The Trump administration is in its seventh month into power, and despite a small troop increase, has yet to announce a clear policy for Afghanistan, a country in which the USA is now involved in its longest serving war to date. (Vietnam was less than 10; Afghanistan is now in its 16th year) Hundreds of Afghans, civilians, and soldiers have died since the start of this year alone, with 30 dying in a suicide bombing claimed by the Taliban a few days ago. ISIS is also rearing its head in the country and indeed is starting a new power struggle for ‘religious territory’ with the Taliban.
Dr. Weinbaum, Director of the Center for Afghanistan and Pakistan, at the Middle East Institute and Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with Muhammad Sayed Madadi, recently wrote a piece in the National Interest, ‘With more troops in Afghanistan, focus on reintegration not reconciliation’, which has garnered much interest from policy makers struggling to find a ‘new’ policy to deal with Afghanistan. Dr. Weinbaum, an insider of both Washington and Kabul dynamics, supports Trump Administration’s policy of troop increase.
Najma Minhas, Managing Editor, Global Village Space, currently in Washington, took the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Marvin Weinbaum, to understand for GVS readers the thinking behind the strategy emerging in Washington.
Dr. Marvin Weinbaum
Najma: Marvin, your piece has received a lot of interest from policy makers. What’s different or new about your suggestions?
Marvin: Well, I think everyone realizes the dire situation that Afghanistan is facing and the way in which the options have been opened and then pretty much closed down.
No one, seriously believes that you can score anytime in the foreseeable future a military success against the insurgency. However, the model of a grand bargain in which you sit down with just one group is also difficult, given that the Taliban leadership is fragmented and now it’s more than just the Afghan Taliban or Haqqanis; it also includes the Islamic State. You just cannot sit down and talk to one group who would deliver for you. Our article really focuses on the fact that there are no shortcuts; that there’s not going to be an easy victory.
Najma: But what are these assumed shortcuts?
Marvin: The shortcuts could come in three ways:
- Grand Bargain with the Taliban
The possibility of a grand bargain with the Taliban, even keeping in mind that they may not speak for everyone, I think it is a ridiculous assumption to say what they want is a governorship, cabinet positions, or tweaking of the Constitution. When the reality is that they don’t want this political system, even their so-called pragmatists aren’t really budging on basic principles.
Let me add to this that I will not be surprised if things really went down over the next 2 or 3 fighting seasons; that the elements in the Taliban may come to the Afghan government and say OK now we’re here to talk. But now it’s not going to be how you can fit us into your democratic constitution. What we’re going to tell you is how we’re going to fit you into our Sharia system.
- Pakistan bringing Taliban to the table
Another kind of shortcut exists if you believe that Pakistan has a chokehold on the insurgents and if it wants to it can very easily deliver them to negotiate or destroy them. The problem with this is that while Pakistan can act as a spoiler influence, it can’t dictate to the Taliban. It has never been able to dictate to the Taliban. So, anybody who is looking for an easy way out by getting Pakistan on board, it’s not going to happen. Pakistan has kept its lines open to the Taliban all these years because it believes that they are assets. They are assets for that future possibility that if Afghanistan fails Pakistan needs friendly Pashtuns for support.
However, you can’t have a solution without Pakistan being a part of it. Whilst, Pakistan may not agree to anything in Afghanistan, it is not against the political settlement per see, but it has to be one of which Pakistan is comfortable with – which Pakistan is sure will not be against its interests and often it just boils down to the fact that it’s not a government which is going to be close to India and is going to give India an opening there, in Afghanistan, to do various things against Pakistan.
- Regional Players helping to bring peace
The third shortcut is you have the regional players and somehow with China and Russia along with Pakistan they can force a settlement of some kind – I think that’s as delusional as the others. They come to Afghanistan with different motivations for the moment, all of them have hedging strategies. There’s no common view except for the fact that none of them would really want to see the Taliban back. While that’s true enough, at the same time none of them have really had much faith in the Afghan state and as a consequence of that, they maintain these hedging strategies.
Najma: Your article, along with Syed Madadi, basically makes the argument for reintegration versus reconciliation. What will be the essence of your reintegration policy?
