A conversation with Farkondeh Akbari
On what a withdrawal will mean for Afghans, what the elites in Kabul will do and why the Taliban aren't as impressive as they're made out to be
Welcome to “What's Up Afghanistan?” by me, Arash Azizzada. Thank you for reading! My goal here is to try to make the news from Afghanistan digestible and understandable. I will try my best to center Afghans and Afghan voices. This edition of the newsletter is free but to keep this little venture going, I am asking folks to subscribe! For the cost of one oat milk latte per month, you will get multiple newsletters a month delivered right in your inbox. Check out previous work here.
I recently reached out to Farkondeh Akbari. She is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University. Her research is on diplomacy and the difficulties of peace settlements with non-state armed actors, looking at the cases of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity; it was done over Zoom. The full interview is currently available for everyone before it moves to subscribers-only.
Arash: Salam Farkhondeh! Thank you for taking the time out to share your expertise with me and others. The Biden administration found itself in itself between a rock and a hard place: either withdraw or try to stay even longer. They could have tried to kind of rescind the deal that you the Trump administration made with the Taliban. How do you feel about the withdrawal decision that has been made by the Biden administration?
Farkhondeh: The options available for Biden administrations were all difficult ones: a withdrawal in the absence of a peace settlement risks the collapse of the Government and restoration of another cycle of violence that many analysis shows the indicators of civil war is emerging. A conditional withdrawal would also be meant keeping the status quo – the Taliban’s continued fighting. Both options are based on the realistic analysis of what is happening on the ground: Taliban’s lack of commitment to a peace settlement and their emboldened sense of victory since the February 29th US-Taliban deal, distrust, and disunity among Afghan political elites within and outside the government, etc.
However, it was hoped that Biden would seek a third option that could have been more favorable not only to the people of Afghanistan but the region and beyond: to keep the troops until the conditions are ready for a meaningful peace settlement by using the withdrawal as leverage against the Taliban and diplomatic pressure over Pakistan to close Taliban’s sanctuaries. This option would have required the troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond the May 1st-deadline agreed in the US-Taliban deal. The justifications are that the conditions are not ready for withdrawal, such as the Taliban’s lack of commitment to cutting ties with Al-Qaeda and violating the spirit of the Agreement to reduce violence and engage in meaningful negotiation with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Biden could have adopted a different strategy and approach that required political and diplomatic innovation and creativity to target a peace settlement. Yet, the unconditional withdrawal by September reveals the U.S. did not have the appetite to remain engaged for a little longer and withdraw responsibly.
President Biden posed the question that “when would that condition be ready?” “How many more years?” Until the conditions are nourished for a peace settlement in Afghanistan, I would say which has a more vital regional and international dimension than local.
The Turkey summit is proposed, which is more of a “quick fix” and “rabbit out of the hat” than an organically developed process required for sustainable peace. The Taliban have already conditioned their return to the negotiating table (which they never began meaningfully in the first place) to get further concessions - such as the 7,000 prisoners release and delisting from sanction lists. Mind you, the government of Afghanistan is not going to give in this one quickly. After the unconditional withdrawal, the US has lost its leverage on the government to a certain extent, and because of the rise of violence as an outcome for 5k prisoners release, most of whom returned to the battlefields.
With the surge of violence in Afghanistan and an almost dead “peace process,” the unconditional withdrawal by September the extreme scenarios such as civil war and intensification of proxy war are becoming inevitable. This instability and deterioration of the situation can spill beyond Afghanistan’s border and affect regional and international peace and security like it did in the 1990s.
Arash: A lot of folks are thinking of worst-case scenarios, but who do you think this decision impacts the most within Afghanistan?
Farkhondeh: Of course, the people of Afghanistan. The battlefield is hot. War is on. People are unsafe in all corners. But withdrawal has a psychological effect too. It triggers cascade and realignment among local actors. If you look at the history of Afghanistan, those who took power it was not by military take over, but realignment once it was clear that the ruling power was weak and defeated.
