Peace on the ground and a government on the brink of collapse: Veteran Afghanistan specialist Anatol Lieven makes sense of the conflicting news from Afghanistan–and sheds light on what the Taliban are really up to.
zenith: US Secretary of Defense Mattis just visited Afghanistan, a new round of peace talks including the Taliban are being hosted in Moscow, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offers unconditional peace talks to the Taliban, there are reports of US officials meeting with the Taliban in Qatar and a new wave of deadly Taliban attacks hits the cities of Ghazni and Nangahar. There are so many conflicting things happening in Afghanistan right now. Is there some sort of analytical framework to make sense of all these developments?
Anatol Lieven: For me, the fundamental equation has not actually changed and everything that has happened during the last couple of weeks somewhat confirms this to me. The Taliban assault on Ghazni and other cities in Afghanistan is certainly bad, but not actually catastrophic because the Taliban did not actually manage to hold these places. So far, the Taliban have not demonstrated that they can capture and hold major defended positions.
So the areas captured by the Taliban will eventually return to government control?
No. The Afghan government, regardless of how much support they get from the Americans, have no chance to defeat the Taliban and to reconquer the parts of the countryside held by the Taliban. That’s simply not going to happen. Without American firepower, the Afghan Army would immediately collapse, as it is entirely paid for by the United States, every cent of it. Either this war will go on forever – meaning that American troops will have to remain in Afghanistan forever – or at some point, people will have to talk and seek a compromise.
What do the conditions for such compromise look inside Afghanistan?
The problem is that until now, apart from some minor steps, the Taliban have not come up with a detailed peace offer. And the government has presented proposals far from anything that the Taliban could ever accept.
The Taliban could promise the Russians that they are going to fight the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan
And what about outside pressure to push for peace?
In a way, super power dynamics today is more complicated than ever. It used to be a more or less bipolar standoff in Afghanistan. But now, the regional interests involved not only feature US rivalry with Russia, but also with China and Iran. Add to this the Indian rivalry with Pakistan and China.
What does Russia have to gain in Afghanistan?
For the Russians, it is about acknowledging a reality. They know that the Taliban are not going to go away, and therefore, at some point, it will be necessary to deal with them. And they think that sooner or later, the Taliban will have a major share in the government anyways. But they don’t want Afghanistan to revert to what it was under Taliban rule during the 1990s–a base for Islamist terrorist and separatist forces that could, for example, reignite armed conflict in the Northern Caucasus or threaten stability in Central Asia.
So Moscow needs to contain the Taliban to Afghanistan.
The Russians seem to have gotten assurances from the Taliban in this regard, who were referring to older remarks by Mullah Omar …
… the former leader of the Taliban who died in 2013 …
… that the Taliban are not an international jihadi force, that they are not going to provide bases for radicals threatening neighboring countries. The Taliban could promise the Russians that they are going to fight the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. Russia has identified IS as the most important external terrorist threat.
At the same time, Moscow competes for influence in Afghanistan with the US.
The Russians want to get the American military out of Afghanistan. So, they would push for a peace settlement which provides them and their allies with assurances that the Americans close their bases.
Iran has started to establish a corridor to send large amounts of aid and heavy weaponry to the Taliban for them to use them in case the Americans launch an attack on Tehran
What else have the Taliban to offer the Russians?
The Taliban have promised to crack down on the heroin business once they get in power. The drug trade affects Russia and Iran much worse than other countries.
So Iran is willing to engage with Taliban?
The Iranians basically don’t want the Taliban in power. They might be willing to accept a settlement with them, but what they really need the Taliban for is to hit the Americans as hard as possible. So, if the Americans at one time would decide to attack Iran or make an overt move towards regime change, it wouldn’t be difficult at all for Tehran to provide the Taliban with extra equipment, as they are attacking the Americans already.
How far does Iranian support for the Taliban go?
