Interview with Dr. Barnett R. Rubin from Roznameh Iran

On May 30, newspaper Roznameh Iran interviewed Dr. Barnett R. Rubin Senior, Fellow and Associate Director at Center on International Cooperation on the current situation in Afghanistan. The interview, first published on the website in Farsi, has been translated into English below. 

1. Years after the formation of the government in Afghanistan, why have the Taliban have not been defeated? What is the main reason for the Taliban attacks in the current time?

Since 1978, after decades of war, all structures of government, society, and economy in Afghanistan have been damaged. In addition, Afghanistan is by far the poorest country in the entire world outside Africa. It is as poor as the poorest and most war-torn countries in Africa. It depends on external assistance to maintain nearly all of its state and government institutions. When one outside country becomes predominant in Afghanistan without the agreement of other regional and global powers, then those who feel threatened by that power (Britain in the 19th century, the USSR in the 1980s, the US today), may destabilize the country. Right now it is mainly Pakistan that has been providing bases and support for the Taliban, but because of their concern over the presence of US troops, other countries in the region, including Iran, do not really pressure the Taliban to stop fighting and may provide some tactical assistance.

Internally, because the current government receives its support from the US mainly to fight terrorism, most of the effort has gone into the military and the intelligence services, and in many parts of the country, power is in the hands of military and security commanders supported by the foreign troops. They may have official positions in the administration or military, but they are not bound by the law and often commit abuses. Foreign troops have also committed abuses leading to civilian casualties and unjust detentions or torture. In a country where the society is organized around kinship (a so-called "tribal" society), these abuses create feuds between different groups. Some ally with the government and some with the Taliban or other anti-government forces. There is no ideological or political difference in many cases between the fighters on either side.

They are trapped in violence that they cannot control and which is fuelled by foreign support.

2. Is the Taliban at the heart of the Afghan people? Which classes of Afghan people have sympathy to the Taliban? What is the main reason for attracting people to the Taliban?

The heart of the Afghan people, like any human heart, has several different chambers with different functions, and it needs all of them to stay alive. The Afghan people are diverse in politics, ethnicity, language, tribe, region, sect, etc. They are all necessary.

The word “Taliban” is imprecise. There is an organization called the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” which was founded by Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Islamic Taliban Movement of Afghanistan (Tehrik-i Taliban-i Islami-ye Afghanistan). The IEA was the name of the Taliban government and included all the state, not just ideological Taliban. Now the Taliban have lost power but have kept the name of Emirate for their movement. They administer some areas and are not just a military organization. But the main reason for joining the insurgency mainly led by the IEA is not to support for the Taliban’s ideology or program, which has never been clearly formulated. Social groups decide collectively to support the Taliban because of many different reasons, such as victimization by the foreign troops or the government.

Also, after so many decades, the war is an institution and the biggest sector of the economy. When a young man reaches a certain age, usually with no or very little education, what opportunities does he have to live with dignity and support a family? If he has some education, it may be from a madrasa in Pakistan or Afghanistan that teaches Taliban doctrines of religion, politics, and war. In many cases, the only alternative for young men is to join one side or another of the war. Once you are involved in the war, you start to hate those who are trying to kill you, and you listen to those who are preaching ideas that make sense of this hatred. It is very difficult to stop it once it has started.

The Taliban started among Kandahari Pashtuns, mostly drawn from tribes with historically lower status, who did not have the resources to flee the country. Because of their lower social status under the Afghan tribal monarchy, these tribes’ leaders did not become powerful through grants of land by the state and had weak tribal leadership based on zamindari. They were therefore much more under the influence of ulama and mullahs. The Taliban expanded to include Pashtuns from other areas as well. During the rule of President Rabbani and the years immediately after 2001, when Tajiks dominated the government and armed forces, some Pashtuns joined the Taliban for ethnic reasons, but as the Afghan government became more Pashtun, the Taliban were no longer identified so much with ethnic grievances. The Taliban are now active in several non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, such as the province of Badakhshan. Their leadership, however, remains overwhelmingly Pashtun, and their inclusion in the political system would both increase Pashtun influence and intensify conflict among Pashtuns of different tribes and social background.

