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Former Adviser Offers Hopeful Afghanistan Outlook

Barnett Rubin
Barnett Rubin

PRAGUE, Author and academic Barnett Rubin, a former senior adviser to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is still hopeful that Afghan elite consensus, international support, and regional cooperation will prevent the ship from sinking in Afghanistan amid escalating Taliban violence.

RFE/RL: Do you think that the ongoing spike in violence across Afghanistan is in any way related to the international conference on the country in Brussels in October?

Barnett Rubin: I don’t think so. I think it’s more related first of all to, of course, the withdrawal of the troops, and it’s only to be expected that when 100,000 of the world’s best troops leave, it will change the balance of military force in the country, in a way that I’m surprised the Taliban have not managed to take advantage of more so. But more important -- and I think this doesn’t get as much attention -- a lot of the intelligence apparatus that was used for detecting attacks in advance was also taken out.

For example, the three attacks that took place in Kabul on September 5, it could very well be that if the U.S. was still there, with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and so on, there used to be blimps above Kabul city and other monitoring, they might have found the trucks with those bombs before they got to the center of the city. That might be one of the reasons there have been more attacks, particularly in Kabul.

RFE/RL: What is your prognosis of the peace process with the Taliban? Do you see it reviving after the quadrilateral process involving China, United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan collapsed a few months back?

Rubin: I am confident talks with resume sooner or later, because there is no alternative to that. And I wouldn’t say the quadrilateral process collapsed; it reached an impasse, and now Afghanistan has lost confidence in Pakistan’s good faith to such an extent that they don’t see the use of such talks. And Pakistan has not shown that it has either the capability or the will to bring the Taliban to negotiate in that format. So they will probably need some other format. My personal view is that that format is a good one for negotiating the policies among the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, but it’s not a good format for negotiating with the Taliban.

I think the Taliban still have their office in Qatar, which they say is the address for negotiation, and there are various reports that they are going to change the status of that office and remove any questions about whether it really represents the movement or not. I don’t know if that will happen, but that’s the report. The Taliban have always wanted to start their talks with the United States, and not with the Afghan government; of course, the United States did talk to them for about a year. But I think everyone will be waiting to see what the new president of the United States is going to be doing. I doubt there’ll be much movement until then.

The basic problem is that outside of Afghanistan, everyone says the Afghan government needs to negotiate with the Taliban; however, the Afghan government doesn’t believe that. It believes it needs to negotiate with Pakistan, who it believes controls the Taliban, and the Taliban don’t believe that, because they think they need to negotiate with the United States, which they think runs the Afghan government. So until all these Afghan groups are able to recognize each other as Afghan actors, both of which have a great deal of dependence on their foreign supporters, it will be difficult to have a meaningful dialogue.

RFE/RL: This year, Pakistan formally acknowledged its backing of the Taliban when its foreign affairs adviser acknowledged that Taliban leadership is present in their country and they can influence them. Do you think Kabul has a point in claiming Islamabad’s control over the Taliban?

Rubin: In my view, the role of Pakistan should not be -- as in that quadrilateral grouping -- to bring the Taliban to negotiations. The role of Pakistan should be to close their offices and their training camps and say, no more so-called jihad from Pakistan, and they should go back to Afghanistan. After all, their leader [Mullah Akhtar Mohammad] Mansur was killed by a drone [while] riding down a major highway in [the southwestern Pakistani province of] Balochistan in [May], and he wasn’t even being followed by the ISI; they didn’t even know where he was.

That means they’re given a great deal of freedom, more than a lot of other foreigners and even Pakistanis. So they need to start treating them in the same way they treat the TTP (Eds: Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan), except that the Afghan Taliban should be offered the option of going back to Afghanistan, without their arms and dealing with the Afghan government.

RFE/RL: What recent motives do you see in Pakistan’s exerting its influence over the Taliban?

Rubin: Of course, what gives Pakistan leverage over the Afghan government and the United States is the belief that Pakistan can control the Taliban. Because if Pakistan has no influence over them, why are we even talking to Pakistan? So they were in this position for many years where they have to deny they’re supporting the Taliban while secretly hoping we believe they control them, kind of like Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

And now they’re in a position where what’s started to happen is they had to deliver, and it turned out they were unable. They face a choice: If they don’t really have enough control to deliver them, even though they’d agreed to, what will they do? Is Pakistan a country? Is it going to control its own territory or not?

RFE/RL: In your experience as an adviser to the State Department, what will Pakistanis tell you when you press them about their support for the Taliban?

Rubin: Well, it depends on the type of meeting. They will never agree that they support the Taliban; they’ll get very angry if you say that. But they’ve stopped denying the Taliban are in Pakistan; they’ve stopped denying they might have some influence over the Taliban.

