The Afghan government and Taliban announced an agreement on a prisoner exchange this week, but it remains unclear what comes next. With the presidential election still undecided, “The question is, if this is the beginning of a new peace strategy on the part of President Ghani, will he be the president a few months from now to carry that strategy forward?” asks USIP’s Scott Smith.
On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.
Tim Farley: Afghanistan and the Taliban have evidently reached a deal to release two American University teachers, including a U.S. citizen. This in exchange for three Taliban members. That is according to President Ashraf Ghani in a live television address, noting that the prisoner exchange would free two American University professors, U.S. citizen Kevin King and Australian citizen Timothy Weeks. They were, by the way, kidnapped at gunpoint from American University of Afghanistan in 2016. Mr. Ghani also says that he was doing this somewhat reluctantly. Let's get some perspective on this in background with Scott Smith. Scott is the senior technical expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace. The Twitter handle is @USIP. Scott, welcome, thank you for being here.
Scott Smith: Thank you, Tim. Good morning.
Tim Farley: First of all, these two individuals, they've been in captivity, as I mentioned, for some time, three years now. What has prompted the release of these individuals?
Scott Smith: Well, President Ghani gave two different reasons. One was the humanitarian concern about their health. It was known, I think in particular, that Kevin King had some health issues the Taliban itself mentioned. The other reason is also directly alluded to by President Ghani, who said this was intended to facilitate direct peace negotiations with the Taliban. So, on that second issue, the point is are we seeing the first real move, again, towards the peace process since President Trump declared the talks between the U.S. and the Taliban dead earlier in September.
Tim Farley: So, I guess, the other question is: How involved is the U.S. in this particular maneuver? Reportedly, as you have noted, Ambassador Khalilzad, [who] had been negotiating with the Taliban over U.S. withdrawal, was also reportedly involved in this. Is that correct?
Scott Smith: Right. There are reports that he had been in Kabul. He had spoken with the key Afghan officials, who had said that the issue they were discussing was prisoner release. So I think, behind the scenes, he was rather involved. And again, it might have been for the purpose, on his part, of reviving the talks that have been stalled since September.
Tim Farley: So, we note that this is a prisoner swap. I mean, we've got two people being released, but there are three members of the Haqqani network being released, and the question is whether they might just go back to their old ways, and get back on the battlefield and keep fighting.
Scott Smith: Right, right. That's always a concern. Again, President Ghani, in his statement, said that there had been certain mechanisms that had been adopted that would prevent that from happening. And we know, in the past, you remember when Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Private, had been released in another prisoner exchange with five detainees in Guantanamo. The Taliban, the condition was that they stay in a third country, in Qatar, in that case, and there have been some suggestions that this might have the same sort of condition. They're kept away from the battlefield, away from the direct operations, but released from Afghan custody.
Tim Farley: What effect, if any, does this have on Afghanistan elections?
Scott Smith: Well, we're in another one of these Afghan electoral crises. Elections were held on the 28th of September, six weeks ago. We still haven't seen any preliminary results. We are beginning to see certain candidates reacting and blocking the electoral count process. So, the question is, if this is the beginning of a new peace strategy on the part of President Ghani, will he be the president a few months from now to continue that strategy forward? The second issue is that the turnout in this election was very, very low. It was less than two million, compared to, for example, the eight million in the 2014 election, which featured the same two candidates. So it's very hard to say that anybody that does come through election with some sort of victory, i.e., the most amount of votes, has a very strong mandate. They'll probably have around one million votes out of a population of 35 million.
It seems that some sort of more representative government will be needed if there is going to be a negotiation process with the Taliban.
Tim Farley: Scott Smith, senior technical expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace. Would you attribute the low turnout to apathy or to intimidation?
Scott Smith: It has to be a combination of both factors. The Taliban made it very clear that they're going to target these elections, and we've seen that they have a capacity to do that. At the same time, you have the two main candidates being the two figures of this power-sharing government since 2014 that has not really delivered, and people don't really feel has delivered for them. So between risking your life to go out for voting for two people who haven't delivered, it's not that surprising that the turnout was as low as it was.
Tim Farley: Scott, a question about something that's not really related to this particular issue, which is the prisoner swap, but something that came out, a report from the State of Global Air, a research group, which says that 26,000 deaths can now be attributed to the pollution problem in Afghanistan. This compares over the same period of time to the beginning of the war in 2001 or 2002, 3,483 civilians killed. Evidently, this is so bad, they got old vehicles that are burning, electrical generators, coal, garbage, plastic, and rubber. Is this a real serious issue, right now?
Scott Smith: It is, and anybody that's been in Kabul, in particular, in the winter, when people burn whatever they have at hand to stay warm, as well as the other factors that you mentioned, the personal generators and old cars. And then the geography of Kabul, which is surrounded by low hills, which means that whatever smog is produced sits there. And you'll notice, when you're living there through the winter, and it is a problem. A more invisible problem than Taliban attacks or something like that, but I think it's a real understated problem, that health issue, as well as the mental health and the trauma issue.
Tim Farley: Yeah, and I asked that question, in part, because local issues often matter as much as some of the global or issues that you don't necessarily see. Although, the Taliban is a part of the fabric, so it's not like you don't see that playing out in the elections, but I was just curious about that.
Scott Smith: Yeah, that's sure to be a part of the malaise.
Tim Farley: Way forward on this— is the United States appropriately involved? We mentioned Ambassador Khalilzad. I wonder if there's more the U.S. should be, or could be, doing.
Scott Smith: I think a lot of that depends now on whether or not President Trump will go back to the negotiations with the Taliban. And his reason for breaking them off, you remember the time was because just before there was supposed to be this signing ceremony at Camp David, there was a car explosion in Kabul in which an American serviceman was killed. So, the president said if the Taliban aren't interested in peace, then we're not going to continue to negotiate with them. Now, is this release a sign, or will it be seen as a sign, that the Taliban are interested in reducing violence and carrying out other measures? Maybe this could trigger a reopening of those talks, or possibly signing an agreement. At the time, I think we discussed this the last time I was on, the whole point of the U.S. agreement with the Taliban, which is on a narrow set of issues, was that would allow the Taliban to talk directly to the Afghan government, which is what we really want to see happening.
Tim Farley: I appreciate your being here. Scott, thanks for being on the show today.
Scott Smith: Always a pleasure, thank you.
Tim Farley: Scott Smith, senior technical expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace, often goes to Afghanistan, by the way, and can give us a real good hands-on sense of what things are like, right now, on that prisoner swap and a couple of other issues. He is tweeting @USIP.