Since Donald Trump took office in the United States and his aggressive approach towards the developments in the international arena, the situation in Afghanistan and the prospects for development in this country have become more complex and difficult than ever before. While on the one hand Afghanistan has become a hotbed for ISKP, on the other hand it has witnessed varying levels of political tensions and deadlocks over the past year, especially at the level of political partners in the national unity government. But the main question is to what extent the aggressive approach of ISKP activities, as well as Afghanistan's internal affairs, is influenced by Donald Trump's aggressive approach? Given the upcoming elections, particularly the presidential election in Afghanistan, what would be the future of Taliban and the peace process in Afghanistan, the IS-K terrorist group, as well as domestic political interactions? We have discussed these fundamental questions about the politico-security future of Afghanistan in an interview with Dr. Zaker Hussain Ershad, chief of Private Universities Union in Afghanistan and deputy of Avicenna University in Afghanistan. Dr. Ershad received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Tehran University in 2012 with a dissertation under the title of “The US Strategy in Afghanistan in Post- Taliban Era” and a book on the subject has been published.
Q: What changes have taken place in US-Afghanistan relations over the course of Trump and Obama’s presidencies?
Ershad: Despite the differences between the two political parties (Republicans and Democrats) in US foreign policy apparatus, as well as the priorities that the representatives of each of these parties may have over Afghanistan, one of the major differences that make a distinction between Trump’s era and that of Obama’s is Trump’s aggressive policies, which stem from his personality type, is that Trump is distancing himself from the United States' old tradition, or at least the political principles that usually influence US foreign policy, and has pursued an aggressive policy in many countries, including Afghanistan and its neighboring countries.
Q: What are the elements and features of this aggressive policy, particularly in Afghanistan’s case? Now, we are witnessing Trump's new strategy for Afghanistan and the region.
Ershad: Several elements can be used to assess Trump's aggressive policy in Afghanistan and the region. First, since Trump took office, the most powerful person in the United States, for the first time, has taken a tough and unconventional stand against Pakistan. This serious stance has been nakedly pursued by Trump and consequently by US foreign policy officials. Therefore, unlike in the past, Pakistan is at a very serious crossroads and cannot set its pattern of behavior in line with that old tradition and take a stand towards the United States. Thus, one of the differences between Trump's approach to that of Obama’s is the aggressive approach towards the groups that are publicly known as the main sponsors of terrorism and terrorist groups in Afghanistan, which is Pakistan. Although there have been such debates in the past, but the most powerful person in the United States has never taken such a tough and public stand against Pakistan.
Second, while United States seems serious in its fights against terrorism and extremist groups such as IS-K and Taliban in Afghanistan, Trump - contrary to the old tradition and the decision made during Obama's tenure to withdraw US and foreign troops from Afghanistan - has been considered the return of part of foreign and American forces in order to train Afghan security forces or pursue US strategic interests in Afghanistan and the region.
Q: But don’t you think the Trump administration has a contradictory approach to Taliban and IS-K? On the one hand, after a series of bloody attacks in Kabul in recent months, Trump said that it is no longer possible to negotiate with Taliban, but now the US Deputy Secretary of State says they are ready to negotiate with the militant group. Taliban, on the other hand, have stated in two recent statements that they are ready to negotiate face-to-face with the United States, but on the other hand, the United States is seeking to close Taliban's political office in Qatar.
Ershad: I believe that the demands and expectations of the Afghan community as well as Afghanistan's strategic interests are not a priority for the United States in pursuing aggressive or soft policy against various groups, including terrorist groups such as the Taliban, etc. in Afghanistan. In fact, the United States interests, and how to achieve these interests more easily and cost-effectively are strategically important to the country and the White House staff. So I think in Afghanistan, the terrorist and radical groups such as Taliban have become a playing card for global and regional players, including the United States. Therefore, there is no inherent hostility towards terrorist groups such as Taliban, al-Qaeda and IS-K in US foreign policy, and so, the White House take a special stance towards these groups at different times and in different places. As a result, we sometimes witness a paradox in US foreign policy as well as in the country’s treatment of these groups.
Q: Given this contradiction, what will be the US government and Trump’s approach towards Taliban? What the future holds for Taliban?
Ershad: We still need time and it is too soon to make any definitive judgments, because the Taliban militant group is not alone; Rather, it enjoys regional and global support, and influential actors who are involved in Afghanistan's affairs are the supporters of this group. Therefore, US-Taliban ties may not be assessed separately so that the United States can easily take a decisive stance, whether aggressive or non-aggressive, towards Taliban; But, some other issues in the international arena and the influential actors’ strategies and behavior patterns determine the stance against this group. Therefore, despite Trump’s aggressive approach, you see flexibility in US foreign policy.
