Transition 2021 Series: U.S. Involvement in Afghanistan

Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Omar Sobhani / Reuters

Senior Fellow, Center for Global Affairs. New York University; CFR Member

Director, South and Central Asia, Hudson Institute; Former Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States (2008-2011)

Asia Program Director, International Crisis Group; Former Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. Department of State (2016-2017)

Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Center on International Cooperation, New York University; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft; CFR Member 


Chief Executive Officer, Symbio Investment; CFR Member

Transition 2021 Series and Transition 2021

SULTAN: Good afternoon and welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations, Transition 2021 series meeting on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. I am Masuda Sultan, I'm CEO of Symbio Investments, and I'll be presiding over today's discussion. This meeting is part of CFR's Transition 2021 Series, which examines the major issues confronting the Biden-Harris administration. We have an esteemed panel of top experts here with us today to discuss the way forward in Afghanistan at a time that America is looking to possibly exit the longest war in history, which is now some months shy of hitting its twenty-year mark.

We'll start here with Reena Amiri, who is a senior fellow with the New York Center for Global Affairs, formerly a UN senior mediation expert, and a senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Obama administration. We also have with us Laurel Miller, who's the Asia program director of International Crisis Group, former acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Department of State from 2016 to 2017. Professor Barney Rubin, he's the nonresident senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, and he's a nonresident senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. And we also have Mr. Ambassador Hussain Haqqani with us. He is director for South and Central Asia at Hudson Institute, and he served as Pakistan's ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011.

So the Biden administration appears to have just about completed its review of Afghanistan policy, and has not yet made a final decision on the question of May first withdrawal of all troops as per the Doha agreement signed with the Taliban in February 2020. There are an estimated 2500 to 3500 U.S. troops remaining, as well as 6500 NATO troops. Over the weekend, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made a surprise visit to Kabul and met with President Ghani. Antony Blinken is currently in Brussels discussing the way forward with NATO. At the same time, a peace process—which was started in Doha—of the Afghan parties, then stalled is being reinvigorated with a meeting of the parties hosted in Moscow last week, which is supported by the Troika plus one, Russia, China, the United States, and Pakistan. And a conference is being planned for Turkey next month to finalize potentially a peace deal. So I turned to my esteemed experts to ask what is the best way forward in Afghanistan? And I'll start with you, Rena. How should we be thinking about the U.S. role in Afghanistan long term? What is America's interest in Afghanistan? And what about democracy and women's rights?

AMIRI: First, I want to begin by thanking the Council for having this really important discussion at a pivotal time, and for your role, Masuda, in facilitating this discussion. I think the question is about right sizing, the role of Afghanistan and Afghan politics and in U.S. policy. For the last twenty years, Afghanistan has had perhaps an outsized role in U.S. foreign policy and their security policy and that needs to be shifted, that needs to be changed and I think we're getting there. Troop numbers, even before the previous administration's decision to withdraw troops, have come down by ninety-seven percent. The amount of funding, which is still considerable at twenty billion, is expected to come down, but it's only three percent of the foreign budget, or sorry, the defense budget. And I think that continuing to go in this direction, Afghanistan should be treated the way that many that have the same relationship with the U.S. that many countries that provide some vital interests the U.S. but not at the highest level, that's the way it should be treated. And I think in the last twenty years we've pivoted around security and of course, security is still one of the primary issues, security, and counterterrorism, but it's led to us having a very myopic view of Afghanistan's relationship with the U.S. It's absolutely essential, it's absolutely important, but there's other factors.

There have been successes that are aligned with U.S. policy objectives. One I should note that Afghanistan remains one of the few countries in the region that's still pro U.S. and that's something that is a strong foundation to build on. Two, as one Afghan senior official said, values matter, and the values that Afghanistan has supported in the last twenty years, in terms of its pro-democracy policies, in terms of its pro-women policies, in terms of the progress that's made along the issues of ethnic minority rights, all of this is aligned with what the U.S. hopes to see in many parts of the world and the Biden administration has certainly made it clear from the outset of its pro-democracy position and pro-women position and I think that there's a lot to speak of even with Afghanistan's very difficult elections. The fact that people come out in droves despite huge security risks show that it has taken root, and the fact that Afghanistan has one of the most progressive constitutions in the region is something to take note of, and finally something that we don't talk about is economics and regional connectivity. So Asia remains one of the least connected regions of the world and there's a lot of potential there and we—the Asian Development Bank recognizes it, China certainly recognizes it—and we should not cede this ground simply to China and it has tremendous potential in the region and it's a place that right now we have presence, there is support for it, and there's something to build on, but it's a question of right timing it.

