Negotiating with the Taliban might just work

An interview with Barnett Rubin, the leading U.S. expert on Afghanistan

Canadian soldiers from 4th platoon, bulldog company 1st Battalion, 22nd royal regiment walk during a patrol in the village of Sarah in Panjwai district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, in 2011. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Canadian soldiers from 4th platoon, bulldog company 1st Battalion, 22nd royal regiment walk during a patrol in the village of Sarah in Panjwai district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, in 2011. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Remember Afghanistan? From 2006 to 2011, while Canadian troops in Kandahar were fighting Taliban insurgents, Afghanistan dominated debate about Canadian foreign and defence policy. In the years since, the political and security problems of the troubled Central Asian crossroads have mattered less directly to Canadians.

But that hardly means Afghanistan’s stability is less a cause for concern. For an expert overview of the strategic situation, I talked with Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror.

Q: Was 2015 a bad year in Afghanistan, a year of deterioration, in the security situation?

A: The word bad is not a helpful word. From a purely common sense point of view, if you go from having 100,000 NATO troops to having 8,000 NATO troops, it’s going to have an effect on the security situation. What would you expect to happen? When you do that, the Afghan forces are going to be tested and the Taliban will go on the advance. To me, the takeaway is that despite that tremendous change in the balance of forces, the Taliban have not captured a single province.

So you would say a key thing to watch is which side holds territory?

Yes. Now, I would say the more key thing is how the morale and unity of the government is holding up, and it’s not holding up very well. Key political issues about how the government in Afghanistan should be structured have not been settled.

Afghanistan has never had a presidential election in which the results were not contested by the candidates, for various reasons, going far beyond corruption, and having to do with the ethnic makeup of the country and what the power structure should be. The attempt to resolve that through the national unity government is not going very well.

What do make of President Ashraf Ghani’s recent moves?

President Ghani went way out on a limb with his initiative toward Pakistan, which is an extremely logical and far-sighted initiative, but which perhaps he did not make the necessary political preparations at home for. He underestimated the obstacles to getting Pakistan to agree to what he is proposing. That puts him in an isolated position now. So the government is shaky politically.

Can you explain how Ghani’s overture to Pakistan affects political divisions back home in Afghanistan?

From his point of view, I believe, what is at stake is the economic viability of the Afghan state. The Afghan state, since its founding in its current form in the late 19th century, has been dependent on foreign aid to keep it going, and now it’s dependent on foreign aid more than ever, including its whole army and security apparatus, and that’s not going to last forever.

Therefore, Afghanistan needs an economy, and as a landlocked state, it can only get an economy through transit and trade with its neighbours and by improving the security situation so people aren’t afraid to invest. Both of those criteria point toward co-operation with Pakistan to bring the Taliban into a political settlement and to integrate Afghanistan economically much more into the surrounding region.

That does sound logical.

Yes. However, Afghanistan and Pakistan have had hostile relations pretty much since the foundation of Pakistan. Pakistan is very much disliked and even hated inside Afghanistan. President Ghani made a case for rapid change, but it didn’t materialize at the pace that would have been needed to make his very skeptical opponents inside Afghanistan support what he would be doing.

President Obama had planned to bring most U.S. troops home from Afghanistan before his presidential term ends, but back in October he announced a new plan to keep 5,500 in Afghanistan into 2017. How should that prolonged American military commitment be seen?

That was because of the deterioration of the security situation in a few places. He was convinced it was necessary just to provide in extremis support for the Afghan forces, so the government wouldn’t lose territorial control in some provinces, and would be in a better position to negotiate.

I think he’s decided Afghanistan isn’t the 51st U.S. state, and he isn’t going to pay for all its security, but, on the other hand, of course, having done all that for all these years we have a responsibility not to cut them off and let the country collapse. He’s left a small contingent of troops there and the decision on what to do with them will fall to the next president.

When you talk of strengthening the Afghan government’s negotiating position, do you mean negotiating with the Taliban?

The Taliban and Pakistan.

Do you have a sense of the feasibility of serious negotiations with the Taliban?

I think if the Taliban understands that they will not indefinitely have sanctuary in Pakistan, they will face the choice of negotiating, settling in Pakistan but abandoning their jihad, or joining a more extremist organization like the Islamic State. So far, there is evidence of a great deal of antagonism between the Taliban and Islamic State—they are fighting in Afghanistan.

As I understand it, Islamic State has a toehold in Afghanistan, but not a big presence. Is that right?

In Nangarhar, near the Pakistan border. Most of the leaders of the Islamic State in that province are Pakistani.

It’s hard for Canadians to keep straight who the bad guys are and the differences among them.

People sort think of the Taliban as being Islamic extremists like al-Qaeda or Islamic State. But their history is actually different. They came out of one or two mujahideen parties of the 1980s. A significant number of former Taliban are in the Afghan government. Once they are no longer being used as a tool by Pakistan, they will be much more amenable to a political settlement.

That sounds surprisingly optimistic to me. Am I hearing it the right way?

The alleged political extremism of the Taliban will not be that big an obstacle to a settlement, if—and please note this “if” condition—if they no longer enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan. But the weakness of the state in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is a tremendous obstacle to the implementation of any political agreement.

Because they lack the power to enforce an agreement?

Yes. And also they need to assure the security of the people who lay down their arms, otherwise they won’t lay down their arms.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.