3. What was more effective between Obama and Trump's approach to Afghanistan? What is the difference and similarity between the two approaches?

Both Obama and Trump have doubted the utility and effectiveness of an American military presence in Afghanistan. When Obama became president, Osama Bin Laden was still alive in Pakistan, and Obama’s most important goal was to bring him to justice, or to bring justice to him, for the attacks of September 11, 2001, and to weaken al Qaeda. When Trump became president, OBL had already been killed, so war aims were less clear to the American people.

Obama, however, is a very rational and well-organized leader. He set objectives and made rational plans to achieve them, as he did with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Eventually, he decided to increase forces in the short term to stop the deterioration of the security situation due to the neglect of the Bush administration; make a long-term commitment to assistance to Afghanistan; wind down the military component of that assistance, and seek a political solution. But Obama never made a political settlement in Afghanistan a very high priority. His highest priority in Afghanistan was fighting al Qaeda and withdrawing the troops, so he never put in the immense effort that a political solution would require. It would have required an effort such as Obama and Kerry made on the JCPOA.

Trump does not know anything about world politics except that America should be first. He wants to stop wasting resources in Afghanistan, but he also wants to keep killing terrorists. He has no idea about how to fight terrorism except killing terrorists. The military presented him with a plan for getting the US and Afghan government into a better military position so that the Taliban would be forced to negotiate with the government on the terms we want. Trump doesn’t really believe in the plan, but the military told him it would be a disaster if the US just left (which is true). So he is letting the military try, but no one knows for how long.

The military effort is not succeeding. This is making the military feel the urgency of a political solution, but Trump has not appointed any senior diplomat to be responsible for a political solution in Afghanistan! He has not even appointed an assistant secretary of state for south and central Asia. There is an acting deputy, a former ambassador, who is a very competent, professional diplomat, but no one knows how long she will be there or to what extent she speaks for the president.

4. Republicans believe the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan during the Obama era has created a security vacuum, which helped increase Taliban power. What do you think about the idea?

The war did not start in 2009 when Obama became president. The Bush administration, which invaded Iraq without any valid justification when the effort had hardly started in Afghanistan, left President Obama a very bad and deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. President Obama tried to reverse the momentum of the Taliban and withdraw US and NATO forces after eliminating the leadership of al Qaeda. He sent many more troops to Afghanistan than Trump, but he gave a deadline to withdraw them. Republicans and others charge that this gave Taliban a strategic advantage because they knew the US would withdraw, and they could wait. I think this is nonsense. The Taliban and Afghanistan’s neighbors never believed what Obama said, that he would withdraw the troops. I know, because as a diplomat I tried to convince them he was sincere. As one of them told me, “The problem is we don’t believe you.” The Taliban stated in their official website that generals like David Petraeus, not President Obama, controlled the policy of the US in Afghanistan. The Taliban never stopped fighting for a minute. But of course, as the troops withdrew, the Taliban regained control of territory and population, because the government was still unable to control those areas without US troops.

Under the influence of his then national security advisor, Lt.-Gen HR McMaster, Trump made a big deal of sending a few thousand troops without a deadline for withdrawing them. He says the withdrawal will be based on “conditions,” not “artificial timelines,” so the Taliban cannot “wait us out.” But no one knows what the conditions are! This creates the suspicion that there are no conditions or at least no realistic conditions, and that what the administration really wants is to keep the troops in Afghanistan forever for reasons other than fighting terrorism or the Taliban. In fact, there is no such plan, but there is no realistic plan to end the war either.

5. Do you think Trump Administration has a coherent strategy for combating Taliban in Afghanistan? Some analysts say the US publicly announcing exit plans would be a bad idea? What is your opinion?

The Trump administration’s plan is not coherent. To weaken the Taliban or achieve a political settlement to stabilize Afghanistan, the US would have to cooperate with Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and India. Instead, the Trump administration is threatening Iran and Pakistan, has totally confused policies toward China and Russia, and claims to be supporting India while it is undermining projects of great strategic importance to India such as Chabahar.

