Left to right: Barnett Rubin and Zahir Tanin. CREDIT: Johnson
Left to right: Barnett Rubin and Zahir Tanin. CREDIT: Johnson

The Afghan Challenge

Jan 26, 2015

With a new president in charge, can Afghanistan find a way out of decades of conflict and oppression? What will be the effect of the U.S. troop drawdown? UN Ambassador Zahir Tanin and Afghan expert Barnett Rubin discuss Afghanistan's future.


JOANNE MYERS: Good evening. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us.

Our guests today are the very distinguished Afghan ambassador to the UN, Zahir Tanin, and leading him in conversation will be Barney Rubin, who is widely recognized as America's foremost scholar on Afghanistan. Together, they will provide us with the insight we need to understand this remote, world-weary, mountainous country and the challenges it will face in the years ahead.

For more information about our illustrious guests, please refer to their bios, which I think you all received a copy of when you checked in earlier this afternoon.

2014 was a roller coaster of a year for Afghanistan. In September, after a three-month standoff over disputed election results, Ashraf Ghani was finally sworn in as president, succeeding Hamid Karzai. Ghani, by the way, actually spoke here at the Carnegie Council in April 2008, and his prescient remarks on fixing failed states can be found by visiting our website at www.carnegiecouncil.org.

Now President Ghani has a power-sharing government with his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, making the country's first democratic transfer of power since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Although appearing more energetic and effective than his predecessor, Ghani's ascendency takes place at a critical time.

One of the outstanding questions is whether the two, President Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah, can set aside their differences and address their nation's numerous challenges, including, but not limited to, rampant corruption, high unemployment, and growing security threats, which are especially threatening now that the majority of international troops are set to leave the country.

Although President Ghani did sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States and the Status of Forces Agreement with NATO, placing an enduring commitment to the security and stability of Afghanistan, the Taliban still loom large and their prognosis is unknown. Now, all this leads one to wonder if, after three decades of violence and fear, Afghanistan can become a normal country.

The format for this conversation will be as follows: for the first half of the program, about 25 or 30 minutes or so, Barney will ask the tough questions, adding his thoughtful commentary; and then we will open up the discussion by inviting you to ask questions that may have not been addressed.

At this time I ask that you please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our two distinguished guests today, Ambassador Tanin and Barney Rubin.


BARNETT RUBIN: Thank you very much for coming out. It is a distinct pleasure for me to have the opportunity to interview my good friend Zahir Tanin.

I suppose it is on his bio—I didn't check it—but you may know that before entering his career in diplomacy as permanent representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations, he was a senior editor and producer at the BBC in London. He has interviewed me numerous times, going back almost 20 years. So it is my pleasure to return the favor.

I would also like to remark that it is very appropriate that we are having this discussion at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, because although we will be talking about political, military, and economic issues in a way that often seems divorced from ethics, please bear in mind that the underlying motivation for doing so on the part of many of us is the suffering that the Afghan people have endured for—let's see, how many years is it now?—we could say 37 years since the start of these conflicts in 1978—and that the quest for stability is not just a quest for some kind of geopolitical goal or to end terrorism against the United States, but to enable the people of that country and the neighboring countries to live their lives with a degree of security and dignity.

It is appropriate, therefore, that my friend Zahir, Ambassador Tanin, has started his diplomatic career at the United Nations, which after all is, among other things, the custodian of those universal values that are enshrined in the Charter. And we will have occasion also in the course of this discussion to refer to the role of the United Nations in safeguarding those values in its work in Afghanistan.

Thank you for being here.

Now let me start. As this is an American audience, I'm sure you noticed that in the State of the Union Address last night President Obama, if I remember correctly, mentioned Afghanistan only once, and that was to remark—


BARNETT RUBIN: —mainly to remark that the United States military had ended its combat role in that country, although of course a force of about 10,000 trainers will be staying on, at least through the end of 2016, according to his recent statements.

In America people often say that the war in Afghanistan is finally over. Maybe America's war is, but of course in Afghanistan the war is not over, and many people are concerned about how Afghanistan will do.

Could you give us your analysis of how well Afghanistan will be able to defend itself without the presence of foreign combat troops?

ZAHIR TANIN: Thank you very much. Thanks for the kind introduction of Joanne, and my good friend Vartan Gregorian for coming, and thanks to the Carnegie Council for having us. It is a timely talk for us, for all those who are interested in Afghanistan. I am also thankful for the presence of many distinguished guests today here.

