New Pathways to Positive Engagement in Afghanistan
The tenor of American engagement with the Taliban remains uncertain at the second anniversary of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. I was in Kabul near the time of the first anniversary and then back again for the second, and the situation on the ground remains dire for the Afghan people. Some 28 million require immediate food assistance, up from 18.4 million when US forces first arrived in 2001, and some 6 million of these are on the verge of famine. Some 84% of households are now borrowing money just to buy food. The gains attained through study and work by women have been all but erased, as have their most basic rights of movement and expression.
Though troops are no longer on the ground, the US remains deeply engaged in Afghanistan and the region. Contrary to some assumptions, there has not been a hardline policy of isolation. Indeed, were it not for the massive injection of food aid in 2022, for example, the foretold famine would have taken full effect. In addition, some $3.5 billion of the frozen assets were released on September 14, 2022, through the Fund for the Afghan People. There are calls for greater action, but the focus for the past two years has been upon caring for the people of Afghanistan and particularly for our allies in the war. Such assistance is good and right, but greater attention is now needed to map a pathway forward.
Looking ahead will require a radically different—and more dynamic—set of strategies than what has been attempted thus far. One of the most important lessons to be learned from the last twenty years is that there is no singular strategy that can be devised from Washington, or from Kabul for that matter. Afghan politics is in perpetual re-alignment. The power of central governments has always been dependent upon the patronage of diffuse provincial networks. Alliances are transactional and these are formed and dissolved at a dizzying pace.
In light of this reality, the question of engaging “the Taliban” is a moot point. This implies a cohesion that does not exist. Because there are multiple strands of authority, simultaneous initiatives are required with multiple dialogue groupings to foster productive engagement. This encompasses Track 2 and Track 1.5 approaches that empower unofficial contacts who build trust and explore possibilities, even while supporting humanitarian and social causes in the present circumstances.
Think of what is already happening. Afghans who reside in the US, Britain, Germany, Russia, Iran, and elsewhere are supporting family members with foreign remittances—this is how many are putting food on the table. But some are also proactively meeting virtually and traveling to Afghanistan to find ways to contribute towards a better future. Over and again, these tell me that they do not agree with the Taliban, but that there must be something other than war. These are doctors, engineers, and professionals who are searching for ways to give and build a better future. There is an educated and empowered generation of Afghan leaders who are scattered around the world who desire to put their skills to work towards a sustainable future for their people.
A recurring frustration they report is the lack of structure and clarity about where to start and what to do. One way forward is to provide training and models based upon the groups that are currently meeting. These function as think-tanks and can receive grants, and they share information about the needs and aspirations of their respective communities. These groups can also build coalitions as they include senior political leaders from the former government along with religious, social, and tribal leaders.
Over the past year I have been working with one such group whose modest gains can be seen as a promising proof of concept. Our group centered upon our shared experiences in higher education. Through recurring conversations, we noted that university faculty and academic leadership are held in high esteem in Afghanistan and that they could have much to say in evaluating the fall of the Afghanistan Republic and in imagining its future. These were from every area of the country, and most are fluent not only in the regional languages but also in English or other international languages. Meeting on Zoom, we realized that several in our midst held senior government positions and were closely connected with their respective community leaders in country and abroad. Furthermore, we identified the unique situation that some in the group were currently in Afghanistan and employed by the regime, while others were clearly in opposition.
A common conviction among participants in the group was that there can be no peace in the region unless there are better relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But none of these participants had ever interacted with Pakistani scholars of similar stature. So we put to work the tools of our trade by hosting a hybrid symposium on May 22, 2023 at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance, Forman College, Lahore. Participants presented highly original and rigorous academic papers in preparation for publication as a special issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs on “Ethnic Nationalism and Politicized Religion in the Pakistan-Afghanistan Borderland,” co-edited by me and Ryan Brasher.
The project was valuable not only for the participants themselves and for readers of their research, but also in terms of the manifold positive externalities inherent in such engagements. The expense was minimal as most joined the proceedings online, but the work caught the attention of senior leaders in the ministries of higher education in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and also of think tanks and policy advisors in the US, Australia, Japan, and Germany. Our group drew primarily from the social sciences, but there are other incipient cohorts from the natural sciences, business, and translation studies who are in varying degrees of engagement.
Groups such as these are not bound by political ideology, nor dependent upon large scale funding. Others could be formed in topics of medicine, governance, or along regional or ethnic affinity. These can foster networking and creative solutions, as well as access to multi-national capital and relational networks. Such groups are the building blocks of broader coalitions, and they provide valuable assets necessary for a sustainable future.
For these semi-formal and loosely structured engagements to mature they will require coordination. An online hub is necessary, but I believe it would be significantly strengthened by a physical presence on the ground in Afghanistan. As Arif Lalani, a senior Canadian diplomat and former Ambassador to Afghanistan has argued, being on the ground allows for better accountability and advocacy and is far more likely to strengthen the voice of those supporting the rights of all people. Kabul University is the current nexus for all that is described above, and this may very well be the ideal location. It is a recognized center for learning and leadership development, and it has ample space for gathering, good security, and dignified venues for discussion, training, and research. Steps towards formalizing and launching such a vision are being discussed among stakeholders and some version of this may come to fruition.
But if not this, then similar forms of public, multi-sectoral, and multi-national engagement should be encouraged and enabled, as these can offer significant points of light and hope for the people of Afghanistan. For policy makers and civil society actors today, the question is not whether to engage, but rather how to temper manifold lanes of interaction within the present context and help cultivate a more viable future for the Afghan people and their relations to the global community.