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Former Envoy Sees Long Road Ahead For Afghan Peace Talks

FILE: Ambassador James Dobbins.
FILE: Ambassador James Dobbins.

Career U.S. diplomat James Dobbins spent decades as an American diplomatic troubleshooter in some of the world’s most intractable conflict regions, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, Dobbins, now a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation think tank, sees a long road ahead for the peace negotiations that could eventually end nearly 40 years of war in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: After four decades of war, Afghans welcome any sign of peace. Why then has the recently claimed “progress” in talks between the United States and the Taliban set off alarm bells in Kabul?

James Dobbins: I think there are probably two reasons. First, because peace will require making compromises, and those will be controversial, but also because there’s uncertainly stimulated by the president of the United States about the durability of the American commitment and the danger that the U.S. would withdraw before peace was assured.

RFE/RL: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently said, “The bitter reality is that international experiences have shown that 50 percent of peace agreements have resulted in worse wars and the reason for this is haste to achieve peace.” Is Washington looking for a hasty peace deal?

James Dobbins: I think that Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalizad and the U.S. government are looking for an enduring peace. The question is whether the United States has the endurance to stay until that is assured.

RFE/RL: U.S. talks with the Taliban are set to continue later this month, but the impression in Kabul is that Washington is talking with its adversary and excluding its ally. What do you think?

James Dobbins:It’s not the United States leaving the Afghan government out; it’s the Taliban. And the U.S. has made clear in its talks with the Taliban that any agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban is contingent upon the Taliban agreeing to talk to the Afghan government and to stop fighting while they do.

RFE/RL: The Taliban are insisting on not talking to the Afghan government. How then can talks ultimately continue?

James Dobbins:I think they won’t develop if the Taliban maintain that position.

RFE/RL: The Taliban also say they are in contact with influential Afghan figures and will continue talks with them at the Moscow meeting on February 5. While they insist on not talking to the Afghan government, calling it a U.S. puppet, do you think the Moscow talks may affect the U.S.-Taliban talks and talks between Afghans?

James Dobbins: Not in any serious way.

RFE/RL: How do you assess Russia's role in these talks?

James Dobbins:I think Russia would like to feel included. I think Russia sees itself as a major power, and I think Russia is trying to play a role. I don’t think Russian influence is particularly strong, and I don’t think people should be too concerned about Russian activity. I don’t think it’s necessarily harmful, but I also don’t think it will do much good.

RFE/RL: The Taliban say they have changed and would allow women education and work, but they still want everything according to Shari’a law. Their interpretation of Islam is particularly worrisome to the younger generation of Afghans. What does Washington need to do to address these concerns?

James Dobbins:The concerns are perfectly legitimate. But we’ll have to see the degree to which the Taliban has evolved since 2001; we just don’t know. I think it’s really up to the Afghan representatives, in talks with the Taliban, to address those concerns.

RFE/RL: Do you think that as the United States leaves Afghanistan, they can convince the Taliban to respect the deal they are making with the Afghans regarding the rights issue?

James Dobbins:I think the United States should stay engaged in Afghanistan, militarily as well as diplomatically and economically, at least until a peace agreement is not only reached but fully implemented.

RFE/RL: The Taliban also say they have fought for an Islamic emirate and will consult Afghans about a government system after a peace deal. Do you think the Taliban would agree to a democratic system with a president instead of an emir and a general election instead of a shura council?

James Dobbins:I have no idea, and it’s not clear that the Taliban themselves know what they would agree to. The important thing is to begin negotiations and to see where they lead.

RFE/RL: How long do you think these negotiations will last?

James Dobbins:Well, they haven’t started yet. The talks between the United States and the Taliban are talks about starting negotiations, and they won’t start until the Taliban agrees to the conditions that the U.S. has set. The Taliban hasn’t agreed yet. So, peace negotiations haven’t started. They could take quite a long time. They could take years. It’s hard to say, but it would probably be foolish to say that they could move very quickly.