SULTAN: So picking up on that point about our presence, we have signed an agreement with the Taliban to depart by May first and I want to turn to Laurel and ask her about where are we with our understanding of what the administration is planning to do and what you think they should do?

MILLER: Thanks Masuda. First of all I would say what the administration is saying is that they have not made a determination yet whether they will stick with the precise timetable that was laid out in the agreement signed with the Taliban a year ago, which would call for not only all U.S. troops, but also all NATO troops, contractors, all diplomatic personnel, excuse me non-diplomatic personnel—meaning essentially intelligence related personnel—to leave the country by May first. The administration is considering whether to stick with that, whether to seek some sort of brief extension of the timeline, or whether to blow past the timeline altogether. There have been some hints in recent days including from President Biden himself that he will stick fairly close to the deadline but not precisely and some various things circulating in the media that perhaps the U.S. will plan to leave some time in November rather than in May. I think at this point being less than six weeks out from May first I see no possibility that the U.S. will withdraw by that time because the only way to do it by May first would be to execute the withdrawal in the most disruptive way possible.

I mean you could—we're talking about you know somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 or so, 30,000 to 40,000 people who would have to be pulled out of the country, more if you're going to draw down embassies as well given the uncertainty that would follow a withdrawal in the security environment in Afghanistan. You could probably put that many people on planes if you started right away in rolling the C17s in and out of the country, but you would have to blow up a lot of sensitive and expensive equipment.  You wouldn't really be handing over basis to Afghan forces, you'd simply be abandoning them, and I think there would be for that rapid a withdrawal you would have a crisis of confidence in Kabul that would completely transform the security environment, so that I think is not likely to happen. The question of a short extension to the withdrawal is whether the U.S. is simply going to unilaterally declare that it has reasons to stay a bit longer or whether it's going to seek to negotiate an extension of the timeline with the Taliban. I think if they try the latter probably the administration could get that. I think Pakistan would probably help and others too in getting something of an extension to keep the peace process alive a little bit longer and avoid the, as I said, extremely disruptive scenario, but that will require discussions with the Taliban themselves. I think it's less likely now and, in my view, not wise to have an indefinite American presence in Afghanistan. If the U.S. tried to do that it would kill the peace process altogether. It would mean that the U.S. was once again—its presence would be contested by the Taliban and you would be back to the protracted conflict leading to no clear strategic outcomes that we see now.

SULTAN: So understanding that there seems to be a movement towards the idea of trying to leave through a negotiated settlement, either in a few months’ time, or as potentially logistically feasible. That's what I've been hearing coming out of the Biden administration, with President Biden himself staying, saying that if we stay, we will stay not much longer. The impression that one gets is that there may be a leaning towards that direction. There is a peace process being pursued right now. Talks had started with the Afghan parties over this at Doha, they were stalled, there's been an uptick in violence and now there's a new push to reinvigorate these talks. And I wanted to bring in Barney Rubin to talk about what is happening with the talks. What is the role of the UN? And can you tell us about the various foreign ministers in the region that are going to be getting together? Barney?

RUBIN: Thank you very much, Masuda. Good to see my colleagues and friends here. I follow this issue very closely, as you know, and as a result, I have no idea what the answer to your question is. Certainly, the Biden administration has given the impression that it would like to accelerate the peace process so that it can come to a conclusion before it withdraws American troops from Afghanistan. And the letter that they wrote to—which has not been confirmed—that they wrote to President Ghani contains a multistage process for doing that, but the difficulty is that it seems completely impossible to actually succeed. And I think we have to, on the one hand, I don't think we can—we cannot hold the American military presence in Afghanistan hostage to the internal political processes of Afghanistan, we are not capable of controlling the political outcome in Afghanistan, there is no end state in Afghanistan that can be produced by the United States, with or without its troops being there. On the other hand, that doesn't mean necessarily that we just throw up our hands and don't do anything, because within any agreement—and that's why I want to outline to kind of a more complicated and not very soundbite worthy point of view, but the agreement actually is not just about withdrawal, it's not just about a peace process, it was about a whole series of steps specifically calibrated to build confidence and support each other—ceasefire, political settlement, release of prisoners, lifting of sanctions on the Taliban—and actually it was structured in a very weak way.

