USIP President and CEO Nancy Lindborg explains how U.S.-Iran tensions could exacerbate state fragility and hamper longstanding peacebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying, “All of this can be put at risk with the current tensions as both countries really fear becoming collateral damage.”

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.


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Tim Farley: One aspect of this you didn't hear much of last night was what we want to talk about with our next guest, because the long-term ramifications, the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, remain to be seen. But as Nancy Lindborg points out, as this high-stakes situation plays out, the distinct danger is that Iraq and Afghanistan, the two fragile countries flanking Iran, will become collateral damage. Let's explore that more again. Nancy Lindborg with us, the president of the United States Institute of Peace, tweeting @nancylindborg. Nancy, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Nancy Lindborg: Good morning, Tim. Good to be with you again.

Tim Farley: We hear much about Iran. We have heard more about Iraq, obviously, because of their connection to the attack, as well as some of the protests that were playing out in the street, in the embassy and so on. Not so much about Afghanistan. What are we missing?

Nancy Lindborg: Well, you know, both Iraq and Afghanistan are very fragile neighbors flanking Iran, and both of them obviously have been two countries we've heard a lot about for the last decade and a half, where we've been working hard to help those two countries. Very hard work emerged from war. We've got troops stationed in both countries. And also, importantly, both countries have populations that are increasingly hoping for and calling for peace. Particularly in Afghanistan, there's been an off-and-on-again effort to broker a peace accord, both between the U.S. and the Taliban, and also, most importantly, between the Afghans and the Taliban. All of this can be put at risk with the current tensions, as both countries really fear becoming collateral damage in the escalating tension between the U.S. and Iran.

Tim Farley: Nancy, one of the things you wrote is, "For decades, Iran has hosted millions of Afghan refugees," and you note that an Afghan woman leader from Kabul tells you that Iran understands them much better than the U.S. does. Why is this important?

Nancy Lindborg: Well, it's important because again, they've got a long border. Many, many Afghans are refugees in Iran. And the ability of Iran to mobilize those Afghans, who are primarily Hazara, in Iran, to go back into Afghanistan, target American interests, undermine the peace negotiations, is a very real threat. President Ghani issued a very specific statement in the aftermath of the killing of General Soleimani to not pull Afghanistan into this rising conflict. They, of course, are still in a very, very fragile situation, but there is hope that there can be a move towards peace. That's what I heard over and over again on my trip there, just a month and a half ago.

Nancy Lindborg: And so, they share a border, as does Iraq, and both countries have to balance their alliance with the United States, their reliance on the United States, with their relationship with a neighbor that will not go away... Iran is in the neighborhood and has the ability and the history of exerting a lot of influence, often maligned influence, but also a lot of economic ties. You know, Afghanistan is landlocked. They have to go through Iran to use an important port.

Tim Farley: Nancy Lindborg with us, with the United States Institute of Peace. As you mentioned, a month and a half ago you were there. I wonder if you were surprised by, or what we should take away from, the pushback from the Iranian citizenry after the Iranian leadership, if you will, fumbled the revelations that it had shot down a Ukrainian airliner. What do we see in the street, and what does that tell you?

Nancy Lindborg: Well, it tells me that... You know, look. 2019 was the year of people power around the globe. We saw on almost every continent that people were reasserting their demands for more accountable, less repressive governments. That was true in Iran as well. There were protests throughout the fall. After the killing of General Soleimani, people coalesced in support of the general. We saw that with the massive demonstrations. But then, after the revelations that their government had shot down this aircraft, the protests resumed against the government.

Nancy Lindborg: Similarly in Iraq, since October, people were protesting strongly and in large numbers, calling for a more accountable government in Iraq, and importantly, less influence of Iran in Iraq. And so it's important, I would charge, that as this high-stake situation plays out at the top levels of our government, and governments in the region, that we not cover up and undermine the voices of the people in the street, especially in Iraq, they really want a government that is freed from Iranian influence, and we risk undermining their influence and their momentum.

Tim Farley: Speaking of Iraq, one of the things you wrote... And by the way, we're in the midst of a presidential campaign, during which Senator Bernie Sanders continues to hammer away at Joe Biden for his vote on the Iraq War, and claim that he did not support it. Well, to claim, rightly, that he did not support the war. That's something, a vote that was taken 18 years ago, and to this day, we are still watching very closely to see what the policy is going to be. You note that a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq would set the stage for ISIS to return in the country, as it did for the group's emergence in 2011. Number one, Nancy, that sounds like a tough political sell in this country. And number two, it sounds like a tough sell in Iraq, because the opinion there seems to be divided, as you note. So, is there a solution at hand for that?

Nancy Lindborg: Well, I think it's going to take some very assertive and focused diplomacy. As you note, opinion is divided in Iraq. The recent Iraqi parliamentary vote, which was non-binding, that said withdraw the troops, the U.S. troops from Iraq, was primarily a Shia vote. The other two big sectors, both the Sunni and the Kurdish parliamentarians, did not vote. When I was there not too long ago, I heard over and over again an acute fear that ISIS will return, despite the territorial defeat of ISIS. It is still very present in Iraq, and we should not underestimate the potential of ISIS to come back and regroup in a very, very significant way. It's a fear. There are constant attacks underway, even now, in villages and communities across Iraq.

Nancy Lindborg: We saw what happened in 2011. If we would precipitously withdraw our troops now, I think there's no doubt that we would see a resurgence of ISIS again. And similarly in Afghanistan, there is a negotiation underway. I think everybody wants to withdraw our troops from both countries, but the question is, how do we do it in a more responsible way, that truly ends these endless wars, that brings a more sustainable peace to Afghanistan, and a more accountable government, with less of a possibility of ISIS roaring back into that country? Which is not in our interest. Certainly not in the interest of the Iraqi people.

Tim Farley: Nancy, as always, thank you for joining us this morning.

Nancy Lindborg: Thank you, Tim. Always a pleasure to be with you.

Tim Farley: Nancy Lindborg, president of the United States Institute of Peace, showing once again that foreign policy is not a bumper sticker, something you can easily apply to four words or less, talking about Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the U.S. relationship with all. She is tweeting @nancylindborg.

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