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Issue 4

Understanding Afghanistan

Vital Interests: I would like to discuss your experiences in Afghanistan. I know you have been there many times - most recently this summer. Could give us some of your insights?  

Dipali Mukhopadhyay: I would be happy to do it. I'll start with my impressions from an experience that I had this summer. I was in Kabul for about a month in July into August. This was my 15th-year anniversary visiting the country. I was very reflective about that and about the series of paradoxes that have always helped me understand the country. I had this experience, which seems very particular, but I think is representative of larger trends than I've seen in the country since 2004.

I was invited in mid-August to participate in an academic conference on Afghanistan Studies at Kabul University. The conference was a two-day academic meeting in which scholars came from South Asia, East Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States, various institutions in Kabul, and from a number of provincial universities. The most striking thing about the conference was that it could have been happening anywhere. There was high-quality debate and discussion based on rigorous research methods of different types. Diverse fields in the social sciences were represented and hot topics that would have been incredibly controversial in the past were discussed in an extraordinarily free and open way.

That one experience really revealed, for me, that such positive change has happened in the country as a result of US intervention. It basically was a reflection of the fact that an entire generation has been profoundly transformed by the opening of the country to ideas and experiences really outside the bounds of what was possible for those living under the Taliban and before that during the civil war. On the evening of the very first day of this two day event, there was a gathering. We went to a restaurant and had a really nice dinner. On our way home  we heard the news that a suicide bomber had exploded himself in a wedding hall, in the midst of a wedding dinner, not far from where we were.

I do think there is a desperate appetite for peace that exists and provokes a difficult question that reflects one of the core tensions that I picked up in Kabul this time: how much are you willing to sacrifice for this progress and these principles?

There were many blasts in Kabul, small ones, bigger ones during the time that I was there. This one seemed to rise above the din and hit everyone in a profound and emotional way, just the barbarism of the attack and the enormous damage that was done and the number of lives lost. The next day we reconvened and started the meeting with a moment of silence, and then we carried on with the proceedings of the conference. 

For me, that day August 17th, captured my experience of what has been happening in this country over the last 18 years. There is a huge amount of institutional change that has happened both through the work of government, but also in many ways beyond it - in the non-governmental space, where numerous students, now professors, but also experts, journalists, activists, many of whom studied abroad, have returned home in order to keep investing in the country and benefiting from those investments. That progress continues alongside this enormous amount of violence that is disruptive in very obvious ways, but somehow the progress persists just the same.

What does that peace look like? And are there ways to cultivate a kind of peace that actually builds on, rather than compromises, that progress?

That's just one day, but, for me, it captures where the country is right now. I don't think either of those events - the conference or the bombing - is an accurate portrait of life in Afghanistan by itself. But often all we tend to hear about is the violence.I think it's actually the fact that they both exist together.

VI: That's a pretty vivid portrayal, Dipali.  Certainly, the restaurant that you and your colleagues went to could have been the target of the blast.

You say that there are now these parallel worlds that exist in Afghanistan, the parallel world of progress and the new ideas with a younger generation exposed to institution-building and democratic principles alongside this constant threat of violence. As it goes forward, is that the future that these parallel worlds have to co-exist and this violence will keep interacting with the progress?

Is this going to be something which partitions the country into urban centers of progressive people living those kinds of ideas and those kinds of lifestyles, and then the rural, traditional lifestyle controlled by these violent elements -Taliban, Al-Qaeda,  ISIS or others?

Dipali Mukhopadhyay: It's not possible for them to really co-exist entirely in parallel. There's this word “resilience” that gets used about Afghans that many of my friends are really fed up hearing. Actually what has set in is a reluctant numbness. What choice do you have but to manage this relentless onslaught, because the onslaught is also happening in these cities - there is no space that’s immune from it.

That progress continues alongside this enormous amount of violence that is disruptive in very obvious ways, but somehow the progress persists just the same.

When I say they're evolving in parallel, that is the case even within a single household.  You may have a university student who loses a sister in a suicide bombing or loses a cousin who's a soldier in the Afghan National Army. The progress and the violence are that much intermingled. 