Nobody, not even the Taliban, wants the US just to withdraw its troops all of a sudden. The withdrawal has to be negotiated and connected to the implementation of a political settlement and long-term support to the Afghan state. But the US needs to show that its objective is to negotiate an agreement that will enable it to withdraw the troops. There is a need for confidence-building measures to show that the US is willing ultimately to withdraw. 

6. Some believe that foreign powers, particularly the US are compromising with the Taliban. They say the west does not want the Taliban to disappear. What is your opinion?

It really doesn’t matter if the west or Iran or anyone else wants the Taliban to disappear. After 2001 many people thought that they had disappeared. But the Taliban are not going to disappear. They are a part of Afghan and Pakistani society. Those two societies cannot be separated by a wall or fence. They are too interconnected. 

International attitudes toward the Taliban have changed in the last few years, not just in the US, but also in Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China. The Taliban have undertaken a diplomatic initiative to convince all of these countries that they do not support international terrorism and do not pose a threat to any other country. In addition, as ISIS has appeared and grown in Afghanistan, and as the government and US have not been able to stop it, the Taliban are also offering themselves as potential allies in fighting against ISIS. You may note that it has been several years since the Afghan Taliban have attacked any Iranian targets. This is the result of these diplomatic exchanges and the development of common interests against the US and ISIS.

7. What are the Taliban foreign sponsors in Afghanistan? Which one of them has a bigger role today? Saudi Arabia, Qatar or UAE?

No Arab state is supporting the Taliban, though there are private individuals supporting them in all those countries. The UAE has troops supporting the government in Afghanistan. Qatar hosts the unofficial Taliban political office for peace talks but does not support the Taliban militarily or financially. After all, CENTCOM Operations are run out of Qatar. Saudi Arabia is hardly active in Afghanistan anymore. Its leaders are talking about convening ulama to declare that there is no Islamic justification for the war in Afghanistan, but I doubt it will be effective. All over the Muslim world members of the younger generation, whether Islamist or secular, think for themselves and do not listen to official ulama as they used to. More and more every Muslim considers him or herself qualified to interpret Quran and hadith as an individual.

The main external support for the Taliban comes from Pakistan as it always has because of Pakistan’s concern about India’s presence in Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s claims on Pakistani territory, and its fear that the US troops in Afghanistan might seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. The US also charges that Iran and Russia support Taliban commanders to defend their border regions and put pressure on ISIS and the US.

Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, has a directorate (Directorate S) to control militant and terrorist groups, and Directorate S has an Afghan Cell that tries to support and influence the Taliban. Pakistan allows the Taliban to raise money, equip themselves, and travel freely, including across the border and does not arrest or harass them unless they threaten Pakistani interests by acting independently. To escape pressure from Pakistan, the Taliban established their office in Qatar. Note that Pakistan does not pressure the Taliban to stop fighting the US and the Afghan government, but it used many types of pressure to prevent them from threatening Pakistani interests.

Aid from Pakistan comes not just from the government. Pakistani society also supports the Taliban through madrasas, Islamist political parties, foundations, and charities.

8. Now Tramp has good relations with the Arab states in the Persian Gulf. In the situation, does the Arab states need help Taliban or they cooperate with the US against the Taliban?

The Arab states are relatively marginal to the conflict. They were more active in the 1980s and 1990s. Now they are much more concerned with the internal problems of the Arab world. Their most important role would be to stop or hinder Taliban fundraising from wealthy donors in their country. The US Department of the Treasury has been working on that since the start of the Obama administration. It has had some effect, but the Taliban do not depend on any single source of income.

9. Some analysts say Washington should set a more realistic goal: to ensure that the Taliban doesn't win, but how can reach to the goal? Is America ready for a peace deal in Afghanistan?