Q: Do you still think that continuing the current US approach towards Taliban could be a bargaining chip for the Afghan government?
Ershad: I believe that Trump’s aggressive policy which stems from his personality type can be analyzed in other areas before reflecting US approach towards Taliban. The United States, at least after Trump was elected President, has not adopted an aggressive approach towards terrorist groups in Afghanistan; However, based on the essence of US policy, we are witnessing a flexible approach towards Taliban and other groups. If US aggressive policy against Taliban is implemented, then it may create side opportunities for Kabul government in Kabul, but so far, the United States has not adopted such a strategy.
Q: What will be the impact of Trump's foreign policy on the future of IS-K in Afghanistan? Over the past year, IS-K has carried out 18 bloody attacks in Kabul alone. Russia, on the other hand, has expressed concern over IS-K’s activity in Afghanistan, considering it questionable particularly in the north. What is your opinion about the relationship between IS-K and the United States, as well as Trump's policy towards this group and its future in Afghanistan?
Ershad: IS-K in Afghanistan is not a process resulted from the value system and political and social realities of Afghan society. In other words, the political and cultural traditions of Afghan society have never been a breeding ground for IS-K terrorists. When we accept this, the next issue will automatically be brought to light, and that is IS-K is a project made by influential political actors in Afghanistan to play with it based on their strategic interests. I believe that superpowers, including the United States, are playing with all these groups based on the conditions in Afghanistan, and these groups are like playing cards in the hands of these superpowers; Therefore, IS-K cannot be excluded from the policymaking requirements of superpowers involved in Afghanistan. IS-K is not a patch created in conjunction with Afghanistan’s value, political and social systems; That’s why, at least from a cultural perspective, you can not analyze the presence of IS-k in Afghanistan in terms of the facilities and capacities needed to expand this group to other places. At least this analysis in Afghanistan will not yield that desired results.
Q: when Trump took office, the United States dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on IS-K in Nangarhar, but the developments in northern Afghanistan are different. On the other hand, IS-K has been really active in Kabul in the last two years. How do you think Trump's approach will affect the future of IS-K’s presence in Afghanistan? Let's not forget that IS has sustained heavy losses in Iraq and Syria, and there are signs that Afghanistan could be a good breeding ground for the presence of some IS members from neighboring countries.
Ershad: When we emphasize that IS-K is a project and a playing card used by various actors, it is natural that all players, including US, pursue a flexible approach towards this group based on the other players’ priorities and conditions. Therefore, it is not possible to clearly analyze the future of IS-K in Afghanistan and predict that the United States will take a tough stand against IS-K, and come to the conclusion that the United States is determined to fight against IS-K and suppress this group or Taliban in Afghanistan. if IS-K were not a playing card, it would be possible to make a prediction, but unfortunately due to the fact that IS-K and Taliban and any other terrorist group in Afghanistan are playing cards in the hands of players involved in the country, decide on these groups vary based on the political conditions and regional developments.
Q: Given the conflicts between Russia and the United States in the region and around the world, which part of it is related to Afghanistan, don’t you think that Afghanistan will become an arena for a new cold and hot war between these two superpowers and IS-K will become a playing card in the hands of these two countries? This is while theorists in Afghanistan’s foreign policy say that after the formation of the National Unity Government, we are witnessing clearer positions in the country’s foreign policy and that Afghanistan has abandoned neutrality in its foreign policy and has chosen the security system of the United States and NATO as the sole system which could serve its interests.
Ershad: If the actors in Kabul do not play cautiously and focused on Afghanistan's strategic interests, of course, a very bleak future may await Afghanistan. Let me add one more point; Some influential groups in Kabul may have emerged from that neutrality position and emphasize more on aligning with the United States and Western world policies, but within the system, there are still other influential figures who always pay attention to the policies of other rival actors and may be in convergence with them. So I believe this is directly related to the kind of strategy that is being adopted by the entire political system in Afghanistan. Realizing the fact that various countries have different priorities, if the political system in Afghanistan does not manage these priorities seriously and based on the country’s interests, then the future of Afghanistan will be bleaker than it is now and conflict will expand.
Q: Let's go back to the discussion on Pakistan. We are witnessing increasing tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result of Trump's new strategy. What will be the future prospect of ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the light of the Trump administration's foreign policy?
