Cofounder and Managing Partner, WestExec Advisors; Former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy
Author, War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier; Former Senior Advisor to the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Department of Defense (2015-2019)
Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Marxe Faculty Director, Master of International Affairs Program and Clinical Professor of National Security Studies, Baruch College's School of Public and International Affairs
ROBBINS: Thank you so much. So welcome to this afternoon’s CFR conference call on “Prospects for Peace in Afghanistan” with Michèle Flournoy, co-founder and managing partner of WestExec Advisors and former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy; and Carter Malkasian, until last year a senior adviser to General Joseph Dunford, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and author of War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier and a new piece I highly recommend in Foreign Affairs, How the Good War Went Bad. And that, obviously, is the good war of Afghanistan going bad.
I’m Carla Robbins, a former editor and reporter with the Times and the Journal, now an adjunct senior fellow at CFR, and I run a master’s program at Baruch College.
So with that, just a few logistical reminders. This call is on the record. Michèle, Carter, and I will chat for about twenty minutes, and then we’ll open this up to your questions. The operator will give you instructions, but please do remember to mute your call after you’ve asked your question. And we will end promptly at five, so please keep your questions succinct.
So, Carter and Michèle, there’s been a lot of reporting in the last few days that we are on the verge of a preliminary agreement with the Taliban that could lead to direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. A Taliban spokesman says an agreement will be signed by the end of the month, although what’s exactly in it and how much will be made public versus secret annexes has been much in dispute. President Ghani told U.S. lawmakers in Munich over the weekend that there are actually four secret annexes, including the suggestion that the Taliban will only disavow al-Qaida in private. Time magazine reported on a draft in which the Taliban agree privately that the U.S. counterterrorism forces could stay in country after a final deal. And pretty much everyone is reporting once this agreement in principle happens it starts a clock on a seven-day period during which the Taliban has to demonstrate a reduction in violence but will not commit to a ceasefire, which then leads to some sort of formal signing. It’s not very clear—formal signing and OK, secret handshake, not clear. And after that, the talks with the Afghan government and Taliban would finally begin, and if those move forward over the next half-year the U.S. would begin a drawdown of forces from 12,500 or so to below nine thousand. And it’s not clear whether this deal has some basic understanding on any political settlement—ultimate political settlement, including about the future of the Afghan constitution and the rights of women and minorities.
So with all of those confusions, Carter, can you start by giving us your understanding of where the process stands and parameters of this preliminary deal that we’re now maybe about to get to?
MALKASIAN: Absolutely. And thank you so much, Carla.
So it looks like right now, by multiple accounts, that we could be seeing the announcement of a—of a peace agreement and reduction in violence quite soon, like within the next—the next few days to a week. And that’s been clear because of what Secretary Esper has said about a seven-day reduction in violence. It’s been clear in terms of what Secretary Pompeo has spoken about, about there being a breakthrough, which he said about a week ago. And then the Taliban’s deputy political commissioner, Abdul Salam Hanafi, he also talked about an announcement happening soon; he said the 29th of February.
So to kind of break this down, what we should be seeing—if all things go according to plan, if there aren’t hiccups, we should be seeing a seven-day reduction in violence that could begin in the next few days. That reduction in violence is probably going to be something meaningful, and that could be anything from not seeing attacks in the cities or not seeing IEDs on roads to something broader that extends into the countryside. At the end of that seven days there should be an announcement of a U.S.-Taliban agreement, and that agreement is probably going to have a few parts to it.
It’s probably going to have something that talks about the withdrawal of U.S. forces—it’s been widely reported that we’ll go from—go down to 8,600 in 135 days—and that it also may have something about going down to zero forces in Afghanistan in some longer period of time. A second part, there should be guarantees on the part of the Taliban against terrorism and against al-Qaida. As a third part, there should be discussion about inter-Afghan negotiations where the Afghan sides sit at a table and work towards a political settlement. And there should be something about further reductions in violence or a ceasefire.
After this announcement happens—and the reporting has been about ten days after, but it’s hard to say how long it really will be after—those inter-Afghan negotiations should start. Some people say that’s in Oslo. Some people say it’s in Germany. And that should involve the Taliban on one side and other Afghan key representatives and power brokers on the other, to include the government.
And so that kind of gives you a decent idea of what we’re looking at right now. And I think I’ll probably hold there lest I take too much time.
So, Michèle, how do you read what’s happening right now? And what’s the minimum that has to come out of this first step for you to say that it’s a reasonable start?
