The occasional Capitol Scooper by Ed Boshart
The Hudson Institute (Washington DC) in August scheduled a series of panel discussions focusing on three prongs of US military policy enforcement in the Middle East/Central Asia geographical arena. Panelists selected to participate in the discussions represent a range of views on the efficacy of policy and outcomes in Iraq (covered in my blog last week), in Afghanistan (this blog) and in Syria (possibly a future blog).
Last week, three Hudson Institute guests addressed "Afghanistan: 17 Years On." On August 23, the Hudson Institute’s South and Central Asia Program hosted a panel that included: Omar Samad, former Ambassador of Afghanistan to France and Canada (currently, CEO, Silkroad Consulting, LLC*); David Sedney, former president of American University of Afghanistan and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); and Husain Haqqani, former Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States and director of the South and Central Asia Program at Hudson Institute.
Haqqani offered up a brief summary of where things stand in Afghanistan now. "Civil war, instability and unending terrorist insurgency" remain in Afghanistan. The Taliban (theoretically ousted in 2001) and allies continue their attacks, even from safe havens across the border in Pakistan. Some experts (including Haqqani apparently) question the wisdom of peace talks involving the Taliban and viability of any declared withdrawal of foreign, especially American, troops from the unstable country. "Is this really America's Vietnam again?" asked Haqqani rhetorically.
Omar Samad stressed that there are now new players, new "brands", on the scene since the American incursion began -- following the 9/11 attack by Osama bin Laden on American assets. Strategies are shifting even as Great Power rivalries are increasingly evident. Now, the country is at a "crossroads," stated Samad. Weakness in governance is one factor that has repeatedly contributed to transition problems within Afghanistan. Complementing the internal fragility is always an "external factor", he suggested. He was alluding to foreign actors, among other things.
According to David Sedney, the US has "made a lot of mistakes.... Actions taken, and actions not taken in the past continue to reverberate today." Sedney argued that a price is being paid due to the US not remaining focused on extending early successes and instead prematurely turning its attention elsewhere, and also for "doing things badly." Early on "we could have helped the Afghans remake their society, but we chose not to.... We had a president (Bush) who was against nation-building." The US budget for Afghanistan in 2002 was merely $1 million, according to Sedney. After getting rid of the Taliban, only a million dollars was directed to the many ideas and possibilities for reforming Afghanistan that were circulating at the time. Subsequently, President Obama made the decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan but at the same time made the "horrible" decision to set a deadline. Sedney believes America must commit itself to stay in Afghanistan today into the foreseeable future.
"In my view," he stated, there is a reason to stay in Afghanistan because “the US has done so many things wrong,” and we have “a historical responsibility because of the huge mistakes” made in the 1980s “that set up a whole series of policies that gave encouragement to the Taliban." He “gave a huge amount of credit” to President Trump and the Trump administration for keeping up the troop pressure in Afghanistan today. The current administration executed a switch from a time-based to a conditions-based strategy; and recognized the centrality of Pakistan to the issue (stronger sanctions imposed on Pakistan, for instance), according to Sedney. Pressure on Pakistan needs to be continued. “Both in our national interest and for our national dignity, we need to stay.”
Finally, Sedney remarked that his interactions with thousands of Afghan students and young people as acting president of the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul convinced him that their lives, world view and perspectives have changed for good. While vestiges of the old aggressions persist in places, the Afghanistan today is not the same country of 15 or 30 years ago, and they are not going to let the Taliban come back. They are going to remake their society. The US can participate of choose not to, declared Sedney.
Among some of the other key points made in the ensuing discussion between the panel members: 1) Samad: what does the Taliban want? Nobody seems to know. Samad agreed with Sedney that a lot depends on what neighboring Pakistan wants.
2) Haqqani: Pakistan's interests are "kind of a moving target."
3) Sedney: recently “changed his thinking in terms of talks with the Taliban." Sometimes talks are just a tactics to achieve an overall military victory. It is hard to discern the Taliban's intentions or strategy. The organization is unusually secretive. It is hard to say whether the Taliban is serious about talks, conceded Sedney. The presumption until now is that they are not serious. What has changed, according to Sedney, was the particularly strong positive response of the country's public and even the Taliban's own members to the last cease fire initiative of the Afghan government in June. A grass roots peace movement within the country, that has concurrently gained some visibility, lends hope that progress in talks may be possible, in Sedney's revised opinion. "Perhaps those talks could lead to something. After all, the Taliban is a political organization." The question in the end may be "what does Pakistan want? The Taliban may have to adapt themselves...."
Sedney also blamed Russian involvement in Afghanistan as a complicating factor. Peace talks in Moscow with the Taliban will make peace less likely rather than more likely. (Without giving details, Sedney suggested that the Russians are important suppliers of weapons to the Taliban). He claims his "analysis" suggests the Russians see Afghanistan as a place to make trouble for the US, and "are doing so... It's a fairly new factor...."
[Opinion. Here I must interject that Sedney appears to be indulging in speculations prompted this Spring by certain US officials who charged, without proof, that weapons were being funneled in some way from Russia via Tajikistan. Russia and the Taliban, who are historic foes, deny the charges. In late March the commander of US forces in Afghanistan Gen John Nicholson made the weapons’ movement allegation. Since then, the BBC reported that various sources are giving contradictory reports, and generally the US charges are treated as rumor and anti-Russian sentiment. The intimation also runs counter to what has long been believed to be one of the Taliban’s main objectives – to remove all larger foreign interests from the country. Russia denies materially supporting the insurgents but acknowledges "contacts" with the Taliban. The Taliban apparently has met with outside parties in Russia and “other countries.” And now a parallel peace process seems to be emerging between Russia and Afghanistan.]
*On its website, Silk Road Consulting states, "We support German, Polish, European and Russian companies to do business in China & Asia. And we also help Chinese & Asian businesses and investors to expand their businesses in Germany, Poland, Europe, and Russia."