Event ReportsPublished on Sep 10, 2020
Between a Republic and an Emirate: The future of Afghanistan

The Observer Research Foundation, as part of the Neighbourhood Initiative under the Strategic Studies Programme, organised the three – part Afghanistan Webinar Series in collaboration with Her Afghanistan, in the months of June and July 2020. The series of discussions brought together academics, practitioners, and regional security analysts to critically explore regional and global perspectives on the evolving political and security situation in Afghanistan, and how events on the ground would implicate countries in the neighbourhood and afar.

Session 1: South Asian Perspective 

The first session of this series titled ‘The Future of Afghanistan: South Asian Perspective’ was held on June 18. The moderators for the session were Ms. Mariam Wardak (Founder, Her Afghanistan) and Ms. Shubhangi Pandey (Junior Fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, ORF). The distinguished panellists comprised of Amb. Amar Sinha (Distinguished Fellow, RIS and former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan), Mr. Javid Faisal (Spokesperson, Office of the National Security Council, Afghanistan) and Ms. Madiha Afzal (David M. Rubenstein Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.).

The discussion began with the likely instability that will be created in Afghanistan with the phased but assured withdrawal of US troops from the country, which could potentially spill over into other countries in South Asia, particularly India and Pakistan. To that end, the way India and Pakistan respond to the developments unravelling in Afghanistan, would have significant strategic implications for Afghanistan’s future. While both India and Pakistan would aim to secure their respective strategic objectives in Afghanistan, existing tensions between the two countries could hinder collective action or effective communication, especially vis-à-vis the Afghan peace process.

Ms. Pandey opened the discussion by exploring the prospects of India opening direct channels of communication with the Taliban, given that the latter could likely become a part of the political mainstream in Afghanistan. She posed the first question to Amb. Sinha, on the fundamental challenges that India could face in Afghanistan, especially when Pakistan is configured in the equation. Amb. Sinha began by arguing that the Republic versus Emirate debate was a faux one, as the Emirate, as it existed in the late 90s, was an aberration and not the ‘normal’. He emphasised that what matters when looking at Afghanistan is not nomenclature per se, but the nature of the state itself, which will depend on mutually agreed values and principles, and way of life. He highlighted that India would expectedly continue to remain heavily invested in Afghanistan, and stand by the Afghan government and the people, as done for the past 19 years. On the question of Pakistan being a hindrance to the peace process, Amb. Sinha cautioned against either India or Pakistan bringing their historical baggage to reflect poorly on regional support to intra-Afghan talks, as it would divert attention from the all-important issue i.e. regional peace and security.

The discussion then focused on the role of Pakistan in shaping the trajectory of the Afghan peace process, given its historically close ties with, and significant leverage over the Taliban. Ms. Afzal highlighted the fact that Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan is as much driver by the logic of securing strategic depth as it was in the 1980s. She further noted that Pakistan is against a hasty withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, and is wary of being faced by a potentially unfriendly government on its western front. She stressed on the intent of the Pakistani government to target terror sanctuaries being propagated in Afghanistan, especially those that are known to carry out attacks in Pakistan.

As for the developments taking place on the ground in Afghanistan, Ms. Wardak raised key questions about the readiness of the Afghan people at large to deal with whatever would come their way after the American withdrawal, and whether or not they would be willing to accept a return of the Taliban in the mainstream governance system of the country. Mr. Faisal responded by stating that the Taliban was not meeting the obligations laid down in the US-Taliban agreement of February 2020, a testament to which were the increased levels of violence during the holy month of Ramadan. He further elaborated that the Taliban had also not been responsive to the Afghan government’s repeated calls to start direct intra-Afghan negotiations. For peace and stability within Afghanistan, Mr. Faisal stressed that external support for the Taliban needs to be cut off at the earliest, and terror sanctuaries within Afghanistan dismantled. All panellists agreed that for long term stability in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan had a significant role to play, by putting aside their existing rivalry and communicating effectively to positively shape the Afghan peace process. Such an arrangement would not only contribute to rebuilding Afghanistan politically and economically, but also to ensure stability in South Asia.

Session 2: Great Power Perspective 

The second session of webinar series titled ‘The Future of Afghanistan: Great Power Perspective’ took place on 30 June 2020. It sought to explore the American and Russian views on the unfolding security and political situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and the ways in which it implicates each of them. The session also sought to examine the contextually relevant question of whether the two 'great powers' can set aside their long standing rivalry, and ​at least agree upon a modus vivendi in Afghanistan. And finally, the discussion focused on whether India could emerge as the most credible regional power or stabilising factor instead, given the troubled relations between the US and Russia, and an Afghan administration that is sceptical of independent Russian links with the Taliban. These questions are important as Afghanistan has for long been a theatre of contestation between major powers with neither being able to significantly contribute to peace and stability in the country. Islamic insurgency is on the rise despite the two-decade long presence of American troops and with Trump's decision to withdraw the troops, it would only lead to further instability, threatening the breakout of a civil war or an Islamist takeover.