Laurel, who's the lawyer, has looked at this in some detail, and the interdependence of the elements was not really—was very weak. And the result is that the peace process, the sanctions lifting, the release of prisoners, and so on, all are very well behind this timetable that appears to be fixed for the release of prisoners. Now, both sides have, or all sides, Afghan Government, Taliban, United States, Afghan society, have elements of this process that they have a strong interest in that have not been fulfilled and that is why there could be a win-win short term solution of extending the withdrawal deadline in order to try to get all of these elements of these process back in sync to a greater extent. That is have more time to have the peace process advance, to get a ceasefire, and so on and so forth. But I think that it's wrong to give the impression that by staying six months more, by staying indefinitely, or by leaving immediately the United States can force any particular outcome in Afghanistan. I think what we need to do is work diplomatically as the administration is now trying to do, which is finally ask the United Nations to lead, to get a more solid consensus of the countries of the region, who, by the way, are not withdrawing from the area because they are there. And so far, whatever the fate of the war on terror, we have lost the war on geography, so I think it's good that we tried to do that.

Afghanistan has been one area where despite our contentious relations with Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan, we have more had more of a consensus than in most other areas, that may be we'll be able to, given the dependence all Afghan political actors and outside help, that may help us to modulate or what the outcomes are going to be. But I think we simply have to accept the fact that we are not able to control the outcome in Afghanistan and that we should continue to be involved there—do all those things we just talked about support democracy, human rights, and so on. But we do that in countries around the world without stationing troops there or engaging in warfighting and I think that's the way we should approach them in Afghanistan in the future as well.

SULTAN: So you've pointed to there seems to be a regional consensus on a path forward with a peace process that is correlated to a U.S. departure soon. There's still discussion about what role various regional countries are playing, and there's been this question about the rivalry between Pakistan and India continuing and whether they can actually cooperate on this front. So I'm going to ask Ambassador Haqqani, are Pakistan and India's—is their rivalry such that they will continue to see Afghanistan as a front, or do you think that they are able to cooperate on the Afghan peace issue? And what are they doing?

HAQQANI: Discussions about a peace process in Afghanistan have been around since 1988. The reason why there hasn't been peace there is because something that is not being discussed has been happening, and it's time to actually acknowledge that. And I understand that America has been in Afghanistan for a long time and there are people in the U.S. who count sort of military involvement by years rather than by actual success, so they want to get out of Afghanistan. What they need for that is a discussion with the Afghan government, not with the Taliban. The Taliban are not amenable to the ideas of peace that most of us espouse, their worldview is very different. Their definition of peace is that as soon as the emirate is restored, there is peace.

Pakistan and India also have very different views on Afghanistan. India has never said that it wants to have Afghanistan as some kind of, sort of a subsidiary state and Pakistan has never stated clearly what many people have accused it of. And we all know that this current process was facilitated by Pakistan in the hope that the American troops will withdraw, and that it will happen in a way in which the Taliban can emerge as an ascendant group in Afghanistan though not necessarily the only dominant group. So I have always maintained even while serving Pakistan, as ambassador, I always used to say that Pakistan's military leadership seems to know what it does not want to happen in Afghanistan. They don't want Afghanistan closely aligned with India, but they don't know what they would like to do there, because after all, the only group with whom they have very close relations in Afghanistan now is the Taliban. All the Taliban leaders have been based in Pakistan for many, many years, they traveled to Doha from Pakistan. The only government that had diplomatic, formal diplomatic relations with the Taliban when they were in power was Pakistan, and yet Pakistan says [inaudible] the Taliban. So just as Barney said that America cannot control the outcome of any negotiations and the future of Afghanistan, Pakistan can't control it either. And perhaps the best outcome at this point would be to just understand that maybe the process of Afghans coming together is a very different and complex process. And if the question is how soon can America get out, then the Americans should make that decision in consultation with the government in Kabul, rather than link it to complex negotiations with many, many actors, including Afghans and non-Afghans, like Pakistan and India.

SULTAN: Ambassador Haqqani, I'm going to push back a little bit on this question, because I think it's an important one. In terms of the (inaudible), there is a wide understanding that Pakistan has given safe haven to the Taliban, that is pretty well known. But in terms of the question of the Afghan government, the U.S. government has engaged with the Afghan government for the past twenty years and has been consulting them through the entire peace process, granted, they were not part of the initial approach with Doha, but we know that that was many years coming, in the sense that the United States has decided that they would like to try to depart Afghanistan, and that has been a momentum in the in the process. Why would they not engage with the Taliban, in discussions, when the Taliban have now been taking territory every year, and by some measures may even have fifty percent of the country?

HAQQANI: Absolutely wrong, they do not control any major city and insurgent groups can [inaudible] their influence anywhere. But the point is, if the question is about American troops withdrawal, the American troops are there in a legal sense, as well as a political sense because the Afghan government supported their being there. What does America have to discuss with the Taliban about the withdrawal of its troops except perhaps what some people argue that the Taliban should not attack American troops? Well, there are so few American troops now that America does not have to worry about that part as much as it did when it had 150,000 troops. There have been no significant Taliban attacks on American soldiers in the last—


SULTAN: But Mr. Haqqani you know that attacks have not happened because there's been an agreement signed where the Taliban agreed not to attack the U.S.