And thank you, Barney, for your time and presence here. As you said, we are longtime friends. I have to say that Barney has dedicated, I think, the biggest part of his life to Afghanistan and we respect his knowledge of Afghanistan, his dedication and work there.

In fact, the decision to end the military combat mission in Afghanistan was not sudden, not spontaneous, and it was not for Afghanistan a fait accompli. It took a number of years to prepare for the transition. We started from 2010 to see and to envisage how we can end the military direct combat and the fighting role of the international forces, the United States forces and the NATO forces in Afghanistan, and put the Afghan forces in the lead. It was a process.

The preparation was also about the process of understanding how and what it takes. So from 2011, the NATO summit, to Chicago, and then to Wales, we prepared ourselves for the process.

BARNETT RUBIN: Chicago and Wales being NATO summits.

ZAHIR TANIN: So in consultation with NATO, with the United States, we envisaged how we can arrive to a movement to end that framework of international security forces in which NATO played the central role.

And then of course, our legal framework was prepared, which was the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States and also the Status of Forces Agreement with NATO (SOFA), which just was signed after the elections in Afghanistan.

But at the same time, we looked into how in moving from a direct combat mission to a new situation where the Afghans should be in the driver's seat, taking the security responsibility, how to have it not just as a security transition, but as a multi-faceted transition, a political transition, an economic transition. And then we saw this election last year, which was very important for accomplishing a political transition and putting Afghans in the seat.

The reflection of this moving or this shift, the end of one mission and the beginning of a mission where the Afghan forces are going to be supported by the international forces, by the United States in terms of training and advising and assistance, it has been reflected in the media and analysis and talks very differently, because it was about who is addressing which needs, especially here.

BARNETT RUBIN: I wonder if I could pick up on something you just said. You mentioned that, of course, this is a security transition but there is also a political and an economic transition. Now, the political transition which is taking place is the election of this government. The outcome of the election was contested. It ended up in the National Unity Government.

As we were discussing privately beforehand, the president and the chief executive officer are having a great deal of difficulty forming a government and getting their cabinet through the Parliament, which has to approve the nominees to become ministers.

I wonder if you could comment on how that National Unity Government is working and what it represents for Afghanistan.

ZAHIR TANIN: I didn't answer your question actually, the first question. You said how in such a situation that without Americans, let's say, or without American direct military involvement, Afghanistan is going to deal with itself. Before that, I said that it is something that has been discussed, debated, very differently based on different concerns, in the United States and worldwide.

But I think, if I am going to be so short about that, during the election period and just after the end of ISAF's [International Security Assistance Force] mission last December, the 31st of December, with a bold comeback of the Taliban, I think the Afghan security forces have gone through two important tests. They believe inside the country, among the people, that it is not something to be falling under that pressure. So of course we can talk about the challenges.

Coming to the second question, the concept of the National Unity Government is—the name is new; the concept is not new. The Bonn argument in 2001 was in fact about the creation of a National Unity Government. The Afghan forces who fought against each other under the pressure of national, regional, and international interests, came together. Both of us were, with different roles, present at that conference.

They created a government that was really more than the National Unity Government. It looked like a coalition government. It looked like a kind of wider, inclusive government.

And even if you look to the governments that were formed under President Karzai after the first and second elections, it was about all groups under the umbrella of a government. It was not just the "winner/loser" structure that we always witness in other places after the elections.

This election was, of course, carried out under special circumstances, in a time that the withdrawal or rather the drawdown of the forces—I don't think the word "withdrawal" applies well. So one of the essential conditions for that was how to keep Afghanistan together and having in mind all the dividing lines—political groups, former parties involved in the war, ethnic groups, regional groups. This is why I think that was in mind.

If you remember also, President Ghani, also Abdullah Abdullah, during the campaign they talked about the inclusiveness. President Ghani, I remember well that he said that we need an inclusive government. Even before knowing the results of the first and second rounds, he said, "This 'winner takes all' approach is not something that I agree with."

Of course, there is a sensitivity in Afghanistan, not against inclusivity, but against what they call the "corporation government," to divide the power or use the power as a looting divided between the powerful people. That was the fear.

But at the same time, the international community, the United States, the United Nations, did play an important role in how to forge an agreement between the loser and the winner. The Afghan constitution was not helpful, because it doesn't envisage something like the formation of the National Unity Government.

BARNETT RUBIN: And of course, one of the elements of the agreement is to consider amending the constitution to include an office of prime minister subordinate to the president. So there may be a constitutional process later on to provide for that.

