where you can decipher some of the thinking.

What is it that the Taliban leadership are sort of looking for at this point? Are they looking to sort of hold on to the glory of their victory, regardless of what happens to the rest of Afghanistan—its standing, its women, its—basically, its progress that was hard won? Or are they actually looking to try and transform their—the fact that they are now in power into something that corresponds with a functioning state, which, I think, still enjoys support globally but it will never be to the extent, at least financially, that it has been in the last twenty years, but, nonetheless, I think there’s a lot of goodwill still for the state of Afghanistan?

So can you, please, sort of tell us what—your sense of what their goals are?

Thank you.

RYAN: Who wants to tackle that?

SMITH: I guess—I think—obviously, I think it was sort of directed at me.

No, I think that those two options that you put forward, Shirin, are exactly, you know, one of the fault lines within the Taliban in terms of what they want. I think, definitely, you know, they would all want to survive as a government. But there’s a division over what that really entails and how to move forward in the future.

And the division is also partly driven by, you know, very different experiences that the various Taliban have had. So you’ve had a group which has sat in Doha for ten years, which has had interactions with the international community and are more aware of both international concerns but also benefits of engaging with the international community. And you have others who have been mostly fighting.

And when, you know, you ask even the pro-engagement ones about the background to the decision, for example, on a ban on girls’ schools or the imposition of face covering, you know, they will tell you that the hardliner(s)—what we call the hardliners were behind those decisions are concerned that they don’t lose the fighters who—you know, who were not in Doha, who were doing—you know, who were taking on the brunt of the conflict and, again, who, you know, they, at least, think did not sacrifice their lives and their comrades and so forth in order to see, basically, the same government as the one they fought against to come back.

Now, whether that—whether the risk of these guys defecting and joining Daesh or something like that is overstated, I don’t know. But that’s one of the excuses that they use. So, again, the—there’s no firm answer to your question.

It’s actually the question, I think, the Taliban are dealing with among themselves with, you know, little bits of, you know, each side sort of having—you know, making some progress against their own issues and then losing against other issues.

So, yeah, it’s still an open question. It’s still something that we are trying to follow as much as possible and it’s—you know, it’s an issue on which some of the more pro-engagement Taliban are quite frank about and I think Matthieu mentioned earlier on that there was a lot of opposition from, you know, very senior and very prominent Taliban officials to the ban on girls’ education. You know, they were against it and they said it publicly.

But, at the end of the day, the final decisions on the issues that are most important are made in Kandahar and the movement is still not willing to break itself apart over these yet, and that’s sort of the dynamic that we’ve been dealing with since, more or less, January of this year.

RYAN: All right. Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Allen Weiner.

Q: Thank you. I’m Allen Weiner at the law school at Stanford University.

And forgive me, this is, maybe, a narrow question in view of my legal background.

But for Mr. Smith, in particular, I’m wondering how the United Nations is dealing with the challenge of recognition of the Taliban regime, given the position of many member states which have not recognized the Taliban as the government.

And, yet, I’ve heard you refer several times during the presentation today the Taliban regime as the government of Afghanistan, and so I’m wondering how the U.N. is managing this recognition question.

Thank you.

SMITH: OK. Very briefly, I mean, the first thing is to try and make the Taliban understand that recognition is not something that we, as UNAMA, can confer. This is very much a—you know, it’s a question for each member state. It’s also striking that, unlike the ’90s where there was sort of immediate recognition by three countries after the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, no country has yet recognized them, even some of the immediate neighbors or tacit supporters.

And then the final point is, basically, just sort of try and have a continued dialogue against this set of—these sort of three baskets of issues that I described before and let them know that, you know, recognition is probably not going to be forthcoming unless they show some progress on these issues.

And I think, obviously, for some member states human rights, women’s rights, you know, are extremely important. But for the region, for example, a more representative government is extremely important.