HAQQANI: Well the agreement also said that they would not attack America's allies and that didn't stop the Taliban from attacking the Afghans, so I don't think [inaudible] that...

SULTAN: I do want to clarify that since the agreement has been signed, there has been no Americans killed in Afghanistan, zero.

HAQQANI:  Sound bites, as Barney Rubin says, you know, the sound bites are, this is a forever war nineteen years in which you never had a nineteen-year plan, and you only had one-year plans that kept extending, does not really become a forever war. It was a lot of mistakes that were committed by the American side, but that's fine. The Americans want to withdraw, and it is their right to make a decision to withdraw. The Soviets decided to withdraw in 1988, but the Soviets when they withdrew, they did not stop supporting the government that they had created, and that government lasted [inaudible] years.

SULTAN: And that government lasted as we all know, until the support lasted.

HAQQANI: That's the point I'm making. The negotiation that needs to be done is between America and the Kabul government on what level of support do you need to be able to take on the responsibilities of security yourself so that we can get out? To—

SULTAN: My question to the—I actually want to know if we think that, let's say there is no peace deal and the United States decides to leave anyway, we would have to support the Afghan government because that is the government in place. And the question I have is, the Soviet experience has taught us that if that government is not supported, it may fall. So if we are at risk of a government collapse, whether we leave or whether we stay, then what are the consequences of not having a peace deal? I mean, what is at stake?

MILLER: Can I jump in for a second Masuda on that question? First of all, I think it's very important to not overdraw the comparison between what happened in the period after the Soviet withdrawal and how long the government lasted and now, the circumstances are different in Afghanistan in a number of ways. But also, the ability of the United States to maintain infusions of cash in the same way, I think would be much more challenging than it than it was for the Soviet Union, just given the mechanisms, I mean the practical aspects of the mechanisms of providing support, needing to have people on the ground to manage the support, the oversight requirements, etc. So I think we have to be a little bit careful not to assume that so long as the spigot of money is kept open, necessarily the government will stay in, will hold together.

But I'd also like to, I think I'm going to really surprise Hussein here by agreeing quite strongly with one of the points that that he made, which is, if the U.S. policy is a policy of withdrawal, then it should negotiate its withdrawal with the Afghan government. I agree with that and I think that's an important point, because the distinction that should be made here is between a policy of withdrawal, and a policy of a peace process. If the U.S. main goal was to not only launch, as it has done, but sustain a peace process, that is incompatible with an early withdrawal. And I think we have seen in the last year and very recently, that having—trying to execute a policy of withdrawal through a peace process leads to decisions, concessions, proposals in the peace process that are incompatible with a genuine peace process that would take years to see a positive result. And so the peace process has been distorted by its utilization as a mechanism for withdrawal. And I think I agree with, you know, to say that, I may disagree.

HAQQANI: We have been converging on that for quite a while.

MILLER: Yeah, I mean because I think we may have a different view on whether the U.S. should keep troops there in the absence of a peace process, but on this point, I do think we've been converging on that. And, you know, the Doha agreement, when it was signed a year ago, I had some concerns about aspects of it, things that I saw as weaknesses in the deal, but like others, I appreciated that it seemed to open up an opportunity for a peace process. Unfortunately, some of the flaws in the deal, in particular, an aspect of it which called for prisoner exchanges—and actually more properly stated, prisoner releases at a very large scale, by the Afghan government, something that it wasn't really for the United States to negotiate as they're not American prisoners, they were Afghan government prisoners—that caused six months of lost time. There were other things that happened in the process along the way that, on the U.S. side, that delayed events such that the final, you know, breakthrough that the Doha deal was really just too close to the American election for that opportunity, really, to be capitalized on. And what the Doha deal did was it decoupled the question of an American withdrawal from the question of progress in the peace process. So instead of making the withdrawal, in some sense, contingent on and linked to progress in the peace process, it set a firm deadline and timeline for withdrawal, and kept the peace process on a separate track from that, once you had that decoupling and then the lost time, I think you're now in a situation where the time horizon for trying to use that deal to get an actual genuine peace process launched is too short to realistically achieve anything. And the fact that the U.S. has now put forward ideas that would include dismantling the existing Afghan government in favor of a cobbled together, power sharing government, that could leave both Afghanistan and with you know, nothing, in terms of governance capacity, if that collapses and the peace process collapses, and leave the United States with no partner in the country is a symptom of this problem of using a peace process for executing a withdrawal strategy.

