The Centre for Afghanistan, Middle East & Africa (CAMEA) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) had a Panel Discussion on ‘Conversations on the Evolving Situation in Afghanistan: US Role in Afghanistan’ which is the seventh in a series of conversations CAMEA is having on Afghanistan – under its ‘Conversations on the Evolving situation in Afghanistan’.
The distinguished speakers included: Director General ISSI, Ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Dr. Elizabeth Threlkeld, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center, Dr. Anatol Lieven, Senior Research Fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Mr. Shehzad Qazi, a public opinion researcher based in the United States, Mr. Faiz Zaland, Professor in Kabul University, Mr. Tameem Bahiss, Analyst specializing Afghan and Pakistani affairs and Ambassador Khalid Mahmood, Chairman Board of Governors ISSI also participated in the discussion.
During her opening remarks, Ms. Amina Khan, Director CAMEA said the situation in Afghanistan has drastically changed, with the Taliban takeover of the country, followed by the complete withdrawal of US forces. The US departure has left many questions unanswered, where its implications are yet to be fully felt in the region and beyond. Although the Taliban appear to have achieved their goal of expelling foreign forces, however, the real test for the Taliban has only just begun, which is certainly not limited to the capture of power, but it is more about legitimacy, recognition, acceptance, and performance. Even within the confines of the current Taliban-dominated setup, recognition for the government now may not depend on inclusion, but whether they can deliver in terms of governance, foreign relations, human rights, and more importantly CT assurances. Domestically, a lot will depend on how the group formulates its policies towards Afghan institutions like the army, police, bureaucracy, etc. While we are all aware of the role the US has played in Afghanistan over the past two decades, the current policy appears to be determined by recognition of the group as the de facto government of Afghanistan, as stated by Secretary Blinken. While it remains to be seen how the relationship will evolve, Washington must remain engaged with the group.
Ambassador Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry, Director General ISSI, while expressing his views stated that since the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan and the government has collapsed, there has been a debate about the hasty US withdrawal. President Biden has defended the US decision to withdraw and rejected all the related criticism. He further said that there have been attempts to scapegoat and malign Pakistan in this regard. Ambassador Chaudhry was of the view that there are a couple of things that the US will have to address, which include, how far it holds itself responsible as it cannot absolve itself. The US has not achieved the entirety of its objective of creating a liberal democracy. He also said that if the situation deteriorates and non-state entities take over, in that case, the US objective will be totally finished, therefore the US must honor its commitment. He also said that it is for the US to engage, incentivize and provide humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people.
Dr. Elizabeth Threlkeld, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center in her remarks stated that there are multiple views about the situation, however, for twenty long years; the US was not appreciated for the role it was playing. She further said that it is important to note that there is a silver lining as the US interests are largely aligned with regional powers, although there may be differences in how they must be achieved. She said the world community wants a middle ground for engagement as it is difficult to have carrots and sticks both. Moreover, she said that the US has three key interests, which are mainly, preventing terrorist attacks, stability in Afghanistan, and the prevention of negative fallout in case the situation worsens; like refugee influx. And also the US desires to prevent a return to the 1990s era. She was of the view that the US must ensure that the Taliban deliver, however, the Taliban seem to be resorting to their old ways.
Dr. Anatol Lieven a Senior Research Fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, while expressing his views said that movements of Afghan resistance have really proved true while looking at the situation in Afghanistan. He said that the middle way to engage with the Taliban is that money and recognition both have to be offered. He further said that there are different levels of recognition and the US needs to work through the region, which is not about moral commitment but self-interest as the threat of terrorism and civil war also loom in the present situation. He said that the Taliban will need several modern technocrats as well as create a cultural space. Moreover, he said that the Taliban appear to have learned the lessons of 9/11 and there is a significant chance of achieving goals of the international community about the Taliban if they work together with the international community.
Mr. Faiz Zaland, Professor in Kabul University in his remarks said that the US withdrawal was hasty and achievement regarding democratizing Afghanistan was not institutionalized. The US invested in people instead of institutions in its attempt of democratizing Afghanistan. He said that if the US does not have any, it must create leverages over the Taliban and it can be done by engaging with the group. He also said that Sanctions on the Taliban mean sanctions on the women and children of Afghanistan.
Mr. Tameem Bahiss, an Analyst specializing in Afghan and Pakistani affairs while expressing his views said that engaging with the Taliban and keeping the Doha agreement in place will have value in keeping the Taliban accountable. He said that one core interest of the US is ensuring that its influence in the region does not die with withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US’s current approach of imposing sanctions is counter-productive. The better option is to clearly communicate with the Taliban regarding its realistic demands. All the steps of the US regarding Afghanistan must be clear and realistic. The Taliban have a clear ideological red line which the US must know that the Taliban are not willing to compromise. He also said that to keep the Taliban accountable, the US must continue engagement which will also help in engaging a broader alliance.
Mr. Shehzad Qazi, a public opinion researcher specializing in crisis and transitional countries based in the United States, while expressing his views stated that the US does not have a fully developed Afghanistan policy right now. He said that the administration is focused on immediate goals such as the safe passage of US citizens who were left behind, providing limited amounts of humanitarian assistance, and of course, monitoring ISIS-K as it looks to formulate its so-called “over the horizon” counter-terror policy. He further said that with the myriad domestic challenges that the administration is trying to overcome, including stabilizing the economy and passing major economic legislation this year, the short-term outlook for Afghanistan includes a lot of uncertainty via US interests and actions. Events more than a fully formulated policy will dictate US next steps there he said.
Ambassador Khalid Mahmood, Chairman Board of Governors ISSI also participated in the discussion and while expressing his opinion stated that one thing is certain that the world has come full circle and the Taliban are back in power in Kabul. He said the question arises that is the US is going through the last phases of its American century which is a very large question. Moreover, he said that one thing that everyone agrees on is that the credibility, reputation, and reliability of the US have been severely dented.