KABUL – In recent weeks, the rapid advance of the Taliban has raised fears among the Afghan people that their government will collapse, allowing the insurgents to restore their Islamic extremism-based emirate.
US President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that the military withdrawal from Afghanistan would be completed by August 31, and thus a 20-year presence after the 11th attacks. The Afghan armed forces have been fighting since the end of the international combat mission in December 2014 largely alone. But there are doubts that they can prevail against the Taliban's violent offensive.
President Ashraf Ghani's administration has remained largely silent, failing to reassure people that U.S. support will continue – something Biden reiterated in his remarks Thursday – that it will not fall and that hard-won rights and freedoms will be maintained are not threatened.
Foreign policy spoke to Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar about the deteriorating security situation, the Taliban's failure to meet obligations under the February 2020 agreement with the Trump administration and what a political agreement with the insurgents could look like. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign policy: How do you assess the current security situation in Afghanistan?
Mohammad Haneef Atmar: It is a difficult situation because the Taliban are failing to meet their obligations under the Doha Peace Agreement. We have all acted in good faith. Since the announcement of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban have launched a massive campaign of terrorism across the country. Over 3,500 people were killed, 30 percent of them civilians but mostly military personnel, and over 200,000 civilians were displaced as a result of this recent wave of Taliban violence. This comes at a time when the government needs to reach people for basic health care because of the pandemic. And on top of that, we have a drought that has affected the livelihoods of many people. The Taliban could not have chosen a more difficult time for the Afghan people to launch this brutal and aggressive campaign.
FP: Despite the deadlocked peace talks, is the Afghan government preparing to involve the Taliban?
MHA: Yes. In the Afghan President's peace plan, we see an inclusive government, power sharing, a transition period and elections. For us the most important issue is that the future of our country is determined by the free will of our people. Any proposal that we put on the table must be compatible with this fundamental principle, the fundamental right of the Afghan people. We will be flexible on the other elements of the proposal.
FP: The red line are elections?
MHA: Elections are not just for election's sake. It is a key process in determining the future of Afghanistan, the final stage of the peace process, which must be acceptable to the Afghan people and also to the world community.
The Afghan people and the world community have agreed on a final state that will be an independent, sovereign, united and peaceful Afghanistan that is not a safe haven for any kind of terrorism, drugs or organized crime, a place for regional and international cooperation, not competition and rivalry. The Government of Afghanistan must fully respect its national and international obligations with regard to human rights, the participation of women and the rights of all citizens of that country. This is the final state that the Afghan people voted for and that is in line with our universal values and acceptable to our region and the international community. In order to achieve this final state, elections are a must.
FP: The Taliban control billions of dollars' worth of illegal drugs and mining in Afghanistan. But the former US President Donald Trump gave them political legitimacy. Are the Taliban under pressure to give up their criminal activities?
MHA: It is the desire of the Afghan people that our country be free from terrorism, drugs, the war economy and organized crime, including human trafficking, weapons, extortion and looting of public resources. Our question to the Taliban would be whether they are a partner in this.
The drug industry was a key source of income for the uprisings in Afghanistan. Sometimes one is confused whether this war is about Afghanistan or about drugs and the war economy. Of course they go together, and there are those who do not want Afghanistan for the Afghan people, but for drugs and international terrorism. This is why we are fighting because these elements pose critical threats to the peace, stability and prosperity of the region and the international community.
It creates a favorable environment for organized crime and rioting and the subversive activities of elements that benefit from it. No nation has been hit harder and no nation has lost more to the drug industry than Afghanistan.
FP: What do the Taliban have to offer?
MHA: Number one is to stop killing Afghan people. To agree to a ceasefire and stop the violence, in line with their obligations under the Doha Agreement.
Number two is a responsible citizen. When you have a political vision for this country, choose to be in tune with the values of our religion and with universal values. These values would guide them to participate in a civilized, peaceful, and politically acceptable way.
What we offer them is to make peace and participate in government together. And they will have the chance to prove whether their vision has any value. This is how they contribute. When they have confidence in their own visions and ideas and their program of action, they should explain and the Afghan people will decide whether to buy something.
FP: What is your message for Pakistan, the main supporter of the Taliban?
MHA: Help the peace process because it is in your best interest. If they are serious about peace, stability and prosperity in the region, peacebuilding in Afghanistan is a must. And Pakistan must help.
When it comes to counterterrorism, there should be no distinction between terrorist groups: not good, not bad – the main principle is that they are all bad. Selectivity should not be a policy because if you are trying to focus on one group in the hopes that the others will not harm you, firstly it is not realistic because it is a symbiotic system and secondly, the other groups will come after you.
FP: How do you see China's interests in Afghanistan?
MHA: China has legitimate interests, including security and the economy. In terms of security, China is concerned about the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan, but they should understand that ETIM is a product of an ecosystem of terror and cannot be treated selectively and the others ignored.
Given the strategic importance of Afghanistan in terms of connectivity, the Belt and Road Initiative will certainly benefit from a stable region – and the stability of the region depends crucially on the stability of Afghanistan.
China definitely has a role to play in building regional consensus, working with Pakistan and supporting the peace process – and putting the necessary pressure on the Taliban. China has made it clear to the United States and other actors in the region that Afghanistan is a place of cooperation for our common interests, so we should take advantage of this.
FP: Have you received assurances from the Biden government that you will make sure the Afghan government does not collapse?
MHA: There are essentially two scenarios. Scenario one: a peaceful Afghanistan from which not only the Afghan people, but also the region and the international community benefit. The second scenario would be an endless war.
Let me warn the region and the international community: it will not just be a civil war. It will have a spillover effect and allow transnational terrorist networks as well as transnational organized criminal groups to work symbiotically together and threaten the interests of the region and the international community.
In the United States, our assessment of the situation was very similar. We agreed that the Doha peace agreement was not being respected by the Taliban. We agreed that the aim of the Taliban was not to withdraw foreign troops, but to return their own emirate to Afghanistan. We also agreed that this would pose a threat not only to Afghanistan, but also to the peace and stability of the world community.
What we heard from the United States was an aid package that included, first, security related to the presence of troops and the support and development of the Afghan National Security Forces; second, economic and humanitarian aid; and third, political and diplomatic support.
The US administration told us that only the unit would be phased out. The remaining elements remain and are reinforced in certain areas. This assurance was given to us not only by the government but also by the US Congress.