The US claims that it is seeking a political settlement between the government and the Taliban, but in fact, most of the effort is military. The diplomatic and political effort is under-resourced. Because of that, the main spokesman for US policy is the military, and the military, frankly, does not seem to understand what a political settlement is. It is not their job after all. They seem to think that a political settlement occurs when you have weakened the enemy so much that he gives up fighting and makes a deal to survive, but that sounds more like surrender. A real political settlement has to provide for the interests of all parties to the conflict so that they don’t start it again. I don’t see the ideological opposition to a political settlement with the Taliban that was there was before the Obama administration. The Obama administration ended that, and it has not come back, at least as official policy. But there is a contradiction between insisting that your troops have the right to carry out counter-terrorist operations in Afghanistan, or anywhere in the world, forever, and reaching a peaceful settlement. The US government has no clear concept of a political settlement or how to get there. It says it supports an “Afghan-led” peace process, which is a good idea, but US leadership is needed too because only the US can decide about its troops. “Afghan-led” should not be used as an excuse for the US not to fulfill its responsibilities to take difficult decisions about a peace process.

10. How did ISIS reach Afghanistan? Will ISIS be a serious challenger for the Taliban? Is ISIS able to attract Afghans on a wider scale? Why?

What we call ISIS in Afghanistan is a mix of different elements. In fact, some analysts think it has split into two groups. Just to show how complicated it is, one group is based in Eastern Afghanistan and is led by a former member of the Pakistani Taliban, and the other is based in Northern Afghanistan and was led by a leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan until he was killed by a US drone attack recently.

The earliest followers of ISIS in Afghanistan were a few Afghan former Taliban leaders like Abdul Rauf Khadim, who became radicalized into Salafi jihadism while detained in Guantanamo with members of al Qaeda. This group had many conflicts with the Taliban leadership, who are Hanafi, and eventually were expelled. The US killed Khadim with a drone, and this group is hardly active.

The next two groups were Pakistani Taliban and Central Asians, parts of the IMU and Uighurs from China. In 2013, when the TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a drone attack, the TTP split over the leadership succession. Some dissidents mostly from Orakzai tribal agency migrated along old timber-smuggling routes up to the Mohmand tribal areas on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, including a few districts in Eastern Nangarhar province. They had to look for external sources of support. The Afghan intelligence agency wanted to use them against Pakistan, but the US stopped this. When ISIS captured Mosul and its “amir al-mu’minin” al-Baghdadi gave a khutba in the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul in the summer of 2014, ISIS’s status rose among militant Sunni Muslims everywhere, and some relations started with this group of Pakistani Taliban. They recruited some disgruntled Afghan Taliban commanders and declared the allegiance (bay’a) to Baghdadi. They became recognized by ISIS Central as Vilayat-i Khurasan-i Dawlat-i Islami. This group consists of Pashtuns from Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan.

This group, which has links back into terrorist groups in Pakistan, seems to have organized underground terrorist groups that carry out sectarian massacres against Shi’a, especially in Kabul. These sophisticated operations have killed hundreds of people and created tremendous mistrust among groups, but so far they have not led to the outbreak of open sectarian conflict, as in Iraq. The Taliban and all mainstream Sunni groups have condemned these killings, but many of the victims do not believe that these condemnations are sincere.

Finally, militants of Central Asian origin, largely affiliated to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have been migrating to Northern Afghanistan. Some were pushed out of the North Waziristan Tribal Agency of Pakistan in the Pakistan Army’s June 2014 counter-terrorist offensive known as Zarb-e-Azb. Others had been fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq and fled when Mosul and Raqqa were recaptured. Their main concentration has been in the Darzab district of Faryab province. Russia estimates their numbers at 3,000-10,000 and regards them as a serious threat to Central Asia and Russia. China believes that Uighur separatists are trying to establish themselves in Badakhshan, which has a border with Xinjiang. Russia has charged that someone (the US?) is supplying this group using unmarked helicopters, a charge that the US finds too ridiculous even to deny, especially after it killed Qari Hekmatullah, the Uzbek ISIS leader in Faryab, in a drone attack.

11. Will there be a possible coalition between the Taliban and ISIS in the future? What is the fundamental difference between the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan in your opinion?

The Taliban and ISIS cannot form a coalition unless they agree on a single amir, and that is impossible. There cannot be two amirs in an Islamic state or emirate. The Taliban have clearly defined themselves as an Afghan group with Afghan aspirations, not a global jihadist group. That does not rule out tactical cooperation, which has emerged in certain areas as a result of military pressure.