Marvin: Let me just say that it requires that the right conditions are built for that to happen, right now those conditions aren’t there. They have tried integration, but what were the incentives? None exist right now. And what did you have to offer them [Taliban] willingly, in a way that they wouldn’t conclude that time is on their side? That is why there’s going to be a litmus test here when you can convince those commanders and indeed the Afghan people themselves that time is on the side of the state and not the insurgency. Right now that’s not the perception; certainly not within the Taliban and not with the Afghan people. The Afghan people are not certain about it and they’re worried that time is clearly on the side of the Taliban.
Pushing for the conditions for this reintegration means that we’re looking at the field level commanders who have enormous discipline over their fighting force and convincing them that they can get a better deal from a government which is succeeding than what they can from the Taliban.
Najma: How are you going to attract these foot soldiers.
Marvin: It’s on a local level, you have to be able to offer jobs. If you’re able to offer livelihood, and you’re able to meet some of the objections that they have about the justice system. This is the way you have to do it, and it comes with reform. It comes with some progress economically. It also comes with an [Afghan] military that is able to keep them at bay. Then they say – rather than endlessly fighting like this – what kind of deal can we get? And if the commanders will cross over then the foot soldiers can come over as well, but you have to have something tangible for them.
Najma: You’re saying that these commanders are not ideologues so what are they then?
Marvin: All of them have grievances and while they do buy the idea of the kafirs [American forces on the ground] but it’s interesting that for the longest time after 2001 the Afghan people were practically unanimous in their desire for the international community to stay, and they still do. If the international community makes any move here to back out, the troops will go first and the money will go quickly thereafter and the Afghan army will collapse overnight.
Najma: The money is already gone right? Since the 2014 withdrawal over 200,000 jobs have been lost.
Marvin: No, the military’s money is gone. But there’s a commitment till 2020 that the international community is going to support the army and support the economy so that the economy does not crash. If that goes away then there’s nothing to keep the army together.
Najma: So how long do you think that this international commitment can stay?
Marvin: I’m arguing here, in Washington, that we have to be able to buy that time for at least 3-5 years. If they don’t succeed in beginning to change that narrative (towards the new narrative) that time is moving on the side of the government, if they don’t begin to start this process, it’s a process not a deal, the process of reintegration, if they don’t then we would have failed. So the whole question is: do we want to give them a chance? We know what the consequences are of not giving them a chance, and those consequences are awful. So do you want to bail out now, or take your chances? Even though the odds are long, this is the only best chance to save the state.
Najma: But 3-5 years is not long….
Marvin: No, it’s not long but at least there’s no serious erosion, and I’m not saying there won’t be. All I know is that if there’s no commitment it is certain that this thing will come apart. If they can keep it together [Afghan government]. I’m not at all optimistic, but I’m saying that we do not have another live option. You can’t strike a deal with the Taliban politically while they’re winning and you can’t do it while this government can’t reconcile among themselves.
Najma: So the thing with your reintegration is that it requires good economic governance as well.
Marvin: It requires numerous things. It requires economics, military, and that the government talks about reforms. All of these things, they have to move towards…
Rather than moving towards meeting these conditions we seem to be moving against them. But I also argue that now there are also new developments; sometimes when we get to the edge of the precipice, and you realize that you better stand together, otherwise you will go over. But I think the international community will be pressing much harder now on this government to work towards these reforms.
Najma: The only specific policy suggested so far by the Trump administration has been sending in four thousand additional troops to Afghanistan. What is the point of sending this low additional number of troops?
Marvin: The point is that nobody believes that 4000 or 100,000 troops are going to turn things around. They are not being put in there to turn the tide or greatly influence the military outcome in the short term. They will go in as we like to call them in the article, a minimal maintenance strategy and that is to keep this project going such that you’re buying time for the Afghan government to put its act together.
It hasn’t demonstrated to this point that it can, but the only way the Afghan conflict ends in anything which we consider to be acceptable, desirable – the only way that can happen is ultimately up to the Afghans themselves and I’m talking about the Afghan government. If it can show resilience, that would mean military as well, which they cannot do if there are no American forces there. What we’re looking at is buying time for this government to make the kinds of reforms that will regain the confidence of the Afghan people that they have lost. It’s buying time for them to reconcile amongst themselves. It’s buying time for the military to put its act together as well. All of these things are conditions for a process called reintegration. It’s failing without the additional forces. The conclusion here is that it’s going to continue to unravel quickly. This is a minimal strategy that they’re saying to keep the lid on and keep the project going.
