By M.A. Saki

Neighbors are mostly worried about export of extremists from Afghanistan: professor

October 19, 2021 - 11:17

TEHRAN – Professor Paul Pillar, a nonresident senior fellow of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, tells the Tehran Times that the main concerns of countries neighboring Afghanistan and those nearby is a “possible export of extremists and extremism from Afghanistan.”

Foreign ministers from the countries bordering Afghanistan are set to gather in Tehran next week to assess the situation in Afghanistan. 

The Russian foreign minister, whose country is also worried about the aftershocks of the Taliban ruling for the former Soviet Central Asian Republics, is also expected to attend the meeting.

However, Professor Pillar who also served as national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia in the U.S. intelligence community, says, “The Taliban themselves are very inwardly focused and have no interest in causing security difficulties for the neighbors.”   

Following is the text of the interview:

Question: Certain countries bordering Afghanistan, including Iran, warned about the “irresponsible withdrawal” of the U.S. from Afghanistan. What is your view?

Answer: The withdrawal was the right decision.  The United States had already done far more than its fair share of trying to provide for Afghan security, given the large amount of blood and treasure that it has expended there.  The neighboring states, having at least as much interest in what happens in Afghanistan as the United States does, have no basis for criticizing as irresponsible the conclusion of the U.S. expedition.    

Q: The security situation has worsened since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.  What does it signify?

“Taliban are not an entirely cohesive and unified movement” A: I would not agree that it has worsened.  Civil war had been raging in Afghanistan for years.  To the extent that the Taliban have won the war and a new civil war does not ignite, then the end of war--regardless of what one may think about the Taliban--means there will be, if anything, less violence and less insecurity in Afghanistan. 

Q: What can be the security implications of the Taliban ruling over Afghanistan for China, Iran, Central Asian Republics and Russia?

A: The main concerns for those states involve the possible export of extremists and extremism from Afghanistan. Much will depend on the extent to which the Taliban can consolidate their control over the country and curb the operations of groups such as Islamic State.  The Taliban themselves are very inwardly focused and have no interest in causing security difficulties for the neighbors.   

Q: Afghanistan’s neighbors are worried. They want to see a stable government and security in the country. How can this be achieved?

A: First of all, they need to refrain from doing anything that would stoke a renewed civil war in Afghanistan.  Then they need to craft a relationship with the Taliban that recognizes the fact of the Taliban victory without implying an approval of the Taliban's internal policies.  Cooperation with the Taliban will be possible on selected security matters--such as dealing with Islamic State--on which the interests of the Taliban and the neighbors are parallel. 

Q: Some experts say the Taliban are weak in terms of intelligence and are incapable of ruling the country. They cite horrifying attacks in Kunduz and Kandahar as examples. What is your opinion?

A: The Taliban clearly have much yet to learn regarding techniques for providing peace and security in territory under their control.  Probably they will get better at internal security tasks--in their own ruthless way--over time when they are no longer giving priority to fighting a civil war against the previous Afghan government.   

Q: Some former Afghan officials claim that extremists within the Taliban such as the Haqqani network are responsible for the blasts. Do you have any comments in this regard?  

A: Without trying to comment on responsibility for particular attacks, it is true that the Taliban are not an entirely cohesive and unified movement and include elements that function more as independent actors.  The Haqqani network is the leading example of this, and one with a significant capability for major violence.  That network will probably be a problem for Taliban leaders who do not agree with all of the Haqqanis' methods and objectives.   

Q: Do you agree with this view that fighting is “easier” than ruling in a country like Afghanistan, which is suffering from chronic security and economic problems?

A: That description applies fairly well to the Taliban, who have known nothing but fighting a civil war for most of the past couple of decades.  This is a pattern that has been seen in other countries that have had long-running insurgencies, in which many of the foot soldiers in the movement as well as the leaders have come to devote their entire lives to fighting.  The obvious and severe economic, infrastructure, and humanitarian problems in Afghanistan compound the problem.

“Cooperation with the Taliban will be possible on selected security matters--such as dealing with Islamic State.”Q: How is it possible to fill the political and security vacuum in Afghanistan?

A: To the extent that the Taliban are the new rulers, there isn't really a vacuum.  The Taliban filled it.

Q: The current economic and security situation shows that 20 years of nation-building in Afghanistan by the U.S. and its allies has been a failure. People’s refusal to resist the Taliban showed that they were not happy with the government in Kabul. For example, when I talked to certain Afghan people in Iran, they were saying that the government was corrupt. What is your analysis?

A: As has been true of insurgencies in many other countries throughout history, popular dissatisfaction with the incumbent regime has proven to be at least as important as prowess on the battlefield in determining the outcome of a conflict.  Afghanistan is no exception.  Corruption under the previous government certainly was part of the problem, but so was overall deficiency in the government's performance in meeting public needs. 

Q: Let’s turn to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks. Was the invasion advisable given the Soviet experience in the 1980s?

A: The initial intervention by the United States in 2001 was an understandable response to a terrible terrorist attack against the United States, perpetrated by a group that was then in alliance with the Taliban, which was the de facto government of most of Afghanistan.  The U.S. mistake was in not exiting Afghanistan after rousting Al Qaeda and ousting the Taliban from power--objectives that were accomplished within a few weeks--and in staying on with an apparently expanded mission of nation-building.

Q: Do you agree with the view that the “war on terror” in Afghanistan only worsened the security situation in the region as the Soviet invasion of the country ignited civil war and later produced terrorists such as al-Qaeda?

A: U.S. policy in this area should not be judged in terms of the trouble that the Soviet invasion caused.  There already was a civil war and there already were terrorists such as Al Qaeda before the United States got involved.  There are reasons to criticize the so-called "war on terror," but those reasons have more to do with the overall expenditure of resources and with how the United States may have exposed itself to more anger and resentment as a result of its own overseas military operations. 

“The Taliban need to be far more inclusive.”Q: What is expected from the regional countries and the international community as a whole to stabilize Afghanistan and prevent the country from entering a new stage of civil war, refugee flood, etc.

A: Certainly Afghanistan has dire needs in terms of humanitarian assistance as well as longer-term aid in building infrastructure and the basis for a stronger economy.  Modalities still need to be worked out between the Taliban and the international community regarding how such aid can be administered so it meets the needs of the Afghan people without simply propping up the Taliban regime.

Q: And what steps should the Taliban take to be recognized by the international community?

A: The Taliban need to be far more inclusive so that they can credibly represent themselves as a government for all Afghans.  So far the regime the Taliban have erected is very narrow, consisting mainly of Pashtun men who are not representative of the whole population in terms of ethnicity, religion, or gender.  The Taliban also need to refrain from the most brutal methods that characterized their exercise of power when they previously controlled most of Afghanistan.  

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