In intelligence circles, there is currently lots of speculations regarding the level of Iranian support for the Taliban. But it’s difficult to really assess that, given the rise of anti-Iranian sentiments in Washington and Tel Aviv. A source from within the British intelligence agencies has put it like that: Iran has started to establish a corridor to send large amounts of aid and heavy weaponry to the Taliban for them to use them in case the Americans launch an attack on Tehran. The Iranians that I have talked to have, without openly admitting to that, clearly indicated that this is exactly how they see the Taliban: as a potential ally in a confrontation with the US, but only in case Iran is attacked. And the Iranians have always stressed that their main allies in Afghanistan remain the Shia Hazara, pro-Iranian actors around Herat and more vaguely, the Persian-speaking Tajik communities in the entire country.
Have the stakes changed for Afghanistan’s other influential neighbour Pakistan after the election of Imran Khan in August?
Not really. First of all, Imran Khan has repeatedly voiced sympathy for the Taliban and secondly, it’s not the Pakistani government that decides on Afghanistan policies but the Pakistani security apparatus. And the they are first and foremost trying to exclude the Indians and eliminate any possibility of Indian encirclement.
The Chinese oppose a Taliban-led post-peace deal Afghanistan, as they fear Taliban support for the Uighurs
Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, though, has been quite critical of Pakistan’s engagement with the Taliban. Do the Taliban have a more willing counterpart sitting in Islamabad?
If an offer along the lines of a genuine power-sharing deal with the Taliban is on the table for Afghanistan, the Pakistanis will back it. Don’t expect them under any circumstances to go to war with the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistanis cannot afford that, given the possible security issues arising from that in Pakistan. But the Pakistanis will not force the Taliban into a peace deal that they don’t support, as the as that wouldn’t result in an end to the war, but rather a split-up: one section would probably even join the IS. Also, don’t forget that China is part of the equation, as well.
China is investing billions into infrastructure projects in Pakistan, and has therefore recently gained significant leverage on Pakistani politics, including the military apparatus, which stands to benefit from Chinese investments.
Interestingly, the Chinese seem to have adopted the Pakistani line that the Taliban must be given a share of power. But the Chinese oppose a Taliban-led post-peace deal Afghanistan, as they fear Taliban support for the Uighurs, if there is no check on them. The biggest motivation for Chinese involvement in Afghanistan is to make sure it won’t become a breeding ground for extremism spreading over to Xinjiang province. But the Chinese also want American bases in Afghanistan to shut down.
And what’s at stake for India, the other regional powerhouse?
The Indians primarily fear the influence of the Pakistanis and want to make sure Afghanistan is not a base for terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba that might attack India. In terms of pushing for a political solution, any involvement of India would be a sure deal-breaker for Islamabad.
Lastly, Washington seems under intense pressure to react to what’s happening in Afghanistan. Do the Americans have a plan to go forward?
Many of my American contacts are saying perfectly candidly in private that they really fear a complete collapse of the Afghan government and a repeat of Saigon 1975. This would favour a deal with the Taliban, if the Americans can get the right terms, a face-saving deal that explicitly guarantees Taliban support in the fight against IS. There are lots of Americans, and probably even President Trump himself, who would be willing to sign such a deal as soon as possible–he even said as much during his election campaign.
If the Americans want a peace deal allowing them to stay and the Taliban oppose that, there can be, by definition, no peace deal involving the Americans
Such a deal could force the US military out of the country.
The question is whether a significant part of the American military establishment wants to keep American bases in Afghanistan – with regards to possible threats from China, Russian and Iran. If that is a guiding motivation, then peace becomes much less likely. Although some experts have suggested that the Taliban could sign a peace deal that allows the Americans to retain their bases in the country. I don’t believe a word of that. I don’t see how, given that the Taliban have made the withdrawal of all foreign forces the absolute centrepiece of every public statement they made on peace, they could backtrack on this. So, if the Americans want a peace deal allowing them to stay and the Taliban oppose that, there can be, by definition, no peace deal involving the Americans.
Some analysts also claim that the Taliban are now better equipped than the Afghan security forces.
