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Former U.S. Envoy See Tough Days Ahead For Afghanistan

Ronald Neumann
Ronald Neumann

Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, is skeptical about the prospects for a major breakthrough in negotiating peace with the Taliban. Neumann sees the escalating Taliban violence, Pakistan's fickle friendship, and internal disagreements between partners within the Afghan national unity government as major impediments to the country's stability.

RFE/RL: How likely it is that the Taliban will really want to negotiate a peace agreement?

Ronald Neumann: Right now, I think it is not very likely. They might begin negotiations, but I think generally you reach negotiations when each side believes they cannot win outright. I am not sure that is true with the Taliban.

There is a very intense test going on. Even if the Taliban begin negotiations, it does not mean they will reach a conclusion anytime soon. I think, even if negotiations begin, we should expect fighting to get worse.

One is that the Taliban is making a major effort at military strikes. They want to undermine the Ghani government, and whether or not they negotiate they will want to see if they can win on the battlefield.

The Taliban will try to use the battlefield to increase their negotiating leverage. I think [there's a] small chance of negotiations. If they start, fighting will get even worst, and either way we should expect this is going to be a very tough year.

RFE/RL: What would a negotiated peace settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government look like? Would it be something like power-sharing between different parties in Iraq?

Neumann: I do not have an answer for that. President [Ashraf] Ghani has to hold together his coalition with [Chief Executive] Abdullah Abdullah, and that includes Tajiks, Uzbeks, people from former Jamiat-i Islami and Hizb-e Islami [two former mujahedin parties] and Hazaras that were under Mohammad Muhaqiq [a deputy of Abdullah] and Hazaras who respond to [former Vice President] Karim Khalili.

This is a very complex thing to negotiate in a way that nobody walks out from his own group. I don't think you could have a power-sharing agreement like in Iraq without breaking down President Ghani's alliance. There may be other solutions, but I do know what President Ghani has in mind and to offer. I think there will be a long testing period before you can get any kind of agreement.

RFE/RL: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently reportedly assured President Ghani of his support in pushing the Taliban leadership to take part in negotiations with the Afghan government. How reliable do you consider such pledges?

Neumann: We all wish the Pakistani government had that kind of power, and we wish they would show it. All I can say is that I have never seen the Pakistani government try to really press the Taliban really hard. I do not know whether Prime Minister Sharif can really control the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence). I would say we have to wait.

Those are nice words, but [they] have to show us that they mean something. I think you cannot build too many hopes until you see that the Pakistanis are actually doing something. President Ghani is trying very hard to cooperate with them, and I hope the Pakistanis have changed their policies, but I cannot yet point to any evidence and say say I strongly believe it.

RFE/RL: Looking at the growing violence, Pakistan's role, the differences within the Afghan government, and the uncertain peace process, how worried are you about the coming weeks and months in Afghanistan?

Neumann: I am a little concerned right now. I still think there is a great deal to work with. I am most concerned about the unity government. It has a great opportunity to reform and do better. But it is moving very slowly, and Afghans are becoming more and more discouraged. I think the unity government is talking a lot but has not done very much. It is just not enough action.

There is a big issue of election reform. If we do not see a reformed election process then the parliamentary elections will be as bad as the presidential elections. There needs to be final decisions about Abdullah's office so that they can get on with the business of governing.

Right now, there is a lot of action in running around and writing statements on firing and appointing people, but that is not the action on the ground that creates change. I think President Ghani has a great deal that is positive going for him, but I wish he would move on some issues to give people confidence that his government can actually accomplish something.