ZAHIR TANIN: Yes. In two years' time, President Ghani and the National Unity Government is committed to have, on the basis of this agreement, as you mentioned, a loya jirga (grand assembly), to look into the amendment of the constitution.

But the question is now how it works, whether it works or not. After disputed elections, in many parts of the world we know that the arrangements, whether they were negotiated by the United Nations or other powers, didn't work well. I mean the solutions didn't last long.

But when it comes to Afghanistan, I think, in the absence of the major international presence and the pressure and the fear of the people for another war, and the fact that people are tired after almost 40 years of conflict—and there is a new generation that is coming to the forefront. So there is a wider understanding. There is a consensus that we shouldn't allow Afghanistan to lose what it has achieved in the last 13 years and not to return back to the conflict. That is one thing.

The second thing is I think the relation between President Ghani and Abdullah is important. The first test was the formation of government. It took long. But I think so far this worked. They came to a point to understand the needs.

But at the same time, there are, in my view, some irritant political forces who may feel that their interests are going to be endangered by the reform agenda, and they started to stock up hatred, confusion, and possibly to push for some sort of failure of this government that is in place. But of course, it is about those who are few among an elite that belong to the past and their interests that past created.

BARNETT RUBIN: Yes. Now, as you rightly said, the National Unity Government is inclusive. That is, it is inclusive of those political forces that have supported the current constitution since the Bonn Agreement. It was difficult enough to reach an agreement among those people.

I think, in discussing security, you rightly said that the Afghan national security forces have now established a degree of confidence both for themselves and among the population that they won't collapse and that they can prevent the Taliban from overthrowing the government. But that said, if 100,000 or more international troops couldn't defeat the Taliban or make them disappear, the Afghan national security forces won't be able to do that.

And as you said, people are tired of conflict. President Ghani has said himself that peace is the number-one priority. So how is his government going to go about trying to reach a peace agreement? I'll just mention this is not only dealing with the Taliban and other groups who are fighting the government, but also the neighbors. The Taliban have bases in Pakistan. President Ghani's first visit abroad was a very high-profile visit to China. He had a very important visit to Pakistan as well since that time.

What is his strategy for attempting to enlarge the peace agreement in Afghanistan to include those who are still fighting against him?

ZAHIR TANIN: The question also has some elements of the answers.

Without peace, it is very obvious that we cannot have a stable Afghanistan, we cannot have a prosperous Afghanistan, and we cannot achieve sustainable development and a situation where there is no return to the conflict.

But we need to have some immediate focus, which is about how to work with those who are now still fighting against us. But long-term peace is not about only a ceasefire or an agreement with the Taliban. So you have to deal with a number of issues, including inside the country and also with the region.

The root of the Afghan conflict is not only internal and it is not only about disagreement between two groups; it is not only ideological. There were many proxy wars. First, it was the last battle of the Cold War. Secondly, it turned into a proxy war in the region in the post-Cold War time. Thirdly, the presence of NATO created a situation that some opportunistic and also ideological elements find it beneficial to fight against the world, against NATO, against America, against the new setup in Afghanistan.

So President Ghani, as you mentioned, started his first move with a trip to China, then Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the region.

I think it is clearly about the priority he made, which is how to deal with the issue. If it was about a deal with the Taliban, I think we could have achieved peace a long time ago. So you have to see how you can have the support of the region and neighboring countries for a peace process in Afghanistan.

BARNETT RUBIN: Of course, to have that peace process you also need the support of the United States. The United States went into Afghanistan because of what President Bush called the war on terror. Primarily the target was al-Qaeda, but it also overthrew the Taliban government and for a long time treated the Taliban in many respects the same as al-Qaeda, sending them to Guantanamo and so on. I think many Americans wonder, are the Taliban an irreconcilable terrorist group that cannot be included in a political settlement? I think the U.S. government has also faced that question.

Do you have the feeling now that the U.S. government fully supports a quest for a political settlement, and what is your view on whether the Taliban can actually join a political process like that?

ZAHIR TANIN: Efforts to reach the Taliban, or to have an outreach to the Taliban, are not new. It started a few years ago. We had even three years ago, I think, the opening of the Qatar office. We created the Afghan High Peace Council five years ago in 2010. So the efforts for outreach, the efforts for starting the peace talks and embarking on a national reconciliation process are not new. But the impediments and the obstacles, which are not only internal, do not allow us to move fast.