They are not. The Taliban are just better motivated. The US has been delivering guns, artillery and more to the armed forces. The problem is that the Afghan army is entirely demoralized. The Taliban don’t have heavy artillery, they barely have artillery at all, they don’t possess any missiles or anti-aircraft capacities. That’s why they are using improvised explosive devices. If they were better armed than the Afghan military, they would be on their way to victory by now.
Where do the Taliban get their arms from?
They buy them–often even from members of the Afghan army. Or they smuggle them in through the Pakistani province of Balochistan. And I am sure they get, to a certain amount, weapons from the Pakistani security apparatus, though not great quantities of sophisticated weapons.
The Pakistani intelligence services still hold sway in Afghanistan?
The Pakistanis occasionally shelter the Afghan Taliban and in those cases, they certainly know where they are. They have a sort of a deal with the Taliban regarding Northern Balochistan, a predominantly Pashtun area. The Pakistanis protect the Taliban and the Afghan Taliban prevent a Pashtun separatist revolt.
The Pakistani military and the Afghan Taliban struck a deal: You can live and operate from that area but you must guarantee it remains kind of quiet
A potential revolt led by the Pakistani Taliban?
During the last two decades, the Pakistani Taliban have repeatedly rebelled against the Pakistani state, mostly in the formally Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and in parts of the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. They have even controlled most parts of these areas for most of the recent past. Northern Balochistan is similarly majorly Pashtun, but almost completely quiet, because the Pakistani military and the Afghan Taliban struck a deal along those straight lines: You can live and operate from that area but you must guarantee it remains kind of quiet.
Can the Pakistani intelligence leverage the Taliban by bankrolling them?
I think the influence of the Pakistani intelligence services is generally widely exaggerated, though by no means absent. If the Pakistani secret service, the ISI, is working with the Taliban, is very difficult to assess. The last Western intelligence estimates have put the annual budget of the Taliban somewhere between 300-500 million USD, which is roughly 10 per cent of what the Afghan Army spends annually. In other words, if that’s true, and that’s what you get from the CIA and the MI6, this is a war being run on the cheap. Given the income from taxing the heroin trade and generous donations from the Gulf, the Taliban already accumulate an amount of revenue that wouldn’t really make it necessary to factor in any Pakistani money. But I am sure there are other forms of support from the Pakistanis, like turning a blind eye to smuggling of arms.
What do the Taliban want? Do they have clear-cut goals other that just winning the war?
The Taliban want all American bases to close shop. In terms of territory, they push for full control over their core strongholds, which means large parts of the north, as well as greater the Kandahar area and the territories controlled by the Haqqani network militia in Greater Paktia in south-east Afghanistan. This would also entail getting rid their rivals in those areas. In terms of political influence, the Taliban demand a share of power on the centre stage of politics, which could even consist of middlemen, figures who are considered good Muslims and responsive to the Taliban, without actually being Taliban. In the long term, the Taliban want to position themselves to rise to an even bigger role on better terms if the opportunity should present itself.
There is no chance whatsoever of bribing the Haqqanis into a peace settlement. This has been tried repeatedly and will not work
Have the Taliban adjusted course to focus on power-sharing by negotiation rather than power-grabbing by warfare?
There are undoubtedly figures among the Taliban, and the leaders of the Haqqani network might be among them, who absolutely oppose any kind of compromise and just want to fight on to absolute victory. But I do know for a fact that others among them just don’t see this as a realistic scenario. This is why they are striving for a compromise. Don’t forget that the Taliban have actually been successful in establishing themselves in rural areas, but generally cannot conquer and hold any urban centres.
The Taliban are divided between hawks and doves then?
I honestly don’t know. In the light of the death of Jalaluddin Haqqani on September 3rd, let me say one thing. The Haqqanis have been fighting for 50 years now to control Greater Paktia. There are some agendas that won’t just disappear. One thing is certain though. There is no chance whatsoever of bribing the Haqqanis into a peace settlement. This has been tried repeatedly and will not work.