FLOURNOY: Well, I do think that, you know, from the Bush administration to the Obama administration to now getting the Taliban to engage seriously in taking steps to get them eventually to sit down with the Afghan government and other representatives of Afghan society, that has been a goal that has, you know, been long pursued. I think it’s based on the premise or the judgment that, you know, both sides have come to realize that they can’t win this on the battlefield, and the only way this is going to come to an end is through some degree of political settlement. While we have been fighting this for twenty years, you know, the Afghans have been fighting this for forty. So there is a degree of exhaustion on both sides and a—and a degree of stalemate.
So I agree with everything Carter said in terms of laying out how we understand this will go. I think the key thing here will be—and the whole purpose of this U.S.-Taliban agreement—is to induce the Taliban to come to the negotiating table with the Afghan government and other representatives of Afghan society. It’s very, very important that the delegation that sits across from the Taliban be inclusive—not only members of the Ghani administration but also the political opposition, civil society, and especially women and younger Afghans. There’s lots of academic case studies for why more inclusive delegations, particularly the inclusion of women, lead to more sustainable and better outcomes, so that’s very important. And that’s going to be no small challenge in the wake of the—you know, the very polarizing election results that have just been announced by the Afghan electoral council.
So I think the key is to get to the point where we’re actually in Afghan—inter-Afghan negotiations and they’re starting to work through the details of an actual political settlement because the U.S.-Taliban agreement really doesn’t address that. It’s really meant to get all the Afghans to that table.
But this is going to be a long road. It’s likely to be a rocky road. But it is the best chance that I’ve seen for actually getting to serious negotiations, best chance that we’ve had in many years.
ROBBINS: So, Michèle, I just wanted to follow up with one thing. The American people, obviously, except for those whose family members have had repeated deployments or have lost family members in Afghanistan, are pretty checked out on Afghanistan. I mean, there’s—remarkably, in polling there’s not the revulsion towards war that one would—(laughs)—one saw in Vietnam in the end and this sort of sense that it was the right thing to do after 9/11, but certainly not huge calls for the troops to come home, not the way that the president talks about the need to bring the troops home. If this preliminary deal does not have a strong commitment on the part of the Taliban to reject al-Qaida, what do you think the response is going to be domestically?
FLOURNOY: Well, I think that’ll be problematic and I think it will stop progress in its tracks. My understanding is one of the—this is a conditions—even the U.S.-Taliban agreement is conditions-based, and so the—you know, it proceeds in phases. The first phase, as Carter says, is, you know, by the end of 135 days, assuming all is going well, we draw down to 8,600. That’s a level that I’ve been told General Miller is comfortable with in terms of continuing to be able to support the mission he has in Afghanistan. But the U.S.-Taliban agreement commits the Taliban to counter terrorism and to counter al-Qaida, ISIS, any terrorist organization that is operating in areas that they control. I believe it also has language, but I’m not clear on exactly what it is, that at least lays out the goal of getting to a comprehensive ceasefire that would happen as the inter-Afghan negotiations are taking place.
So this is not—this is phased. And if the Taliban doesn’t, you know, follow through on its commitments, then I think the—some of what, you know, the U.S. has promised, like the drawdown, would stop. And then the question would be, can we get back to the negotiating table to work out those issues, or would the whole process be derailed at that point. Let me stop there.
ROBBINS: Thank you.
So, Carter, who has the U.S. been negotiating with? And do they represent the Taliban? Can they deliver on the commitments, whatever they end up being? And is the seven-day reduction in violence a sufficient test of that, or their longer-term intentions?
MALKASIAN: So the United States has been, and Ambassador Khalilzad has been negotiating with the Taliban Political Commission. And this is a group of representatives that the Taliban and the affiliated Haqqani Network have selected to represent them in negotiations in Doha—and, actually, in just every political matter in Doha. The team is led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. And he was once the deputy leader of the whole movement when Mullah Omar was still alive. He is a very charismatic figure. He is very respected by the Taliban. He has a great deal of authority. And so it’s significant that he is in the one leading the negotiation.
There’s other members of the team as well that I probably don’t need to go into by name or anything. Some five of the prisoners who were in Guantanamo, who were released in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl are also on the political commission. And they also receive a lot of respect because of the time that they spent in—that they spent in prison. So these leaders do represent the Taliban. The Taliban leader Mullah Hebatullah is fully aware that they’re there. They are receiving instructions from him and the Taliban Leadership Council, which we sometimes call the Quetta shura. And so they are effectively representing the Taliban.