Let me, before talking about the support of the United States, tell you that, among a number of considerations, two fundamental considerations that President Ghani presented to Pakistanis on his trip were about, first, that continuing activities of the Taliban and sanctuaries in the region are consequently going to take us to the rise of chaos, war, and instability, not only in Afghanistan, but it is going to be wider in Pakistan. That is going to have a wider dimension which includes Pakistan. This is a fundamental consideration, I think, and it looks like that many people in Pakistan establishments also share this.

The second fundamental—if you agree about that, then it is important to have a political dispensation for the Taliban. There should be a peace process. And then there is a role for the Pakistani government to facilitate and to support the beginning of peace talks, instead of the tolerance and maintaining the sanctuaries.

BARNETT RUBIN: Of course, there have been bilateral issues between those two governments for a long time, from the moment that Pakistan was founded. That is one of the factors.

ZAHIR TANIN: History is not helpful, of course, not for us, not for others. But we are looking into the future.

The second fundamental consideration was also that, whether we are able to introduce a new strategic interest, that is more important and understandable and mutually acceptable than having the sanctuaries. That is the economic opportunities that Afghanistan can provide. It is about energy, it is about transit, it is about investment in Afghanistan. So you have an argument that this can be seen as an expanded opportunity in the region and turning the negative potentials of security concerns into a wider framework of cooperation.

These are two fundamental things.

And then, of course, with the Taliban, the kind of contacts that are here, that are still in place, this is maybe seen as preliminary steps towards peace talks. But I think it is important to see whether we can come with a single, unified formula for reconciliation.

And here, of course, it is not only Pakistan. I think the main actors that can help the reconciliation process and play a role are the United States, Pakistan, China, and of course all Afghan actors. But this process, we think, should be Afghan-based and supported by Afghans.

My feeling is the United States changed its position a long time ago to see the Taliban as a terrorist force. This is what was officially said by Washington.

BARNETT RUBIN: You mentioned—and I think it is very important—that in addition to seeing Afghanistan and its neighbors as a source of threat, something that is relatively new is seeing a source of economic opportunity there, which means that the actors in Afghanistan and in the region will have more of an incentive to try to overcome their differences so as to realize that potential. Of course, that potential requires billions and billions of dollars in investment.

Recently, China has changed its policy to become much more active in the region. It is talking about developing it through a number of different programs. I believe that is one of the reasons that President Ghani made his first official visit to China.

I should add that the rise of India is also important in the region. In terms of markets for Afghan products, Delhi is actually closer to Kabul than Karachi, which is what it has been using as its main port.

I wonder if you can talk some about President Ghani's economic vision for Afghanistan within the region, since Afghanistan is a landlocked country and it requires its neighbors to have access to international markets, and how he plans to make Afghanistan more economically self-sufficient and sustainable.

ZAHIR TANIN: President Ghani himself, on behalf of the National Unity Government, presented a reform agenda to the London Conference at the beginning of December. It is an important program, which is about how to deal with corruption, bringing accountability, rule of law, and also how to have new thinking about a development concept in Afghanistan, work with the region, work with the international community.

We have to know what President Ghani himself said—he wrote Fixing Failed States—as a personal focus, as one of the known thinkers of the world, how to deal with this difficult situation we are in. We have now a $134 million deficit of budget for the current budget this year, which is a big issue.

If I give some examples, he said yesterday that "I don't think the mining sector is what we should see as an immediate sector to rely on. We should think about the mining sector in Afghanistan as a 400-years asset." And he said, "Let's turn the geography of Afghanistan into a productive factor."

Twenty provinces from the 34 provinces are provinces that border one of the six neighboring countries. Any of these 20 provinces can be a trade zone.

Then, this idea of connectivity in the region. Afghanistan is now 80 percent, more or less, an aid-independent country. No country can survive with such a situation. And you cannot change that immediately; it takes of course time.

But how you can use—the exploration of mines takes a long time, but the trade and transit and energy connectivity, which is not only paramount for Afghanistan, but for all the region that is stepping in the way of development because it is about Central Asia, it is about Pakistan, India, China, developing countries, and countries that are not at war in Central Asia; they are stable countries as far as we know. In such a situation, Afghanistan can be turned into the land of opportunities.

We now import electricity from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and also we are a transit way of energy, electricity, to Pakistan. So it is also if we are going to realize this gas connectivity between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, the TAPI project [Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline], then of course that would be another.

Of course there are many—I am not going into details—projects that are about transport, transit, energy, and also trade. This is where we should invest.

Of course the biggest investment should be also in human capital. Thirty-six percent of people are below the poverty line. How can you have a stable situation, which hasn't changed in the last four years, and unemployment in the cities that is about 30-40 percent—among women's unemployment, this may be doubled. So it is not a situation to keep us as a stable country.

