Thomas Ruttig: “We must not turn our backs on Afghanistan”
An interview by Giuliano Battiston, on his return from Kabul 21 January 2015

You have written that the new Afghan “government and its success will be measured mainly along three criteria”: its ability to create a “distinctly more effective working administration”; real, “tangible moves towards ending the war” and a political and inclusive solution to the conflict; its ability “to find ways to increase domestic revenues”. Let us start from the first aspect. Do you believe that President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah can really change things, working together? Or do you think that they cannot co-govern for long in view of their very different backgrounds and the lengthy post-electoral conflict?

The first thing to be said is that the new government is the result of the whole system’s institutional crisis. This concerns electoral institutions, that were not impartial, as well as the judiciary environment, that is not autonomous. In the eyes of the Afghans, the choice made to form a national unity government also delegitimised the democratic institutions: many had bravely turned out to vote, but no one can be certain his or her vote really mattered. The people’s main expectation always remains the same. They want a non-corrupt, transparent and efficient government. It is too soon to envisage what will happen. In theory, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have many issues to quarrel over, but if rhetoric about reform and transparency becomes action taken by the government, if they can keep a reasonable distance between themselves and the “hawks” in their two entourages, they may both benefit and achieve a sort of post-factum legitimacy. It remains true that the battle against corruption will be a complex one. Many would lose the many benefits acquired so far if corruption were opposed, without forgetting the fact that the idea that laws can be bypassed, and illegalities committed with total impunity, is a consolidated one.

The Afghan economy is almost totally dependent on international aid, which is beginning to diminish, contextually with the foreign troops’ withdrawal. Why do you think that the solutions proposed by the international community for boosting local economy are unsuited to Afghan reality? And how could one free the country from dependence on foreign aid?

Over the past 12-13 years, the international community has, on various occasions, concentrated on specific, single sectors. Projects such as the “New Silk Road” (an initiative aimed at integrating Afghanistan in the regional energy and trade network, Editor’s note) are interesting albeit excessively ambitious. Afghanistan is an immense and diversified country that has always lived on agriculture, on domestic and regional trade. The technocratic, silver-bullet solutions – like on mining, or on regional integration (without developing the domestic market) – suggested from abroad, aimed at only one sector, will not resolve the poverty problem (at least 30% of the population lives below the poverty threshold). As far as “donor-dependency” is concerned, the question is not how to free the country of its dependency but rather how to lessen it. This will take decades, not just a few years. Afghanistan has been a rentier state for one hundred and fifty years, and today has little to offer an increasingly global market. The “technocratic” solutions proposed require time and this also applies to the mining sector. Afghanistan will depend on foreign support for a long time and we have the responsibility of honouring our commitments until the country can stand on its own feet. We cannot simply turn our backs on Afghanistan.

You recently wrote a joint essay on internal developments within the two main armed opposition groups in Afghanistan, the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami, analysing the chances of a peace agreement with the government. Many doubts that Abdullah and Ghani will be able to find common ground on this subject. Abdullah represents the interests of a party that is mainly Tajiki, Jamiat-e-Islami, and the defunct Northern Alliance traditionally hostile to the Taliban. Ghani is instead a Pashtun, and he speaks of the Taliban as political opposition. Will they manage to merge their opinions? And what are the Taliban’s real political objectives?

For the moment there have been no significant initiatives. What is, however, significant, is that both Ghani and Abdullah have acknowledged the need for a political solution. Abdullah is a very experienced diplomat; he knows that political solutions are a good option. Of course he will have to keep up a certain rhetoric with his supporters, who are probably not very enthusiastic about establishing a dialogue with the Taliban. That said, not many are. There are many who do not want the Taliban to be part of the government, but many are also aware they cannot be defeated. As far as Ghani is concerned, he is Pashtun. This does not necessarily make him a friend of the Taliban, but it does allow him to better understand what they say and what they want. This is a positive element because at times I have the feeling that the “northern groups” are not very successful in this sense. As far as the Taliban’s objectives are concerned, our opinions are based on what has been said so far at meetings held in France and Japan and in official documents (I tend to consider documents published in the name of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as authentic and as reflecting their positions, as we do not have much more). The Taliban’s first objective remains that of re-establishing the Islamic Emirate, but Mullah Omar himself has, on a couple of occasions, acknowledged that he recognises other political forces and that the Taliban do not intend to discriminate religious minorities and possibly even recognised, at least, that their policies vis-à-vis women cost them dearly. They are looking for a prominent role, but all political forces do that. They have never articulated a broad ranging political vision, also because there is not yet a clear distinction between the military and the political wings, although there are specific and distinct “commissions.” In the past there have been significant signs of aperture from their side, but the reaction was not adequate. I hope things will be different in the future, but every chance missed makes further moves more difficult.

Since he was sworn in on September 29th, 2014, President Ghani has made a number of visits abroad, meeting the representatives of Saudi Arabia, China, Pakistan and India. How important is the regional framework for resolving the Afghan crisis?

