Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at Washington’s Middle East Institute think tank, counts disagreements between Afghan elites, the Taliban’s unwillingness to follow through on vague counterterrorism and power-sharing promises, and the possibility of Washington walking away from its longest war as several of the major obstacles to lasting peace in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL Gandhara: Now that the international community has recognized Ashraf Ghani as the legitimate president of Afghanistan, do you see Washington playing a proactive role in strengthening his administration given that U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad indicated he will be mediating between Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah?
Marvin Weinbaum: Although the United States would like to be as helpful as it was in 2014, there’s no way to re-engineer the same [power sharing] arrangement that was reached in 2014 because it turned out so badly. But at this point everyone is desperate to be able to reconcile the two in any way possible. Abdullah has shown some flexibility on this, and Ghani is very much the recipient of American pressure that he be conciliatory both toward Abdullah and toward the Taliban. So, the U.S. is certainly playing a role here.
RFE/RL Gandhara: You have termed the U.S. efforts to negotiate an agreement with the Taliban as an “instrument of surrender.” Now that they have signed an agreement, how do you assess this process?
Weinbaum: They have surrendered in the sense that the Taliban’s major objective in these negotiations has always been the exit of American forces together with allied forces from the international community. The United States has given them what they wanted. Their secondary objective is that they want legitimacy; they have gotten that in spades. They also wanted the release of prisoners. In effect, they have gotten everything they wanted.
One is hard put to find any major area in which they made a concession. The major concession they could have made, and perhaps there is an annex that has an understanding, [is for] a retention of a counterterrorism force of the United States, a force that would carry with it a certain amount of air power, as well. There is no indication of that in the formal agreement, and in what we know of the secret annexes it doesn’t appear that is going to be the case.
RFE/RL Gandhara: Regarding these secret annexes, do you really see the Taliban following through on their counterterrorism commitments and basically agreeing to some kind of monitoring mechanism?
Weinbaum: I don’t think there’s any way in which you can really monitor whether they have in fact broken those relationships between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership. The Taliban say to the Americans that they are doing it [but] there’s no way to really understand how much distance has been created between the two. And it’s instructive that in their public statements now, they don’t mention Al-Qaeda. Now, of course, they have never agreed to mention the word ‘terrorism.’
These are indications that, except for those who want to take them at their word, but I find – along with many other people here – that if we’re going to have skepticism on anything it's going to be their separation or divorce from Al-Qaeda. And of course, there’s Islamic State, and they have demonstrated with their attacks now that they are not a party to this at all.
Al-Qaeda is not an operation force in any case, so we won’t see that kind of evidence, but with Islamic State this won’t be the end of violence. Islamic State, however much it has been set back, is still capable of high-profile attacks that don’t require much in the way of manpower, and so what we’re looking at is once again the trading of real things for good words that they will honor the understanding that they will not cooperate with terrorist groups.
RFE/RL Gandhara: After they have signed this agreement with the United States, do you think the Taliban have fundamentally changed and are able to share power and transform into a peaceful political party?
Weinbaum: There is no indication at all that they are prepared to make the kinds of concessions which would lead them to accept the kind of political system that exists today, even were it modified. They have never suggested they want anything other than an Islamic Emirate [which was the formal name of the Taliban regime]. At the same time, they have said, “We are for power-sharing.” But everything the Taliban say is in effect is “on our terms.” Whether it’s talking about women, or education, or anything, it’s always on the caveat that it will be on [their] terms.
They are going to argue that “yes, we will be more inclusive, we will be more tolerant, but as we define that.” And I believe this is their bottom line in all of the negotiations that went on. And I think there was something instructive about the negotiations that have already taken place over this year and a half on two issues: the American departure and U.S. confidence that the Taliban would break from terrorists. On just these two issues, they could not come to an agreement even at the very end.
RFE/RL Gandhara: On a different but related subject, how do you see Pakistan’s role now?
Weinbaum: If Pakistanis believe they can create an Afghan government which is going to be beholden to Pakistan, they’re fooling themselves. There is no Afghan -- be they Taliban or any other -- who is going to let Pakistan effectively call the shots in Afghanistan. The level of distrust for Pakistan is there. Pakistan is trying to bathe in the success of this agreement. It didn’t broker it so much as it facilitated it. And that’s important because Pakistan’s role generally where it matters has been as spoilers. They did not play spoilers now; they felt they could steer the negotiations. And this is yet to come -- to steer the negotiations once the dialogue begins between the government or other Afghans and the Taliban, so they can steer it in a direction that India is not going to have a prominent place, that there’ll be no dependence on India.
RFE/RL Gandhara: Drawing on your experience, what kind of future do you see for Afghanistan now that it is again at a pivotal moment?
Weinbaum: The immediate future is one in which there will be a drawn-out process of trying to reconcile the Taliban with those elements in Afghanistan that we call ‘the power brokers’ and so on. That will go on for some time. I’m concerned though that, while that is going on, unless there is a full cease-fire, things will be happening on the ground, particularly as the Americans begin to depart. Particularly if they take their air power with them, I see the danger of an unravelling of the ANDSF (Afghan National Defense Forces).
But before that happens, I see something else as a possibility. In Afghanistan, when the regimes have changed, they’ve always been preceded by something called defections from within the power structure. That’s what we have to look for now.
The great nightmare is that with a weakening of the state we won’t have what we had in the 1990s -- where the Taliban simply replaced the government, where one walked in and the other walked away. This time there is every reason to believe that because there isn’t a unity of command on either side there will be a much more chaotic situation [with] the elements of a civil war that is much more anarchic than anything seen previously.