But we have to also think internally about how to use our agriculture sector. Afghanistan had been a self-sufficient country. Now it is importing 800,000 tons of wheat every year.

And then, yesterday President Ghani talked about how to use the money of the Defense Ministry or the national defense and security forces for procurement within the national borders. For example, the procurement for them is that they buy the things they need from the $4 billion budget they have from outside Afghanistan. So the money for military can be used for production in Afghanistan.

BARNETT RUBIN: To create demand.

ZAHIR TANIN: So we think we have to remain, unfortunately, in a situation to rely for some time on aid economy. But also it is important [to think about] how to have aid efficiency, how to have better use of aid, how to deal with corruption, how to be accountable—that is part of the framework we created in Tokyo in 2012—but at the same time also now transit, transport, trade, energy, also construction, and moving towards also using the biggest assets of Afghanistan in a more reasonable and more regular way. Those are the "mines" that can give us hope for the future.

BARNETT RUBIN: One final question. Of course, you have been serving now for eight years as permanent representative to the United Nations. In that time, in addition to representing your country, you have become involved in a lot of other United Nations activities, in particular in reform of the Security Council, which is maybe more difficult than bringing about peace in Afghanistan. [Laughter]

Of course you mentioned the Bonn Agreement, which was chaired by the United Nations. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan [UNAMA] has played a very important role in the country since 2001, as have the United Nations' funds and programs on the assistance side.

But, as the foreign troops leave, as the political transition takes place, as you move toward economic transition, of course there is a great desire on the part of the Afghan government to assert its sovereignty. What do you think this means for the future role of the United Nations in Afghanistan?

ZAHIR TANIN: Let me say, first of all, that the United Nations has been instrumental in the last 13 years. It was in the center of international civilian coordination efforts. Without the United Nations, it would have been very difficult to bring all this civilian, and even military elements—45 countries as troop contributors, some 40 international organizations as part of the aid, then 70 countries of the aid community. It was very difficult to bring them together, so coordination was important.

But the United Nations was not only about coordination of the civilian efforts. It was about how to support the newly emerging state in Afghanistan. So I think its role in support of governance, elections, good offices, human rights, humanitarian efforts, institution-building engine role, and even development efforts—these are the efforts that were important and essential.

Even Mr. Brahimi once told me that—

BARNETT RUBIN: Lakhdar Brahimi.

ZAHIR TANIN: The first representative of the secretary general for Afghanistan, and who played a very important role in forging this, and the agreement in Bonn—he is the architect of the Bonn Agreement on Afghanistan, which was the beginning of the peace process in the country. And he is very well-respected in Afghanistan.

He said that when he was in Kabul in the first days, the ministers that were starting their work, they didn't have desks and phones. I remember myself, at that time working for the BBC, that the United Nations gave some big, orange phones to the ministers so that they could just contact each other during the first loya jirga. You may remember it as well. We started from there.

Then, of course, now we are in a very different situation. You have to see the UN, whether it is Afghanistan or any other places, not as the UN, as one entity. The political UN, the UNAMA, is what I think we need still when we have elections in mind—next parliamentary elections, next district elections, electoral law reform, amendment of the constitution. Logistic or other support would be important.

Then, of course, the UNAMA, the political UN, is also about the embodiment of the legitimacy of relations between the concerned country and the international community. Still, the UN would be the one thing that represents the support of the international community for a legitimate setup in Kabul. That is important. That relationship is important.

And sometimes it also plays the role of a referee between different elements, parties inside the country, that still need to be supported in their cooperation.

Then, when it comes to the development UN, the funds and agencies of the UN, of course we have to see how they work with the needs of a government that is in the driver's seat, taking the lead, not only in security but also in the development of the country.

President Ghani is insisting that this on-budget support is essential. As we know, 25 percent of the international aid, even less than that, so far has been going to the Afghan budget. The other—when we talk about $104 billion given to Afghanistan in the last 13 years, it didn't come directly to the budget of Afghanistan; there were trust funds and international organizations, including organizations like UNDP [UN Development Programme].

So I think with the needs of transition, in the situation we are in, the UN development agencies should adapt themselves so that it should be in a different dialogue with Afghanistan and to see how we can have a better use of money, better use of resources, and effective use of resources, within the principles of aid effectiveness.

With the humanitarian UN, in Afghanistan, as OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations, is saying, there are 7.5 million Afghans who are in need of humanitarian assistance and there are 3.8 million who are in urgent need of food.