Is the recent surge of Taliban attacks meant to be a show of force, to set the stage for the best possible at the peace talks?
This is a war, right? There has often been this funny assumption by Western analysts that the Taliban, to show their desire for peace, would have to stop fighting in advance. That’s quite bizarre. The Taliban will always tell you that they will fight until a peace deal is struck to get the best possible terms. However, I hope that the peace process will yield confidence-building measures, certain kinds of ceasefire agreements, as to not to attack medical personnel, for example.
The basic underlying nature of the talk is: if we are not fighting it out, can we all go home in peace, is that alright? And the Taliban say: yes, right! Because that has always been our strategy. Except here is a list of people who will have to go
Looking at the statements by the Afghan governments after weeks of devastating losses, it feels like it is detached from reality.
I have talked to so many Afghan officials and to be frank, it’s not a sudden loss of reality, it has never been there! If American aid stopped, the government would simply fall into pieces.
When the Taliban recently stormed Ghazni, the Afghan government initially denied these reports for six days. The numbers of districts counted under Taliban control drastically differ if you look at the statistics from the Afghan government and US government agencies or at the numbers from none-state observers.
You can’t believe a word the Afghan government is saying. However, the numbers provided by independent observers are not always as accurate as they seem. When I travelled through Afghanistan as a journalist, I was often passing through areas supposedly held by the government and observed a strong Taliban presence there. But the same holds true vice versa, as well. On the ground, both sides have often established a ‘live and let live’ strategy of cohabitation–partly to share revenues from the heroin trade. In a funny kind of way, we often witness a sort of cohabitation agreement focusing on not being shot by the other side.
So on a local level, peace agreements are somewhat already in place in Afghanistan?
As far as I can see, such agreements are common on all over Afghanistan. Especially among the Pashtuns, both sides speak to each other daily. Taliban commanders and government supporters meet constantly. At weddings, at funerals, during business agreements. All over southern Afghanistan, and in the areas bordering Pakistan, as well. The basic underlying nature of the talk is: if we are not fighting it out, can we all go home in peace, is that alright? And the Taliban say: yes, right! Because that has always been our strategy. Except here is a list of people who will have to go.
The war splits families and really hurts Pashtun society. So there is a strong sentiment for peace among the Pashtuns
But the government can’t bet on local agreements for its own survival, right?
The government side could indeed collapse with extraordinary speed, as this has happened already in many areas from 1994 to 1996. Actually, it’s quite a common practice among Afghan families to send one son to the Army, and one to the Taliban as an insurance policy, so you don’t suffer too bad, whoever loses.
Except for survival, what does the government stand to gain from a peace deal?
The government is so fractured. The patronage pie, an important factor keeping actors within the government on the same page, has already gotten smaller as a result of the withdrawal of Nato forces. After a peace settlement with the Taliban, everyone gets even less.
But isn’t peace more than just a redistribution of resources?
There are Taliban among the Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnic groups, but the war splits families and really hurts Pashtun society. So there is a strong sentiment for peace among the Pashtuns, but there is also the strongest opposition to peace among a range of different Pashtun figures. Either because they come from old secular Pashtun circles, like some generals in the Afghan Army, or because they are Pashtun warlords und archenemies of the Taliban and would have to leave once a peace settlement is established. Ironically, that’s why it almost might be easier for the Uzbeks or the Hazara to make a deal. Because they could retain power in their main areas of control. However, we should keep in mind that there are no clear-cut dividing ethnic lines in Afghanistan. That’s why partition was never really on the table as an option for a peace deal.
Anatol Lieven teaches International Politics at Georgetown University in Doha, Qatar. He received a BA in History and a PhD in Political Science from the University of Cambridge. Before joining academia, he spent most of his career as a foreign correspondent for the BBC, the Financial Times and The Times, and later as a member of think tanks such as the Carnegie Endowment and the New America Foundation in Washington. He is currently writing on a book on the history of the Pashtun ethnicity in Afghanistan and Pakistan He is author of numerous books, including Pakistan: A Hard Country (2012).