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Former Adviser Says Washington And Kabul Will Weather Stormy Relations

U.S. President Donald Trump with (L) Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani during a meeting in New York in 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump with (L) Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani during a meeting in New York in 2017.

The author and academic Barnett Rubin advised a former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 to 2013. He says he believes that Afghanistan and the United States will weather this current low in relations after disagreements over how to talk with the Taliban insurgents.

RFE/RL: What does it mean in practice for the United States to be ending contact with the Afghan national security adviser?

Barnett Rubin: Real business was conducted over [Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah] Mohib’s head. But this decision puts pressure on [Afghan President] Ashraf Ghani to either remove or defend him. So far, he has done neither, which makes him look weak.

RFE/RL: Do you see any efforts to salvage the relationship between the Afghan government and the current U.S. administration after Washington retaliated against Kabul’s attempt to torpedo talks between Washington and the Taliban by publicly criticizing Afghan-born envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and questioning the talks?

Rubin: The relationship between the two governments is too deep and complex to be destroyed so easily. I am sure that some Americans sympathize with Mohib, and some Afghans support the U.S. decision to boycott him. I think it strains relations with Ghani more than with Afghanistan as a whole. This is important because of decisions that may be coming up about the elections and peace process. After this incident, I imagine that the U.S. will be less concerned about Ghani’s sensitivities.

RFE/RL: Do you see the Afghan government finding another regional or global power as its main backer if Washington concludes an agreement with the Taliban without its involvement?

Rubin: Washington cannot conclude an agreement with the Taliban without the Afghan government, and the Afghan government has no one else to provide the kind of support it is getting from the U.S. Even if the U.S. and [the] Taliban agree in Doha, that is not a complete peace agreement but only a component, which also requires an agreement among Afghans about the future of their country.

The talks in Doha are just the first stage of the negotiations. The agreement will also have to include a cease-fire and intra-Afghan dialogue, according to Khalilzad, and nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump could destroy it all with one tweet, but that is not the policy.

RFE/RL: Ghani’s administration is upset over being left out by the U.S.-Taliban talks, but a broad coalition of Afghan political figures apparently led by former President Hamid Karzai supports the talks and are likely to meet with Taliban representatives soon. Do you see such divisions among Afghan elites affecting the process?

Rubin: In Afghanistan, as in every other country in the world, people have different opinions. I don’t expect that to change.

RFE/RL: You recently wrote that Washington and Moscow are now quietly cooperating on talks with the Taliban. Do you see this transforming into long-term cooperation for restoring lasting peace to Afghanistan?

Barnett Rubin
Barnett Rubin

Rubin: It is a very important contribution to peace, if it lasts. Russia has contacts with Iran and China that the U.S. does not have. It has also grown closer to Pakistan. But it is not enough.

RFE/RL: You advocated regional cooperation as an important component of peace in Afghanistan. But given the involvement of near and far neighbors in the Afghan war, don’t you think that satisfying their diverse and divergent interests might mean giving up some Afghan sovereignty and might not ultimately achieve the goal of peace and stability in the country?

Rubin: Every country in the world gives up some sovereignty in order to reach agreements in its own interest. Poor, landlocked countries are even more dependent on others.

RFE/RL: Given its rivalries with the United States and its allies among Gulf Arab monarchies, do you see Iran primarily as a spoiler or a neighbor capable of helping with restoring lasting peace to Afghanistan?

Rubin: Iran can be a spoiler, but if it is a spoiler there will be no peace. No peace is possible against the wishes of Iran. The Gulf Arab monarchies are much less important to Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Apart from their rivalries with Iran, do you see the Gulf Arab monarchies having any other interest in helping with the Afghan peace process?

Rubin: No. They are too preoccupied with Syria, Yemen, Lebanon.

RFE/RL: Is India ready to replace the United States as the principal provider of security assistance to Kabul in the case of a precipitous American withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Rubin: No. India is not capable of that, even if it tries.

RFE/RL: How much influence does Pakistan really have over the Afghan Taliban given that many Afghans still see the hard-line movement as Islamabad’s proxies? Do you think the Taliban want to signal their independence from Pakistan’s powerful military?

Rubin: The question is not whether Pakistan has influence. It does, but how much? The question is what kind of influence Pakistan does have. Pakistan can hire Taliban as contractors to carry out specific operations; Pakistan can punish Taliban if they are in Pakistan to prevent them from doing things against Pakistan’s interest. But they cannot force them to make peace. As a saying in Pashto goes, pa zor kaliy na kegi -- meaning you cannot force people to make peace or something like that.

RFE/RL: Can its security interests align China with Afghanistan to the extent that its presses Islamabad into a lasting settlement with Kabul?

Rubin: China does not have the power to make the Pakistan military do something it thinks is against its interests. It can nudge them, but how hard will depend on its relations with the U.S.