But what I understood -- I spent a long, long time talking to them, to the ISI and diplomats -- is they don’t want to start a war between the Pakistani government and the Afghan Taliban. They already have a war with the TTP, they have a war in Balochistan, there is some kind of insurgency in Karachi, they’re not very much in control of southern Punjab, and if they attack the Afghan Taliban, they say they will then ally with the TTP and fight the Pakistani Army, and then they’re worried they would get support from Pashtuns in both countries, and that’s a nightmare situation for them.

So, therefore, their view is the Afghan government should offer them much more to get them back into Afghanistan. But then the Afghan government says -- quite reasonably -- we can’t offer them something if we haven’t spoken to them and we don’t know what they want. So they want to talk to them first.

But lately I’ve been hearing that the Pakistan military has told the Afghan government that it’s not able to control the ISI offices in Quetta and Peshawar, which, I don’t know if that’s true, [but] if I were the chief of army staff of Pakistan and that were true, that would be a much bigger threat to the integrity of the state than anything the terrorists could do.

RFE/RL: And how do you read into this new Pakistani “border management” plan to build more border crossings and regulate all the cross-border movements through 18 gates? Do you think this will stop the Taliban from crossing over?

Rubin: It doesn’t have the purpose of stopping the Taliban in Pakistan from going into Afghanistan. It has the purpose of stopping the Pakistani Taliban and other groups that fight against the Pakistani military [from] then going into Afghanistan and claiming some of safe haven. And the Pakistani government also believes the TTP and related groups are receiving help from India, and from the Afghan government. So maybe they think that by controlling the border in this way they can put a stop to that. And certainly by doing so they can put pressure on the Afghan government, as they recently did by closing the gates at both Torkham and Chaman [border crossings].

And in fact they told me, when I was working in the government and talking to the ISI, that they wanted to fence the border, and of course I pointed out that the people who live in those areas will never accept that because of their relations across the border, but now we see they’re trying to do that.

RFE/RL: You are one of the few Western scholars who are actively involved in trying to understand the evolving Chinese approach to this region. China is facing something similar to the Taliban threat to Afghanistan, with the Uighur movement in China, which is influenced by Islam and over the years its links with militant groups such as the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, have strengthened. So can China prevail over Pakistan to rein in the Taliban?

Rubin: I have found that within the Chinese establishment, there are some different approaches to this problem. It’s a problem for China because one, they are concerned with the separatist movements. But it’s also a problem because now that they are investing so much in Central Asia, and South Asia and around the India Ocean they feel their national and economic interests requires peace and security in that region, and they can’t build tens of millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure in Pakistan if their engineers are going to be kidnapped by terrorists. They would like Afghanistan to join that project and have signed a protocol with Kabul.

So some people in the Chinese government take the line similar to the Pakistan government, which is that the United States and the Afghan government should offer more to the Taliban. Many in the Chinese government, in private, express some frustration with Pakistan. But China is not impatient like the United States, it has a long-term perspective. It thinks that by building this infrastructure, it will enable the Pakistani economy to grow, and provide better livelihoods for the people in Pakistan and provide better incentives to the Pakistani government.

There are others in the Chinese establishment who are more concerned and want to coordinate policy on Afghanistan with the United States. They don’t speak about that with Pakistan, but they like to at least communicate and try not to get in each other’s way. What they cannot do is issue an order to Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban. Because Pakistan is very important to China; its outlet to the Indian Ocean. So sometimes we are a bit frustrated when dealing with China, but compared to eight years ago they have changed their policy and they are much more forward-leaning.

RFE/RL: With hundreds of billions of dollars of investments, will China ultimately have enough economic interest that will generate security interest for Beijing to take a leading role in helping Pakistan and Afghanistan resolve their problems?

Rubin: That’s certainly what China hopes will happen. Chinese relations with India are increasing very rapidly. China has much more trade with India than it does with Pakistan, just because it’s a bigger economy. They have stabilized their border issue in northeast India -- Arunachal Pardesh -- with some new understandings and are trying to promote economic understanding. And the Chinese have said at least in private that they would like India to be connected to their Belt and Road initiative.

But the only way that could happen is if the India-Pakistan border opens, which is something Pakistan has not been willing to do. But if economic pressure from China and India increases to open this border, which is also important to Afghanistan, it might put Pakistan in an increasingly difficult position. This would at best take many years.

RFE/RL: You have known the leadership of the current Afghan national unity government for years. Do you see it surviving the current infighting and delivering in the next few years?

Rubin: The national unity government is based on a political agreement and not on the constitution. It’s legal, but it’s an agreement that can be changed. So even if Dr. Abdullah Abdullah says he’s not participating in it anymore, Ashraf Ghani is still the president of Afghanistan, and Dr. Abdullah would be the leader of the opposition.