Can they deliver? I think if—can they represent such that what they agreed to is followed by the Taliban, yes, I think that—I think that they can deliver. And I would point to the June 2018 ceasefire where the Taliban did have a brief ceasefire with the government for three days over the Eid holiday, and it was—it was followed maybe not universally by the whole Taliban movement, but it’s extremely hard to find violations of that ceasefire with—through the Taliban movement. So there is a certain unity within the movement and a certain ability to get it to all go in the right direction.
But that is as long as all of the members of the organization feel that the deal meets what their interests are. So if the deal violates some of their interests—you know, for example, if the deal specifically left large numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan on a permanent basis, the deal wouldn’t be—they would not agree to it, and if they did agree to it, the movement wouldn’t follow it. So the ability of them to deliver depends upon them having a deal that meets the interests of the movement.
Is seven days enough? So to fully have trust in the Taliban, I mean, nothing is enough. I would fall back to what Ms. Flournoy said, which is that it’s the—this agreement has to be conditioned. And it is conditioned, such that if the Taliban don’t meet one of their commitments we can wave off on other commitments. The primary one of those would be we can suspend or cancel our withdrawal. And that conditionality is very important to the agreement. It’s one of the—it’s one of the agreement’s great strengths.
Now, that seven-day reduction in violence, though, that also is—it’s a big deal. The Taliban were extremely resistant to having major reductions in violence prior to September. They felt that that would reduce their legitimacy. And their willingness to go forward and do it now, ahead of there being an announcement, is a significant confidence-building measure. So I’ll leave it at that.
FLOURNOY: If I could just add, Carla?
ROBBINS: Sure. Sure, absolutely.
FLOURNOY: You know, one the things that has been discussed is the potential for spoilers on the Taliban side, meaning, you know, maybe some local fighter on the ground who doesn’t want to lay down his arms, doesn’t want to abide by the reduction in force. One of the aspects of the agreement, as I understand it, is the establishment of a high-level communications channel to address those incidents if they occur. And the expectation would be that, you know, if there’s someone, you know, on the ground in Afghanistan that takes a shot at an Afghan unit or coalition forces, or what have you, that there’s some mechanism as part of the agreement, or as part of the understanding, to communicate at a high level, and an expectation that each side would discipline its own to abide by the reduction in force. Because this also bears on coalition and Afghan operations as well.
The second thing is one thing that may be a bit of stumbling block in getting to the inter-Afghan negotiations is the Taliban has been very clear that they have an expectation of additional prisoner releases. And whether those happen on their expected timeline or not, how President Ghani handles that could also affect the actual timeline for starting the inter-Afghan negotiations. So that’s something additional to watch. The other thing I’ll just mention, I was at an event yesterday with Ambassador Feehey (ph), who is Zal Khalilzad’s—Ambassador Khalilzad’s deputy. And she said, you know, the U.S. would also be announcing, at the same time they, you know, announce the U.S.-Taliban agreement, when that happens, they will also be issuing a joint declaration restating the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and the Afghan National Security Forces in Kabul.
So that they don’t want the signing of a U.S.-Taliban agreement to somehow make the Afghans feel like the U.S. is abandoning them. They’re going to reaffirm their commitment to the Afghan government, as has been stated in prior signed agreements, to try to reassure the Afghan government and the Afghan people as this moves forward.
ROBBINS: So I want to turn this over, so I have just kind of one last question for both of you to comment on, which is—and I’m glad you raised the Afghan National Security Forces. It is very hard to look at this and not remember what happened in Iraq after the American troops went home. And certainly after all these years of training and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces, the reports on them are not great. So you can negotiate a deal with the Taliban, in which the Afghan government is backed by U.S. troops, and the Taliban wants nothing more than to see the Americans go home. What’s the status of the Afghan National Security Forces? And what is the possibility that they aren’t just going to collapse the second we leave? That there’s—what confidence should we have that we’re not going to have to imagine making a decision of just watching it all implode or having to decide, as we did in Iraq, about the need to go back in?
Carter, do you want to take that first?
MALKASIAN: Sure. So, you know, first of all, we should condition our withdrawal, or step through our withdrawal, such that we’re not leaving when there’s violence still going on, such that a political settlement has been agreed upon, a ceasefire is in place, and hopefully there is actually a new government sitting at that time, or maybe we’re on the way to that. Then when we leave, we’re not leaving that there’s violence going on. Now, that doesn’t entirely solve the problem, because what we have here is what political scientists call a commitment problem, that once we leave the Taliban could judge that the balance of forces has changed and that they now want to renege on the agreement, pick up—pick arms back up, and go with at the ANDSF again. That would be very problematic. That could involve some very difficult days for the ANDSF. And, yes, their ability to succeed would be in question.