So we, basically—we’re sort of in the process, I guess, of an unacknowledged complex negotiation and we’re in the middle of it. It involves the different factions of the Taliban on the one hand and the different groupings of the international community on the other hand. But I think we’re still quite far apart from any overlapping where there can be a serious discussion right now about recognition.

RYAN: OK. Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Colin Cookman.

Q: Yes. Hi. Colin Cookman at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

I have two questions but I’ll just ask the one. We talked—you talked earlier about sort of the economic crisis, and I think one notable thing that hasn’t happened since the collapse last August has been sort of the mass migration out of the country.

Obviously, sort of Pakistan’s border fencing and controls there have been one factor. But I’m wondering if you could speak any further to sort of factors that maybe have prevented this sort of mass migration and to what degree you think those are sort of durable or whether that’s something that’s more likely to occur in the coming months or year.


RYAN: Who wants to address that? Is this lack of opportunity, lack of resources, or choice to stay? Matthieu—

AIKINS: I can speak to it. Yeah. Sure.

I think there was mass migration. You know, you had almost a hundred thousand people evacuated and that probably took a lot of the pressure off because those were people who had resources and connections who would have been probably the first to be traveling on illegal routes, you know, through Iran and Turkey to Europe.

So there was a mass migration, right, this huge evacuation but—during the fall of Kabul. But since then, we have seen gigantic flows into Iran, less so into Pakistan. What we are really seeing, I think, is the durability and the effectiveness of border control measures—you know, not just walls but detention camps, funding for police and border agencies in Iran and Turkey, in Pakistan, the Greek islands, where a very intense campaign of illegal push backs are taking place.

So Afghans are trying to get out. They’re trying to migrate, as they always have, in response to economic crisis and conflict. But this time they’re being met with more walls, more violence. But I think at some point you could start to see enough pressure building up that we’ll see more migration, especially if the situation—economic situation in the country doesn’t improve.

RYAN: Just to follow up on a corollary of that with you, Ambassador, I have read some reports about some former officials with the Ghani government returning to Afghanistan at the invitation of the Taliban.

Do you think that that is a significant phenomenon in any way or can you tell us a little bit about what you hear from your contacts there about whether or not people are still trying to get out and what may happen if the, you know, airports start functioning more normally?

RAHMANI: Well, I agree with everything that Matt said in this regard. If people can afford and have means to get out they will get out. That’s what I hear from all the ordinary people that I’m in touch with.

It’s just a matter that they don’t have the means and resources to get out. Iran have been pushing back thousands of those who have been trying to illegally cross the border and migrate to Iran just for economic purposes.

Pakistan has really doubled down in terms of being very harsh to those who travel there without a visa and a passport and they’re—as anybody who follows that, you know that it’s impossible to get a passport from Afghanistan nowadays.

So why—about the former official and their return, what I can say is there are very specific individuals, based on what I understand, that have returned and they have made it very public. There is two reasons for that.

Number one is their security. Usually, these people who want to go back they want to make it public so that everybody knows that they went there because they are not really trusting, that in case that the Taliban killed them at least they know that they went back and that happened to them. In a way, they’re trying to hold Taliban accountable for their security and that’s why they are really publicizing.

The reason for why they are going—and by no means I think it’s significant—is some—based on, again, what I have heard; I don’t have any evidence to say if it is right or not—is that there are certain opportunities. Some of them have returned because the countries that they have gone to seek refuge have worked out with them a way that they were going to go and provide funding for some kind of projects or they develop or they are, basically, going to help support something but with the help and support of countries that they have initially came out to.

So that is, really, the reason their numbers are very limited. The individuals that have gone back are mostly the people that are going to do something and there is some incentives for them and that reason. And the publicity is for security. That’s what I understand.

But for anyone that is not, they desperately want to get out. I wake up every single morning with numerous messages of people asking and seeking help if there is any way to help them to get out.

RYAN: All right. Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will be from April Wells.

Q: Thank you to all of the panelists.