Najma: Why does the USA need to keep this project going? The Americans went in there after 9/11 with a clear objective to get OBL and Al-Qaeda. Every US security analyst now is saying that the threat from Al Qaeda is minimal.
Marvin: Now the easy answer here is that if it’s not the Taliban it will be the Islamic State. The point is that this area is ripe for a take-over by [Islamic] forces which are going to be inimical to Pakistan, to Central Asia, to Iran, Russia, and the United States as well.
Najma: The Taliban are not a trans-national Islamic force.
Marvin: No, but they can enable. At the same time, they are not a nationalist force that at one time they were. Right now they have become, in their thinking, trans-national. They have no problem with this ideologically. They never said ‘We are a Pashtun movement’. They always said ‘We are an Islamic movement’. Their ideology is different from all of the other groups. They would all love to see a caliphate.
Najma: But they believe that their caliphate should only be limited to Afghanistan.
Marvin: Nobody can believe that anymore because once they do, their presence there will change the regional presence there as well. It will enable radical groups in Pakistan. It’s going to become a base of operations whether they like it or not. If they were to come to power they would totally be dependent on these forces to stay in power. They cannot manage otherwise, and as I have said they have nothing ideologically which stops them and I have always had a problem saying ‘look, if we can establish a sharia state in Kabul, can we sit by idly and say that we don’t care whether there’s a sharia state in Islamabad?’
Najma: The Russians are saying we can speak to them because they are only interested in Afghanistan.
Marvin: And that is why the Iranians have talked to them, and Pakistanis of course, and the Russian, why? Because this is their hedging strategy. Every one of them is hedging against the possibility that the Taliban will emerge ascendant. They want to have lines open, that doesn’t mean they are going to be able to control them.
They think they are, so did Pakistan. It never could. It was a hedging strategy that was even in place when it looked like the Taliban was about to take power in 2001. Remember that they had gotten to a point where just the area of Badakhshan was not under their control. When I was at the state-department at that time, I wrote a memo to Secretary Paul that the game is over. They smell victory and they are going to strike separate deals with them just to contain them. Their deal is that don’t come out of your box, stay within your box, and what I’m arguing is that they cannot stay within their box but that’s the hedging strategy. I sent that memo right after Masood was killed, saying ‘that is it, there’s nothing left to take and hold power from them’.
Pakistan was pushing for consolidation for power with the understanding in their mind that once they consolidate we will modify them. That was Pakistan’s strategy going all the way back to 1994-1995 when Gen. Babar gave them the boost they really needed, to get as far as taking Kabul. He told me this. He said that we are going to get them in there and then we’re going to lean on them to change the stripes. So I asked him ‘why didn’t you do it?’ He said ‘Because we got booted from power shortly after the fall of Kabul there was the fall of Benazir Bhutto’.
Najma: Do you see any reflection from the Afghan government about the way forward.
Marvin: The only way that this works, is if neighbors recognize that they can play a much more positive role in helping to create those conditions, certainly Pakistan can. The problem is that the Afghans have been their own worst enemy because they blame everything on Pakistan.
I think Pakistan has two foreign policies: one policy recognizes the advantage of having a peaceful united prospering neighbor, and there really are enormous advantages to this, it will make Afghanistan less dependent on India, to the extent that Kabul is not afraid of Pakistan. The whole rationale of their involvement with the Indian government has been since 1947, that we can counterbalance Pakistan.
That is what has kept them [Afghanistan] feeling that they need India, is because they feel that they are the weaker state, and the only way they can fend off them [Pakistan] is their alliance with India. India has played a positive role in Afghanistan, if things continue to go very badly, it won’t be too long before Indian military advisors are in the country.
Najma: What is the likelihood of peace in the country.
Marvin: Pakistan has to work very hard here and try to calm the fears of the Afghans and it’s not going to be easy because they are much more suspicious of Pakistan than Pakistanis are of Afghanis because they are the weaker party.
The reality is unless they cooperate, both countries will suffer and there can be no stability in the region without their cooperation.