And there are refugees. The returnees, the Pakistani refugees coming back to Afghanistan are 500,000. We have still 3 million refugees outside Afghanistan. And also, in some parts of Afghanistan there has been six months of floods and disasters, six months of drought. If you put that together, I think we need humanitarian assistance. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is not out of the humanitarian situation.

And then, of course, with the reconciliation, with the peace process, we may need the good offices of the UN.

So we see the UN as a partner. But we want a different UN, a UN that is ready to get a fresh face-lift.


QUESTION: Don Simmons is my name.

In our last few years of fighting in Vietnam, we were pursuing, I think, two objectives by then: one was to preserve our government's credibility for use in future diplomatic situations; the other was to recover our POWs [prisoners of war].

In Dr. Rubin's opening remarks, he suggested a different and better reason: we have an ethical obligation to the welfare of the Afghan people, to help them build a more prosperous and more democratic future. The future goes on for a long time and is full of uncertainty.

How do we know when we can quit? How do we know when our goals are accomplished and we can go home, stop spending $100-plus billion? Is there anything better than just setting an arbitrary deadline of time?

BARNETT RUBIN: I guess this is an American question, so I will try to present my views on it.

Of course, even if we have an obligation and also ongoing interests in Afghanistan, in no way do we have an obligation or an interest that requires us to spend over $100 billion a year or to sacrifice 4,000 or more lives.

What the right structure and level of involvement is I think remains to be seen. We are now looking at something that is more sustainable for the United States and its friends. As Ambassador Tanin said also, it is not good for Afghanistan also to be so dependent on assistance in the long run.

So I think that we are mutually trying to work out a way to reduce Afghanistan's dependence on assistance of all kinds in a responsible way. That is why we need progress toward peace, so that it is possible to decrease the expenses on the security forces. We need increased security so as to attract investment so that the economy can grow. That is all part of our vision of how to—not to end the situation, because there is no end to it—but how to reduce the international community's involvement to a reasonable level. That is what we are trying to do now.

Of course there is always a danger, as happened in Vietnam, that, for some reason or another, there is a decision made suddenly to terminate assistance in a way that doesn't allow the government to survive. I think we have learned from that.

I would add also that Afghanistan is different from Vietnam in many ways. But one particular way is that the operation in Afghanistan has really the full support of the international community. As Ambassador Tanin mentioned, there have been over 40 countries that have contributed troops, more than that that have provided assistance, and it is by no means a U.S. unilateral responsibility or action.

ZAHIR TANIN: As Barney said, it is an American question. But what I can say is that last night President Obama said that we have been able to take out 180,000 forces from Afghanistan and Iraq. But at the same time, I think we agreed and helped that to happen.

We understand fully that our role is, when we take the lead, how to turn Afghanistan into a self-functioning state where the relations between the two countries are going to be normal relations.

The important thing about the end of ISAF and the beginning of the new phase is Afghanistan is out of Chapter VII. Afghanistan was—

BARNETT RUBIN: Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.

ZAHIR TANIN: Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. I forgot I am not in the UN.

BARNETT RUBIN: Which is the charter about intervention to protect international peace and security.

ZAHIR TANIN: The intervention was based on the Security Council resolution in 2001, and also the intervention was based under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, where it is allowing the self-defense. So this intervention was made on that basis.

We were part of this "war on terror." So, as President Ghani said, we also sacrificed to save you, to save us, and to save others. We played a role. It was not only the American forces who came in to save Afghanistan. We were together here.

But when we look into the future, as you said, it is not known. I think what is happening now is we are turning Afghanistan into a country to have a normal international status as a sovereign country, where the relations between Afghanistan and the United States are going to be defined by a strategic partnership we signed. America has this relationship not only with Afghanistan, but with many countries, where a country gets military assistance, financial assistance, trade, and other things.

So it is not quitting. If you quit, you quit all the work, right?

QUESTION: Hi. Ron Berenbeim.

There is probably one thing that undermines the potential success of Afghanistan as an aid-dependent, investment-dependent country with important supply lines and supply routes, and that is the country's endemic corruption. Now, corruption is not unknown in other parts of the world, and certainly not in those parts of the world. But it certainly has, at least in the opinion of many, undermined the effectiveness of Afghan civil society and its ability to withstand the Taliban challenge periodically.

While you did reference corruption here and there, I wonder if there are any specific structures, institution-building, that you are doing that have not existed in the past that gives some comfort to people both inside Afghanistan and outside of it who are concerned about this problem.