Ershad: The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan can be analyzed in different ways. Sometimes it is possible that the attitude of major players such as the United States will be decisive, and US optimism or pessimism about Pakistan and Afghanistan may occasionally improve or deteriorate the relationship between the two countries, which so far their relationship has been analyzed through this concept in political circles; But what I think has caused the relationship between the two countries to be in crisis, or at least will resolve the crisis once and for all, are some other hidden wounds. Unless these wounds are healed and at least the actors in Islamabad and Kabul reach a mutually beneficial conclusion, Afghanistan-Pakistan ties may occasionally improve, but there will still be a deep and serious crisis. An important and very serious issue that can affect the relationship between the two countries is the border dispute and the type of social stratification and other commonalities that exist between social groups of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unless this border dispute is resolved identically and politically between the two sides, I think the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan will always be in crisis.
Q: Some people believe that another war has started in Afghanistan, a war between the United States and Pakistan, and we see the negative effects of this conflict in Afghanistan. It is believed that Afghanistan has become a new arena of conflict between the United States and Pakistan, and Pakistan seeks to prove to the United States that there is no solution to the Afghan crisis other than its own proposed solution and path, and that the United States has no ally other than Pakistan in the region. Do you think this conflict will continue?
Ershad: The continuation of this conflict and its effects depend on the conditions or subsequent events that occur in the international arena or at the regional level. Moreover, relation between these two countries depends on the Afghan society’s situation. If we succeed to have a rather consensual political system in Afghanistan in conjunction with power players, in which individuals unanimously emphasize on Afghanistan's foreign policy and interests, then it is possible that Afghanistan becomes the United States ally and regional partner. But it should not be overlooked that the United States’ presence in the region is not aimed at satisfying the actors in Afghanistan; instead they seek to pursue their own strategic interests and any actor who has the most capability to align with US interests, it will have a better chance to become the United States ally. Unfortunately the current situation in Afghanistan will not allow it to have such chances. On the other hand, Pakistan's foreign policy and diplomatic tradition has shown that this country has an extraordinary flexibility which can completely change Islamabad's strategy and maintain its alignment with major players.
Q: We are also witnessing India's increasing role in Afghanistan vis-à-vis Pakistan. What will be the security, political and economic consequences of India's increasing role in Afghanistan? The United States has also put emphasis on this role in Afghanistan in Donald Trump's new strategy.
Ershad: I think, part of India’s presence or prominent role it can play in Afghanistan stems from the kind of conflict that exists between Pakistan and India; In other words, the conflict between Islamabad and New Delhi is reflected in the relations of both countries with Afghanistan. Therefore, the role of India will be highlighted as much as Pakistan's role in Afghanistan diminishes, and vice versa. For now, the least chance for India is that based on the White House’s new policies, Pakistan's role in Afghanistan is diminishing and it seems that the main engineer of regional games (the United States) is aligned with New Delhi. Meanwhile, it seems that the United States has welcomed New Delhi policies in Afghanistan, and the actors in Kabul have also well-received this policy and it is said that some officials of the Afghan Presidential Palace are having a meeting in New Delhi to discuss the country’s various developments. The symbolic consequence of this argument is that the stance of Afghanistan and the actors in the Presidential Palace towards Pakistan will no longer be the same as before and they will focus on India instead of Pakistan in all areas, including economic, political and cultural relations.
Q: I had an interview with Dr. Faramarz Tamanna, Director General of the Center for Strategic Studies of the Ministry of Affairs. He said a security rectangle is being formed in the region for the United States, with Afghanistan on one edge, India on the other, and Turkey and Israel on the other edges. Do you really believe that in the US approach, Afghanistan and India are becoming the two edges of this security rectangle as the main US allies in the region?
Ershad: I cannot agree with this for several reasons. The triangle of Afghanistan, India and the United States, as the main axis for peace in the region, should be based on a number of elements. For example, this triangle can be effective at least during a period of time when there is a policymaking stability at the regional level; but now there is so much instability in the region that it is impossible to form such security triangles. It is possible that the diplomatic apparatus and lobbyists in Islamabad become so active in future that the status of this triangle gets changed. Islamabad’s foreign policy apparatus has such a capability, and Islamabad’s policy tradition confirms this point. In 2001, you saw that Pakistan, did a 180 degree turn, and allowed its territory and airports to be used to attack the Taliban regime, which ruled with the support of this country. Such a turn indicates the point that the actors in Islamabad are actually pursuing Pakistan's strategic interests.
