“Policy debate on Afghanistan is a crucial need“

TNS speaks to Dr Jochen Hippler, the country director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Pakistan to discuss the unfolding situation in Afghanistan

“Policy debate on Afghanistan is a crucial need“

With rapid political developments and an imminent transformation, Afghanistan has been sucked into a whirlpool of instability. It is also impacting the entire framework of regional and international socio-political order.

TNS spoke to Dr Jochen Hippler, the country director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Pakistan to discuss the unfolding situation. The German academic has extensive experience in the area. Dr Hippler has previously served as a consultant and a researcher focusing on South Asia, especially Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Middle East. He has also edited more than twenty books pertaining to foreign relations, US policy towards the developing world, Pakistan, the Middle East, Muslim extremism, democracy in the developing world, development issues and regional conflicts and war.

The News on Sunday (TNS): Considering your journey from a tourist to an expert working in an official capacity, how has your personal experience been in Pakistan?

Dr Hippler: Well, I have been coming to Pakistan since 1988. Since then, I have visited the country between 30 and 40 times. Initially I was following and researching the war in Afghanistan. However, I quickly fell in love with first Peshawar and then Pakistan. I then kept finding opportunities to return to Pakistan, sometimes for conferences, tourism, evaluation of some development projects, research on a book I wrote on Pakistan and academic exchanges. Whenever I found a pretext or reason to come, I got on a plane and came.

The colourful bazaars, the history, the diversity and friendliness of the people has always attracted me. Over time, I learned quite a bit about this country. Being a political scientist by training, I was also fascinated by Pakistan’s politics and the relationship between religion and politics.

Finally, in 2019, I moved here. Before that, I had always been a visitor, staying a few weeks or a few months. Now I have lived in Islamabad for two years, without returning to my home country, Germany. The Covid-19 pandemic played a role since visiting home under lockdown conditions was not too appealing. So, my Iranian wife and I stayed on and felt very much at home. Staying in a hotel or a guesthouse is not the same as staying in our apartment. Overall, we are delighted to be living in this beautiful and colourful country, despite its problems.

TNS: What is Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) about, and what has the Pakistan chapter of the organisation achieved so far?

Dr Hippler: FES is the oldest foundation in Germany, existing since 1925. It operates in 15 regional offices (besides its headquarters) in Germany and has more than 100 offices abroad. Our Pakistan office was established in 1990 in Islamabad. Today it is run by nine Pakistani employees and a German, which currently is me. The FES generally conducts civic and political education and functions as an advisory organisation. We support some Pakistani organisations, state and non-state, intellectuals and academics. From the very beginning, the FES has aimed at promoting exchange and understanding between Pakistan and Germany, South Asia and Europe.

Parliamentary democracy, the protection of human rights, freedom of the press, the separation of powers, and rule of law on a sound basis are not simply Western values and principles. They are also shared by democratic forces in Asia, including Pakistan. The FES, therefore, promotes programmes and activities aimed at establishing and strengthening civil society and reinforcing democratic government institutions. Special emphasis is put on contributing to a constructive discussion on conflictive issues and a peaceful settlement of disputes between different interest groups in the society. The FES wants to build bridges between the civil society and the powers of the state.

Economic justice is another key goal of our work. Whether we are successful or not is not up to us to decide, but should be judged by our Pakistani friends and partners. I am quite satisfied with our work since we have often managed to help important discussions flourish. They may be on the equality of women, growth and inequality in the economic field, or on civic education in Pakistan, to give just a few examples. Providing reliable information and fora for discussion to Pakistani citizens on such topics is our goal. And whenever we can strengthen mutual understanding between Pakistan and Germany, we are ready to help.

TNS: Afghanistan has always been at the forefront in regional politics. It has claimed the limelight once again. What is your analysis of the current situation? What role do you think Pakistan should play for regional stability?

Dr Hippler: For a long time, the key problem in Afghanistan has been the role of the state and the relationship of the state with a highly diverse and fragmented society. The state traditionally has been weak but sometimes overly centralised and partly hijacked by private interests. The Afghan society has often not accepted this, which led to tension and conflict. Foreign powers, like the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia, the USA, other Western countries, and immediate neighbours - Iran and Pakistan, have often made matters worse by meddling in Afghan affairs – sometimes with good intentions, more often with selfish ones. After the Taliban takeover, the key problem is supporting stability and avoiding another round of civil war. This should be combined with any influence possible on the new regime to respect the human rights of all Afghans.

TNS: How do you see the FES offices in Afghanistan and Pakistan playing a role in corroborating for peace?

Dr Hippler: After the Taliban taking power, the FES office in Kabul is currently not in a position to continue its work. This is very regrettable but necessary as a precaution to protect our employees. The only remaining option for us is to use our office in Islamabad to support Pakistanis arguing for a constructive policy regarding Afghanistan, avoiding past mistakes. Pakistan needs a stable and peaceful Afghan neighbour for economic cooperation and to avoid negative influences on its own society. A policy debate for figuring the approach towards Afghanistan is a crucial requirement of this moment, and we hope we can facilitate this. At the same time, the FES can also try to influence the German government to develop a constructive policy approach and avoid mistakes and wishful thinking of the past.

TNS: You have written several books on terrorism; how do you see the rise of the Taliban? Do you think that there will be a rise in terrorism in Afghanistan?

Dr Hippler: The first danger now is that the Taliban might introduce a repressive system in Afghanistan that will hurt intellectuals, women and other groups in the society who might disagree with them. The second danger is that the evolving setup might produce more instability. The conflict between different groups among Taliban, between the Taliban and the Afghan society, might escalate – not this year, maybe not next year, but possibly at a later stage. This could produce the risk of more violence in Afghanistan, which might spill over to the neighbourhood. The third danger is that the struggle to develop a functioning and inclusive state in Afghanistan might fail. This, in turn, could destabilise Afghanistan, leaving “unruled spaces” to extremist groups. This could also open the road to returning to the past when non-state organisations used Afghanistan as a staging point for international terrorism. This would also pose a grave danger for Pakistan and countries farther away.

On the other hand, if somehow the Taliban can reform themselves and shed their previous extremism, they might build an inclusive state. This scenario, which currently looks pretty unlikely, would be the best.

TNS: Now that the Taliban are in power, do you think they will facilitate the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan?

Dr Hippler: Well, I do not know. I reckon the Taliban would be foolish and irresponsible to support groups violently fighting Pakistan. It does not look very likely today, but then, many governments have behaved stupidly in the past, and the Taliban as well. We can only hope that their realism will develop faster than their extremism.

TNS: In light of a new ultra-conservative president having taken over, how do you see the role of Iran in this imbroglio?

Dr Hippler: The Iranian government and the Revolutionary Guards Corps are glad that the Taliban managed to expel the United States from Afghanistan, their common enemy. But at the same time, Iran cannot be happy about anti-Shia extremists taking power in a neighbouring country. There are still some overlapping interests between Iran and the Taliban – especially fighting the so-called Islamic State or Daesh. Strategically, the Taliban pose a problem for Iran, even if they created a few tactical advantages. I cannot imagine both sides ever trusting each other. Therefore, the best we can hope for in the foreseeable future is an uneasy pragmatic cooperation, but not a strategic one.

The writer is an anchor and correspondent at PTV World and takes a keen interest in national security, international security affairs and human rights.  She can be reached via Twitter:   @TayyabaNKhan 

“Policy debate on Afghanistan is a crucial need“