Following the horrendous bombing outside a Kabul voter registration center, Scott Worden shares his sobering analysis and commentary about the continuing war in Afghanistan, where he says that most agree that a military victory is unlikely. The conflict's grinding stalemate and upcoming elections concern Worden, especially with the announcement today by the Taliban of a new fighting season and their rejection of President Ghani’s peace offering.
This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.
Tim Farley (host): Things are getting more violent in Afghanistan. We've had recent bombings, we've had attacks that have been taking place. In addition to that, we are now at the point where the Taliban picks up the pace of its attacks, and we want to put it all into perspective and we are doing that now with Scott Worden, who is joining us.
Tim Farley (host): Scott is the Director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, tweeting at @USIP. Scott, welcome. Thank you for being here.
Scott Worden: Good morning, thanks for having me.
Tim Farley (host): How would you characterize this, it just seems ... maybe it just seems that way, but it seems there's been a recent uptick in violence in Afghanistan. What do you attribute that to?
Scott Worden: Well, there have been several attacks, including a particularly large and gruesome one in Kabul at a voter registration center a few days ago. I think this is maybe not an uptick, but it's the cycle of violence that's been continuing for maybe the past year, year and a half, where you have one, or unfortunately sometimes more attacks coming in a cluster, then a couple months, three months of a bit of lull, and then it picks up again. So I don't think this is necessarily trending hugely upward, but it is confirmation that the situation there is highly unstable, that the security situation is certainly not improving.
Scott Worden: Then furthermore, the Taliban did announce yesterday that it was the official beginning of their fighting season. The fighting season kind of didn't end, because there were plenty of big attacks during the winter. But this was a reaffirmation of their commitment to continue to fight the government. They said in particular that they would be opposing U.S. forces, and they rejected the peace offer which President Ghani had offered in February at a major conference in Kabul.
Scott Worden: So, all this together means that the war is continuing and that there are no immediate signs that things are going to get better.
Tim Farley (host): So this "al-Khandaq," I guess, is the name of this offensive. The Taliban evidently is saying that they are focused on not just attacking, but rather capturing and killing Americans. And I wonder if that is designed to elicit a response from President Trump or the United States. What's your take on that?
Scott Worden: Well, I think that it's in line with earlier rhetoric. Certainly their messaging is aimed at multiple audiences. So they may want to elicit a response from the U.S., but I think probably more significant, they're sending their fighters into harm's way. And in fact Taliban has been killed at a much greater rate since the new U.S. strategy made available new rules of engagement.
Scott Worden: So to motivate their own fighters they need to be sounding tough and talking about how they're going to defeat their enemies, and so forth. I think that their messaging is aimed at their own audience as much as it is aimed at foreign audiences.
Scott Worden: I think this comes at an interesting time. Of course, we have confirmation hearings of the new Secretary of State nominee, Pompeo, coming up. There was a tweet by Rand Paul when he switched his vote at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to endorse Pompeo, that suggested we should get out of Afghanistan and that Pompeo may agree with that. I think it'll be interesting to watch during the hearings what his responses are on Afghanistan, and the recent violence in Kabul and throughout the country certainly provides some context.
Scott Worden: I assume that they would be robustly endorsing the South Asia Strategy, but it'll be interesting to see what those responses are, as to whether there's any potential shift in U.S. policy.
Tim Farley (host): It's hard to think about this taking place all the back in August of last year when President Trump was addressing goals in Afghanistan.
Donald Trump: Terrorists who slaughter innocent people, will find no glory in this life or the next. They are nothing but thugs and criminals and predators, and that's right, losers.
Tim Farley (host): The President had set out some goals at that time, I wonder is it mission accomplished yet? Maybe that's just too simple a phrase to throw at it. Where are we relative to the mission in Afghanistan?
Scott Worden: I think we're still in the middle of a long fight. I don't think there are particularly clear signs that the strategy is working in terms of defeating the Taliban, violence levels have remained high against civilians.
