A political deal to resolve the disputed 2019 presidential election was finally reached over the weekend. USIP’s Scott Worden says the agreement “is quite significant” because it will give the Afghan side “more political coherence to negotiate with the Taliban and, if implemented, it will show the Taliban they can’t divide Afghans.”
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: Looking at the New York Times story here, in a day of intensifying violence across Afghanistan, the country's security forces bombed the clinic in the northern province of Kunduz on Tuesday in their efforts to thwart another coordinated assault by the Taliban on the provincial capital that the militants of twice overrun and continued to besiege. The country's conflict is back into full-fledged bloodletting after a brief period of hope that a deal between the United States and Taliban in February would open the way for negotiations between the two Afghan sides. This taking place as an agreement has been struck forming a high council on national reconciliation, which is considered a key step in getting talks with the Taliban on track. So we have some conflict, to say it's complicated would be perhaps to understate it, which is why we're glad Scott Worden can join us. Scott is director of the United States Institute of Peace’s Afghanistan & Central Asia programs, tweeting @USIP and with us here this morning. Scott, welcome back to POTUS. Thanks for being here.
Scott Worden: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Tim Farley: So, are things headed in the right direction or the wrong direction right now?
Scott Worden: Is it possible to go both at the same time?
Tim Farley: I guess it's like the scarecrow pointing both directions, you know.
Scott Worden: That's right. There are signs of progress, I'll start with that. The political deal that was signed between President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second again in the presidential election, is quite significant. I counted 33 weeks had passed from the election. People talked during the election time about the need for political unity, regardless of who won and to form a cohesive and inclusive government and it took them a long time to do that. And now we have a deal where Abdullah Abdullah heads, as you said, this High Supreme Council for Peace and Reconciliation. And so, it gives him a prominent political role. It also gives him and his allies, his political party and group power to nominate many of the cabinet positions and some provincial governors. So, this provides a greater cohesion on the Afghan side. It gives them more political coherence to negotiate against the Taliban and hopefully, if it's implemented, it will show the Taliban that they cannot divide different groups of Afghanistan and gain an advantage that way. So that's a big win. However, as you also pointed out, the increasing violence is going in the wrong direction and that's a big concern.
Tim Farley: To that point, the way the story goes on, it says the Taliban have ignored what U.S. officials described as an understanding that they would reduce violence by up to 80% in the prelude to negotiations. One wonders if this is a signal to the U.S. or if it is just a sign that the Taliban feels they can ignore whatever the U.S. influence is trying to exert in the area, because the U.S. warned President Trump's administration seemed very disinterested in the what, what's happening there right now?
Scott Worden: Right. I think there, there are two problems here. First of all, of course the Taliban, like any negotiating party, is seeking to gain as much leverage as they can before talks begin. And so they are pushing the limits of the terms of the agreement and they're testing to see how strong the Afghan military is and how strong the resolve is of the United States to enforce different elements of their agreement. The other problem is that the U.S. Taliban agreement had a provision on the release of prisoners by both the Taliban and the Afghan government. 5,000 were to be released by the government, 1,000 by the Taliban, and that did not have the full consent of the Afghans. It was in the U.S. agreement. But there were some misunderstandings about who would be released when and the government has not released prisoners. So, the Taliban used that as an excuse to say, well, we don't have to abide by the violence reductions.
Over the weekend, or sorry, last weekend, ISIS attacked both a maternity hospital in one of the most atrocious acts of violence the country has seen in the last decade, and they also attacked a funeral in one of the provinces. And while it was ISIS, not the Taliban, the Afghan government said, well, we cannot remain in defensive mode, we have to go on offense. And the Taliban are using that also as a reason to say that they can increase their levels of violence. So, without getting into exactly who's right and who's wrong on the letter of the law, it clearly is going in the wrong direction. And hopefully the trip by Amb. Khalilzhad, who's just gone to the region again yesterday, will try to steer the parties toward negotiation rather than greater fighting.
Tim Farley: Scott Worden with us, director of the United States Institute of Peace Afghanistan & Central Asia programs. I wanted to get a sense of how much coronavirus might or might not be complicating things. I was noting that in a post on Twitter yesterday, on Facebook, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who is an anti-Soviet, anti-Taliban commander, said that he and several of the members of his family have tested positive, saying his symptoms are not so serious warning, this did not mean that his virus should not be taken seriously. That seems like a rather granular example, but I wonder in general, is this having an effect on the process forward for Afghanistan?
Scott Worden: Well, I think that the COVID virus has not had much of an effect on the peace process, unfortunately, because of course the UN Secretary General has called on a global ceasefire so that people can focus on the humanitarian need. There is a large humanitarian need in Afghanistan. There's very little testing, so we don't have accurate numbers on the cases, but it is in between Iran and Pakistan, which have lots of cases. The Taliban have said they would allow medical aid to their areas, but they would not agree to a ceasefire based on COVID and so it's really having no effect on the course of negotiations. However, I think it will prove to have negative effects long-term on overall Afghanistan health and livelihoods, because they have an extremely fragile healthcare system. There's very little treatment options, and while it does not seem to be as deadly as it has been in other countries, the ability to fend off the disease when people do get infections is very low. So I think it will have economic and health repercussions, which will ultimately make the Afghan state weaker in the near future.
Tim Farley: Finally, what can the U.S. do without the president necessarily having to go back on his sort of hands-off approach on Afghanistan? What's a good course of action in your mind for the U.S.?
Scott Worden: Well, I think there's a couple of things that can be done beyond active diplomacy which is going on. I think the regional neighbors, Afghanistan's neighbors, other major powers, they all share an interest in Afghanistan not collapsing. If it does, then we could have a serious situation where maybe the Taliban aren't the problem internationally, but ISIS gains greater footholds. And so getting the allies’ support, getting our rivals’ support, to tell the Taliban and the government together, you have to negotiate, you have to end this, would be one way to share the burden and to corral these parties that seem to want not to agree. The other thing we should do is calibrate our withdrawal to progress on the ground and this is the approach that has been taken in theory, but a big question remains as to what happens in July when the first phase of the U.S. Taliban troop withdrawal is completed. That would bring U.S. troops down to 8,600, and what happens after that? If we go ahead and continue withdrawal when there are no talks beginning, then it will show the Taliban we really want to leave and they should wait us out. But if our troop withdrawal after 8,600 is tied to progress on talks and reduction in violence, then I think that's important leverage that can push negotiations forward.
Tim Farley: Scott, I always appreciate your visits. Thanks so much for being here.
Scott Worden: Appreciate you having me.
Tim Farley: Scott Worden is director of the United States Institute of Peace Afghanistan & Central Asia programs. By the way, a lot of background in this, he had one time had worked in the office of the Special Inspector General for [Afghanistan] Reconstruction, or SIGAR, also was a senior policy advisor at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Office of Afghanistan & Pakistan Affairs. So we're glad we can bring his expertise to bear on the show, he is with the USIP and that's where you'll find him on Twitter @USIP.