The Day After the U.S. Drawdown of Troops in Afghanistan
The Day After the U.S. Drawdown of Troops in Afghanistan
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Podcast / Asia

The Day After the U.S. Drawdown of Troops in Afghanistan

Several international conferences on Afghanistan are trying to chart the country's future after the planned 2014 U.S. withdrawal. Robert Templer, Crisis Group's Asia Program Director, warns of the deteriorating security and regional interference likely to accompany the U.S. drawdown of troops.

In this podcast, Robert Templer warns of the deteriorating security and regional interference likely to accompany the U.S. drawdown of troops. CRISIS GROUP

You can find below a transcript of this podcast.

Several international conferences on Afghanistan are attempting to settle the many issues that will arise when the US withdraws from the country in 2014. After a decade of major security and humanitarian assistance, the Afghan government is still unstable, economically fragile and susceptible to influence by its neighbors. To discuss the future of Afghanistan, I am here with Bob Templer, Crisis Group’s Program Director for Asia.

Bob, can you start by framing Afghanistan within its regional context? What interests do its neighbors have in the country, and how are they planning to pursue those once the US withdraws in 2014?

Going back many decades, Pakistan and Iran in particular have had very profound influence over the conflict in Afghanistan. In both cases, they see themselves as having incredibly important interests in Afghanistan, and neither one is willing to abandon those interests. Now for Pakistan, that interest has been to maintain a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul, a government in Kabul that is not too friendly to India and that is not too friendly to the West. Over the past 10 years, they haven’t seen that. They haven’t had a friendly relationship with President Karzai and they’ve, in consequence, supported the Taliban and other groups like the Haqqani Network. In many ways, they have been playing a dual game. They’ve been supporting jihadi radicals while simultaneously supporting the US government in some of its efforts against those same radicals.

Pakistan is very determined to maintain its influence in Afghanistan. Iran has a slightly different set of interests, particularly focused around the Shia minority within the country. But it again is very reluctant to see the return of the Taliban, who were a Sunni group that is extremely opposed to the brand of Islam in Iran. They’re going to be very reluctant to see what Pakistan would like to see, which is this sort of more radical Sunni government in Kabul. So both of those countries are at odds. 

Of course, Central Asia is very anxious about the spread of this jihadi tendency through the region, and they are keen to see greater stability and a generally secular government in Kabul.

So given all these various interests, what are the regional agreements that need to be put into place as the U.S withdraws? What can be put on paper?

There is some talk about getting an agreement to guarantee the neutrality of Afghanistan and also guarantying the noninterference of different parties in Afghanistan. I have to say, I think those will essentially end up as platitudes because none of these countries are really willing to actually follow on from those words or those agreements. Whilst it may be possible to get some formal agreement on these issues, I very much doubt that those agreements are going to be stuck to. 

There are other issues that can be dealt with as well, particularly economic and trade issues. Afghanistan has always been a sort of center for trade around that region or a certain crossroads, and therefore expanding on that would be a very useful way to build some confidence and to encourage different groups in different countries to see a sort of rationale for peace and the benefits of peace in the region.

And what about development and aid in the region? How will these countries play a role in that as the U.S gradually withdraws? 

Most of the countries in the region are donors to some degree, although nothing like to the same extent that the United States is. But they do tend to favor their own groups or their own sort of political ends, so we had the scene recently of President Karzai admitting that the Iranians literally sent him suitcases of money. Obviously, the Pakistanis have supported the Taliban, both in terms of giving them refuge and also weapons and training and other support. Central Asian governments have been less generous, but they’ve all supported their different proxies. The Uzbek government supports ethnic Uzbeks; the Tajik government supports ethnic Tajiks. 

So all of these different governments have been supporting there, but none of them have really given money to see a general development of Afghanistan, a sort of broader, multi-ethnic development of the state. That sort of money has come from the West, and that sort of money is going to diminish after 2014. 

So then what do you see becoming of all these programs that have been implemented over the past few years? And how will aid make it to people, or will they just not have any at this point?

I think that a lot of the programs will sort of wither on the vine. I think a lot of them were very poorly conceived short-term efforts to maximize impact or the name of the donor much more than the actual effects on the ground. Some money will still go through, particular through NGOs, particularly through some support of the government. A number of countries are pledging continuing support after 2014, although we are likely to see a drop in the economic impact of the US military being there and other militaries and NATO and its vast sort of machinery of aid that’s been set up but hasn’t really delivered in terms of state building. 

So what then needs to be done at this point to help Afghan institutions prepare for the next couple of years? What kind of state building can be done in this short period of time?

There are some things that could be dealt with. One is that the political environment is very unsatisfactory. You have a parliament that is extremely weak. You have far too much power in the presidency. You have a weak judiciary. Some of the rebalancing of those issues could take place. 

You could prepare the political scene by improving the election laws, by allowing political parties, by developing some greater resilience in parliament and outside of the presidency. Putting all the eggs in Karzai’s basket is a huge problem in terms of centralizing power in a country where power has always been quite spread out and quite local.

You’ve painted a pretty dismal regional picture and the interests at play in the various neighboring countries. Is there anything that you see at this point that can encourage any of these countries to take a more positive role in the next couple of years so that the programs that have worked aren’t just lost.

It’s going to be very difficult to achieve that. One of the major difficulties is that the United States is really the key player, and it’s very much out of step in its relationship with both Iran, which it won’t talk to, and Pakistan, with which it’s had a very fraught relationship for all of this year. So you have very different sort of perspectives on what needs to happen. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that it’s about fight, talk, build. The Pakistanis are talking in completely different terms, which is ceasefire, talk, wait for the Americans to leave. These are very incompatible visions of what is gong on in Afghanistan, and therefore you are going to see, if anything, a sort of worsening of the situation over the next few years. It is very hard to see what incentives you could put in place to encourage much better behavior by the Pakistanis, by the Iranians and by other forces around Afghanistan.

So give us the picture then. Afghanistan 2014: what is it?

I think there will be a period when the government sort of carries on more or less as normal, but then I think that will be eroded by increasing violence, increasing ethnic tensions, increasing resort to regional warlordism that we have seen in the past. I think there may well be a fracturing of the Afghan national army into different groups led by different warlords. I think you could see a slow and steady disintegration, a move towards even street fighting in Kabul and a serious decline in security in the capital and in the surrounding provinces.

Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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