SULTAN: So tough choices ahead. I am going to open it up for questions here. At this time, I'd like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. And as a reminder, this meeting is on the record. So we'll probably get some questions here. But I did want to, until we do, just ask you about this question of, since there's been a decoupling of the peace process and the withdrawal process, that's already done. And Laurel, you're saying that it may not be realistic to get to a peace agreement in time, even if we get a six-month extension. So Barney, I want to bring you in here and just get your views because I know you've been getting regional support for the process involved in those talks. Tell me how that's going.

RUBIN: Well, first, just the linkage of the withdrawal to the peace process came about because the Taliban said they would negotiate with the Afghan government only when there was guarantee of a withdraw. That was their condition for negotiating with the Afghan government and other Afghans. We've never had a method of making the withdrawal, conditional on the peace process, and in that respect, it is similar to the Soviet withdrawal, because the Soviet also tried to. They disregarded the fact that the United States and Pakistan did not respect the other elements of the Geneva Accord and just went ahead with their withdrawal with the results that we know.

Now, regionally, what Hussein said is very important in that, that what the Afghan state needs more than troops is it needs financial and political support, because of the economic conditions of Afghanistan. And those two are linked because, because the Afghan state has been externally dependent since the end of the nineteenth century, every time that an outside power comes in, and becomes the predominant supporter of the of the state that causes a reaction on the part of the opponents, rivals, enemies of that power, which is the dynamic that has repeatedly destabilized Afghanistan.

So, the problem is that if we want to have a more stable situation in the region, which is important, it doesn't rise to the level of a vital interest of the United States, but it's something that is of an interest, because, after all, that's an area where Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and India are all present where they are all investing, trying to build connectivity, and so on where there are nuclear where there are four nuclear powers and Iran. So it would be important to try to stabilize that region in some way. To do that, we need to find a way to combine long term support, hopefully declining over time if Afghanistan succeeds in becoming more self-reliant, I wouldn't say self-reliant, but more self-reliant with a regional agreement. So that that support does not trigger a destabilizing reaction. That is why it's important to try to build this minimal regional concert. And I wouldn't want to overstate the extent to which there is a regional consensus about what should happen in Afghanistan, there's kind of a regional consensus perhaps about what should not happen in Afghanistan, but not about really how to prevent it from happening. But that is, that is an advance of where we were before. So we have to kind of shepherd the regional process along, along with the construction of an economic and a security architecture for maintaining support to the Afghan state over the medium to long term. While Afghan politics goes ahead, it always will be affected by the actions of outside actors, but its outcomes will not be under our or their control.

HAQQANI: If I may make one quick comment, and that is that as far as other regional consensus is concerned, it will definitely be a positive development. But for that, everyone would have to lay their cards on the table, at least for the purpose of that negotiation. And what we have consistently seen is that, for example, Iran has never acknowledged what it really wants in Afghanistan; Pakistan has made statements, but then people have argued that those statements do not reflect the reality on the ground; Same goes for India, and at least for this, from the perspective of Pakistani authorities, they see U.S. doing things in Afghanistan that nobody else seems to see them doing. So there has to be some understanding of what everybody wants, not just what everybody is.

MILLER: Yeah [inaudible] that, and I think that's a really important point and it also is why the expectations of the regional discussions, regional coordination, are too high, in my view. I have advocated for and I'm supportive of the Biden administration's efforts to engage in a more vigorous regional diplomacy, I do think that's important. But some people speak of this as if it's the magic key to solving the problem is if you, you know, that you can get Pakistan, China, Iran, Russia, and the United States, and maybe India around the table, and that group of countries is really going to, you know, solve problems. I mean, it's very—having sat in formats of discussions involving those countries, it is not like sitting around a table with your NATO allies where, you know, people do put their cards on the table and you're working with common—

SULTAN: Okay, well, I'm going to turn to Sam, who has some questions for us.

STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions) Our first question comes from David Ensor. As a reminder, please state your affiliation.

Q:  Hello, thank you, I hope you're hearing me. I'm with the George Washington School of Media and Public Affairs, I run something called the project for media national security, and I served for a year and a half, working with Barney, in Afghanistan. I don't understand what the rush is. I know there's a political rush in America that both the left and the right would love to get out, wouldn't be nice if we could all leave. But we've stayed in other parts of the world, and sometimes for many decades, those places have been the better for it, for the most part, and our interests have been better served by it.