So there are some things we should be thinking about, about how you might avoid that from happening. Like, having other regional powers guarantee the agreement. But as I say that, I also want to point out that that isn’t necessarily the way things are going to go. The Taliban, as Ms. Flournoy pointed out, have also experienced a lot of violence, a lot of bloodshed. And their willingness to go back to that after we get to a political settlement is questionable. The other thing about it is that on—if they—once they’re in that—once they’re in that position, that they may not want to—if having gotten us out, their biggest thing is having removed us. That’s the biggest objective that they want. So once that’s gone, their interest in returning to violence may be much less. That’s all I have there.
FLOURNOY: Yeah. I would—I would just add that, you know, the U.S. has two real sources of leverage. One is our troop presence. And as Carter says, we have to be very, very careful that we draw that down only as certain conditions are met, and not, you know, absent that, or too fast, and so forth. Second leverage is international assistance. I think the Afghans of all stripes, including the Taliban, understand that the Afghan government and the Afghan economy is highly dependent on international assistance.
And that gives us leverage to influence the shape of a political settlement, and also to get agreement to, you know, whatever the—you know, whatever the Afghan National Security Forces will look like in the future. Perhaps there’s a formal disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, a DDR program, for the Taliban. You know, whatever that looks like, they’re almost certainly going to need some kind of security assistance going forward, even as they’re reshaped and reconstituted.
That’s important leverage that we and our coalition partners and the international donors should use very carefully to make sure, again, that the shape of the settlement, the details of the settlement are, you know, preserve a number of the gains that have been made, and preclude the kind of collapse that we witnessed in—when the Soviets left Afghanistan. And that’s actually what brought the Taliban to power. So, you know, there are lots of lessons learned here. And it argues for using the leverage we have very carefully to try to avoid creating conditions that would lead to some kind of collapse or renewed civil war.
ROBBINS: Thank you, both. I want to turn this over to the members and other friends on the call. A reminder once again that this call is on the record. And, operator, if you can explain how we proceed, very much appreciate it. Just a reminder, please limit yourself to one question so we can keep it concise, so as many members as possible can join in. Thanks. Sorry to interrupt you.
OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
And our first question comes from Doyle McManus, with the Los Angeles Times.
Q: Thank you. And thank you both for doing this. I want to pull a little further on a thread that Carter started. The bottom-line U.S. goal is for protection against terrorism. The bottom-line Taliban goal is for withdrawal of foreign forces. So on the U.S. side can we achieve our counterterrorism needs without a long-term troop presence in Afghanistan. And on the Taliban side, can they live with a long-term presence, or a—can they live with an ambiguous American commitment to full withdrawal?
ROBBINS: Thanks. Sorry, go ahead.
MALKASIAN: OK. So on can we achieve our CT objectives through negotiation and through this—through this peace agreement? I think that’s the rub of the question. And I would argue that, yes, we can achieve our CT objectives through this negotiation. If the Taliban offer the right guarantees, and if we can see that as we execute any kind of withdrawal, and if we can execute a political settlement, I think three of those things can meet with our CT objectives are. In terms of an ambiguous timeline, can the Taliban—or, an ambiguous U.S. presence, can the Taliban live with that? I think I’ll just—I’ll say, the Taliban position is that the U.S. military forces in the country need to be zero. So I think I’ll just leave it at that.
Q: If U.S. forces need to be zero, then their position presumably on—after a relative short time, after the—after the initial drawdown will be that the United States hasn’t met their needs, right?
MALKASIAN: The Taliban will be—the Taliban in the agreement will understand that it’s a conditional agreement. So they’ll understand that if they don’t meet their commitments in it, that we won’t meet our commitments in it.
FLOURNOY: Yeah. I would say, Doyle, that the commitment is actually not ambiguous. I think in the agreement the U.S. commit to zero if certain conditions are met by the Taliban. So it’s conditions based. And that—there’s the rub. That said, I think, you know, if in the inter—and this is me now speculating. So I don’t know. You know, I’m just speculating that if in the inter-Afghan negotiations part of the political settlement was a—you know, an integrated Afghan National Security Force, and they wanted continued assistance from outside to arm, equip, train that force, and there was some sort of security cooperation, you know, arrangement negotiated with U.S., or NATO, or whoever, you know, you could imagine a situation where the Taliban, as part of a government, might accept the presence of some U.S. forces or some missions, but would be different than what they have today.
