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Anna Gusarova: The Role and Place of Afghanistan is Being Rethought

“Peace in Afghanistan has a large international dimension, which unites the interests and positions of global and regional powers, each of which uses the “Afghan card” to strengthen its position in order to achieve certain political goals,” – Anna Gusarova, an expert in international security, director of Central Asian Institute for Strategic Studies, said.

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cabar.asia: What new things happen in Afghanistan?

Anna Gusarova. Photo from personal archives.

For one thing, Afghanistan has already held parliamentary elections. The fact that the elections have been held, not postponed, means that regular elections have become a healthy political habit of the Afghan people. The country has been known for being in the state of war for over 40 years. The boundaries between countering terrorism and peace enforcement have been erased over the years. Peace is needed to reconcile the parties and revive the country, while countering terrorism, provided that it is effective and result-oriented, can lead to peace, which is needed and important for both inside the country and beyond it. Let’s wait for official election results, which will be announced on December 20.

However, at this stage it’s important to emphasise the active efforts of young people and women in getting seats in the parliament. This has been caused by many reasons, including financial ones; yet, it should be noted that at this election there were all kinds of candidates. I cannot agree with the opinion that elections in current conditions are a waste of time for the Afghan people. During a lot of interviews with various age groups and professional background, I have noted many times that the Afghans want to build democracy and want to advance in this process (though democracy has come too early to Afghanistan). It also concerns domestic political issues.

A candidate to the lower chamber of the National Assembly of Afghanistan, Mariam Sama, 26 years old, checks her campaign posters in September 2018. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP.

As to the foreign political arena, the role and place of Afghanistan is being rethought. Now Afghanistan is more often deemed to belong to Central Asia and it needs to build new, deeper relations with the countries in the region, particularly, trade and economic relations. The president of the country and foreign ministry have worked over these issues by creating a position of a special representative for Central Asia. The Central Asian region takes priority in the foreign policy of Afghanistan.

As to the security issue: first of all, I should note the recent events related to the death of the leader of the Haqqani network, the most cruel group, as well as the activation of other groups, particularly, ISIS. The question is whether the Taliban will be ready for negotiations and real peace-making. As to the ISIS, we all remember the relatively recent terror attack in Kabul and Khost Province, which has resulted in 36 deaths (including 10 journalists). ISIS has claimed responsibility for these terror attacks. Or for other terror attacks in January, April, June, July 2018, which have resulted in over 50 injured and over 250 deaths.

Which processes threaten the peace in Central Asian countries?

“Terrorism in Afghanistan has local, regional and international aspects, and the Afghan government is not capable of countering terrorism independently.”

When we speak about the challenges and threats to security in Central Asian countries and Afghanistan, we should understand that every country has its own level of threats, their scope and priority. Moreover, terrorism or violent extremism does play a kind of consolidating role here. Terrorism in Afghanistan has local, regional and international aspects, and the Afghan government is not capable of countering terrorism independently. Also, we should understand that in this case groups operating in the territory of northern provinces of Afghanistan become ever more relevant. In majority of cases, they pose a threat to the government of Afghanistan after the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS. In addition to radicalisation and religious component, which are mainly domestic ones, ISIS and possible return of foreign terrorist-fighters pose some challenge to Central Asian states. Under this logic, we can expect that cross-border countries will keep on articulating these surveys, same as before. This concerns Afghanistan, if we take Afghanistan generally and processes in it as a security threat.

The authorities of Central Asian states from time to time suggest and articulate positions on their role in decision-making of the so-called “Afghan issue”. Tashkent held a large-scale event and announced its ambitions in 2018.

What is the importance of such declarations in Central Asian states, in your opinion? Do Central Asian states play any serious role in Afghan processes?

Presidents of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan held talks in June 2018. Photo: president.uz

The global community apparently understands the importance of solution of the Afghan issue. Key non-regional actors, who are involved in countering terrorism or in peace-making process to some extent, understand well that peace making is a very simple yet complicated task closely related to the solution of problems in neighbouring Pakistan. So far, Central Asian states cannot suggest anything to Afghanistan but provide a forum for high-level conferences, or, in the case of Kazakstan, provide educational grants to the Afghan people or provide humanitarian aid with the participation of Kazak diplomats, hold active discussion of women’s empowerment issues in Afghanistan. Trade relations are being slowly built. Tashkent and Dushanbe have generally contributed to the negotiations between the Taliban and Russia. Now the representatives of the Afghan government emphasise the importance of Tashkent as the most suitable, yet independent mediator, since it has good relations both with Russia and with the USA. I doubt that the countries can play any other role given the reality and available resources.