ZAHIR TANIN: Corruption, as you said, has had a corrosive effect in our relations with people, on trust in the Afghan government. And also, it helped the Taliban, and you are absolutely right about that. Of course, there are many factors that one can elaborate.

BARNETT RUBIN: I'll mention the ones you can't when you're finished. [Laughter]

ZAHIR TANIN: But let me be clear that the new government of Afghanistan, the National Unity Government under President Ghani, is fully committed—and from day one they emphasized that—how to eradicate corruption, how to fight corruption.

The first thing that was done was opening the Kabul Bank case. It is a bank where $900 million was squandered or disappeared. The members of the elites' families were involved in that. So the case was opened. New decisions were made. The whole thing was based on one thing, how to recover this money, and also to punish those who were responsible. It was a very courageous step.

I think it is one of the reasons that the National Unity Government is now facing challenges in the Parliament among those who benefited from those 12 years of opportunities in Afghanistan, turning their former fighting power into economic power. So that was one example.

And then, even the designation of the contracts—the president decided that no contract can be given to the people without the involvement of the president and the Parliament.

Also, there is an urgent need for the reform of the judicial system in Afghanistan.

So some bold steps were taken. It is not about creating commissions and another office, which is not a solution. It is about the commitment that existed. It is what the Afghan people want.

I have to confess and I have to say that we are still not there to say that Afghanistan has been able to overcome this problem. This is a struggle in front of us.

BARNETT RUBIN: The way you overcome corruption in any society is by having very strong institutions of accountability, including rule of law. Afghanistan, at the time that the United States and the international coalition entered it, had already been at war for 23 years and its institutions had been weakened, something that doesn't get enough attention. It was also one of the five or ten poorest countries in the world, per capita income lower than Haiti. So its institutions were weak.

Now, what is the one indispensable ingredient that you need for corruption? Money. The United States and its international partners showered money on Afghanistan—and not primarily even through assistance programs, but through their military operations. This is a government that was founded by a CIA covert operation in which hundreds of millions of dollars of cash were transferred to men who were wielding guns and that now are the recipients of many of those contracts, something that President Karzai used to refer to frequently.

So in a way, if you are spending $100 billion of assistance plus more than that on military operations in a country with a GDP of $20 billion and the people who are giving out the money don't speak the language of the country and don't know who they are giving contracts to, it is inevitable that you will have corruption. So, in a way, it is a byproduct of Afghanistan's extreme aid dependency.

The process of building institutions will address it, but only in the context of Afghanistan becoming more self-sufficient as well.

QUESTION: Shazia Rafi, former secretary general of Parliamentarians for Global Action.

The first part of my question is to Ambassador Tanin and then the second part to Professor Rubin.

We are just about a month since the massacre by the Taliban of 132 school children in Peshawar, along with nine adults. There has been a real change, at least from what we see in Pakistan, of the Pakistan government's both civil and military attitude towards tolerance for the Taliban, whether it is the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Haqqani Network, or those who are making attacks across the border, the border itself being extremely porous so that these groups cross that border when they are attacking one country or another and take sanctuary in the other.

How do you see this moment as a way of being able to have these two governments work with each other, in a sense, to both contain and defeat this Tehrik-i-Taliban, whether it is on this side or the other?

And how do you see with the United Nations—and this is the question to both of you—where the Security Council had taken off the Afghan Taliban into a separate list on sanctions? There used to be a consolidated list, and then a resolution created a separate list for the Afghan Taliban because negotiations were taking place. Is there going to be a time limit that we give to these possibilities for peace negotiations, or now can we in the entire region work together to actually defeat what is a very brutal movement and allow peaceful civil institutions to take hold?

ZAHIR TANIN: Thanks, Shazia, for your presence. You are a great friend.

Before what happened in the tragic event in the Peshawar school, Afghanistan started with a strategic shift that was a new rapprochement with Pakistan. No Afghan leader in history had gone to the headquarters of the army in Rawalpindi. That is what President Ghani did. He was there and he talked to the strategic leaders of Pakistan.

BARNETT RUBIN: And he took domestic political risk to do so, I should say.

ZAHIR TANIN: It was a very big domestic risk. Still the Afghan media is full of critics of him and people raise their fingers and saying, "You were wrong. Pakistan is still continuing to support the Taliban, and there is no shift in their view." We also feel in Kabul, and also some observers in Pakistan, that there is a shift in the thinking of the Pakistani leadership. Raheel Sharif, the chief of the army, was twice in Afghanistan, and even the chief of ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] was there three times.

