James Fergusson, a British journalist who has written three books on Afghanistan, is not so optimistic about violence receding in Afghanistan in the immediate future. He says that without a political settlement, dangerous Islamist extremist groups such as Islamic State (IS) might gain a foothold in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: How serious a threat for Afghanistan do you consider the Taliban's announcement of a new spring offensive?
James Fergusson: I think we have to take the threat very seriously. The Taliban have not all [abandoned] their mission, which they have said they've always wanted to get rid of foreign troops from Afghan soil. And Obama’s said that he is going to keep 10,000 troops there for some time, yet no one knows for how much longer. So they [the Taliban] have not changed their mission, and they have not stopped fighting.
There is no political settlement, and it's quite clear the high peace council wants a political settlement, but it cannot reach one with the Taliban. And the statistic is up, violence is up; 2014 was a very bad year for civilian casualties. Some 48,000 civilians were killed or injured last year. It is very, very high; at least 20 percent higher than 2013. So the prognosis is not good for this year.
RFE/RL: The bulk of international combat troops left Afghanistan last year. Can Afghan forces fight the Taliban on their own?
Fergusson: This is the million-dollar question. A huge amount of money was poured into training them and getting them ready. We hear a lot of rhetoric from the NATO trainers saying they are ready and the Afghan security forces can look after the security of the country. But I look back to the time of when this happened before, when the Russians left in 1989; they did very much the same as NATO has done now. They trained off a very large national security force to secure the place after their departure. And they did not last very long.
I think after 18 months or two years that army was dissolved. They went back to their villages when the money dried up. So as long as the money can keep flowing toward the ANA, that’s fine, but it will not go on forever. There are not as well equipped as NATO ever was. Can they really do it? I don’t know. My feeling is that I think it’s going to be very difficult for them.
RFE/RL: Can Taliban reach their goal of overthrowing the Kabul government?
Fergusson: Well, they’ve certainly done it before. So there is some history here. What I would like to see is a political settlement with the Kabul government, and that's going to be in the best interest of everybody. Whatever you think of the Taliban, they do represent a genuine constituency in the rural Pashtun areas. And those areas do have genuine grievances that have to be answered. They are not properly represented in Kabul, and they do not feel so. So a political settlement has a kind of logic to it, and it would be certainly be better for peace in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Recently, some reports said that Pakistan has been pressuring the Taliban to come to the negotiating table with the Afghan government. Does this announcement mean Pakistan is not pressuring the Taliban enough?
Fergusson: Well, it's always very difficult to read what Pakistan is really doing. But what I have heard that the attack on the school in Peshawar was a big moment for Pakistan. It was a realization for Pakistan that they were actually dealing with something they could not control and there was therefore this kind of seismic shift in Pakistani policy toward the Taliban.
I don't know if that is true. But you do hear reports that Pakistan is now looking for peace and trying to ensure there is peace from the other side rather than, as they've been accused of doing in the past, trying to foment a conflict with Kabul. Whatever else happens, it's a certainty that there will never be peace in Afghanistan unless the regional neighbors including Pakistan are included in that settlement. They have to be consulted.
RFE/RL: What will happen to the peace talks now that the Taliban have already announced their spring offensive?
Fergusson: Well, they will continue, but the ultimate goal is some kind of power-sharing arrangement, and that's what I would hope for. For many years now, we all know that the Taliban have been running a kind of parallel administration in many provinces of Afghanistan. They have been preparing for power for a very long time. The groundwork for a political settlement is kind of there already. This is very much in our interest to pursue this because the rules on the ground, as ever in Afghanistan, are changing.
We had this recent attack in Jalalabad, a suicide bomb attack, which [President] Ashraf Ghani thinks was done by IS. And if that’s true, and IS is making inroads now into Afghanistan, that attack was condemned by the Taliban. So the nature of extremism in Afghanistan -- as in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and everywhere else -- is beginning to change. So if Islamic State is allowed to get a foothold in Afghanistan, things will get very, very much worse. So there is an urgent need for a political settlement.