Realities of war and peace

In light of Afghanistan’s on-going conflict, The Democracy Forum hosted a discussion on the internal and external hurdles facing the country as it attempts to navigate the road to stability

‘Do not rely on the United States for the future security of Afghanistan’ was the stark warning issued by one panellist at a conference hosted by The Democracy Forum at London University.

Speaking at ‘Afghanistan – the Challenges Ahead’, Dr Barnett Rubin, Associate Director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, in examining international aspects of the nation’s conflict and what the strategic position of the country would be after a peace agreement, cautioned against the ‘misplaced hope’ among many Afghans that their relationship with the United States since 9/11 means they will not have to deal with what they perceive as their neighbours’ malign interests.But, said Dr Rubin, as a landlocked nation whose economy is dependent on neighbouring states, Afghanistan will have to live with them– that is the reality.The real role of the US is to help Afghanistan make better deals with its neighbours in order to become stronger politically and economically.

This view was reinforced by Dr Christine Fair, Associate Professor at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, whofocused on the strategic importance of the Iranian port of Chabahar for Afghanistan’s economic and political independence. Despite being resource-rich, the country is a ‘rentier state’ reliant on foreign economic aid and its landlocked position means the only access to warm waters is through Pakistan, which, said Dr Fair, has not often been helpful in allowing Afghanistan to use its territory for the movement of goods. In particular, Pakistan has taken advantage of its geography to preclude India from engaging in heavy trade with Afghanistan. A functioning port at Chabahar is therefore key to an economically viable Afghanistan, yet President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal has placed this in jeopardy. ‘Do we really want China stepping into the void?’ asked Dr Fair. Ultimately, she insisted that ‘we are asking wrong questions’ about Afghanistan, adding that there can be no solution to the Afghan question if we cannot find a way for Afghanistan to pay for itself.

In his opening address, during which he extended a special welcome to H.E. Tayeb Said Jawad, Afghan Ambassador to the UK, TDF President Lord Bruce had also touched on Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbours and the present situation of the Afghan people, which he described as recurrent concerns for the Forum. He spoke of Afghanistan’s ‘unique set of challenges that reflect and reinforce circumstances of its historical geography’, and of the ‘ethnic and ideological fragmentation that impedes unification under a single Afghan government’. Facile optimism is out of place, he said, but, in light of recent ceasefires and the US mission to Doha, he felt there is a glimpse of hope for the future.

From the podium, H.E. Ambassador Jawad referred to the seminar’s ‘ambitious agenda’ of discussing all Afghanistan’s challenges in one afternoon, but said he looked forward to the speakers’ recommendations. Having expressed appreciation to Western countries for their help in Afghanistan, he then spoke of conflicting reports on peace in Afghanistan and of alternatives to the traditional wisdom that exists about how to proceed with the peace process. The Afghan government’s peace planis a public relations document rather than a roadmap, he said, and a peace concept is needed, rather than a peace plan.The Ambassador argued against the frequently expressed view that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict – there is always a military solution, he said, if you or your enemy can afford it. One therefore enters into a peace process only as a result of weakness on both sides. Ultimately, a strategic, not tactical approach to peace in Afghanistan is vital, and the reality of war means there is a need to engage, including talking to terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network or IS. But once the process had begun, there would be rapid progress

Panellists (l to r): Dr Antonio Giustozzi, Dr Barnett Rubin, Dr John Hemmings (Chair), Emily Winterbotham, Dr Christine Fair
Panellists (l to r): Dr Antonio Giustozzi, Dr Barnett Rubin, Dr John Hemmings (Chair), Emily Winterbotham, Dr Christine Fair

Emily Winterbotham, a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Service Institute, stressed that, while there is much confusion in Afghanistan, there does seem to be some momentum and alignment these days. In thequest for peace there are both opportunities and spoilers, with obstacles including the Taliban – are they ready to talk?–and the role of Pakistan, whose next moves are unpredictable as Islamabad would not be happy with a peace process that did not allow it strategic depth in Afghanistan.The US approach to Afghanistan is another problem, said Winterbotham, calling it ‘too black and while’ as it fails to acknowledge the complex nature of situation and local dynamics. She spoke of the increasing fragmentation of the national unity government, internal divisions between various coalitions, and how power brokers who benefit from the status quo stand to lose if the Taliban is brought into the government, and thus have no incentive for the conflict to end. However, on a more positive note, she said the ceasefire demonstrated more unity between the Taliban than previously thought and the Afghan people are willing to compromise in the interests of peace, even if this impacts on human rights,as there is an appetite for stability in the country.

Members of the audience
Members of the audience

For Dr Antonio Giustozzi, a Visiting Professor at King’s College, London, the chief issue was what kind of peace we can expect in Afghanistan, should it ever be achieved. He envisaged ‘the shape of peace to come’, asking, ‘Is the red carpet about to be laid out for inclusive, democratic and enduring peace, or are things more complicated?’ Of course they are more complex, he said. Peace is not likely to come via a diplomatic process led by the United States, he asserted, before considering Russia’s role as a positive diplomatic player in Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban’s ‘business’ aspects and how the group thinks about what peace in Afghanistan would mean for them. Dr Giustozzi went on to add that the vested interests of various groups within Afghanistan would have to be secured – not only those of the Taliban but also of other stakeholders.

Mediating the event was Dr John Hemmings of the Henry Jackson Society, who drew comparisons between North Korea and Afghanistan regarding issues of sovereignty, security and economic prosperity, as well as the importance of the art of diplomacy. He also raised questions regarding to what extent geopolitical competition might bleed into the Afghan peace process, and in which areas of the Bonn 2 agreement the various Afghan sides could be seen to converge.

To sum up, TDF Chairman Barry Gardiner MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade,offered a few choice words on the need to talk about problems of identity politics in Afghanistan, which can bring a sense of conflict that is incompatible with peace. The fundamental question of politics, he concluded, is how do we live with our neighbours?

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