BARNETT RUBIN: ISI is the Pakistani intelligence agency.

ZAHIR TANIN: So we are serious. The leadership of Afghanistan, the National Unity Government, is serious, committed to work with Pakistan, and we think that Pakistan also is increasingly sharing these two fundamental considerations that I talked about—one, equally with us they share this understanding that the continuing of today's situation will make Pakistan unstable, not only Afghanistan, and the solution is to have peace negotiations with the Taliban, and they can help. The second one is, of course, Pakistan, we hope, should see this bigger interest of connectivity in the region. Of course, we wait to see how these hopes work, and we are still optimistic.

When it comes to the sanctions regime in the UN, I think it simply cannot be separated from the peace process. This list was created in the 1990s, and then of course there were reforms and changes. In 2011, when the al-Qaeda and the Taliban lists were separated, there were big steps to de-list the number of individuals who were not seen as a part of terrorist activities or illegal activities that caused them to be put on the list. There were some listings also.

So we cannot talk about these lists in a different framework, in a framework to link it only with the progress of the peace process. It is something the Security Council should decide about. But of course the peace process can help to deal with that issue.

BARNETT RUBIN: Of course we all agree that there shouldn't be good terrorists and bad terrorists, and that no government—Pakistan, Afghanistan, or any other—should tolerate unofficial armed forces on its soil, whether they are attacking its own citizens or its neighbors, even the neighbors against whom it has considerable enmity, as Pakistan does with India, and it will be reining in the militant groups that have been used by the military against India that will be really the test of Pakistan's seriousness about that.

But that does not mean that all of those groups whose violence must be curbed are politically identical. That is, politically there is a difference between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban, between both of them and al-Qaeda, between them and the Islamic State, other militant groups, and they don't all necessarily require—they all require that their violent actions be curbed, but the political approach to them can be different.

I think the Afghan government has chosen a political approach at this point to the Afghan Taliban, while continuing to fight them and demanding that Pakistan shut down the safe havens for militancy. That is supported by the international community, and that is why the sanctions regime was changed, to support that peace process. But supporting the peace process does not mean any toleration for militancy, suicide bombing, and terrorist activities.

QUESTION: Professor Rubin, we just heard a most optimistic outlook for Afghanistan that I think most Americans would be shocked to hear in reality. Given the number of failed states in Africa, the Middle East, and possibly Pakistan, how deep is the American reservoir going to be to deal with what is going to be a decades-long process to make Afghanistan not a failed state?

BARNETT RUBIN: I think that is a very important question. Let's say there are several aspects to keeping Afghanistan on the path that we hope it is on.

I don't know if we would say that we are being optimistic. What we are trying to do, I think, is outline the positive elements that we can work with. We are not making a prediction. Being pessimistic about Afghanistan is not an intellectual challenge and it would be beneath us. [Laughter]

Of course there are many internal and regional factors that could cause Afghanistan to suffer a crisis and undergo some kind of deeper conflict—a crisis in the National Unity Government, the armed forces.

But as you rightly mentioned, it could also be pushed into that conflict by a sudden cut-off of assistance, which is now targeted at remaining at $5 billion a year. I think that, of course, that probably is unsustainable for a long period of time. It's unsustainable for the United States and its partners, and that degree of aid dependency is not sustainable for Afghanistan either.

So a lot depends on the performance of the current government, whether it really is able to show that it is delivering something in the next few years that is putting Afghanistan on a path toward stability and greater self-sufficiency.

If that is the case, I think, given the very broad international consensus and, as Ambassador Tanin mentioned, domestic consensus in Afghanistan against going back to civil war—by the way, that consensus is allegedly shared by the Taliban, who have published articles on their website saying that they do not want to take Afghanistan back to civil war and destroy its current assets—given that, if there is a reasonable degree of performance, we may be able to keep aid on a decreasing glide path for, say, five to ten years.

Now, I am sure there will be bumps along the way. The important thing is just to avoid—and I think everyone in Afghanistan knows that they are not going to be receiving the amount of aid that they have been getting permanently. So we need to manage and negotiate the way that the aid is reduced.

I think that that is possible. But, as I said, it is possible—for reasons having nothing to do with Afghanistan but having to do with U.S. domestic politics or the world—that something will happen that stops that aid.

But as I said, there is no intellectual challenge in trying to be pessimistic about such a difficult country. What we are trying to do is show that there is a way forward.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you both for showing us the way forward.

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