Following unprecedented talks between Taliban and Afghan leaders this week, which have provided renewed hope for peace, the Taliban claimed credit for an attack in Ghanzi province. Scott Smith says Afghanistan is now exhibiting “one of the usual paradoxes of this stage of a peace process... where both parties, as they begin to talk more, they begin to fight more.”
Scott Smith is an advisor on Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
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Tim Farley: It was just a couple of weeks ago when the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Kabul to meet with leaders in Afghanistan.
Mike Pompeo: My meeting with President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, we agreed that peace is our highest priority, and that Afghanistan must never again serve as a platform for international terrorism.
Tim Farley: If my memory serves correctly, the timeline is such that it was within hours that the Taliban actually claimed credit for an attack which resulted in deaths. So that makes us wonder well, where are these peace talks exactly? It was about a year ago that they started, the seventh round of negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban were interrupted Sunday and Monday where a group of Afghans met for dialogue with the Taliban. It's the first time the government had actually met with the Taliban negotiators. Where are we in this negotiation process with the Taliban, right now?
Tim Farley: Scott Smith, technical advisor on Afghanistan, with the United States Institute of Peace is joining us to discuss. The Twitter handle is @USIP. Scott, welcome. Thank you for being here.
Scott Smith: Thank you, Tim.
Tim Farley: I'm not sure if I had the timeline right, but I think it was just within hours of Secretary of State Pompeo visiting that there was an attack that the Toledo claimed, which resulted in the loss of life. I wonder, where this puts us?
Scott Smith: Well, it puts us in the middle of one of the usual paradoxes, unfortunately, at this stage of a peace process, where both parties as they begin to talk more also begin to fight more. They put themselves on a better position at the negotiating table, a position of strength. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in these kinds of processes. But it was a terrible attack, because although it was aimed at a Ministry of Defense installation, there happened to be a lot of schools nearby, a lot of residential areas nearby, and the civilian death toll was very, very high.
Tim Farley: The point of having the Taliban at the table is what?
Scott Smith: There are two things that are going on right now. You mentioned the talks, unprecedented talks, that had happened over Sunday and Monday between a delegation from Kabul, that included government representatives, but in their personal capacity, as well as civil society representatives, and representatives of the politic opposition in Kabul, who sat down with a delegation of Taliban for the first time. This was, basically, it was a dialogue, not a negotiation, and the point was to begin building some confidence between the two sides for what eventually needs to happen, which are more formal talks between a delegation from Kabul and the Taliban over a future political settlement. That is new.
Scott Smith: What has been happening so far, the process you referred to that began about a year ago, was the direct talks that the U.S. has been having with the Taliban led by Ambassador Khalilzad over two specific issues. One is the conditions under which, and a timeline under which, the U.S. withdraws its troops in Afghanistan. And a second is guarantees that the Taliban give to make sure that, as Secretary Pompeo had said, "Afghanistan never is, in the future, a haven for terrorists."
Scott Smith: Those are the two processes going on. The U.S.-Taliban direct process has been going on for about a year. This dialogue that happened a few days ago is unprecedented.
Tim Farley: Taliban guaranteeing that Afghanistan will never become a haven for terrorists, but I'm not sure if it's officially called a terrorist organization, but certainly the Taliban uses techniques that would be considered terrorism.
Scott Smith: Yeah, absolutely. They're not officially called a terrorist organization, but certainly, as the attack that happened in Kabul, that you mentioned, demonstrate, they continue to use terrorist tactics. But they're also opposed to other groups in Afghanistan, like ISIS, which has a presence in some parts of Afghanistan. I think the idea is, at some point, the direct talks that we're having lead to negotiations between the Taliban and Afghans over a government in Afghanistan in which both would participate. And that new government would prevent Afghanistan from preventing what is was before 9/11, which was a place where al-Qaida could sit calmly and organize attacks against us.
Tim Farley: Again, we are speaking with Scott Smith, technical advisor on Afghanistan, with the United States Institute of Peace. It sounds like the priority for Afghanistan, we need to have peace, and in order to get there, we're going to have to allow the Taliban in, somehow, to the government mechanism. The Taliban wants to be a part of that power structure and that's where their negotiating comes from. That's their ultimate goal. The U.S. wants to keep terrorists, other than the Taliban, but they want to keep al-Qaida and like groups out of Afghanistan. So, it's being a part of this negotiating process with the Taliban and Afghanistan.