12. Is it possible for Iran and the US to cooperate together about Afghanistan (particularly fighting against Taliban) during the Trump presidency?

As long as Donald Trump is president, the US cannot cooperate with even Mexico, South Korea, or the European Union, so I do not see how the US could cooperate with Iran.

13. What will the impact of recent Taliban attacks on Afghanistan's next election? Do you think the current government of Afghanistan will collapse? Which political party or personality in Afghanistan will be strengthened in the situation?

The attacks and widespread presence of the Taliban will hinder any upcoming elections as they did in the past. They will prevent certain portions of the population, mainly Pashtun, from voting, increasing the pressure for voter fraud. Under such threat, it is very difficult if not impossible to reform the electoral institutions. But the most basic problems are elsewhere. In Afghanistan, there are no birth certificates, no death certificates, and no census. Over the past four decades, estimates are that over a million people have been killed and half of the population has been displaced either within the country or as international refugees or migrants. There is no voter registry. No one knows how many people live in Afghanistan or in any area of Afghanistan. The government’s attempt to issue electronic identification cards (e-tazkira) to everyone has generated intense ethnic conflict over what terminology to use to identify people, and some groups are boycotting the cards. Without basic agreement on national identity and who and how many people are qualified to vote in what place it is impossible to hold competitive elections that generate a legitimate outcome, especially when the country is so dependent on foreign aid that access to state power is virtually the only way to obtain resources.

14. Taliban forces seized part of Farah. What is the reason for the weakness of the Afghan security and military forces? Is this a failure for the American forces who have the responsibility to train and equip the Afghan security forces?

The main failure of the Afghan security and military forces lies in their leadership, not in the skills of the fighters. The leadership is factionalized and divided, and the National Unity Government has institutionalized and hardened the divisions rather than resolving them. I don’t know the situation in Farah (though I was there in 1998 for the UN), but it is likely that as in Kunduz and elsewhere, the governor, security commander, and army commander may have belonged to different factions and did not communicate or coordinate. This has a very bad effect on the morale of the fighters. Also, the US is training the Afghan army to high-level standards that the country is not familiar with. Many of the weapons systems introduced can be operated only by a well-educated corps of soldiers, which you do not have in Afghanistan, where literacy rates are about 30 percent.

15. Farah is near the Iranian border. Can the Taliban become a serious threat to Iran's security? Is it possible to expand Iran-Afghanistan cooperation against Taliban?

Perhaps the Iranian media have not reported the charges by Afghan members of parliament, officials of Farah province, and both Afghan and American military commanders that the Taliban in Farah received significant support, training, and equipment from Iran. They claim that the Taliban operated from across the Iranian border, as Taliban in other areas act from across the Pakistan border. Afghans have speculated that Iran supported this offensive to put pressure on Afghanistan over water disputes or to respond to threats made by President Trump against Iran when he ended American cooperation in implementing the JCPOA. I have no information to confirm these charges, but they are widely circulated in Afghanistan.

As you know, the leader of the Taliban, Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, spent several weeks in Iran as a guest of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in May 2016 on his way back from a trip to Dubai. He was killed by an American military drone strike after crossing into Pakistani Balochistan on his way to his home in Kuchlak, about 25 kilometers north of Quetta. It appears that during this trip disputes between Iran and the Taliban were resolved, and neither is now a threat to the other.

16. Will the Taliban become a serious threat to Afghan national security if the current trend continues? Will the Taliban have the strength and ability to control more parts of Afghanistan?

There is hardly any trend. Control of territory and population fluctuates depending on a variety of factors. Given that the government and the US control the air, Taliban cannot hold any major population center. Nor can the government extend its control very far. So whether one or several remote districts are captured or recaptured does not matter very much.

17. What will the impact of the Taliban's increased power on women's status and on social and individual rights in Afghanistan be? Can the Afghan government take a more conservative policy towards the society for getting Taliban satisfaction?