I don't understand why we're not talking more seriously with Pakistan. Are they not really the patrons of the Taliban? Is it not the case that the Taliban would not have the kinds of successes it's been having lately unless it had the support of Pakistani military intelligence? And would we not risk terrorism on our own streets in the next year, or two, or three or four, if the Taliban really retake control of Afghanistan? I think we would. I also think, this is not discussed much, but it should be, that as a great power—which is what we are—it's useful for us to have some troops and forces in the region, It sends a salutary message to Iran, Russia, Pakistan, China and India, that we're part of the mix there, we have interests, we have friends in the government in Kabul, and we're not going to rush or abandon them quickly. Why should we? Apart from the Bush [inaudible] I don't get it.

RUBIN: It's not 1945 anymore, David. You know, we don't control half the GDP of the world, we don't even control half the GDP of that region. You know, in terms of the equivalent, it's a multipolar world, we cannot station our troops all over the world and not trigger a response by others, and we don't need to. As far as terrorism, the attacks of 9/11 were not planned in Afghanistan, and they were authorized from Afghanistan. They were planned, in Munich, in Kuala Lumpur, and in Florida, and they can be planned in many places, there's no reason particularly to privilege Afghanistan over that. And as far as a salutatory message, on the contrary, our keeping troops there sends the message—and I've had been in many of these regional meetings, and I know exactly what the message it sends—it sends the message that we are trying to destabilize and dominate the surrounding countries and that message, by the way, is not always false, which is something we shouldn't be doing, and we need to withdraw our troops from that region.

And as far as other places that we have troops, well, we had an unconditional surrender of Japan, we had a complete victory over Germany, and we have an armistice in South Korea, if you can get any of those three outcomes in Afghanistan then I think we should consider keeping our troops there. But of course, Afghanistan is a landlocked country, very far away and even for us to get anything into Afghanistan, we need to have access through Pakistan, Iran, or Russia and Central Asia. It's not an offshore type of situation, so we can't put sanctions against every country around Afghanistan, and threaten all the countries around Afghanistan, with our troops rely on supply lines to go through those countries around Afghanistan. So all those metaphors are extremely faulty and historical and non-applicable to the situation.

AMIRI: I'd like to come in here. One, I'm not advocating for an indefinite true presence in Afghanistan, I don't even think Afghans themselves want that. In fact, all of the polls that have come out of Afghanistan suggest that that is not something that Afghans want, but I don't want to diminish the threat of terrorism and discount the threat of terrorism. To say that it was, that all of this was organized Afghanistan, I think it takes away some of the facts that we know from what was happening within Afghanistan. Also, there's over fifty terrorist groups inside Afghanistan, there's ISIS—we cannot forget what happened in Syria and Yemen in Libya, to ignore those situations where the U.S. intervened and just walked away, and to think that Afghanistan would not pose a terrorist threat, I think that's beyond best-case scenario thinking which never goes well in Afghanistan.

RUBIN: Are you implying that if we stayed in Syria and Libya the situation would be better?

AMIRI: I think—go ahead, Hussein, you were going to say something.

HAQQANI: I'm happy to be in the middle of the discussion between Barney and Rina. But I agree with Rina, more than Barney, love him, but we haven't agreed on Afghanistan for at least fifteen years. Here's the problem, the Taliban have an ideology—read their recent statements, they are declaring victory. It will feed the narrative of the global jihadi movement. As far as committing resources to Afghanistan is concerned, yesterday at the Hudson Institute, we had the Afghan national security adviser, who said that the Afghan government's estimate is that it's about a five-billion-dollar commitment four billion from the U.S. and one billion dollars from NATO that could help the Afghan national security forces reach the point where they think that they can control the situation without foreign troops.

Look, America did not give the Afghans an air force out of concern for Pakistan, so in the last two years at least, ninety seven percent of all military operations have been undertaken by the Afghan national security forces, and the three percent involvement of American troops has primarily been in providing air cover, special operations. And if the Afghan military can reach to the point where it can take care of its own security an American withdrawal is absolutely going to take place. And I agree with you, David, I think that these sort of dismissive discussions about you know, terrorism is no longer a threat, ignoring what the jihadists are saying themselves, they say, "we drove the Russians out, now we are driving the Americans out." And that will really result in a resurgence and the recent reports show that the Taliban have not kept their promise of breaking with al Qaeda.

MILLER: I think the idea that the U.S. can just drop, you know, five billion dollars and pallets of cash in Afghanistan and keep [inaudible] sorry, but I mean, when the United States military leaves Afghanistan the Afghan Air Force will collapse, it is entirely dependent on American contractors to operate. So we're talking no more Afghan Air Force, no more air support for the special operators in Afghanistan, there's no way that five billion dollars is going to continue to be provided over the time period that the ANDSF would require to defeat the Taliban. Moreover, if they're already losing ground with the five billion dollars, and the American military there, and then you pull the American military out, I don't think that's a credible argument on their part.