Q: So you think that Afghanistan is not a reliable partner for the United States in the region, and the United States is not a reliable partner for Afghanistan, too. so everything can be changed according to the act of regional players and the interests of superpowers such as the United States?
Ershad: Exactly. Afghanistan and the political system in Kabul have not yet reached the necessary conditions to be a good partner for superpowers such as the United States at the regional level, so what exists today is a one-sided game which moves forward based on the White House's priorities. But since multiple variables affect White House priorities, a serious flexibility in US policy is predictable.
Q: One of the effects of Donald Trump's strategy and approach is on the internal developments in Afghanistan. What consequences can be expected of Trump's strategy in Afghanistan’s political sphere (the national unity government, elections, array of political power, local powerbrokers, etc.)? We are witnessing increasing tensions between political alliances in Afghanistan. How much is this situation influenced by the White House's aggressive approach in Afghanistan?
Ershad: It is natural that some of the Afghan Presidential Palace stances are a reflection of the kind of support that the White House may have for Afghanistan. On the other hand, it is natural that in addition to the role of domestic actors in Afghanistan, the approach of foreign actors and extremely powerful powers can also lead to internal rivalries and conflicts. Since the Afghan Presidential Palace can manage some of the roles and strategies despite the opposition of other actors, it seems that the White House is seriously supporting the president of Afghanistan. On the other hand, the strategy pursued by the president of Afghanistan cannot be considered exactly equivalent to what is emphasized in the US foreign policy apparatus.
Q: More specifically, what are the effects of US policy on the continuity of the political crisis in Afghanistan, particularly considering the fact that we have two important upcoming elections and the life of the national unity government is coming to an end?
Ershad: The reflections that are currently visible among the influential groups or internal actors in Afghanistan, more indicate the situation that exists among the major actors in the international arena rather than the situation in Afghanistan and the internal affairs of the country. For instance, the conflicts which exist between Russia and the United States at the regional level manifest themselves in Afghanistan's internal disputes on a small scale. In other words, the Afghan Presidential Palace seems to be at the forefront of US policy, while northern Afghanistan seems to play with the support of other actors as well as US regional rivals and is prepare to veto any decision made at the Afghan Presidential Palace. The president’s policies and rulings vetoed in the north indicate as if the actors in this part of the country enjoy the support of external powers. I, however, reiterate that major players put their own interests in the region ahead of the interests of Afghanistan and various groups, by playing different cards such as adding fuel to the fire of the country’s internal conflicts. Therefore, unfortunately, the situation in Afghanistan has become so complicated that it cannot be analyzed using a few variables and factors. In the meantime, it’s tough to make predictions about the future. Under the present circumstances, Afghanistan has grown into a mysterious house where unimaginable events can happen at any time.
The next presidential election in Afghanistan is also affected by the general situation in Afghanistan as well as the alignments of regional actors and major powers. All of this goes hand in hand, making Afghanistan and the political situation in the country more complex and difficult than in the past.
But if the Afghan political establishment reach a new understanding and the country becomes a powerful one, then it will be able to have a say and focus on its national interests when adopting a stance towards other actors. Otherwise, the current situation will continue, and in my opinion, there is no hope for a better future in Afghanistan.
Q: So it is better for the Afghan government to establish a regional cooperation platform in order to resolve the Afghan crisis rather than abandoning neutrality in its foreign policy and acting as an ally of NATO's security system. Don't you think we should go back from Donald Trump's current aggressive approach to Barack Obama's approach? The reason is because Obama emphasized that the solution to the Afghan crisis is a regional one.
Ershad: I think it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to improve the political and security situation in Afghanistan, unless there is at least a relative convergence towards Afghanistan at the regional and international level. The reason is that the multiple groups at the forefront of Afghan policy are each connected to a place and ultimately associated with a major actor. In other words, if every actor and group be in charge of advancing the strategy of a foreign country, then the external actors’ conflict will be directly reflected in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and its practical consequences will be a crisis in the country. That is why I think that a regional and international consensus is needed on Afghanistan, and with this great international contradiction, the situation in Afghanistan will not improve.
In the meantime, if a relative consensus on Afghanistan be reached, one of the differences it should have with Obama's policy is that a policy of appeasement should not be used in dealing with the terrorist groups in Afghanistan and that Taliban, IS-K and other terrorist groups should be considered a real threat to the entire region and the world. As long as regional and international actors do not reach such an understanding and for instance do not regard IS-K as a threat for today and tomorrow, the current situation will continue.