Now, I’m not saying that. I’m just think it’s—that is—I don’t think the door is closed to that. It certainly shouldn’t be closed to that as they get into the negotiations. But the commitment in the Taliban—U.S.-Taliban agreement will be quite clear that if certain conditions are met, we will go to zero. But I think that those are big conditions that the Taliban will have to deliver on.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Dr. Linda Miller with Wellesley College.
Q: Yes, thank you. First, I need to say hello to Carla.
ROBBINS: Hey, there. (Laughter.)
Q: Hi, Carla. You’ve spoken eloquently, both speakers, about U.S. domestic politics. Could you say something more about Afghan domestic politics, please?
FLOURNOY: Sure. I think that, you know, simultaneous with all what we’ve been discussing you’ve had recently the electoral commission in Afghanistan formally declare President Ghani as the winner of the recent presidential elections. And to do that, they needed to judge that he reached 50 percent or more of the vote. And I think many in the opposition felt that the process to make that determination was flawed, that it should have taken more time, should have examined more ballots, and then gone into more detail. And so all of this progress on the—towards the beginning of peace negotiations between the Afghans is happening at the same time that domestic politics has just become even more polarized, you know, in Afghanistan.
I think—so there’s, you know, conversation going on with Dr. Abdullah and the opposition. I think from my perspective, this is my opinion, I think, you know, President Ghani has an opportunity here to be—you know, to kind of become a leader who takes the opportunity to use the imperatives to put together an inclusive delegation for the peace talks as a way to kind of soften some of the tension coming out of the election process. I would love to see him sort of have a—for example, a delegate headed by an Afghan government representative with a deputy from the opposition, and then, you know, being very inclusive of key stakeholders across the political spectrum and across civil society—again, including women and youth. That’s the only way these negotiations are going to succeed. It’s the only way it’s going to work. But it requires a real moment of leadership for him. If he tries to play politics with the composition of the delegation, this will be very problematic. And I think will, you know, really slow down the timeline and have a negative impact on the momentum.
MALKASIAN: The only thing that I’d say here is that I think as negotiations get going, we can expect to continue to have a certain amount of friction with the Afghan government. We have certain objectives and goals which are very much aligned and the same. But we also have goals that aren’t necessarily aligned and the same. And through the negotiations, the Afghan government won’t be in the position of—is unlikely to end this in the position of complete power that it is now. It will have to share more with the Taliban. And that fact is likely to create friction between us and them, and we’re just going to have to bear through this.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And we’ll take our next question from Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Q: Thank you very much. And my question follows quite directly on the previous one, which is that I have been following this during the course of the day and I have not yet seen, and perhaps I’ve missed it, a statement from the U.S. government congratulating President Ghani on his victory or affirming that they recognize his victory. On the other hand, the new High Commissioner for Foreign Policy of the EU Josep Borrell has issued that kind of a statement. Actually, quite a strong statement of support for President Ghani. And I just wonder if both Michéle and Carter might comment what you think this means about the U.S. position in domestic politics and in the need to consolidate domestic politics if this peace agreement is actually going to take place.
FLOURNOY: Yeah. I would—I have not seen a statement from the U.S. government yet either. I would expect that it would come eventually. But I think, you know, the overwhelming U.S. focus is on trying to get the parties to the peace table. And there’s some tension between focusing on that versus focusing on the internal fights over the elections. And so I think the vast majority of U.S. diplomatic energy, and bandwidth, and mindshare is going to the peace process right now. And that may be accounting for the sort of delay in that kind of acknowledgement or announcement from the U.S.
MALKASIAN: Yeah, I noticed that as well. And I don’t have good information as to exactly why we haven’t done that. I can speculate that we may not want to move too quickly. We may just be waiting to check everything, to check everything sorts out. We may also be trying to sooth Abdullah and his camp to a certain extent and trying to look at that. So, yeah, I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer as to why we haven’t said anything yet.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Trudy Rubin with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I wonder if you both could say something about Pakistan, since historically a huge part of the problem has been the ISI’s effort, as you know, to control the scene in Afghanistan, and to keep India out. So what does Pakistan want? Do they want the Taliban to basically take over? And how is that going to affect whether these negotiations succeed?
FLOURNOY: Carter, you wrote the book on this. I’ll let you start. (Laughter.)