The distinguished panellists for this session were Mr. Luke Coffey (Director, Douglas & Sarah Allison Centre for Foreign Policy, Heritage Foundation), Dr. Ivan Safranchuk (Senior Research Fellow, Institute of International Research, MGIMO University), Amb. Rakesh Sood (Distinguished Fellow, ORF and former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan), and Ms. Mariam Wardak (Founder, Her Afghanistan), with Mr. Nandan Unnikrishnan (Distinguished Fellow, ORF), as the moderator.

Mr. Unnikrishnan began by speaking about the sudden increase in violence in Afghanistan, particularly after the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020. What is striking is that on many occasions, the Taliban too has positioned itself as being against increased violence, raising questions about the kind of transnational politics that is at play in Afghanistan, especially vis-à-vis the great powers. Responding to the moderator, Ms. Wardak noted that the Afghan security forces had been fighting not just the Taliban but also regional and international terrorist groups. She attributed the spike in terrorist violence and criminal activities partly to the lack of job opportunities for the Afghan youth. She emphasised on the fact that Afghanistan is exhausted from serving as the playground for other powers to flex their muscles to establish predominance, and that the Afghans now want to create a prosperous future for themselves, on their own terms. Presenting an entirely different take on the question of great power rivalry in Afghanistan, Mr. Safranchuk argued that Russia had in fact cooperated with the US in trying to stabilise Afghanistan. He further stated that while Russia may have adopted a different line of engagement different from the US, it never acted against the US – distinguishing between acting ‘without’, and acting ‘against’. He also said that Afghans have often themselves attracted foreign players in Afghanistan, for political, strategic and economic reasons, and that phenomenon often gets misunderstood as ‘great power rivalry’.

The discussion then moved to the role of the United States and Pakistan, in Afghanistan. Elaborating on the US’ understanding of Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan over the years, Mr. Coffey argued that Islamabad’s role had been complicated, to say the least. While Pakistan has often been found to be one of the causes of instability in Afghanistan, it is also a widely accepted fact that the country possess a distinct influence over militant groups operating in Afghanistan, which can prove to be indispensable in putting an end to violence in Afghanistan. He went on to highlight the need for the US as well as the international community, to exert more pressure on Pakistan and compel it to visibly commit to bringing long-term stability in Afghanistan. He continued by saying that although the US-Taliban deal is being regarded as a positive development, there still exist a number of spoilers that threaten prospects of peace in Afghanistan. So, the problem of how the US will ensure the terms of deal are respected and held up by all parties involved, is not going to be easy to resolve, as the deal itself did not specify the mechanisms that will be established to ensure compliance. He further emphasised on the need to facilitate intra-Afghan talks at the earliest, to find a negotiated political settlement to the conflict, and argued that the US must continue to provide economic assistance to support nation building and development in Afghanistan.

Commenting on how India sees the US-Taliban deal, Amb. Sood said that rather than truly being a peace deal, the agreement was in fact, simply a US withdrawal deal, with the withdrawal itself motivated by the upcoming US elections, rather than on-ground conditions in Afghanistan. Further, in Afghanistan, there is a 100% constituency for peace, but at the same time, there are varying opinions as to who will dictate the terms of that peace. India has supported an Afghan led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process since 2011, and continues to maintain the same stance, highlighted Amb. Sood. While India has not engaged actively with the peace process, being a major development partner and having maintained friendly relations with Afghanistan over the years, it is understandable as to why the Afghan government wants India to play a more proactive role in Afghan affairs. On the topic of proxy wars between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan, he clarified that India is locked in a hostile relationship with Pakistan since 1947. If the Pakistanis choose to see its relationship with Afghanistan through its India prism, then it will also continue to stay locked in a hostile relationship with Afghanistan.

Even as the various international stakeholders engaged in Afghanistan remain divided over how best to deal with growing insecurity in the country, the overarching call for peace from within Afghanistan is acknowledged by all. There is a need for the great powers of the world to continue their assistance to Afghanistan, to minimise the security threat that the country faces, which also threatens to destabilise the region at large, and help the Afghan government undertake the processes of nation-building. Equally important is the need for the international partners to support developments in the education sector, by empowering the youth with intellect and novel ideas to build on the gains of the past, which is arguably the only long-term solution to ending the war.