I have two questions. One is: Could you please share your perspective on whether you believe that the Taliban is truly comprised of individuals committed to the religious theocracy that the Taliban advocates or whether it now includes individuals who just seek to be a part of the government and this seems to be the biggest way to do so?

And my second question is: You’ve—many of you have spoken of the potential for civil war. If you could, please, speak to who you believe the parties to a civil war would be if one were to occur in Afghanistan.

Thank you.

RYAN: April, just before we get to your questions can you just give your affiliation, please?

Q: I apologize. I am with the State Department.

RYAN: OK. Thanks.

So there’s a question on the sort of religious motive or personal motivations and people being affiliated with the Taliban and then any thoughts on how the battle lines might shake out if there was another more widespread conflict.

Let’s start with the first one. Who wants to address—

SMITH: I can—

RYAN: Yeah. Scott, go ahead.

SMITH: I mean, look, I think for the most part the answer to that question is, you know, yes because the Taliban have not given, really, any positions of authority, whether it’s at the cabinet level down to district governor level, to anybody who’s outside of the movement.

Now, that said—and then, by the way, they’re also trying to manage internal conflicts within the movement, especially between Pashtun and non-Pashtun figures, in terms of leadership positions and who they can trust.

And so I think they’re—I mean, I would say yes, you know, dedication to the theological causes of the movement and then maybe also just point out that, you know, the Taliban theology and the Taliban view of Islam is, you know, quite also idiosyncratic, which is why it was interesting to see, you know, the OIC and a number of Muslim countries and non-Afghan ulema or even Afghan ulema coming out and criticizing the decisions, for example, on the hijab or on girls’ schooling.

But it is, you know, very much a theological perspective inflected by, you know, the Pashtun village life. But I think that—so there is—I mean, there is kind of a division there between the sort of Pashtun and the non-Pashtun. But for now, I don’t see anybody being given even a chance to join the government if they’re not already part of the movement or haven’t been for a while.

RYAN: Thanks, Scott. And I think that’s a really interesting question that relates in part to, you know, the—another open question, which is what happens when you have people who have spent their whole lives fighting as insurgents and how do they transition to a more—a different kind of life.

Matthieu, do you want to address the second question? I know it’s a difficult one.


RYAN: But, yeah. Go ahead.

AIKINS: Yeah. I mean, I think we could, broadly, say that there are three, you know, candidates for centers of gravity of a resistance against the Taliban. You know, one is, obviously, the Northern Alliance and the parties and political figures who are associated with the—you know, the resistance against the Taliban in the ’90s.

The other is disaffected tribal groups in southern or eastern Afghanistan—you know, Pashtun groups that felt alienated, like, because of tribal dynamics with the Taliban coming to power, for example Barakzaz (ph) in Kandahar.

And third would be, you know, the former members of the security service, you know, especially the special forces commandos who have a strong network. You know, a lot of them are outside the country now. And a lot of them are looking to begin a resistance but the thing is they need external sponsorship, I think, and with the possible exception of Tajikistan no one is providing it right now because no country, regional or otherwise, that wants to commit to restarting (a round of ?) civil war in Afghanistan.

I think pretty much everyone sees stability and peace as in their interests for now. That could change, obviously. But at the moment, I think the resistance is a nonstarter. It gets a lot more attention in the media than it does, actually, in Afghanistan.

RYAN: Let me just ask a follow-up to that. Is there—are there circumstances that you—realistic circumstances that you foresee where there would be more significant external support for that kind of resistance movement?

AIKINS: I think it’s twofold. I think, for one, countries would have to see it as being in their interest to destabilize the Taliban. You’re actually already seeing something—somewhat of an antagonism now between Pakistan and the new Afghan government, which is no longer their client, you know, or rebel group but the government of a state that has, you know, divergent interests next door.

So we’re seeing some antagonism between Pakistan and Afghanistan over issues like the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban significantly. And then, on the other hand, is, like, is there a credible alternative to the Taliban, and I think that the way that the collapse of the Afghan government security forces happened so thoroughly discredited a lot of the figures associated with it that there’s not really a credible alternative or credible alternative figure to the Taliban. The opposition is not united.