MALKASIAN: The easy one. So we don’t know for sure what Pakistan is going to demand. It’s possible that they will at some point decide to spoil this whole thing. That they’ve—it’s possible they’ve been letting this go on, seeing no damage or harm coming from it so far, but in the future when we come closer to political settlement that they decide, OK, that’s enough. We don’t want that to happen. War is back on.
On the other hand, that might not be their play. They may be thinking that we’re OK with a political settlement, as long as it meets certain conditions. I think what I can say about Pakistan is that we should expect that they’re going to want the Taliban to have a large say in the government. They’re probably going to want the constitution revised. They’re going to be uncomfortable with anyone leading the Afghan government who has ties to India. I would also expect them to want Afghanistan to have a policy of neutrality, again, without ties to India.
I should point out that Pakistan so far in the process has not been unhelpful. At a variety of points, they’ve done things that have kind of assisted the process, starting with the release of Baradar some years ago, and then bringing him out again so that he could lead the organization—or, lead the political commission. And they were—you know, if you recall, the trade between the American University professors for Anas Haqqani and other Taliban that occurred inside—some of those negotiations occurred inside Islamabad, so the Pakistanis may have played a helpful role there too. And I guess I’d say—you know, at this point so far they have not spoiled the process. So maybe that’s a glimmer of hope.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Jackson Daho (ph) with the Washington Post.
Q: Thank you. Michéle, you mentioned that if the Taliban meets certain conditions the U.S. is committed to go down to zero troops. Do either of you know if those conditions include a full, permanent ceasefire or an agreement, a political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government? And if those conditions are not there, where would that leave Afghanistan after U.S. troops go to zero?
FLOURNOY: Yeah. My impression is that the primary conditions are a commitment to counterterrorism and, you know, opposing or countering group like al-Qaida and ISIS, an eventual comprehensive ceasefire. And I think whether it’s explicit or implicit I would hope that, but I don’t know for sure—I would hope that, you know, an acceptable comprehensive peace settlement, political settlement, would also be part of that mix. And so—but I haven’t seen the exact language. I don’t think anybody has. So that’s something we’ll have to dig into once the agreement is made—is announced.
MALKASIAN: I don’t have anything to add to that.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And we’ll take our next question from Tom McDonald of Vorys.
Q: Yeah, hi. Tom McDonald, Vorys. Former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe.
To both of our great speakers, back the U.S. politics, you know, when we got into the shootdown of the Iranian general and sort of the focus again on the Middle East, are we going to go to war, is the president really serious about ending all these wars. Where do you all see this playing out politically this year? And we have another debate tonight. I think as one of the other questioners sort of alluded to, in large measure I think these negotiations are going on a bit under the radar. The public isn’t really focused. And, again, how do you see this playing out politically this year?
FLOURNOY: Yeah, no. It’s a great question. I think once you get to inter-Afghan negotiations there will be more of a public profile of the process. And my—you know, one of the things I worry about is our own impatience, and the impatience of this president and this administration in terms of will—you know, these negotiations are going to take some time. Not something you do in six weeks. Probably not something you do in six months. It is going to take time. And I think it’s—you know, with the election looming, I would hate to see the U.S. administration lose patience and pull the plug, and just say: OK, we’re out of there, and pull our troops in a way that would basically throw away our leverage in the middle of a complex peace negotiation process.
So I do think one of the challenges for President Trump and his team will be to manage those—the expectations, and to try to build support to give this process time. And I would hope the president would see ultimately delivering a peace agreement in Afghanistan as a much greater accomplishment than a precipitous and a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
ROBBINS: Michéle, I want to follow up with Carter on that. Having sat across the river and dealt with the civilians, how much pressure did you feel? And do you think there’s a high enough patience quotient to carry this off?
FLOURNOY: You know, I am—
MALKASIAN: You mean sitting—oh, I’m sorry.
ROBBINS: Go ahead, Carter.
FLOURNOY: No, I—
FLOURNOY: No, I—(laughs)—I was just going to say, I do not—I don’t have a good sense of how the dynamics have been evolving. I know there’s been a lot of impatience in the past, but now that they’re on the cusp of actually getting to negotiations, and if those negotiations actually do gain some momentum and do move forward, you know, that may change some things. You know, but I—again, I do. I think there is a domestic political dimension of this which is sort of a wild card with the president. And I think that is a factor that we’ll have to, you know, watch very carefully.
ROBBINS: I was just asking Carter, who’s in—who’s been a frontline officer in the—in the Trump administration. I just wondered what your calculation was of the patience level.
