“The world should remain involved in Afghanistan”

TNS talks to Afsandyar Mir on burning issues of the day in Afghanistan, including prospects for peace, regional dynamics, internal tensions and viable options for various stakeholders

Afsandyar Mir, who has a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago, is a post-doctoral teaching fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. His research interests include international security of South Asia, US counterterrorism policy, and US foreign policy with a regional focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. He has published reports and research papers in academic journals and newspapers, including Security Studies and International Studies Quarterly. His commentary has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, H-Diplo, Lawfare, Washington Post and other publications.

In the following interview, he discusses burning issues of the day in Afghanistan, including prospects for peace, regional dynamics, internal tensions and viable options for various stakeholders:

The News on Sunday (TNS): Do you think the American decision to pull out its forces from Afghanistan by September 11 this year will result in stability and development in Afghanistan?

Asfandyar Mir (AM): President Biden‘s decision to withdraw US forces will aggravate the political and security situation in Afghanistan. It will weaken the Afghan government, which has been reliant on the US‘s political help, economic assistance and military support to fend off the challenge of the Taliban. Over the next few months, the American withdrawal is likely to erode the Afghan Republic politically. The Afghan government remains enormously challenged, riven by failing governance structures and rampant corruption. Prominent political leaders like President Ashraf Ghani, Dr Abdullah Abdullah and former president Hamid Karzai have severe differences and competing views on the Republic’s future and how to engage with the Taliban. Once US forces are out, factionalism and infighting in the Republic are likely to worsen. This will benefit the Taliban politically and militarily.

Another significant issue is the future of jihadist groups in Afghanistan. The Biden administration has largely sidestepped the all-important question of Taliban ties with Al Qaeda and whether the Taliban have taken the steps required against international terrorists under the Doha deal. Remember, the war started because the Taliban gave refuge to Al Qaeda, which carried out the 9/11 attacks. My assessment is that the Taliban remain allied with and supportive of Al Qaeda. The Biden administration seems to be resigned to the fact that forcing a Taliban break with Al Qaeda is impossible. This means that the risk of major international terrorists finding a safe haven in Afghanistan again is substantial.

TNS: According to the announced plan, the US will continue its collaboration with Afghanistan to stabilise the country after its forces leave. Do you think this is a viable option to maintain peace in the country?

AM: The US plan is to provide both military and economic support to shore up the Afghan government for the foreseeable future. There are concerns that the aid may be cut sooner rather than later; history tells us that when US forces withdraw from a country, Congress‘s interest in providing funds for that country goes down. But even if aid is not cut, it can only be helpful if the Republic remains politically viable.

TNS: The Taliban still practically control about half of Afghan. Some say they will be strong enough to create lawlessness after the US forces leave. Your thoughts?

AM: The Taliban have made significant gains in the south and east of the country after President Trump prematurely withdrew 8,600 troops following the February 2020 deal. They will be able to put immense pressure on the Afghan government‘s defences and control in these regions. For now, the US government can use peace talks and international pressure to restrain the Taliban from mounting a military campaign to take major provincial capitals and cities. The question is if the pressure, in general, and the peace process, in particular, will hold out once US forces pull out. Many analysts anticipate that the Taliban will be hard to restrain from here on. I agree with that view. We can expect the level of fighting between Afghan security forces and the Taliban to increase in the coming months.

TNS: The Taliban agreed to be part of the political process to transform Afghanistan into an Islamic state. What would it mean for democratic norms, human rights and justice for the ordinary citizen?

AM: The Taliban want a restoration of their obscurantist Islamic Emirate of the pre-9/11 era. The group has evolved in specific dimensions – for instance, the Taliban leadership has a far sharper sense of international politics than it did in the years past – but it remains opposed to democratic processes, elections, norms of pluralism and human rights, especially for women. A worrying feature of the Taliban‘s rise is that they are baying for blood and want revenge from political actors backed by the US government.

TNS: For some, it is not just the US pullout but also non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs by the regional powers, including Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China that is required to establish peace. What do you think?

AM: Afghanistan enormously suffers from interference by its neighbors. Pakistan has provided a highly permissive sanctuary to the Taliban leadership in the name of balancing Indian influence in Afghanistan. Iran has meddled in Afghanistan by providing material and non-material support to both the Taliban and other armed actors. Countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia and India have also fuelled the conflict. There are no signs that the negative international involvement is going to end any time soon. America‘s inability to get various countries to back off, especially Pakistan, and create international consensus for non-interference is among the most significant failures of its two-decade long war effort.

TNS: The US has helped develop security forces in Afghanistan to defend the country against internal and external forces. Do you think they are strong enough to deal with the Taliban?

AM: Afghan security forces have significant weaknesses. At the leadership level, there are challenges due to bad appointments. There also remains substantial attrition of the rank-and-file. To be sure, some parts of the Afghan security sector are more formidable, such as the Afghan special operations forces. In recent years, the US government reduced its advisory support and empowered Afghan forces more, especially the special operations forces. Select militia forces in the east of the country mount effective counterterrorism operations. But in the lead up to and after the US withdrawal, the political landscape in Afghanistan will shift, which will have implications for the cohesion of Afghan security forces. There is a risk that they may fragment.

TNS: Afghanistan and Pakistan can play an essential role in providing a route for the Central Asian countries to transport oil and gas to the Arabian Sea. Is this feasible? How?

AM: Afghanistan needs peace for any regional economic connectivity projects. Unfortunately, the prospects of peace are very dim in the near term. Suppose the Taliban take control of some parts of the country, going by their behaviour over the last year and more. In that case, it is unlikely that the group will behave pragmatically to turn Afghanistan into a regional hub of economic cooperation.

TNS: As an expert on South Asian affairs, please suggest some basic strategies to ensure peace and progress in Afghanistan after the foreign forces are pulled out.

AM: The international community must stay involved and nudge all parties inside and outside Afghanistan towards a political settlement. Even after departing, America will have the power to shape the behaviour of a range of actors in support of peace. The Taliban, who remain ascendant on the battlefield and generally a lot more obstinate, need to be restrained from aggression and persuaded into more constructive behaviour. The coordinated US, Russian and Chinese pressure can have some influence. Major actors that are part of the Republic need to be extremely careful, act with unity, and take more responsibility. Finally, Afghanistan‘s neighbours and major powers, especially Pakistan, must not goad the Taliban into more conflict; instead, they should normatively and materially punish the Taliban if they remain intransigent. Such an approach is the only hope for peace in Afghanistan.

The author is co-editor of the recently published book, From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State and Society in Pakistan (Routledge, 2020). He is an academic scholar and freelance writer based in the United States

“The world should remain involved in Afghanistan”