So even if countries did see it as in their interest to fund someone who would they fund? But look, that being said, I think all of the countries are keeping that option in reserve. We’re seeing, for example, in Iran a network of anti-Taliban figures being protected, sheltered by the Iranian government, kept on ice, basically, because I think everyone’s hedging their bets right now.

RYAN: Yeah. In addition to that, the resolve, I think, that you see here in the United States, at least, that the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan cannot, certainly, return to what it was.

Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Kazuo Niigata (sp).

RYAN: Kazuo (sp), go ahead.

OPERATOR: Kazuo (sp), are you—Mr. Niigata (sp), are you available to ask your question?

(No response.)

OPERATOR: Seems like we’re having technical difficulty. We’ll go on to our next person, which is Craig Charney.

Q: Thank you.

I am simply wondering whether Afghanistan—the Taliban doesn’t really assert—(inaudible)—of sui generis. Most others proclaim development is their goal, even if they’re corrupt or incompetent. The Taliban seem fairly unique in the sense that development is not their goal. They’re willing to exclude half the society from the economy, education, and politics. They are unwilling and unable to make a—the rule of law, a legal system, or a financial system function, and, you know, the most powerful elements within it, as Scott Smith emphasized, are perfectly content with this.

In these circumstances, aside from humanitarian aid to prevent starvation, it would seem to me that there just isn’t very much that can be done with them. You know, the search for the moderate Taliban has gone on and on and on but it never seems to yield. Is this right?

RYAN: Craig, can you provide us your affiliation?

Q: Oh. Sorry. Yes. I run Charney Research, a research organization. We did a dozen projects in Afghanistan, including creating the Asia Foundation and ABC news service there.


Scott or Matthieu, would you like to comment on that, and as part of that any observations that you have?

And, Roya, now that you’re back, I don’t know if you heard the question. Any observations that you all have about what the judicial system is like right now, I think, would be interesting for our listeners. Thanks.

SMITH: Yeah. I mean, I think Craig’s point is extremely important. It is sui generis. I think that the Taliban have sort of had the view that, especially last year as we approached the winter humanitarian crisis that I mentioned at the beginning, that this is the international community’s responsibility.

You used to provide all of these resources to the government and now the departure of the international community has created this mess. You know, you have to now sort of take responsibility for these people who—you know, who are suffering from all kinds of wants.

I think they’re very suspicious of development aid and they’ve said this publicly. They know that development aid comes with conditions that they might not be willing to accept. They’re very intent on developing their own economy and their own private sector, and I think one of the things that we need to be looking out for is at what point do they gain enough self-sufficiency that they can sort of tell the international community we’re actually not really interested in your conditioned aid and we are interested in continuing to run our government the way we see fit, you know, based on the values that we’ve espoused.

And then the final point is I’ve made, for example, the distinction up to now of issues of pragmatism and then issues of, you know, values or norms. But I think that for many of the Taliban, especially the hardliners, issues like, you know, the decree on face masking and girls’ schools and so forth, for them these are fundamental issues, you know, that were behind their victory and we sort of see them as why are you wasting time on this, you know, when you have all kinds of real problems to solve.

But I think they see these as very real problems, you know, from their perspective and we can’t underestimate that. And I think that contributes a lot to, I think, as Craig started very well, the sui generisness of the way they see governance.

AIKINS: I think one point that—


AIKINS: Oh, yeah. Please go ahead.

RYAN: Matthieu—(laughs)—Matthieu, why don’t you start, briefly, and then we’ll go to Ambassador Rahmani?

AIKINS: Just to pick up on a point the questioner made about what can be done, maybe the answer is, not a lot. But I think we have to reconcile what—and what is difficult to reconcile is our own relative powerlessness in the situation with our deep entanglement.