MALKASIAN: I think the easy thing to say there is that it’s—that’s a very hard thing to predict. I’ve heard people say—for years I’ve heard people say: We’re going to get out. We’re going to leave. We’re going to leave. We’re going to leave. And it—and that hasn’t happened like that. And I’ve heard other people say that, oh, he’s not going to support a peace agreement. We’re not going to go forward in that direction. But that isn’t what has occurred. So it becomes difficult to predict which ways things are going.
To move a little bit from the executive to the legislative branch, though, I think for a deal to succeed it will need the support of Congress. And certain funding towards the Afghans have to—it would be good if it could remain in place through the negotiation and probably after that. You know, to go back to your question about the Afghan Security Forces, if funding is cut from them, well, that pretty much guarantees they’ll collapse in any kind of scenario. And it makes it all the more likely the Taliban will attempt to make it collapse. So that funding becomes important. And as does economic funding and development funding, as Ms. Flournoy pointed out.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Frank Wisner with Squire Patton Boggs.
Q: You commented on Pakistani reactions to the agreement. Give us a quick picture of Iran, India, Russia, and China. How will they position themselves in the wake of the agreement?
FLOURNOY: Well, I—Ambassador Wisner, great to hear your voice. You know, I do know that there’s been a fair amount of formal and informal outreach to the—all of the bordering countries to try to get them on board. I think for the most part Russia and China and India all share the objective of, you know, not having—you know, seeing this war on their borders end, because they all worry about the export of different kinds of extremism, and terrorist activity from Afghanistan into their country.
I think the real question is Iran. On the one hand, they have a strong interest in seeing U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, because they worry about a long-term U.S. presence there being turned against them. On the other hand, I the wake of the killing of Soleimani, you know, whether the Quds Force will be able to resist the temptation to create challenges and problems for U.S. forces that are in Afghanistan, or to be a spoiler for the effort more broadly, is an open question. So I would—I would—I am most worried about how will Iran play this, at this moment.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Guy Taylor with Washington Times.
Q: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this.
I just wanted to go back to the election dispute in Kabul one more time, if you’re willing. And Abdullah Abdullah now forming a parallel government, or saying he’ll form a parallel government. Could you tease out even more how this might or might not undermine the whole notion of inter-Afghan talks? Is there a sense that a Ghani-dominated or an Abdullah-dominated delegation might have a difference chance of success in such talks, and why? Or is it concern more just that disunity on the Afghan government side is just a non-starter, or it gives the Taliban the upper hand from the get-go? Thank you.
MALKASIAN: So the Taliban in their public rhetoric, which you can read about, refused to acknowledge the government as legitimate. And so when they talk about inter-Afghan negotiations to follow an announcement, they talk about we’re going to have meetings with other Afghans. Now, they have been willing in actuality to meet with government officials. And we’ve seen that in certain places, though they’ll say that that was in a personal capacity. So the problem that arises here is that only Ghani is sending representatives to talk to the Taliban, the Taliban may refuse that. So that becomes a problem getting the settlement done.
Now, the problem’s also a little bit bigger and actually more fundamental than that. If there’s going to be a political settlement in Afghanistan in which a constitution could be rewritten, it naturally needs to involve all elements of Afghan society, and not just the opposition—women, civil society, youth, and I can name a few more on top of that. And that is how Afghans traditionally do political developments like this. The Afghans will say, well, Ghani, he is the president, but he only represents a faction of all Afghans. For us to rewrite what our political foundation is going to be, we all need to be at the table represented in one way or another. So if this electoral difficulty means that Ghani is not going to allow Abdullah to have representatives, or Abdullah is not interested in having representatives, then it causes—that does cause problems.
ROBBINS: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Francis West (sp) from Random House.
Q: Yeah. Hi, Carla. Hi, Michéle.
Michéle, you had indicated that there were two leverage points to the United States. First, troops in country, and then after that we still have international aid. But if you’ll recall what happened in the Vietnam case, that the Congress simply refused to give any aid once we had pulled out. So my question is, would you advocate that somehow there’d be—Congress be brought into this, and some sort of agreement by Congress that they are going to continue the aid for, say, five years?
FLOURNOY: Yeah. Well, you know, we faced the first version of this question when the U.S. troops transitioned out of a lead combat role and into more of a train, advise, assist—you know, enable the Afghans to take the lead, role. There was a concern even at that time that Congress would never maintain the same level of funding for the ANSF, or for Afghanistan more broadly. And happily we were—you know, I think we were proved wrong. And they have maintained a very steady commitment to the ANSF, which has been positive to see.