Regional actors have always played a key role in Afghan history. Ghani is trying to persuade these countries to put pressure on the Taliban to discuss a political solution, but it is too soon to say whether it will lead anywhere. What is certain is that the regional setting will automatically become more relevant with the West’s partial withdrawal. The importance of Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India and Russia will increase. Afghanistan is not, however, a priority for many of these countries. Afghanistan is not that important even for China, a country many place their hopes in as a mediator, although the Chinese leadership has understood that leaving things as they stand may be damaging.

Afghan and Pakistan representatives have met more than once in recent months. Do you believe that the Pakistani government and the military establishment are ready to withdraw support provided in the past to a number of armed groups operating in Afghanistan?

I will believe in expressed good intentions when I see them put into practice. In the past 12-13 years many promises have been made by Pakistan, but there has been no real change. The two governments do not trust one another and the relationship remains a difficult one. There is the need for measures that will allow tension to lessen and reciprocal trust to be rebuilt. Pakistan must understand that it cannot have an Afghanistan governed on its terms.

In July 2012 the research centre you co-direct published “Snapshots of an Intervention. The Unlearned Lessons of Afghanistan’s Decade of Assistance (2001-2011)”, a book about the many errors made by the international community in Afghanistan. Have we now learned the lessons or are we continuing to make the same mistakes?  

I am convinced that the political context in which the “dossier-Afghanistan” has been addressed has never been adequate. At least at government level, in the past years the international community has been more committed to preparing its withdrawal and to spreading the story that “things did not go so badly after all” than to worrying about those who live here in Afghanistan. In some cases the rush to leave has prevailed over analysis. It is no coincidence that in military circles, American generals have criticised the choice made to withdraw completely by the end of 2016. I believe that the problems on the ground will oblige us to learn the lessons and adjust future strategies. Furthermore, we still do not know how stable and efficient the Afghan security forces are. I believe they still need external support, also because they have no air force. I would like to be able to say that there is no need for foreign troops, but that is not the case.

In a research carried out for the “Afgana” network in 2013, I saw two opposing views: according to some, Afghans foreign troops are one of the main factors that fuel the conflict, others believe that they are part of the solution. What is your opinion? And what do you think of the Bilateral Security Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan and the new NATO mission, “Resolute Support”, which replaces ISAF mission?

I believe that foreign troops are both part of the problem and part of the solution. I am, however, convinced that in addition to the presence of foreign troops one needs to understand that there are also other factors that fuel the conflict. These factors are many and diverse. Foreign troops are not a peacekeeping corps. They behave as soldiers at war behave. Many crimes have been committed in these past years, although more recently there have been fewer. To fight the Taliban western governments formed alliances with many people who committed serious crimes, and who today dominate the system. All this has greatly conditioned the perception Afghans have of foreign troops, and the initial support for them has dropped. As far as “Resolute Support” is concerned, the mission is aimed at training and supporting Afghan forces, both important elements, although for the moment support is more useful than training. There are still a number of unclear aspects. It is not clear whether special forces, non-conventional ones that are tasked with counter-terrorism, are or are not acting within the judicial framework established by the bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan and of the new mission. Furthermore, one must carefully assess the role played by private contractors, even more numerous than the soldiers. According to reports we have received, the troops also cooperate with the so-called Afghan Local Police, militias, accused of many crimes, and this is a worrying aspect.

One last question about Hamid Karzai, the former president who governed the country for a full 13 years. What is his legacy? And what role might he play in the future in the Afghan political scenario?

More than on the person, I would concentrate on the structure, on the overcentralisation of power in the president’s hands, a choice made by the Americans immediately after 2001 that then led to a deterioration of relations between the United States and Afghanistan. His legacy is a mix of relations that will be difficult to untangle. As far as his future role is concerned, we shall see. For the moment he is receiving many people. Some say he is planning to create an opposition group; he has denied this. In the local political scenario many would be displeased with that. But Karzai probably feels too young to abandon politics. As I said, the issue is also structural. Many in Afghanistan are not in favour of decentralisation because they believe is means federalism, and when one speaks of federalism it is misunderstood as meaning separatism. A fragmentation of the country is feared. I was part of the team preparing the Bonn conference in 2001. Our Afghan interlocutors had pleasant memories of the sixties in the 20th century, when the system envisaged a head of State and a prime minister. Many supported this formula, convinced it would be easier to replace a prime minister than a president and that, therefore, it was useful in order to have a more flexible political system. That formula was discarded in favour of a strong presidential system in the 2003 constitution. Now, with the national unity government, there is instead a sort of prime minister, Abdullah Abdullah, next to President Ghani. We shall see whether the formula will work or not. The fact remains that the Loya Jirga (the great council) will have to legitimise its existence within two years with a constitutional amendment. Should it not do so, there might be a new crisis.

Translation by Francesca Simmons