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Former Adviser Sees An Outline For Pakistan, Afghanistan Settlement

Barnett Rubin
Barnett Rubin

In his role as senior adviser to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, academic and author Barnett Rubin has pushed for reconciliation between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul. He now sees Afghanistan as ready to commit itself not to do anything against the territorial integrity and unity of Pakistan if it facilitates reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban.

RFE/RL: You have talked about cooperation between China and the United States regarding Afghanistan's future. What concrete things can the two countries do together?

Barnett Rubin: Right now, the most immediate one is for the Taliban to enter into talks with the Afghan government under conditions agreed by the government of Afghanistan and the international community. I think they can also agree that if Afghanistan is stabilized, at least partly through a political settlement, they can jointly invest or support investments by companies in their two countries in the [hydrocarbons and mineral] extractive industries of Afghanistan and also support the kind of activity between Afghanistan and Pakistan that could really help in creating infrastructure for the full implementation of the Afghanistan Pakistan transit trade agreement and also help connect those two countries to other parts of the region ― first of all to Central Asia.

RFE/RL: Is it accurate to say, in your opinion, that the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban is stalled right now?

Rubin: I don't know what has happened since the inauguration of President [Ashraf] Ghani [in late September]. There is no publically acknowledged process at all, so that is certainly the case. However, there was a very important ― and, I understand, very successful ― bilateral meeting between Pakistani National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz and President Ghani a few weeks ago, and that is followed up by an official visit of President Ghani to Pakistan [this week].

I believe the cooperation between the two countries on the peace process is very high ― maybe it is the top item ― on the agenda in those bilateral talks. So we may be hearing something more concrete soon.

RFE/RL: In a recent article, you proposed a roadmap for negotiations with the Taliban. Can you suggest what particular steps Kabul and Washington need to take to go forward on that roadmap?

Rubin: The United States has done virtually everything the Taliban asked it to do before they would open talks with the Afghan government: releasing prisoners from Guantanamo, setting an end date for moving its troops from Afghanistan and also changing sanctions against them internationally so they are no longer grouped with Al-Qaeda in the same sanctions regime.

The Afghan government will probably take a few confidence-building measures, but the most important thing [for] the United States to do, overall, will be to guarantee that its counterterrorism policies won't disrupt those negotiations ― that it won't capture people on their way to talks. There were incidents like that in the past.

Afghanistan will always have to guarantee Pakistan that if Pakistan helps bring the Afghan Taliban back into Afghanistan, it will not, in turn, use its greater national unity in order to pursue some of the claims that Afghanistan has traditionally had against Pakistan. I don't think Afghanistan will be ready to recognize the Durand Line as an international border in the immediate future, but I think Afghanistan is ready to make clear commitments that it has no intention to challenge it in any way and that it can commit itself to not do anything against the territorial integrity and unity of Pakistan, so that the question of recognition of the Durand Line becomes irrelevant as the border becomes an area of cooperation rather than conflict.

RFE/RL: You have been involved with the Afghan peace process and particularly with the efforts to bring about reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. What has prevented those efforts from succeeding?

Rubin: The United States and the Afghan government didn't agree or succeed in reaching a sufficient degree of clarity on what the role of Pakistan was and should be and who actually spoke for the Taliban. These are both very complex issues. I am hopeful that, with the new leadership in Afghanistan, it will be much more feasible for us to do that and there will be a clear strategy coming out from the government of Afghanistan, which I am sure the United States will be happy to support.

If we go back 10 or 12 years, before the Bonn Process was completed and the constitution was adopted, the Taliban made several efforts to reach out to the Afghan government, and the Afghan government was quite willing to talk to them. But, at that time, in the early Bush Administration, the U.S. position was that the Taliban could not participate in talks ― at least, their leadership. Therefore, they were unable to give them the security guarantees that a peace process would require. I think that is no longer a major obstacle.

RFE/RL: Are you worried about the prospects of another state collapse in Afghanistan if the current national unity government fragments?

Rubin: That could happen if some of the partners in the Afghan national unity government behaved in a very irresponsible manner. I think the government of Afghanistan ― despite all its flaws, corruption, weakness, security failings and so on ― if we compare the state of Afghanistan to 13 years ago, it has made tremendous progress. According to recent polling, President Ghani has tremendously high approval ratings, and people want the state to continue functioning and improve its function.

So as long as there is some reasonably unified leadership ― as long as the international community continues with a reasonable level of support so the state can keep functioning and the economy keep growing ― a state collapse won't happen.

There are scenarios under which it can happen. [For example,] if the national unity government broke down in a violent way that led the United States and others to cease their financial support for the government of Afghanistan. But the fact is that, in that case, whoever launched the divisions within the national unity government would win at most 100 percent of nothing.