“I think President Trump has really unlocked the possibility for the peace process by putting our troops on the table, as long as we just don’t withdraw them unilaterally,” says Andrew Wilder. Following President Trump’s clarification of the administration’s strategy during the State of the Union, Wilder shares his analysis of the ongoing Afghan peace process.
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Tim Farley (host): Last night during the State of the Union address President Trump had this to say about Afghanistan: "We do not know whether we'll achieve an agreement, but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace, and the other side would like to do the same thing. It's time."
Tim Farley: Well, aside from the “two decades”, it’s not quite that long, however, it is a war that has stretched now some 17 years, and the president has been bound and determined to withdraw troops there. He mentioned an agreement. Let's bring some perspective to this with Andrew Wilder, who's an expert and watches these things. He's the Asia vice president of the United States Institute of Peace tweeting @USIP, and joining us here on P.O.T.U.S.
Tim Farley: Andrew, thanks so much for being here.
Andrew Wilder: Thank you.
Tim Farley: How did you process what the president said, specifically about Afghanistan last night?
Andrew Wilder: I have to say, I could practically hear a collective sigh of reliefs are emanating from Afghanistan, but also from many of us who are working to promote the cause of peace in Afghanistan, when the president linked the drawdown of U.S. troops to making progress in the negotiations. Because that's going to be the key. There had been concerns that we might wake up to a tweet announcing sort of a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops, but our troops are our leverage in the negotiation, and I think President Trump has really unlocked the possibility for a peace process by putting our troops on the table, but as long as we don't just withdraw them unilaterally, but use them as leverage in the negotiations.
Andrew Wilder: When he clarified that in his speech last night, I think that really greatly increases the prospects of achieving a politically negotiated end to the conflict in Afghanistan.
Tim Farley: It is clear if you gauge public opinion that America is ready to welcome troops home from Afghanistan. However, military advisors and others like yourself who follow this closely say, "Not so fast," and it's hard to hear you when you say, "Not so fast," when you say we've been there 17 years. Have we been misdirected? Have we been taking the wrong approach? Why is it that the US has been there for so long?
Andrew Wilder: Partly because I think for too long we've thought we could win the war militarily so we actually never had a serious peace process effort. Or some aspects of the U.S. government were working for peace, but others were still trying to win the war. I think now there's a collective realization not only on the part of the U.S., but also on the part of the Taliban, that no side can win the war. So I think the time really is right to try to reach a negotiated end to the conflict. So that's the big change now, that we're willing to put our troops on the table in a negotiation, which has been the Taliban number one demand from the very beginning, the withdrawal of foreign troops, and that's now actually something President Trump also agrees with. So that there's a basis for a negotiation. I think that's where Ambassador Khalilzad, and his team, who is the special representative of the U.S. Government working on the Afghanistan peace process, is really now trying to move that peace process forward.
Tim Farley: Talk about the high profile neighborhood. You've got Pakistan and Iran bordering Afghanistan. You wonder what their reaction would be to some sort of a peace agreement and the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Talk about that a little.
Andrew Wilder: I actually think this really creates an opportunity to rebuild a consensus for peace and stability in Afghanistan in the region because many of Afghanistan's neighbors, I think Iran in particular, did not want to see a large scale US military presence in Afghanistan for the long term because they feel that would also threaten them. However, they also don't want a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops which would then most likely lead to a rapid collapse of the Afghan state and a return to anarchy in Afghanistan, and that's actually very bad for Afghanistan's neighbors.
Andrew Wilder: So now, also, if Afghanistan's neighbors realize that the U.S. is serious about drawing down its troops, I think that there's, again, an opportunity to work with them. But it's going to be difficult because Afghanistan is also... You have the Iran-Saudi conflict that could play out in Afghanistan and that competition. We also have the India-Pakistan rivalry can be played out in terms of support for their various proxies in Afghanistan.
Andrew Wilder: So it's going to be a tough issue, but I do think that there is consensus in the region as well that they don't want the Afghan state to collapse. So I think there's an opportunity to try to negotiate both in terms of intra-Afghan dialog, but also in terms of the region to rebuild that consensus for peace.
Tim Farley: Once again we are speaking with Andrew Wilder, Asia vice president at the United States Institute of Peace. The story out of Moscow noting that Afghans living in Russia have been hosting a meeting between Afghan politicians and members of the Taliban who refuse to talk with President Ghani, and I wonder if this is something that is causing more consternation and perhaps more unrest right now is whether or not some people are moving forward without President Ghani or if there's something else at work here.
Andrew Wilder: This is one of the real challenges moving forward is that you need an intra-Afghan dialogue. The Taliban, however, refused to meet with President Ghani because they feel that's recognizing an illegitimate puppet regime that they don't recognize. On the other hand, President Ghani quite rightly feels as the elected president of Afghanistan, his government should be leading that intra-Afghan peace process.
Andrew Wilder: So that's a really intractable issue right now, and I think that's where we need some creative diplomacy. And I think the Taliban are also going to need to make some compromise that in exchange for the U.S. commitment that we are serious about drawing down our troops, they then need to come to a negotiating table and sit with the Afghan government, but also, a broader segment of Afghan society to talk about the intra-Afghan dimensions to a peace process. Because that peace process really needs to be inclusive, and it actually can't just be the Afghan government and the Taliban. It also needs to include women's groups, civil society groups… Some of the Afghan opposition groups also need to be included in that dialogue, but clearly President Ghani and the government need to play a role in that process.
Tim Farley: I wonder, we talk about President Ashraf Ghani, and we talk about the government of Afghanistan, but usually it is personified. When we talk about the Taliban there's never an individual that we talk about, or rarely an individual we talk about who is considered the leader of the Taliban. It always seems to be the Taliban has a position. Is there somebody who could emerge as a voice of reason, a voice of compromise, a voice of conciliation in the Taliban or is that pretty much an intractable position?
Andrew Wilder: I think it's too early to say. There has been a very recent interesting development just in the last couple of weeks where the Taliban have appointed Mullah Baradar, who is sort of a number two of the Taliban movement under Mullah Omar, to go head the Taliban political commission office in Doha. And that greatly elevates the level of their representation there, so everyone's hoping that this Taliban political commission, which has previously served a bit as a post office to send messages back to Taliban leadership, whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but now they're hoping that they'll be more authoritative representation and negotiations based in Doha now that it's going to be headed by Mullah Baradar, who has much more authority than the previous head of the Taliban Commission based in Doha.
Tim Farley: Andrew Wilder, thank you for joining us on P.O.T.U.S. this morning.
Andrew Wilder: I thank you very much.
Tim Farley: Andrew Wilder, Asia vice president of the United Institute of Peace, following up on some of the things the President said last night. "A collective sigh of relief," he said, as allies and the Afghans were probably listening to what the president said and feeling a little bit better so that there was not going to be some precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Tim Farley: Andrew Wilder, you can follow him on Twitter as well as everyone else at the U.S. Institute of Peace @USIP.