Scott Worden: I know that the U.S. Military reports that the Taliban under increased pressure, I think there has been success against ISIS and some of the non-Taliban terrorist groups, including there is remnants of the fight in Iraq and Syria, they've been particularly targeted I think somewhat effectively.
Scott Worden: So there have been some achievements, but in the overall strategic objective of bringing the war to an end and finding some kind of political settlement where the Taliban can drop their arms, rejoin political life in Afghanistan, that's still a long way off.
Tim Farley (host): What's the perception now of the government? And I think you and I have discussed this before, Scott, it seems that Ashraf Ghani has made some progress that is much more than just being the President of Kabul, and I wonder is there some credibility, is there stability in looking to that government right now in Afghanistan?
Scott Worden: I think the government is in an okay position right now. The real issue is that there are elections coming up, there are parliamentary elections that are scheduled for October, and then more importantly, there are Presidential elections which are called for by the constitution by the end of April in 2019.
Scott Worden: Really, all eyes among the political elites, the political parties, have turned to the 2019 election and positioning during this electoral cycle to gain power. So while there's criticism of the government, whereas before there were calls for it to step down, there were calls for an interim government, now really I think the focus is on how to position themselves in elections so that they can win through the vote.
Scott Worden: Of course that's challenged by these attacks that happened recently focusing on voter registration centers, so it's not going to be a smooth path. But I think that the government really has about a year that will be focused on politics, and the intensity of the competition over that is going to increase month-by-month, from now until April of 2019.
Tim Farley (host): Anytime we're talking about parts, this region I guess, is we also talk about other influences, and I wonder is there any outside influence being put on what is taking place in Afghanistan by Russia, by Iran, by Saudi Arabia? I mean, is there is anybody whose also got skin in this game, albeit quietly?
Scott Worden: Yeah, all of the ones that you mentioned. Russia and Iran have been giving increased support over the last year to the Taliban. Pakistan of course, is a central focus of the South Asia Strategy, they have been providing safe havens to the Taliban throughout the war.
Scott Worden: One of the key objectives is to increase pressure on Pakistan to end safe havens and to push the Taliban toward a peace process. I don't think that we've seen too much progress on the Pakistan front. There is more pressure but there has not been a particularly visible response.
Scott Worden: I think when we look to Russia and Iran, that is where this problem with Afghanistan becomes global. We have coming up, I guess, a decision by the President on whether to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. That is made on merits that don't have a lot to do with Afghanistan, but the decision will certainly affect Iran's behavior in Afghanistan. If we pull out of the deal, then Iran will see their leverage in Afghanistan as leverage against us.
Scott Worden: I think it's a really complicated picture, I mean Afghanistan is constantly plagued by the fact that there are these larger and more powerful neighbors with interest in the country that seek to interfere. And the final way they'll do that, and has happened in the past, is through the political process in the elections that I mentioned.
Scott Worden: There are credible reports that these countries and others secretly fund candidates, and sometimes several candidates, in order to maintain influence in the capital in the future.
Tim Farley (host): You know, every time I talk to somebody like yourself who knows about this stuff, Scott, I feel like I better understand the challenges but I do not understand exactly what can be done. The solutions seem to be elusive as ever.
Scott Worden: Well, that is the challenge and it's taking a long time. I think that really the focus needs to be on the political process and finding a way to bring the parties together in a negotiation. I think the military pressure ... Nobody, even the Generals, believes that there will be an outright military victory against the Taliban.
Scott Worden: So the more the focus is on a peace process and on managing the political process, including the election, so that more Afghan people have a stake in the government, have a credible say on who the government is, the better changes there are for this to come to a close. So I think that focusing on the politics and on the peace process are the main way forward.
Tim Farley (host): Scott, thanks as always, for joining us on POTUS today.
Scott Worden: Thank you very much for having me.
Tim Farley (host): Scott Worden, Director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, as we watch the developments in that nation. He is tweeting at @USIP.
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