INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL KUGELMAN

‘Washington has moved on from Afghanistan’

Dr Qaisar Abbas

February 27, 2022

Michael Kugelman says that there is no chance of the US recognising the Taliban government. US appears comfortable doing diplomacy with the Taliban without a formal recognition

‘Washington has moved on from Afghanistan’

Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washinton DC, is a leading expert on South Asian affairs. He frequently contributes analyses on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to print, electronic and social media.

In a recent webcast organised by South Asia Democracy Watch on the emerging scenario in Afghanistan, he said: “the US no longer has assets on the ground in Afghanistan — that is, it has no troops and no physical presence more broadly. This makes it very difficult to develop a counterterrorism capacity from abroad, as Washington hopes to do with its ‘over the horizon’ idea.“

To him, “With no eyes on the ground, and no known new agreements on intelligence sharing with any of Afghanistan‘s neighbors, the US will struggle to monitor, much less strike, terrorist targets in Afghanistan. It will need to do everything from afar via existing military facilities in the Middle East. So if the US is concerned about something here, it‘s the lack of assets in Afghanistan that hinder its counterterrorism goals.“

In the following interview with The News on Sunday, Michael Kugelman comments on vital issues related to Afghanistan, including the emerging insurgencies, the economic and humanitarian crises, and the American sanctions on the Taliban. He also analyses the US-Pakistan relations, President Biden’s policies on Afghanistan and the stability of Afghanistan within the context of peace in South Asia.

The News on Sunday (TNS): An interesting scenario is emerging in Afghanistan. The Taliban, an insurgent group in the past, are in power, and they face rival insurgent groups, including the Islamic State. Are they ready to meet the emerging insurgencies?

Michael Kugelman (MK): There is an anti-Taliban resistance based out of Panjshir, but it is weak and has been forced to take up sanctuary in Tajikistan. This leaves Islamic State-Khurasan as the sole potent foe. In the past, the Taliban have handled IS-K well on the battlefield. But at that time, they enjoyed several advantages that no longer apply today. Their ground offensives against IS-K were supplemented (even if indirectly) by air power from the Afghan military and from NATO forces. That air power is gone. Additionally, in the past, the Taliban had the luxury of being an insurgency. They didn‘t have to worry about running the whole country. Today, they‘re completely overburdened with catastrophic humanitarian and economic crises, as well as the day-to-day responsibilities of governance. This all makes the IS-K a more potent foe.

Also, the IS-K has had a lot going in its favour since the Taliban takeover and US departure. Taliban prison breaks freed many IS-K fighters. Collapsed Afghan security forces and departed NATO forces have left behind military supplies. Bored Taliban fighters, not ready for civilian life, could be tempted to shift allegiances and join the IS-K. So in effect, the IS-K has made or could make major gains with manpower, weaponry and recruitment. The group has already reoriented its tactics and zeroed in on Taliban targets more than civilians in recent months. If the Taliban responds to these attacks with scorched-earth counterinsurgency tactics, that will alienate the population and benefit the IS-K as well. I‘m not saying the IS-K threatens the Taliban‘s political survival, but it does pose a more serious threat than it did when the Taliban were still an insurgency.

TNS: There is an ongoing debate whether the Taliban have transformed themselves to meet today‘s geopolitical realities. But, changed or not, they are in power now. So how does the United States plan to deal with this new reality?

MK: The US has largely moved on from Afghanistan. It is in the rear view mirror. So this means the US has no compelling interest in trying to making inroads with the Taliban. There is no chance of the US recognising the Taliban regime. For domestic political reasons, the Biden administration will avoid it. Instead, the US will pursue its limited, narrowly focused interests in Afghanistan by engaging and negotiating with the Taliban in ways that fall short of [formal diplomatic] recognition. Washington appears perfectly comfortable doing diplomacy with the Taliban without formally recognising the group. It‘s likely to stay that way. There‘s no possibility that the US would try to empower an anti-Taliban resistance. It has accepted the Taliban takeover, even though it was a humiliation.

TNS: There are indications that Afghanistan is heading towards a deep humanitarian crisis of food shortages, poverty and unemployment. The UN is asking for a $5 billion aid to Afghanistan to avoid the crisis. Being an active player in the game, what is the US contribution to supporting Afghanistan’s citizens?

MK: US officials like to point out that America has provided more humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan than any other county has. And that‘s true. But Washington, while recognising the scale of the economic crisis, doesn‘t have a plan for how to go beyond humanitarian assistance and tackle the very serious banking and liquidity crises that have Afghansitan on the verge of economic collapse.

‘Washington has moved on from Afghanistan’

US-Pakistan relations may be uncertain and lacking focus but they’re not in crisis — and that is a big achievement for a relationship that often lurches from one crisis to the other. This offers opportunities for establishing new pathways for cooperation. But I am not sure there is the requisite political will for that in Washington.

A big part of the problem is the US sanctions, which limit US options for delivering non-humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Unlike some of the countries in the region not constrained by sanctions, the US is allergic to the idea of putting any money into the Taliban‘s hands. So there‘s a fundamental conundrum: Washington wants to get more cash into Afghanistan, but that risks money ending up in Taliban hands, and the US has to avoid that.