RUBIN: Certainly, it would be a superior outcome if we had done what we set out to do, which is defeat the Taliban and make them disappear. But with over 100,000 troops who are not able to do that, and I don't see why with fewer number of troops or any number of billion dollars, we wouldn't be able to do that. So we're simply throwing a failing strategy after a failing strategy.

HAQQANI: Actually, we've had no strategy. If we had a strategy and decided that we will be in Afghanistan for ten years and we'll do XYZ. No, we kept saying another year, another year, another year, we haven't been there for twenty years because we planned to be there for twenty years, we have been there because we never planned to be there for any significant length of time, it was just an improvised ad hoc situation. And the reason why the Afghans don't have an Air Force is because we never built one. There are many other countries, where did we did go in and build air forces for them. And look, it takes at least thirty to forty years for a second lieutenant to rise to the level of a general. The Afghan military has existed for only less than twenty years. The first Afghan second lieutenant has not yet become a general. Those are the realities, which we must take into account, but as I said...

RUBIN: I think the reality not taken into account is that the United States is not capable of doing anything it wants just because it says so. We have failed and doing all those things, we will continue to fail to do all these things because they are not within our capabilities to do them and talking about how beneficial they were does not make the United States capable of doing those things.

SULTAN: So coming back to this question of the peace process. We know that in Moscow, the meeting of the parties that happened there was only one woman that attended, she was Habiba Sarabi from the Afghan government side. To what extent do we think our, we know the Taliban views on including women, not there, from the Afghan government's perspective, what did we expect them to do? And how do we expect them to, in terms of inclusivity, move forward? Because there's been a lot of accusations that Afghanistan's current governing structure is not inclusive. What do we want to say about that?

AMIRI: I'm going to take this question. In terms of what we expect, I think where we should be looking at is in terms of what we demand from the Afghan government and from both sides, and particularly if the UN is involved, if this ends up being a process, which is convened by the UN, there are obligations by that the UN has to meet in terms of inclusivity and requiring both parties, or demanding both parties to bring more women to the table. In terms of how successful it's going to be, I am not very optimistic on the side of the Taliban, but certainly on the part of the Afghan government, given that this is the issue that they have been very much at the forefront of claiming that they're going to be much better on, there should be a demand for them to perform better on this issue. And we should be looking, ideally, at a peace process where we're not simply looking at one table but having inclusivity mechanisms track two processes. But all of that I think is very much contingent on a real peace process, rather than at least what's under discussion right now, which, you know, the Istanbul process has been likened to what took place in bond twenty years ago, attempt a process, which even if it had track two processes, I wouldn't have much confidence in it.

What I am hoping is that this, you know, obviously this administration wanted to accelerate the process through a couple of firecrackers under the heels of the parties to make them move. And so what should be done right now? I do think that it would be important to have this assembled discussion, but not as a bond two, it's twenty years later to vastly different country. And so we don't have the regional coherence behind the process as we did twenty years ago, we have a country in which the population feels that they are entitled to have a voice in this process. So what the process in Istanbul should be, is bringing leaders together, bringing the region together to mobilize support for the Doha process and to actually give this process time to succeed. We gave nineteen years for war, so far, ok say, twenty years, this process started in September and we're pulling the rug under it. So I think that for this process to succeed, it has to have the elements of other processes that have...comparatively, if you look at peace processes, it takes a very long time and as Laurel said, it cannot the withdrawal strategy should not be the determining factor in terms of the length of this peace process. It's going to be complicated, it's going to be long, it's going to be forty decades, sorry, forty years or more, it's not going to be done through a quick marriage.

RUBIN: One other thing's true that we build up these security forces, which may or may not persist in Afghanistan, I said many sets of security forces over the over the years, they have come and gone with the great powers, but what it's never had before is a younger generation, like the one that has now. And we often talk about the social changes that have taken place in Afghanistan, the internet, education, urbanization, and so on, I think we should seriously consider that. It doesn't mean that we can use those people to control the outcome either, we can't, but the fact is that there is a definitely a new factor in the country, which we can't support without, you know, thinking that we're going to make it control the outcome. Rita and I had a very interesting meeting just the other day with some leaders of Afghan civil society who were organizing an umbrella, umbrella platform, if that's not too mixed a metaphor, a platform for various civil society groups to speak, to give their views on the peace process and so on. And this is something that is a new form of social mobilization and Afghanistan. It is not a magic formula, you know, because we've seen that in many countries in the Arab world and so on with this type of mobilization, which has been repressed by regimes, but it is a permanent change in the society that I think he also needs time in order to have its effect.

