Career diplomat John Bass is the current U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan. In a wide-ranging interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, he reflects on the prospects and challenges to peace and security in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: How do you see President Ashraf Ghani’s peace offer to the Taliban?
John Bass: You’ve started off with one of the key issues, which is prospects for peace and reconciliation and an end to this terrible conflict. We believe that President Ghani’s offer at the Kabul Process was courageous and was the most detailed, comprehensive description of what peace can look like if the Taliban chooses to engage the government in a serious dialogue and negotiation.
Equally importantly, at the conference, that offer for President Ghani was supported by every government in attendance, which included all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, the other major powers in the region, Afghanistan’s large friends and allies.
RFE/RL: But the Taliban are silent. What does that mean?
Bass: Well, I think you’d ask the Taliban why they are still silent. From our perspective, we are waiting to hear their answer. More importantly, the Afghan people are waiting.
RFE/RL: But don’t you think that Pakistan would be behind the silence of the Taliban?
Bass: That’s speculation. I think it’s more important to focus on what is being said and what can happen if the Taliban takes the decision and agrees to sit down and talk to the government, because for conflict to come to an end and for peace on the other side of that conflict to be durable and sustainable, that’s going to require first and foremost and principally a conversation between Afghans.
RFE/RL: On many occasions, the Taliban have shown a willingness to just be involved with peace negotiations with the United States rather than the Afghan government.
Bass: We are aware that that is their preference. You’d have to ask them, again, why they insist on that. It largely has to do with their continued narrative that the Afghan government is not the negotiating partner they should have. But in point of fact, we believe that the Afghan government, as the elected representative of the Afghan people in a series of elections, is the right government, and the right interlocutor, if you will, for the Taliban to be talking to.
RFE: The United States has rejected the Taliban’s offer [of direct talks] many times. What kind of support could it offer to this process?
Bass: We certainly will support the Afghan government as, and when, it chooses to sit down and talk formally or informally with the Taliban. We’ll continue to support its efforts to compel, if necessary, with military action, or to persuade through other means the Taliban to sit down and talk with the Afghan government. And we’ll look carefully at what would be required on the other side of peace to make sure that it is a durable and sustainable peace. But ultimately these are questions for Afghans to answer and to discuss amongst themselves.
RFE/RL: The United States suspended aid to Pakistan at the beginning of 2018 after President Donald Trump accused Islamabad of deceiving the international coalition in the war against terror. But there is still no visible change in Pakistan’s behavior. What next steps we might see?
Bass: Well, to get into hypotheticals, in terms of a specific next step that we might take, I will say that, as you noted, a key piece of our strategy is better cooperation and a stronger effort by Pakistan to deal with the terrorist problems that are based in Pakistan. We’ve seen a bit of cooperation from them, but it’s not sufficient for us and it’s not sufficient for the Afghan government. And so we will continue to encourage in a variety of ways the Pakistani government to live up to its rhetoric asserting that there aren’t terrorist problems in Pakistan and demonstrate that in facts as well as in words.
RFE/RL: The United States and some its international partners are pressing Pakistan to change its behavior toward Afghanistan and for it to be cooperative in the peace process. But Pakistan is skipping these pressures, and instead is trying to form a regional alliance led by Russia and China. How do you see the situation?
Bass: It’s something to note that Pakistan, the government of Pakistan -- along with the governments of China, Iran, and Russia -- were among those countries at the Kabul Process conference that supported President Ghani’s call for talks and a peace process with the Taliban. So there shouldn’t be any confusion in anyone’s mind about where the governments of the region stand on this issue. I would expect we will see another strong call to the Taliban at the upcoming Tashkent conference, and I think it’s important for the Taliban to respond positively or the alternative is going to be more violence and destruction by the Afghan security forces against the Taliban and its supporters.
RFE/RL: Russia and Iran are seen as more proactively involved in the conflict in Afghanistan, and one of the reasons for the Russian involvement in Afghanistan is considered to be Islamic State (IS) activities in Afghanistan. Don’t you think that it will complicate the ongoing war on terror?
Bass: Well, the involvement of any outside country in Afghanistan, any activity by outside governments against terrorists, or groups, or threats inside Afghanistan, should only occur with the concurrence and support of the Afghan government. I’m not aware they have provided that kind of agreement to the governments of Russia or Iran.
We’ve heard some outrageous accusations from both the Iranian and Russian governments suggesting that the United States or other partners are responsible for Daesh Khorasan (eds: local name of IS). Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, we’ve done the most, along with the Afghan government and security forces, to deal with the presence of Daesh Khorasan [in Afghanistan].
And unfortunately, I think this is a reflection on efforts on the parts of the Russian and Iranian governments to change the subject away from their responsibility to a large degree for the growth and the terrible violence perpetrated on Syrians and other people, by Daesh in northern Iraq and Syria.
RFE/RL: There are concerns in Afghanistan that their country will change it into a second Syria if Russia gets directly involved.
Bass: Russia couldn’t get involved here unless it is welcomed by the Afghan government. I would certainly hope that the Russian government would not work in secret to support any group here. That’s s inconsistent with the approach and obligations that we all have under the United Nations charter and would be a pretty significant violation of international law.