I do think, though, you raise a good point. Even though this won’t be a treaty and require any sort of formal Senate ratification, I do think the administration would be wise to bring key members of Congress, and particularly members of the committees who will ultimately have to authorize and appropriate funding to support our commitment to, let’s see, you know, any implementation of a peace agreement and continued support for the ANSF and the Afghan government. To bring those members in now, and start giving them briefings, start having discussions, start educating, start answering their questions, building their buy-in because ultimately, you’re right, they’re going to have to—they will be key stakeholders and key decisionmakers in determining the amount of assistance that we sustain for Afghanistan going forward.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Fiona Shukri.
Q: Thank you. I worked in Afghanistan for about six years, primarily in the ministries. And what you see in the government is they’re struggling with regional and ethnic pulls, appeasement of warlords who are capable of actually breaking off factions and starting skirmishes, Taliban control of areas, al-Qaida, ISIS, et cetera. So I’m wondering—and now contested elections. So while I’m all for inclusivity at the negotiation table, I’m wondering if there’s concern on the part of the U.S. government about complete undermining of a fragile not only government with Ghani, who could leave office, but actual government structure. I’m just am not sure what’s going to be left at the end—(laughs)—to have any credibility having struck the agreement. So I’m curious about the U.S. attitude about sort of further undermining an already terribly fragile government structure in Afghanistan.
MALKASIAN: So the negotiating team, Ambassador Khalilzad, has been, you know, very determined that the government must be at the negotiating table. And he’s applied a lot of pressure to that—to that effect. So while I think it’s understood that a negotiation should involve people from throughout Afghan society, the fact that the government is at the table there, and in an important role, and in a role that—well, in an important role that I would expect to garner a lot of respect, I think people are definitely not looking to undermine the Afghan government in any way.
And in terms of the political process, I think we have yet—as we’ve noted before—we’ve yet to see what the United States is exactly going to do. I would be surprised if we tried to—did anything to undermine a government of Afghanistan. I think we’re going to be very careful about that. That directly relates to the military effectiveness of their forces, which the Pentagon, and General Miller, everyone cares a great deal about. So I’m hopeful we’ll be very careful about that fact. And I don’t think anyone wants to see the government of Afghanistan we’ve been working with for years splinter.
ROBBINS: So we have time—actually, we don’t have time. Why don’t I turn it back to you—to the speakers. And I will take the prerogative as the moderator: What—I hate to say this—what are the risks that we’re going to be looking for in the next week or so. Since I’m a news person I think in limited, (bare ?) terms. And also, once—if the process begins, what should we be watching for as it unfolds over the next two months?
Carter, do you want to go first?
MALKASIAN: Sure. So the risks of the next month or so I think is, first, if we have an agreement right now on the seven days, if something comes up to cause a problem in this—and this could be the statement the other day that five thousand prisoners have to be released. It’s a little unclear as to what that means, or if the Taliban are going to, how they’re going to feel about that. There’s some chance in the seven-day reduction of violence that there’s some kind of spoiler attack or something that would upset things.
But after we get through that, and after we make our announcement, I think the big risk there is then we get both sides to sit at the table for—to discuss a political settlement in the inter-Afghan negotiations if any of these things happen that we’ve referred to about Ghani or Abdullah, or anyone being resistant to sending a delegation. That’s a problem. Or if the Taliban become resistant or something that they hear, or something that they say, or something that people say. That becomes a problem too.
You may remember there was an attempt in June to have a dialogue with the Taliban. When the government declared that it was going—that it was sending all the representatives officially, the Taliban backed out. So those are some of the hiccups and things that we could be facing over the next month in trying to execute this.
ROBBINS: Michéle? What should we be looking for?
FLOURNOY: I think we have to be very clear-eyed and, you know, have a strong stomach. (Laughs.) This is almost certainly—it’s going to be very complicated, and likely rocky. You know, it’s not likely to have a smooth trajectory. You’re more likely to see one step forward two steps back, you know, and lots of work to keep things on track, given the complexity. But again, I think, you know, we all have to step back and remember that I think the only way this war does end in a manner that achieves our objectives and is sort of—is through a political negotiation. And across three administrations, this is the closest we’ve ever gotten to a serious opening. And so I would hope that everyone across the parties, including here in the U.S., would try to support the success of this, to achieve our objective, and to reduce the costs and risks to U.S. national security over time.
ROBBINS: Well, Michéle, thank you. Carter, thank you. Thank you to the members and to the members of the press as well who called in. And to the members of the press who are members. (Laughs.) And thank you very much, Operator, for moderating this.
And that’s it.