A lot depends on how a settlement is reached, or not. If the Taliban come to power by force, women’s rights groups will suffer, as they have opposed the Taliban. If the Taliban enter the system through reconciliation with former enemies, the outcome will be different.

The main threat to women’s status in Afghanistan is not the Taliban, but the eventual decrease or withdrawal of funding for the government and NGOs by western donors. Without this funding, the government and society would not have resources to defend anyone’s rights, and women would be the last in line. Both practice and rhetoric show that the Taliban do not aspire to re-impose the very strict and, frankly, un-Islamic, if I may say so, restrictions on women that they enacted in the 1990s. But I doubt they would be much more liberal than Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan does not have the resources of Saudi Arabia to build sex-segregated facilities for everything. In a political settlement, the Taliban will join the system, not control it. They will be one of many political forces and will not be able to impose their views. Unfortunately, there are many others in Afghanistan who have equally conservative views about women, so Taliban will not be alone.

18. How do you assess the role of the Pakistani government in the recent Taliban attacks? Is Pakistan still pursuing its previous policy in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan? What is the effect of Trump’s critical position about Pakistan role in Afghanistan on the current Taliban Attacks?

The Taliban still operate from their bases in Pakistan without opposition from the authorities and receive support and guidance, which they do not always follow, from the ISI. The Pakistani authorities say that the US and Afghan government imposed this problem on Pakistan by refusing to include the Taliban in the Bonn Process after 9/11 and instead of detaining them and sending them to Guantanamo. Pakistan does not want to start another war on its territory to compensate for American mistakes. This is rather disingenuous since the ISI and other institutions have given a lot of support to the revival of the Taliban. Pakistan is trying to use the location of the Taliban on its territory as leverage over issues about which Pakistan has some legitimate concerns, but the leverage is not very useful since so far Pakistan is unwilling or unable to respond to concessions with strong actions to limit the freedom of operation of the Taliban.

One Tweet from President Trump did not change the Pakistan Army’s understanding of its national security interests. Nor did halting the payment of a few hundred million dollars at a time that China is investing over $50 billion in Pakistan. So far the US has not taken any of the tougher moves that were discussed – sanctions on officials, direct action against Taliban safe havens, cutting off access to international financial institutions, declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terror. Pakistan seems to be negotiating seriously with Afghanistan now, but results have yet to materialize.

19. What will the future of the Taliban look like? Will the Afghan government be forced to give points to that group? What is the point? Will the Afghan government and the US ultimately recognize the Taliban?

The position of the US and Afghan government is the same as that of the international community as a whole, including Iran, namely that Taliban will be recognized as a legitimate political organization when they accept the constitution of Afghanistan (though it could be amended); lay down their weapons and abandon armed struggle; and dissolve all ties with international terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.

20. What is the current situation of the Taliban leadership? How has the death of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the former leader, has affected the power of the group?

Mullah Omar had a unique degree of religious authority and charisma. Therefore his decisions were authoritative and could not be challenged. Neither of his two successors has that kind of authority. Mansur was mainly a wealthy businessman: he supervised drug trafficking and other kinds of dealing through Dubai and used the proceeds like a patronage politician. He was more flexible on ideological issues like peace talks but did not have the religious authority to impose difficult decisions.

Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhund is much more of a religious scholar and teacher, a recognized expert on the Hadith. He tends to govern based on consensus, and he has been forced by the ISI to give the Haqqani network in Eastern Afghanistan a much bigger role; Sirajuddin Haqqani is now his deputy, and there has been some internal tension over operations carried out by the Haqqanis that caused large numbers of civilian casualties without authorization of the rest of the leadership. The Haqqanis are much closer and more obedient to the ISI than the rest of the Taliban.

So far Haibatullah has shown no inclination or ability to impose his will, so the organization is running in an accustomed way. One result is that the Taliban have not produced any explicit response to the offer of peace negotiations made by President Ghani at the Kabul Conference on February 27, 2018. There is some evidence that they cannot reach agreement on what to say, and that Haibatullah is too weak to resolve the differences.

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May 30, 2018
Barnett Rubin