Session 3: Perspectives from Central Asia and Iran 

The last session of the series sought to discuss how Iran and the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan view the unfolding security and political situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and the ways in which it implicates each of them. The session also explored whether the Central Asian states can utilise their presence on multilateral forums on Afghanistan such as C5+1 to play a more proactive role in shaping the trajectory of the peace process, given that they would have the most to gain from peace in Afghanistan, as significant regional stakeholders in the country. The panel for the session comprised of Mr. Ahmad Shuja Jamal (Director General for International Affairs and Regional Cooperation, Office of the National Security Council, Afghanistan), Mr. Akramjon Nematov (First Deputy Director, Institute of Strategic & Regional Studies under the President of Uzbekistan), Mr. Sultan Akimbekov (Director, Institute of Asian Studies, Kazakhstan), Ms. Anahita Saymidinova (Reporter, Iran International TV Channel, Tajikistan) and Mr. Adnan Tabatabai (Co-founder & CEO, Centre for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient). The co-moderators for the webinar were Ms. Mariam Wardak (Founder, Her Afghanistan) and Mr. Kabir Taneja (Fellow, Observer Research Foundation).

The discussion began with Mr. Taneja highlighting how for India, its relations with Iran have a significant bearing on its economic ties with Afghanistan, especially when one considers the importance of the Iran-based Chabahar Port from a trade and transit perspective. Iran itself plays a pivotal role in Afghanistan, as it is one of the biggest sources of foreign direct investment in the country, and provides assistance in critical national infrastructure development. Explaining Iran’s current priorities vis-s-vis Afghanistan, Mr. Tabatabai noted that Iran wishes for Afghanistan to be a republic, with its territorial integrity and stability intact. There indeed exist security concerns to do with the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, but also with Iran’s relations with the US, often attributable to the lack of trust between the various stakeholders in the region. He further added that Iran, over the years, seems to have developed a transactional relationship with the Taliban, to secure its borders along the Afghan districts and provinces where the Taliban has an upper hand.

Mr. Nematov shed light on Uzbekistan’s position on matters such as regional security threats emanating from Afghanistan, and the Taliban potentially becoming a part of the government in Afghanistan. Referencing the historical linkages based on common ethnicities, a shared history and bonds of friendship, he emphasised that for Uzbekistan, was a top priority of the foreign policy agenda. He further argued that Afghanistan should not be viewed as a source of threat or a hotbed of conflict, but rather as an opportunity to create a prosperous country in the region, integral to the Central Asian landscape. He emphasised on the fact that a peaceful Afghanistan will be in the interest of all other countries in the region, as Afghanistan has the potential to promote increased regional connectivity, trade and development cooperation between South and Central Asia. To that end, he reiterated the Uzbek support for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.

Highlighting the fact that Tajikistan shares the longest border with Afghanistan that stretches for more than 1000 km, Ms. Saymidinova stressed on the importance of developments on the ground in Afghanistan, for Tajikistan. For Tajikistan, Afghanistan is important from the perspective of gaining access to regional connectivity ventures such as the Chabahar port in Iran, and the CASA-1000 electricity project which aims to establish electricity transmission lines to Afghanistan, among other countries. The presence of militant forces in Afghanistan is, however, a grave concern for the Tajiks, as it threatens stability along the Afghan-Tajik border and jeopardise trade and transit projects between the two countries.

As for Kazakhstan and its view on the Taliban and the peace process in Afghanistan, Mr. Akimbekov  highlighted the fear of US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan leading to increased instability in the entire region, as it will likely pave the way for the Taliban and other militant organizations to emerge stronger. He also stressed on the desire of the Kazakh government to open trade corridors to the south of the country of which Afghanistan would form an integral part. Further, he too emphasised on the need for all stakeholders to take proactive steps in rebuilding Afghanistan politically, economically and strategically.

Noting that while the considerable presence of Afghans in Iran, Pakistan and India, albeit as refugees, is a known fact, Mr. Shuja Jamal highlighted the lack of a similar people-to-people interaction between Afghanistan and the Central Asian states, despite shared borders and commonalities based on religion, culture and ethnicity. However, while the countries in the region share many common values, the Taliban do not have a space in that common set of values, as their ideologies align with designated terror groups that are actively working to undermine the countries in Central Asia as well as Iran. So, even though the US-Taliban deal obligates the Taliban to commit to renouncing their ties with the Al-Qaeda, which they haven’t done yet, the Taliban also has not only ideological and operational but also blood ties with other terrorist groups that directly threaten Afghanistan’s neighbours to the north and the west. He also stressed on the need for the Taliban to renounce transnational criminal networks that include drug cartels, human smugglers and mafias, from which they receive significant revenues, to be able to potentially get accommodated in a republican system of government.

In the end, the panel agreed that Iran, the Central Asian states and other regional stakeholder will continue to be important to Afghanistan regardless of the outcome of the intra-Afghan talks, as and when they take place. There was a shared belief among the panellists that a republic, formed in conformity with the wishes and aspirations of the Afghan people would be the best way forward for Afghanistan. There was also consensus on the need for all stakeholders to come together and help build a stable and peaceful Afghanistan, and support the country in unleashing its potential as an economic hub for regional trade and transit, which would in turn drive development and growth within Afghanistan.

The event report has been written by Shubhangi Pandey, Junior Fellow, ORF and Rhea Sinha, Research Intern, ORF
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