There are no hopeful indicators at the moment that one can rely on where it would serve the people's interest. In the end, the people will endure all, as they have in the last 40 years. Unfortunately, it is not going to be a situation for the better, but to worse. However, people are the survivors. They will survive this wave of gloom, instability, and hardship too. We are reflecting on this critical issue now because now was the time that fate could have changed for something a little better. A little better means less bloodshed and more comfort for the people – protection of their lives. From all the rights, the rights of the Afghan people are boiled down to the right to be alive. This is the bare minimum but the most fundamental one that is threatened in all corners of Afghanistan.
The people of Afghanistan are not asking much. They want to live their life; feed their family; to get a basic education. The people are not asking much but stop carrying their child's coffins to the graveyards that have eaten hundreds of thousands of Afghans in the last four decades.
Arash: Maybe we can transition to the politics at play in Afghanistan. Some have said would it be best for the political factions, the central government, and others, to coalesce to form, at the very least, a strong united front against the Taliban. There might be several players who are essentially trying to take advantage of this unstable situation with a US military withdrawal that will diminish leverage, resources, and Western attention even. What do you think is the likelihood of that coalescing versus continued splintering among the elites in Kabul?
Farkhondeh: You know, consensus doesn’t happen overnight, and trust-building doesn’t happen overnight. The situation we see today, division on the Republic front, is a product of the last 20 years and mainly during President Ghani’s era. The main reason is that in post-2001 where Afghanistan have had a chance that politics could be based on values and values could be institutionalized, but rather politics became “fard-mehwar” or person-centered. As a result, we do not have a strong collective voice and organized political defense against the atrocities of the Taliban. Afghan leadership and politicians have disgracefully used ethnic and tribal linkages for personal promotion with no sense of responsibility for their action’s effect in the country.
The division among political elites that we observe in the current “peace process” is also because of the 2019 presidential election crisis. The legitimacy of the government is challenged. The election was a fraud. Deeply fraud. The political agreement between Dr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah only deepened the division and made the government weaker. This is unfortunate and irresponsible - the entire Afghanistan is paying for this.
The Republic side does not have a united political front necessary to build a common defense against the Taliban’s attempt for a military takeover in post-US troops withdrawal. This automatically makes the Taliban look more cohesive, more powerful, and more emboldened. In reality, the Taliban are not as powerful as they seem; yes, they are considered a resilient, cohesive military organization fighting tirelessly, but politically, the Taliban are not popular among the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban is a military force but not a political actor that can be durable.
Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah walks with Pakistan's Army Chief of Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in Kabul, Afghanistan May 10, 2021. High Council for National Reconciliation Press Office/Handout
Arash: A variety of things can occur post-withdrawal but sometimes it seems binary. Either, a political settlement of some sorts through a peace process, although that seems unlikely with the passing of every day. The other option being, you know, continued violence, an insurgent Taliban on one side with warlords, militias, and the Afghan defense forces on the other. The suggestion has been made that the Taliban could potentially jump-start this slow-motion take over of Afghanistan because they feel like they’re in a position of strength. But they might not try to violently take over the entire country. One of the points they—and some others have made— is that they want political legitimacy and they don't want to be a pariah government like they were in the past. Do you think the Taliban is making a political and military calculus? Or is that just happening on the political, diplomatic end of the Taliban and not necessarily on the ground?
Farkhondeh: As much as the Taliban are admired for their military cohesiveness, their endurance in fighting, their propaganda in fighting the world superpower, they have their limitations and failures in their political endeavors. The Taliban gained territory from violence, but the Taliban are not yet a political actor to rule the country and deal with some 190 UN member states, multilateral organizations, a fast-paced technologically connected world, and other 21st-century dilemmas. As an extremely ideological and conservative entity, the Taliban may be able to take over the country militarily, but it does not mean they can sustain and rule Afghanistan. The Taliban can “borrow” diplomatic recognition, something we have seen in the last one to two years by negotiating with the U.S. It can be taken away from them. It is still debatable what the source of legitimacy is for anyone ruling Afghanistan. In a multi-ethnic and diverse society like Afghanistan, the Taliban does not represent Afghanistan and can neither claim legitimacy from the people of Afghanistan.