Ghani tried to get something going in 2014. However, the only thing that would have satisfied them [Afghans] was Pakistan’s complete crackdown on the insurgency and as I said earlier Pakistan has two foreign policies. One in which a stable Afghanistan is a great outcome if we can have a friendly relationship and therefore accomplish what we need politically. But what happens if the Afghan state fails? Then we need to have an insurance policy in the Pashtuns and the insurgency and we can’t give up on them. And they won’t give up on them.
Najma: A lot of people are saying that Pakistan’s leverage with the Taliban has diminished further after the death of their last leader Mullah Mansoor. Since they blame the Pakistanis for giving away his coordinates to the Americans.
Marvin: What’s interesting is that Pakistan doesn’t want to see the Afghan Taliban going back into Afghanistan. Right now, the ISI wants to have its hands on the insurgents – the leadership, because then they have leverage on them or at least some of it.
You don’t want them relocating to Afghanistan completely because they will lose that leverage so they want to keep them there. But this is what the Afghans wanted.
We’ve underestimated the extent to which now the Afghan insurgency can survive without Pakistan. Yes, Pakistan has links with the leadership, but those links are so tenuous that the insurgency is being run out of Afghanistan except for some elements such as the Haqqanis. The operations now have concocted cooperation locally among differing groups. The idea that some have presented, that the Taliban leadership could tell the commanders that we’re going to settle and we’re going to get a political deal and you can all put down your arms….they will (now) have a revolt on them.
Why did Mansoor’s hold weaken? Because he was going to talk. As soon as they found out about Mullah Omer and he tried to take his men there, it started to break up even though he had a very tight grip on much of the organization. That’s when you start to get the Islamic State. Then the IS also starts to draw up dissonance from the TTP. And then it gets IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) types so that’s what the Islamic state is. These are defectors from both of those movements.
Najma: Let’s come to Pakistan. Let’s talk about what you think the forthcoming US policy towards Pakistan will be.
Marvin: I’m worried about that. I think if it’s a military dictated kind of approach. It’s going to be one which looks for the easy answers such as if we squeeze the knuckles hard enough off Pakistan, then it will start to deliver. That will be a failure since it won’t work if Pakistan sees its national interest in another direction. The only way in which Pakistan is going to change its policy is ultimately when it sees Afghanistan succeed. Otherwise, Pakistan is going to keep its policy as it is now. And now Pakistan has the Chinese, and with the Russians, at least in their minds that they don’t need the US as much as the US needs them.
We need them even more now logistically, given the earlier northern distribution network, used in 2011, is probably not going to be there without Russian support. If it were not for the logistics issue the US military would probably get behind the calls for Pakistan to be declared as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Najma: What about talk of removing Pakistan as a non-NATO ally; what would be the implications of this for Pakistan?
Marvin: What it means is that Pakistan, would not have the ability to get its sophisticated weaponry from the USA.
Najma: Is there any likelihood of that happening there?
Marvin: Yeah, in order to throw a bone towards some of those who are stronger but it will tee off Pakistan and I think that right now the mood [in Pakistan], never mind the elites, generally the mood in Pakistan towards the US is even more so of conspiracy thinking.
Najma: Tell me this is the only way? Because all of this is going to end well only if all the regional powers are happy with what’s going on…
Marvin: The regional powers have an absolutely critical role to play if things are going in the right direction because they can act as spoilers otherwise. Because a stable Afghanistan which isn’t a threat to anyone is in all their interest. But they don’t believe it, and that’s why they have their hedging strategies.
Najma: The thing is, I think that the power that plays on the public mind, that it will be Pakistan and then Iran which would have issues with this and that is the way in which you want to create a stable and prosperous Afghanistan. If you’re going to create, at the cost of Pakistan, in self-interest they are not going to be interested.
Marvin: But at least we’re talking relevance here. What Iran doesn’t want to see is if Pakistan has a strong role and what Pakistan doesn’t want is for Iran to play a strong role as well as India. All I’m saying is that the regional players are important in making any kind of gains sustainable, without them, there won’t be. But they all have to gain from it becoming a stable, united, prospering country. They all have to gain from that. But getting there is the tough part.
(Najma Minhas, Managing Editor, Global Village Space, conducted the interview at Middle East Institute, Washington; it has been edited by GVS team, in Islamabad, for clarity of readership)