More and more countries try to establish dialogue with the Taliban. Why Moscow, Washington, Beijing or Tashkent need it? And what’s the attitude of Kabul to it?

It makes sense that the peace process cannot be possible without the dialogue with the Taliban and its participation in the negotiations. At the same time, it is not clear what to do with the Taliban, who are isolated as never before. Negotiations with them have been going on for a long time and are still in progress. At the same time, the official government of Afghanistan is also negotiating with the United States, Russia and China. It is important to understand that the dialogue with the Taliban has been going on for a long time and by many countries. The key point is who will be the first to make a deal and what will be the terms of the “deal”. We are well aware that the international community, including USA, will not fully withdraw from Afghanistan in the nearest time. It means that the deals with the Taliban will be postponed again.

However, the situation with the Taliban looks rather ambiguous. First of all, the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) is on the list of terrorist organisations of the USA, unlike the Afghan Taliban. Second, the Taliban movement is banned in all Central Asian states and Russia, as well as in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Third, even the United Nations have agreed that peace talks regarding Afghanistan should involve the Taliban. And finally, the United States have not decided whether to designate the Taliban as a terrorist organisation or not, in order not to threaten the American-Afghan relations and peace talks. As a result, when the nation fails to understand and recognise an enemy, it’s hard to fight terrorism properly.

Peace in Afghanistan also has a large international dimension, which unites the interests and positions of global and regional powers, each of which uses the “Afghan card” to strengthen its position in order to achieve certain political goals. All attempts to counter terrorism have been rather inefficient since they have been replaced with peace talks with the Taliban, who have failed to put an end to the war.

Regional cooperation again gains momentum, and growing interest of regional countries supported by international donors should significantly promote the stability and growth in prosperity of Afghanistan.

“However, peace-making in Afghanistan is usually related to three missing aspects: lack of clarity (no clear image of who is the enemy, everyone has their own enemy), lack of obligations (both on the part of international donors, and of the government of Afghanistan), and lack of vision (how peace talks can contribute to the re-building of Afghanistan in such a way as the international community, Afghan society and the government want to see it).”

It’s Interesting that most of the publications, reports, articles and in-depth interviews that I was lucky to conduct while in Kabul try to explain the current state of affairs with the help of history, while almost no one focuses on the future development goals of Afghanistan, in particular, the country the Afghans want to live in, or Afghanistan after the Taliban.

How does Moscow see the ambitions of Tashkent to become a mediator of the dialogue between the Taliban and Kabul? Moscow has its own “play” with Dushanbe. Which external actors support Tashkent in this process?

Moscow is not jealous of Tashkent. However, it could not be otherwise. Russia is generally interested in building up cooperation with Tashkent on many issues, so Afghanistan is one of the areas where they could work together. Moreover, these ambitions are largely justified. Once again, Tashkent has secured the support of the Afghans as the maximum independent party, which has equally good relations with key actors. Washington is now placing stakes on Tashkent, so cooperation regarding Afghanistan meets current interests. No one bothers anyone so far.

What are the positions of official authorities, the Taliban movement, and other associations? Which of the parties strengthens their presence? Are there any prerequisites for the emergence of any dominant party and what does it depend on?

Positions regarding what? Peace? Their positions vary.  Even security services, political agencies, expert community in Kabul have very different positions and opinions. Some think that the Taliban should be designated as a terrorist organisation and work should be done in this direction. Others think that the Taliban should take part in the negotiation process held by Afghans without any involvement of other players. However, we all understand very well that it is not real. The withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan is also unreal in the short-term. And this is one of the main demands of the Taliban. As to the strengthening of positions, it’s hard to say. It’s an active war period with an increase in the number of terror attacks, incidents and victims from both sides. Moreover, we should recall relatively recent bloody and violent terror attacks organised by ISIS. I cannot say it’s an active process, but there’s an active redistribution of spheres of influence.

How real is the scenario of emergence of the new “hybrid war” in Afghanistan?

It’s already a hybrid war in Afghanistan. In addition to military actions, information is getting more importance in the social and political life of the Afghans. Social media and their capacity are great, as well as their risks due to the low level of cybe


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.