The Taliban do not have a track record of diplomacy other than what we have gathered in the last two years. It is essential to note the difference between mimicking diplomacy and practicing diplomacy. We do not know yet which one the Taliban are doing? Are Taliban deceiving diplomatic means to utilize their military objectives? For the Taliban to endure a political and diplomatic actor, they need to change fundamentally.
In the last two years, since the Taliban have begun engaging more widely with different actors, they have not communicated any substance about their goals, vision, and end-state. Yet, they are vague using the Islamic framing. This is telling whether they have not figured out themselves or are they continuing who they were during the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan?
Furthermore, we do not know about the Taliban as much as we should know. How are the Taliban operating? To what degree Pakistan influences the Taliban movement? How are the Taliban likely to transform themselves from military to political organization? The fear is that due to the characteristics of the Taliban as an insurgency, there is not enough flexibility for change. The Taliban’s rigidity in the negotiations also reveals this.
So look at the history of the Taliban’s ceasefire. It only lasts for three days. The longest was the one week of “reduction of violence” after the US-Taliban agreement. Right now, there’s a strong national and international call for a ceasefire with no commitment from the Taliban. The Taliban’s commitment to ceasefire could become a political gain and fasten their military to political transition. The Taliban know this and know it is popular demand. There are two reasons they cannot commit to a long-term ceasefire: afraid of defection from hardliners causing cracks in their cohesiveness; losing their foot soldiers, the Taliban’s fighting force, by being exposed to life other than fighting.
Arash: As the U.S. withdraws, the diplomatic engagement matters more and more. Regional cooperation will likely matter more than before as well. The New York Times recently wrote about Pakistan’s complicity and duplicity in regards to Afghanistan and the Taliban; this article spoke about how Pakistan was celebrating this as a win within some circles. You wrote recently that “the peace settlement starts when conflict no longer serves Afghanistan’s neighbors.” So what do you think about the current geopolitical factors at play and how Afghanistan’s neighbors are feeling?
Farkhondeh: Suppose it was not for the Taliban’s sanctuary in Pakistan. In that case, the Taliban are unlikely to have survived as an insurgency for the last 20 years, fighting a well-trained coalition of an army from across the world. The sanctuary provided the Taliban with a breathing space to heal their wounded, train, remobilize, and fight, as well as receiving state military resources and intelligence. So sanctuary plays a very critical role when it comes to fighting guerrilla warfare. Pakistan has played a double game in the U.S. “war on terror” in regards to Afghanistan. The U.S. failed to put enough pressure on Pakistan to change its strategic depth at the cost of burning Afghanistan.
Apart from the sanctuary, the result of an emboldened Taliban today instead of a defeated one is the failures of U.S. strategies in fighting the Taliban and corruption in the Afghan government.
Arash: So most of our conversation has been pessimistic in nature, because that’s, unfortunately, the pragmatic reality of the country we are both from. I talk to people and they feel cynical about our homeland. So my last question to you is, what are some things that we can be hopeful about?
Farkhondeh: The youth of Afghanistan is the greens hoot in this insane bloodshed. About 70 percent of the population in Afghanistan is under the age of 25. The majority have been born in post-2001 - at a time that a lot happened in Afghanistan. Despite violence and war, Afghanistan was influenced by a wave of globalization, connectivity, and, importantly, education.
The hope is that the young generation struggles to uplift the miseries of Afghanistan - that have been because of both internal and external factors. There is a chance for us to come together from all walks of life and ethnic and social backgrounds to challenge the traditional barriers that held us down and create values that can heal our past and strengthen our bond for a strong country. I have already seen signs of it, and this makes me hopeful for the future of Afghanistan.