SULTAN: Well, Afghanistan is certainly a young country, and, you know, almost fifty percent of the population is under the age of fifteen. So, we certainly—and a fast-growing population, it may, there's some reports that it may triple in size by 2100, or even 2070. So, I'd like to turn it to Sam to take another question.

STAFF: Our next question is from Trudi Rubin.

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. Hi, Hussain. Hi, Barney. I'm listening to you all it's hard to believe that if the U.S. withdraws in six months, even if it doesn't, that the Taliban are sooner or later are going to take over Afghanistan and establish an Emirate. Can any of you give me a reason why that isn't going to happen? And what leverage does the U.S. have with no troops there, or does any country in the region have and be willing to use to prevent a Taliban Emirate, since that's what they said they want, and they don't seem prepared to compromise?

MILLER: I couldn't hear the first part of the question was, is that, what's to stop the Taliban from taking over and re-establishing an Emirate? Was that the—

Q: Yes, especially once U.S. troops withdraw—which means no air force—then the peace process has gone nowhere, the Taliban has made their interests clear. And Afghan forces on their own, don't seem capable of keeping them out and civil war is an ugly possibility, and the regional powers are all on different wavelengths. So what is going to happen? I mean, let's be realistic, as Barney said, we have seen too many civil societies crushed. And so all the good things that have happened in Afghanistan, don't add up necessarily, to a military ability to hold the Taliban back. So is that where we are headed, an Emirate or civil war?

MILLER: I think—I mean, civil war, or I would say intensified civil war, I think is the most likely scenario. My expectation is that there would be opposition to the Taliban would continue, regardless of the level of U.S. financial support for Afghan security forces, that there would be security elements of various kinds, whether it's the government forces or militias in different parts of the country that would contest the Taliban, and I think you would have a very bloody civil war. I don't think it's likely that the Taliban would roll into Kabul in short order in the aftermath of a U.S. withdrawal, but I think they would be, they would be well positioned to take over some urban centers. The difficulty, I think, in estimating precisely what the developments would be on the security front, are there are some big unknowns, you know, one is the Taliban, for all of the advances that they have made over the last five years in particular, have not really been tested in their ability not only to take territory, but to hold it, in particular urban territory. That doesn't mean that they couldn't, it's just we haven't seen—if we're looking for evidence and data on which to project what's going to happen ahead, we haven't seen the Taliban tested in that way in the last twenty years, or even in the last five years as they've been strengthening.

My suspicion is that they're concerned about that, too and that that's one motivation they have for at least trying to achieve their objectives through negotiation and not only militarily, so will they succeed or not, in not just taking, but holding territory, particularly urban areas is one question. Another is what happens in the Afghan security forces when the U.S. withdraws? There's a morale plummets, the Taliban tried to take advantage of the situation. Do they hold together or do they disintegrate? Do we see side switching, to what extent do we see side switching? Do we see a disintegration into regionally based militias, to what extent does that happen? Those are all phenomenon I would expect to see in some fashion, but what becomes the kind of dominant trend that we see, I personally find a bit hard to predict. I have no expectation that the Afghan government would hold together in the way that it is now, in the aftermath of a withdrawal and this kind of intensified fight. But what does it you know, evolve into under these kinds of stresses, I think is a bit difficult.

RUBIN: The Taliban say that there are only two powers in Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban, and that's sort of what you're saying Trudy, and you're both wrong because there are many other Afghans, and there are many other countries that are all involved. And even if the government, it didn't survive in its current form, all the social groups that are organized to support the government would survive in one form or another, they would reorganize. The countries of the region are not powerless waiting for the United States to do something, they are all quite active and they all want the United States out. And they also all do not want an Islamic Emirate. They're much better networked with all the various groups in Afghanistan than they were twenty years ago. The diplomatic process in which we are involved is not the only diplomatic process. Before we even started with the current round of the Doha process, Russia had started a Moscow process, they're thinking about restarting again. So I think, I'm not saying that everything will go well, but if we shouldn't impoverish our imagination by thinking that either it's going ahead with the American project or back to the Taliban project, neither of those things is going to happen.

SULTAN: Okay, so that was a pretty invigorating discussion. Thank you to everyone. It's five o'clock, so I want to conclude the meeting. Thank you for joining today's virtual meeting and thank you, especially to our speakers. Please note that the audio and transcript of today's meeting will be posted on CFR's website. And to join the post meeting virtual reception, please click on the link shared in the zoom chat. Thank you.


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