If they really split with each other, they both have a great deal to lose, because the international community would not support Afghanistan then, and in a way neither of them can govern all of Afghanistan without the other. But right now the main force keeping them together is that the existence of the Afghan state is dependent on international support. It’s true they have different visions. Dr. Abdullah supports a parliamentary system for Afghanistan, but he has for many years been willing to compromise in favor of a semi-presidential system that has both a president and a prime minister. And Ghani believes strongly, of course, in a centralized system in order to implement the reforms that he believes are necessary and eliminate certain kinds of corruption. But he at least did agree to this national unity government, to Abdullah taking the position of CEO, and to the Loya Jirga.

Now it looks to some people that he didn’t really try what was necessary in carrying out the Loya Jirga. But it does show flexibility on both sides, and they are going to have to be willing to continue doing that because there’s too much at stake.

RFE/RL: Afghanistan clearly sees its future in regional cooperation with big-ticket projects such the Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India (TAPI) gas pipeline and the Central Asia South Asia 1000 electricity line. Do you see a future for regional cooperation with Afghanistan at the center?

Rubin: It’s impossible to deny the future of Afghanistan depends on it having cooperative relations with its neighbors and its neighbors having relatively cooperative or at least non-hostile relations with each other, because Afghanistan is landlocked. Now, cooperation is very difficult if you try to generate it from a multitude of small actors, because who’s going to implement it?

You have cooperation in Europe -- NATO, the EU, other organizations, largely because the United States provides a security umbrella for originally just Western Europe but now much more of Europe, so there’s much more incentive to cooperate. There hasn’t been any such force in this region. But now with the growth of the Chinese economy, and to a lesser extent the Indian economy, and the increased interest of the United States, and also possibly if it succeeds the decrease of tensions between the U.S. and Iran, it’s possible that those really big countries will be able to agree among themselves on some framework for cooperation. Now the danger is -- and this is a real danger -- they will instead each develop their own frameworks for cooperation. Because now NATO is alone in Europe -- there used to be NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

It’s possible that the Chabahar project, the TAPI project, will become part of India-Iran cooperation, and the Chinese One Belt, One Road initiative will [create] competition between Chinese-led, India-led and the United States in that case would probably go with India. But I think that nobody in the United States nor China or India wants that. So in my view the future of the region involves finding ways to avoid that, and enabling these three powers to work together despite what would necessarily be their ongoing conflict.

RFE/RL: Can you imagine the Afghan government generating enough sources to fight the current war? Do you see enough consensus among the current Afghan elite, and internationally, to help Afghanistan become a peaceful, democratic country?

Rubin: Well, I don’t know if there’s enough consensus among the Afghans. And it’s not only a psychological question, or about ideology, but if you don’t have enough resources to make a state function or enable everybody to participate, no one’s going to have a consensus about supporting it. They’re going to want to fight to have something that works for them. We’ve seen that happen in the past. So the best way to encourage that consensus is to keep funding the Afghan state so that it’s able to support itself. But it will never be able to support security services the size that it has now, which are not succeeding against the Taliban. So peace is a must for Afghanistan, economically and for the sake of the stability of the state.

As far as international consensus is concerned, the original consensus around Afghanistan in 2001/2002, was a counterterrorist consensus. Every country supported -- except for maybe Pakistan, although they also assisted it -- the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to uproot Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, on the basis of counterterrorism. And then, of course, the countries in the region are not only threatened by the Taliban, or Al-Qaeda; some of them also feel threatened by the United States. So the balance began to shift as the United States kept its forces there for a longer period of time. And countries like Iran and Russia became more concerned about the United States than about the Taliban, and now you have the added factor of ISIS coming into the region.

But during these past 15 years, we’ve created a number of platforms for all of these countries to discuss these issues together, and come up with some common projects, and are working actively to sustain the Afghan state, although in very different ways. The main threat now is that countries in the region that see Afghanistan as a threat to them or see threats coming to them from Afghanistan. Of course, Pakistan has always perceived that. Russia is concerned about the American presence in Afghanistan, and Russia is now very actively trying to expand its presence in the Middle East and I’m sure in Asia, as well. China used to consider the American presence there as aiming to contain China, but now they’ve concluded that America is not a threat to China, instability is a threat to China and therefore they prefer for the United States to stay involved. Iran -- and Russia also -- are very concerned about ISIS (Islamic State militants) in Afghanistan.

The Americans withdrew all their troops along the Iranian border, so they are not as concerned as before. And I think that people have learned that if they really don’t cooperate and if they destabilize Afghanistan, there’s a very high price to pay. But nonetheless, I can’t rule out that Congress at some point will reduce funding to Afghanistan, that will intensify conflicts in Kabul, the coalition that supports the government will break up, and different parts of it will be supported by different foreign powers -- it could happen. But it’s not inevitable or even likely.