Tim Farley: Really? Is that the bottom line negotiation? Both the Taliban and the government in Afghanistan, they want to make sure that they're each getting enough power to keep the other from taking over the country and the U.S. just cares about keeping al-Qaida and those groups out of Afghanistan. Is that the bottom line here?
Scott Smith: No, because the U.S. cares quite a bit about preserving the gains that have been made in the past 18 years while we've been there. Gains on women's rights, on human rights, on democracy, and these kinds of issues. What was interesting about these first talks that happened on Sunday and Monday between this group from Kabul and the Taliban in Doha, which was, in a very vague sense, beginning to try and understand each other's positions on these things. The Afghan delegation... What was quite interesting about this was they're mostly the generation of younger politicians and younger activists who have come of age since 2001. They have a stake in the future. They've had a very different experience of Afghanistan in terms of a society more open to the rest of the world, more democratic, more rights based. And they need to show the Taliban, "Look, we're here. We're united. We're the next generation and we don't want to go back to the way you used to run the country in the 1990s. You need to understand that this is a different Afghanistan that we're trying to shape." The Taliban have not necessarily been exposed to that and it was important for them to see that.
Scott Smith: The key issue in the negotiations that we hope will happen between Kabul and the Taliban will be a form of government that will guarantee a lot of these rights and a lot of these interests. That frankly the majority of the Afghans probably share.
Tim: Good point.
Scott Smith: And, obviously, the U.S. is behind them on that, because we've made huge sacrifices to develop these sorts of institutions. And I don't think that it will be enough just to accept a guarantee from the Taliban that Afghanistan won't be a haven for terrorists, and then give in on everything else.
Tim Farley: A really good point there is that there are things that the U.S. would like to see in place and that makes me wonder again with the commitment President Trump had talked about the possibility of another 1500 troops or so. And I wonder, do you see a day when the U.S. is able to withdrawal entirely from Afghanistan or is this going to be a permanent presence?
Scott Smith: Well, for the Taliban, they insist that there's a total withdrawal. I think there's still a lot of people in Washington who would like to see some sort of presence in Afghanistan. For what? At least to make sure that the Taliban can deliver on the guarantee. The negotiations that have been happening, right now, between Ambassador Khalilzad and the Taliban on these issues have been, obviously, behind closed doors. We don't know much about the details, but I'm sure that those are the final kinds of issues that need to be discussed. And whether or not the Taliban can accept a residual presence until we're satisfied that they can implement the guarantees that they give, these are the details that are, probably, the ones being discussed in the latest rounds.
Tim Farley: Finally, Scott, it's not an easy job, obviously, but one wonders about the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. What's your take? What's your assessment?
Scott Smith: Well, I think he's done a remarkable job. To put this in context, our policies since 2011 have been to wait for Afghans and Taliban to negotiate with each other. A year ago, the Trump Administration took a decision that we would begin talking directly with the Taliban and break out of the vicious circle that have been... which had prevented the Afghans and the Taliban from talking to each other. That was not really noted much, at the time, but it was a huge policy decision. The selection of Ambassador Khalilzad who, of course, is Afghan born was, I think, a very good selection. I think he's made a lot more progress than a lot of people would have believed, and he's handled it very, very well. I think this is a very interesting story of American diplomacy in peacemaking.
Tim Farley: Wow, fascinating. It's like the kid who didn't want to play with the toy until the other kids wanted to play with the toy. Then the Afghans and Taliban, they start talking after the U.S. says, "We'll play with that toy." It may be a cheap analogy, but that was the one I could go for. Scott, I appreciate you joining us on POTUS today.
Scott Smith: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
Tim Farley: Great perspective. Scott Smith, technical advisor on Afghanistan with the United States Institute of Peace. A complicated world. We're still there. Since 2001 we've been there, but there is hope that, at least, some kind of resolution can be found. And he is tweeting @USIP.