Afghanistan’s government is focused on building consensus—both domestically and among states in the region—to support a peace process with the Taliban insurgency, according to the Afghan national security advisor, Hanif Atmar. The main challenges, he said, include continued support from Pakistan for the Taliban and an incremental recent Russian move toward immediate cooperation with the Taliban even without a peace process. Also, Atmar said, a web of disparate extremist groups is deploying increasing numbers of foreign fighters in his country.

panelists at the event

Atmar spoke at USIP during a visit to Washington amid a string of consultations he has held with other governments to advance the peace process offered by President Ashraf Ghani. The Afghan government’s ability to build domestic support behind that invitation—for the Taliban to end its insurgency and take a role in Afghan politics—is critical, USIP expert Johnny Walsh and other analysts have said.

U.S. officials, including senior diplomat Alice Wells, have urged the Taliban to carefully weigh Ghani’s offer. As the United States has applied pressure—including suspending military aid to Pakistan over continued support from within Pakistan for the Taliban—former U.S. officials and analysts have voiced concern over the efficacy of U.S. effort.

Three weeks after Ghani unveiled his proposal, neither the Taliban leadership nor Pakistan has responded formally, Atmar noted. Last year’s Afghan government reconciliation with longtime insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar “gives us hope” for the new effort to reconcile many, if not all, of the Taliban, Atmar said.

During the 1990s Taliban regime, Atmar worked with international humanitarian aid agencies in Afghanistan. Since 2002, his government posts have included three cabinet positions, at the head of ministries for internal security, education and rural development.

Recent terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, including a bombing in Kabul that killed nearly 30 civilians on March 21, the Afghan New Year, are in part an effort by hardline insurgents to prevent a peace process from developing, Atmar said. A cluster of high-profile attacks since January also is a “response to the significant setbacks … that the Taliban and the IS [Islamic State] suffered in rural areas,” he said. “So they resort to this level of violence … to demonstrate to the rest of the world that they [still] exist.”

Kabul Government’s Priorities

Atmar spoke to an audience of U.S. officials, Afghan policy specialists, and USIP’s International Advisory Council. He then held a discussion with audience members and USIP’s board chairman, former U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. Asked by Hadley about the need for Afghan domestic reconciliation, Atmar said: “The way we look at it is, challenge number one [is] peace between the state of Afghanistan and the state of Pakistan. … Element number two is intra-Afghan peace with Taliban and the Haqqani network.” The Haqqani insurgent faction, long allied to the Taliban, operates both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “The third element is the foreign fighters in this … [who] we cannot make peace with,” and who will have to be suppressed through counter-terrorism operations, he said.

“There are leaders, now, among the Taliban and the Haqqani network, that question the continuation of the conflict,” Atmar said. “They are certainly in contact with our [Afghan government] peace council and the government, and they are asking for a process whereby they and their families are protected” as part of any process by those insurgents “to engage in peace.”

Among Atmar’s points during the event were these:

  • Afghan security forces hold all major cities, four years after taking over combat duties from 140,000 U.S. and other international forces. “The transition has taken place successfully. Yes, there have been setbacks, especially in rural areas.” But “17 years ago you had to intervene yourselves” to fight terrorist groups. “Now that responsibility is shouldered by the Afghans.”
  • Foreign extremist forces are growing. “Increasingly, we see foreign fighters associated with at least three categories of terrorist networks: the global networks such as al-Qaida [and] Daesh;” plus groups drawn from Asian locales, including Uzbekistan and China’s Xinjiang region; and “Pakistani terrorists such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, Tehreek-i-Taliban-i-Pakistan and Jaish-i-Muhammad.” Terrorist groups “are all drawing on the criminalized economy, chiefly drugs.”
  • The Afghan government aims to separate the Taliban from foreign-based groups. “If we succeed in making peace with the Taliban and separating them from the foreign fighters, this will be the most effective” strategy to prevent “international terrorists from trying to use Afghan against the rest of the world.”
  • “Key enablers” to a peace process include the Taliban renouncing violence, separating themselves from international extremist groups and offering “full respect for the Afghan constitution and especially the rights of our women and minorities.”
  • Russia accuses Afghanistan and the United States of implanting ISIS forces in northern Afghanistan to harm Russian security interests. Atmar recounted recent discussions with Russian interlocutors. “Where we agree with the Russians is that the terrorism and especially the foreign fighters are a threat to all of us,” and that a peace process is the preferred outcome, he said. “Where we disagree is where we hear about the distinction that is made between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists. And then finding a way to work with the Taliban. Now, of course, we’ve received assurance that the Taliban will not be provided with weapons and resources. We would welcome that assurance and we would like to see that in practice. But we also get concerned,” Atmar said, when Russian interlocutors try to justify their cooperation with the Taliban by claiming falsely “that there are U.S., NATO, Afghan unmarked helicopters, so-called, bringing Daesh [Islamic State fighters] from the south or even the tribal areas of Pakistan to the north of the country [Afghanistan].”
  • China has feared U.S. or Indian encouragement of extremism. Afghan officials have found China “extremely worried about ETIM, the so-called Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement. Their number, we estimate to be between 300 to 500 fighters in Afghanistan. … Until quite recently, they [China] had this wrong information that perhaps the United States or India is behind the ETIM fighters. We engaged them and provided them with the evidence” of ways that ETIM fighters wind up in Afghanistan.

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