Amid news of an interim U.S.-Taliban deal, Afghanistan’s election commission announced President Ashraf Ghani has won reelection—a result his opponent has openly rejected. USIP’s Scott Worden warns this kind of political infighting weakens the government’s negotiating position ahead of possible intra-Afghan talks, saying “the Taliban profit from political chaos.”

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: Latest out of Afghanistan is that the election commission says that Ashraf Ghani has won a second term as president. But his closest opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, has declared himself the winner. The Taliban, meanwhile, has rejected the win of Mr. Ghani, further putting into question the U.S. peace plan, which calls for a reduction in violence followed by a more permanent agreement, expected to be signed February 29th between Washington and the Taliban. President Trump commenting yesterday, speaking with reporters as he was leaving the White House.

(Audio from news clip)

Tim Farley: There's a chance. We will see what happens, often hearing that from the president. Specifically, on Afghanistan, let's get the take from Scott Worden.

Scott is the director of the United States Institute of Peace’s Afghanistan and Central Asia programs. The Twitter handle is @USIP. Scott, welcome back. Thank you for being here.

Scott Worden: Morning, thanks for having me.

Tim Farley: What is the state of any agreements right now in your estimation?

Scott Worden: Well, I'm cautiously optimistic that an agreement will in fact go through. I think we were back to the point we were in in September, when people were talking about a possible U.S.-Taliban deal and that fell through. President Trump canceled a planned trip to Camp David to sign the deal, and the parties went back to negotiations.

I think there are signs that this is more likely to go through. The U.S. and the Taliban have negotiated a reduction in violence, which is supposed to last for seven days, and that's the period we're in now. And upon that completion of the seven days, the Taliban will sign a deal with the U.S. renouncing terrorism, saying there'll be no safe havens, and then agreeing to talk directly with the Afghan government, which would be the first time since 2001. So the signs are looking good, but I would definitely keep my fingers crossed. Because as you mentioned in your top piece, there is a disputed election result, which has just been announced, and that will cause even more political turmoil.

Tim Farley: Is it your sense that this is a true dispute or that the Taliban is using this as an excuse to delay things?

Scott Worden: Well, I think the Taliban has been consistent that they don't recognize the democratic process. They don't recognize the democratically elected government of President Ghani. So they're going to say that they reject the government regardless of what happens. I think the more significant feature is that the runner up, Abdullah Abdullah, who was the chief executive officer in the current government, has disputed the results and says he's going to form his own government. And this kind of infighting, political infighting among groups that are otherwise opposed to the Taliban, tends to weaken the government's negotiating power and the Taliban profit from political chaos.

Tim Farley: Scott, I have made this comparison and maybe it's an odious one, but it's just a feel, it's not necessarily based in expertise, which is why I'd like to get your take on this. And that is that after the Vietnam War in this country, it was just everyone was tired, wanting to get out. And there was always a question about the involvement of the United States in that country and how much we needed to invest and at what point we pull out, and at the end of it, trying to claim some sort of progress. If the United States does withdraw from Afghanistan, what is the positive? What is the negative?

Scott Worden: That's a good question. I think there are a lot of positives in terms of largely eliminating al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. They have had no capability to plan attacks against U.S. Of course, fortunately, there has been no attacks from Afghanistan on the U.S. So, I think the core counterterrorism objective of going in was achieved for a long period of time. For Afghanistan, the development there—economic development, infrastructure development, as well as education and health— has been enormous since 2001.

Afghanistan is still a very poor country and it needs more development assistance, that it should be increasingly financing on its own, but the U.S. intervention with international partners was able to really set the country back on its feet. And finally it's established, while a fragile democratic system, it still is a democratic country in a very undemocratic area of the world. And it has free speech and free media that is the envy of its neighbors. So those are all very positive. Now, the negative of course, is that we're still there, and we're still paying billions of dollars a year. So, the peace deal, that people hope will happen, is really the best way to ease down our investment and let the Afghan government take more of the responsibility.

Tim Farley: I guess a lot of people would say, "All right, so we've got nearly 2,500 military deaths, 1,900 of those give or take the result of hostile action, about 20,000 service members wounded in action in the war." And you wonder, "Okay, good job, well done. And it was worth the effort or not?"

Scott Worden: Well, I think again with the counterterrorism goal at the core of the mission, the fact that we did eliminate one source of threat with no attacks, I think that is a job well done. Our presence in Afghanistan enabled us to get [Osama] bin Laden in Pakistan next door. That wouldn't have happened without an intervention. Did it need to be as large? Did as many people need to die? I mean, those are questions that need to be reviewed historically. And surely in hindsight, we probably overpaid for the investment. But that said, it's a process that was worth engaging in and has paid dividends.

Tim Farley: Again, Scott Worden with us, director of the United States Institute of Peace’s Afghanistan and Central Asia programs. On this deal with the Taliban, Scott, is there any sense, what is the mechanism for compliance to ensure that the Taliban lives up to whatever it agrees to?

Scott Worden: We understand that there are compliance mechanisms. The deal has not been released publicly yet, the deal between the U.S. and the Taliban. So I don't know the details of it, but fundamentally it would be the U.S. military commander, and along with the Afghan military, evaluating with all of the capabilities that we have there, whether the Taliban has agreed to the terms or not. Fundamentally, they are to reduce violence, no violence against civilians. There've been a lot of attacks on civilians and federal damage by the Taliban, as well as by aerial bombardment by the Afghan forces and that should be observable by the public and by the media. Other forms of violence would be for the military to decide.

Tim Farley: And as far as we talk about the Afghanistan and the Taliban and the U.S., of course, you’ve got to wonder about the neighbors, Iran to the West, Pakistan to the East and the South, Turkmenistan to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan. I'm not sure, do they recognize, will they recognize the Taliban as the leader in Afghanistan or does it matter to them?

Scott Worden: I think it is unlikely that they will recognize the Taliban as the leader of Afghanistan. Just about all of the neighbors, with the exception of Pakistan, oppose the Taliban. They would prefer them to be defeated, but I think they've accepted the fact that the Taliban are here to stay and therefore need to be negotiated with. In Pakistan, now they have, of course, provided safe havens and support for the Taliban. They continue to do so. They want the Taliban to have a significant role in government, but I think they also fear having the Taliban in full control. Because there are anti-Pakistan militants who might seek safe havens if the Taliban led Afghanistan and attack Pakistan.

Tim Farley: It's very complex, it's obviously something where there's a lot yet to be determined. I do appreciate you being with us. Scott Worden, thank you for joining us on POTUS.

Scott Worden: Thanks very much for having me.

Tim Farley: We'll see what happens, as the president says. Scott Worden is the director of the United States Institute of Peace’s Afghanistan and Central Asia programs. Could this never-ending war be ending? Stick around, we'll find out. By the way, the Twitter handle is @USIP.

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