I mean, we—you know, to answer what Scott said earlier is, like, or the Taliban’s point about the international community having a responsibility to feed people that they were feeding before, I think, is a valid one.

I mean, we created one of the most—perhaps, the most aid-dependent state in history over twenty years, right. Seventy-five percent of government’s budget was funded by foreign grants, just to give one example.

So suddenly pulling the plug on that aid led to a crisis situation that would have been a famine if there wasn’t massive humanitarian aid, and that situation is going to continue. It’s not going to stop anytime soon.

So we are entangled in Afghanistan. We do, clearly, have a moral responsibility for the results of our failed policies there, and the question is, you know, are we going to be pragmatic about the limits of what we can do and distinguish the reasons for why we’re doing them.

I mean, we’re providing humanitarian aid not for the Taliban and, certainly, hopefully, not in the hopes of changing them because that’s, obviously, a fool’s errand, largely, but because—to stop Afghans from dying of hunger, from selling their children, you know, to feed their families, right—their remaining children.

So to be pragmatic about the limits of what we can do, I think, is really the task, going forward here.

RYAN: Yeah.

Ambassador, what should we make of the—you know, as, I think, the questioner pointed out, you know, the Taliban’s willingness to subordinate most everything to a certain set of, you know, principles that it cares deeply about, you know, and the important caveat, and I hope you’ll address is, you know, what does that mean for the international community, especially when it comes to those who don’t support those same goals but who remain in Afghanistan?

RAHMANI: Well, I will circle back to what I said at the beginning. For the—for the group, life is good. Let’s not remember where they come from. They are a group of people who lived under poverty, under very difficult conditions. They were an insurgent group. As one of our friends put it, they depart for twenty years with an empty stomach and they are happy to govern with a(n) empty treasury.

So, for them, this is not an issue. And they are not keen on development, of course, because their worldview is very different than what we think and we would expect of the government to be and to deliver. They don’t hold—they don’t hold on those views.

Instead, as it was already discussed, very specific things that they—how women should be and how the Islamic society, from their view, should conduct themselves, and they’re holding it together.

The other aspect is that they are really benefiting by international community really turning a blind eye into everything and them, basically, adopting a policy to forget about it. And it’s disappearing. I go to many different events and conferences and there is very little being said about it.

So they are benefitting from this issue and they are not—this does not subscribe to who they are and what they want to achieve, and the leverages that we—that there was were also somehow somewhat wasted.

The other thing I would like to point out, especially because there is a lot of discussions about the girls’ education, is I think we have really lowered the bar by just making that THE condition. At the end of the day, it sounds like, especially outside Afghanistan, that the only one issue that they have is not letting girls to middle school, and once they do that everything will be OK. It’s not true. It’s not real. And this is not the proper treatment to women.

I think international community should be a little bit more serious about this and do not lower the bar to that point. I know that they are not getting away with that and they will not get away with much more—they won’t gain much from it. But at least making it clear would be helpful.

RYAN: And we’ll get—

SMITH: May I just, like, maybe quickly to that last point, because—

RYAN: Sure, and then we have to wrap.

SMITH: Sorry. Sorry. Yeah.

No, listen, I mean, this issue is so prominent because the Taliban were so categorical about not meeting the sort of concerns of the international community on this. There’s another set of issues which have to do with inclusive governance and another set of issues which have to do with counterterrorism concerns.

So unless all of those are addressed in a way which is satisfying to most members of the international community, I think discussions about recognition are not going to be on the table.

But this issue just has to be prominent because it was timebound and it was a yes-or-no decision, and the Taliban at the time took a no decision. And that’s sort of why we’ve—it’s become so prominent. But it’s by no means the only bar.

RYAN: OK. Well, there is so much more to say and, obviously, this is an evolving picture and an evolving conversation. But I want to respect people’s time and we have to leave it here today.

So I want to thank the panelists—Matthieu, Scott, and Roya—for joining us today, and for everyone who logged on for the call, thanks a lot, and have a great weekend.


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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