The Biden administration‘s recent executive order, which frees up $3.5 billion of Afghan central bank assets frozen in the US Federal Reserve, is intended to make available a large pot of money that can be used to help Afghans. But there is no timeframe for when the money will actually be available and for deciding what the money will be used for in Afghanistan. And Afghanistan doesn‘t have the luxury of waiting for this process to play out. Millions are on the verge of starvation.

TNS: Violations of human rights of Afghan children, youth and women are widely reported. However, Western media mostly focuses on a one-point agenda: women‘s rights and girls‘ education. Why not a holistic, humanitarian approach?

MK: My sense is the Western media have focused on the full array of Taliban human rights violations. If there is an emphasis on the lack of women‘s rights and obstacles to girls‘ education, that‘s because these are two longstanding concerns of the West that are perceived to be synonymous with all that‘s wrong about the Taliban. Also, these are the two core issues that Western capitals will want to see progress on before they start to consider the possibility of recognising the Taliban government.

TNS: The United States has recently allowed some countries to send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan despite its sanctions on the Taliban. Will the US end the sanctions soon?

MK: I don‘t anticipate the US ending its sanctions. What‘s more likely is that we‘ll see the US government carving out more humanitarian exemptions that permit more provision of funding without running afoul of sanctions. The challenge here, even with these new exemptions, will be convincing risk-averse Western banks that it‘s safe for them to send money to Afghanistan, and that they won‘t be violating sanctions by doing so.

Why won‘t the US end sanctions? One reason is that the Taliban, even though it entered Kabul without firing a bullet, seized power unilaterally and have refused to share it. For the US, this means the Taliban are an illegitimate government. Another reason is political. The Taliban are linked to Al Qaeda and other terror groups, prevent girls from going to school and have killed hundreds of Americans. So it is not just a case of another brutal regime; the US befriends and recognises many brutal regimes. But the Taliban, as the US sees it, are much worse. For a US government to end sanctions on a regime with that kind of track record — that would be very politically unpalatable.

TNS: With its influence on the Taliban, do you think Pakistan can help restore peace in Afghanistan? Are the US-Pakistan relations improving?

MK: Peace was restored in Afghanistan when the Taliban retook power last August. The Taliban restored peace — albeit a cold, uneasy peace — by itself, without requiring assistance from Pakistan or any other country. Pakistan has lost some of its influence over the Taliban, given that the support it provided to the Taliban during wartime is now immaterial because the war is over. Pakistan‘s influence is now diplomatic, as it is trying to champion the Taliban‘s causes overseas. Paksitan can also be helpful with providing technical assistance, economic aid and possibly even training and advising to the Taliban as it rebuilds the Afghan military.

But when it comes to threats to peace in Afghanistan — Islamic State terrorism, economic collapse, future armed anti-Taliban resistance — there is not much Pakistan can do about these things. In fact, Pakistan has itself been involved in violence in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, in that Pakistani forces have periodically clashed with Taliban fighters along the border that the Taliban do not recognise.

US-Pakistan relations may be uncertain and lacking focus but they‘re not in crisis — and that is a big achievement for a relationship that often lurches from one crisis to the other. This offers opportunities for establishing new pathways for cooperation. But I am not sure there is the requisite political will for that in Washington.

TNS: Afghanistan’s instability can pose a security threat to South Asia, where two of the three nuclear powers (India and China) are already at loggerheads with each other. Do you think the world powers have a strategy to stabilise Afghanistan besides serving their national interests?

MK: To be candid, when it comes to the issue of stabilization, I think the world powers are in more of a watch-and-wait mode then in a proactive, we-need-to-act-now mode. There have been many pledges of humanitarian assistance and some of the regional powers are calling for more engagement with the Taliban. But otherwise they all want to see if the Taliban are able to maintain their hold on power and especially if they can curb the terrorism threats that worry them all.

The US may be developing its over-the-horizon counterterrorism capacity, but that will take a long time. No other country has such plans. Afghanistan‘s neighbours are watching Afghanistan nervously, but other than Pakistan — which has an interest in reserving the right to carry out military activities that target the Pakistani Taliban — no country is likely to engage in kinetic activities. They are all hoping the Taliban will curb the presence of terrorists on Afghan soil. But because the Taliban have close ties to nearly every terror group in Afghanistan (other than the IS-K), I doubt that‘s in the cards.

TNS: After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the United States never looked back, only to return to the country in 2001. Now that the US has left Afghanistan, do you think history will repeat itself?

MK: The only scenario under which I can envision the US returning to Afghanistan is if the US concludes that Afghan soil is being used to plan an attack on the US homeland. But even in that case, we‘d be talking about relatively short-duration US military operations, and not another invasion resulting in another long-term military presence.

I really believe the US has moved on, and focused on other issues that it considers more high priority — competition with China, terrorist threats elsewhere, climate change and so on. The US also won‘t be dragged back into Afghanistan by great power rivalry, given that its great power rivals actually share its interests in Afghanistan — more stability and less terrorism. Not to mention, China, Iran and Russia are being cautious and aren‘t about to rush into Afghanistan anytime soon.


The author is co-editor of a recently published book, From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State and Society in Pakistan (Routledge, 2020). As an academic scholar and freelance writer based in the United States, he has served several universities as assistant dean, director, and faculty of mass communication.

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