Q&A

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.

By , an Australian journalist and author.
Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.
Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support the Afghan security forces against the Taliban in Herat, Afghanistan, on July 9. Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

KABUL—In recent weeks, the Taliban’s rapid advance has spread fear among Afghan people that their government could collapse, allowing the insurgents to reestablish their emirate built on Islamist extremism.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that the military withdrawal from Afghanistan would be complete by Aug. 31, ending a 20-year presence that followed the 9/11 attacks. Afghan forces have been fighting largely on their own since the international combat mission ended in December 2014. But there are doubts they can prevail against the fierce Taliban offensive.

The government of President Ashraf Ghani has been largely silent, failing to reassure the people that U.S. support will continue—something Biden reiterated in remarks Thursday—that it will not fall, and that hard-won rights and freedoms are not threatened.

KABUL—In recent weeks, the Taliban’s rapid advance has spread fear among Afghan people that their government could collapse, allowing the insurgents to reestablish their emirate built on Islamist extremism.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that the military withdrawal from Afghanistan would be complete by Aug. 31, ending a 20-year presence that followed the 9/11 attacks. Afghan forces have been fighting largely on their own since the international combat mission ended in December 2014. But there are doubts they can prevail against the fierce Taliban offensive.

The government of President Ashraf Ghani has been largely silent, failing to reassure the people that U.S. support will continue—something Biden reiterated in remarks Thursday—that it will not fall, and that hard-won rights and freedoms are not threatened.

Foreign Policy spoke with Mohammad Haneef Atmar, Afghanistan’s foreign minister, about the deteriorating security situation, the failure of the Taliban to honor commitments made in the February 2020 deal with the Trump administration, and what a political settlement with the insurgents might look like. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Foreign Policy: What is your take on the current security situation in Afghanistan?

Mohammad Haneef Atmar

Mohammad Haneef Atmar, Afghanistan’s foreign minister, on Feb. 26. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs/TASS.No use Russia

Mohammad Haneef Atmar: It is a difficult situation because of the failure of the Taliban to honor their obligations under the Doha peace agreement. We have all acted in good faith. Since the announcement of the departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban have launched a massive terror campaign across the country. Over 3,500 people have been killed, 30 percent of them civilians but mostly military personnel, and over 200,000 civilians have been displaced because of this recent surge in violence by the Taliban. This is happening at a time when the people need to be reached by the government for basic health delivery because of the pandemic. And on top of that, we have a drought that has affected the livelihoods of many people. So the Taliban could not have chosen a more difficult time for the people of Afghanistan to launch this brutal and aggressive campaign.

FP: Despite the stalled peace talks, is the Afghan government preparing for the inclusion of the Taliban? 

MHA: Yes. In the peace plan that the president of Afghanistan offered, we are looking at 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 will have to be consistent with that key principle, the basic right of the Afghan people. We will be flexible with the other elements of the proposal. 

The Taliban could not have chosen a more difficult time for the people of Afghanistan.

FP: The red line is elections?

MHA: Elections not just for the sake of elections. It’s a key process to determine the future of Afghanistan, the end state of the peace process, which will have to be acceptable to the Afghan people and also to the world community.

The Afghan people and the world community have agreed on an end state that is about an independent, sovereign, unified, and peaceful Afghanistan that is not a safe haven for any kind of terrorism or drugs or organized crime, a place for regional and international cooperation, not competition and rivalry. The governance of Afghanistan will have to be fully respectful of its national and international obligations when it comes to human rights, women’s participation, and the rights of every citizen in this country. That is the end state that the Afghan people have voted for and is consistent with our universal values and acceptable to our region and the international community. To achieve that end state, elections are a must.

FP: The Taliban control illicit drugs and mining in Afghanistan worth billions of dollars. Yet former U.S. President Donald Trump handed 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 is free of terrorism, narcotics, the war economy, and organized crime, including human trafficking, weapons, extortion, and the plunder of public resources. Our question to the Taliban would be whether they are a partner in this.

The drugs economy has been a central revenue-generating source for the insurgency in Afghanistan. Sometimes you get confused whether this war is about Afghanistan or about narcotics and the war economy. Of course, they go together, and there are those who want Afghanistan not for the Afghan people but for drugs and international terrorism. That’s why we are fighting because these elements are critical threats to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the region and the international community.

It is creating an enabling environment for organized crime and insurgency and the subversive activities of elements that benefit from it. No nation has been more affected and no nation has lost more to the drug economy than Afghanistan.

FP: What do the Taliban have to offer? 

MHA: Number one is to cease killing Afghan people. To agree to a cease-fire and stop violence, consistent with their obligations in the Doha agreement.

Number two is be a responsible citizen. If you have the political vision for this country, choose to be consistent with the values of our religion and with universal values. Those values would guide them to participate in a civilized, peaceful, and politically acceptable manner.

What we are offering to them is, let’s make peace, and let’s participate in government together. And they will have a chance to prove if their vision has any value. That way they will contribute. If they have any confidence in their own vision and ideas and program of action, they should explain it, and the Afghan people will decide if it is something they will buy. 

FP: What message do you have for Pakistan, the Taliban’s main supporter? 

China definitely has a role in building regional consensus.

MHA: Help with the peace process because it is in your interests. If they are serious about regional peace, stability, and prosperity, peace building in Afghanistan is a must. And Pakistan has to contribute to that.

In terms of counterterrorism, there shouldn’t be any distinction among terrorist groups: no good, no bad—the key principle is that they are all bad. Selectivity should not be a policy because if you try to focus on one group, hoping that the others will not hurt you, first, this is not realistic because it is a symbiotic system, and second, 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 economics. On security, China is concerned about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, but they should understand that ETIM is a product of an ecosystem of terror and cannot be selectively dealt with and the others ignored.

Due to Afghanistan’s strategic importance in terms of connectivity, the Belt and Road Initiative will certainly benefit from a stable region—and the stability of the region critically depends on the stability of Afghanistan.

China definitely has a role 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 that.

FP: Have you had reassurance from the Biden administration of support to ensure the Afghan government will not collapse? 

MHA: Essentially there are two scenarios. Scenario one: a peaceful Afghanistan that will not just benefit the Afghan people but the region and the international community. The second scenario would be an endless war.

Let me warn the region and the international community: It will not be just a civil war. It will have a spillover effect and will allow transnational terrorist networks as well as transnational organized criminal groups to work together in a symbiotic fashion and to threaten the interests of the region and the international community.

With the United States, our assessment of the situation was very similar. We agreed that the Doha peace agreement was not honored by the Taliban. We agreed that the Taliban’s objective was not the departure of foreign troops but about bringing back their own emirate to Afghanistan. We also agreed that this would be a threat not only to Afghanistan but to the peace and stability of the world community.

What we heard from the United States was of a package of assistance that included, first, security in terms of presence of troops and sustainment and development of the Afghan National Security Forces; second, economic and humanitarian assistance; and third, political and diplomatic support.

The U.S. administration said to us that only the troops element will be phased out. The rest of the elements will remain in place and in certain areas will be increased. That assurance was given to us not just from the administration but also from the U.S. Congress. 

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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