I do think there is a desperate appetite for peace that exists and provokes a difficult question that reflects one of the core tensions that I picked up in Kabul this time: how much are you willing to sacrifice for this progress and these principles? What does that peace look like? And are there ways to cultivate a kind of peace that actually builds on, rather than compromises, that progress? 

That tension plays out very practically in terms of the politics of the country- for example, there was a strange celebratory mood among some when the Camp David fiasco unfurled. There were clearly some, including within circles of the Ghani government, who seemed relieved that the American-led process failed because the government’s position within this process remained unclear. Where are the interests of the government in a conversation between the Americans and the Taliban? Both the interests of the nation but also the interests of the regime and its wish to persist amidst such turbulent politics.

I hear two pretty distinct points of view among the people I have known for some time. On the one hand, there is the conviction that this violence needs to come to an end. And that we should be prepared to make some hard decisions around that. The other strain is that we cannot give up on the progress that we've achieved. If we do, we risk going back to the 1990s. That's an internal tension that gets stoked and exacerbated by the ups and downs of the diplomatic process between the Americans and the Taliban. I think it's also a reflection of the larger challenge that Afghans must grapple with - that their democracy, their government, was built not out of some benevolent interest on the part of western governments to turn Afghanistan into a liberal democratic republic. No.

There is a huge amount of institutional change that has happened both through the work of government, but also in many ways beyond it - in the non-governmental space, where numerous students, now professors, but also experts, journalists, activists, many of whom studied abroad, have returned home in order to keep investing in the country and benefiting from those investments.

Instead, state-building was a means to an end, towards a counter-terrorism end. No one cared that Afghans were living under the Taliban until 9/11. The terms by which the Americans and partner countries entered the country’s politics is being mirrored by the way in which we are now attempting to exit. Which in on our terms is based on our interests and our own political timetables around our presidential election et cetera. What that means for Afghans is that their interests, their fears, their concerns, their progress, is contingent on this process over which they have very little control and there's a panic around this reality. And, of course, there are ways in which that panic gets manipulated in internal elite competition and electoral politics that complicate things further.

One of the things that strikes me about Afghan politics is that you can spend a lot of time in Kabul as I tend to do, not focused on the Taliban, and you become aware of an incredibly contentious, competitive, fractious politics without anyone even mentioning the insurgency.

VI: You mention that one of the questions that people in Afghanistan are weighing is, “How much do they need to sacrifice to get the kind of peace and end of violence that they desperately need?” Is part of that sacrifice women's rights and a return to extreme Islamic rules and attitudes? When you say go back to the '90s, you mean to a Taliban type of rule?

Dipali Mukhopadhyay: Yes, one way to put it, which I've heard a number of different times, is the notion of a contest between a republic and an emirate. These are the two models - the most terrifying scenario for those people who are afraid of going back to the '90s is that somehow the clock gets turned back through a set of compromises. The Trump administration negotiator, Zalmay Khalidzad, had a motto which he was using to frame the negotiations which was that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”  I thought that was a very useful framework because basically he was saying, "We are not going to sell away all of the political change that has happened in this country in exchange for a peaceful withdrawal of forces and a promise about Al-Qaeda being denied safe haven.”

But then people became nervous - is it really that nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed or is it that the Americans are only concerned about getting the troops home and getting a promise around Al-Qaeda and ISIS? In which case, the question of a republic versus emirates feels more centered in the aftermath, because what incentive will the Taliban have at that point to really accommodate itself within the existing political order?

One of the things that strikes me about Afghan politics is that you can spend a lot of time in Kabul as I tend to do, not focused on the Taliban, and you become aware of an incredibly contentious, competitive, fractious politics without anyone even mentioning the insurgency. There are so many other types of competition that are going on but once that insurgency gets put on the table, I'm always struck by the number of very different types of actors, from civil society activists to warlord commanders, who seem to have benefited from and remain invested in the existing political order. If we call that the republic, let's say, I think it's very hard for me to imagine that that order could be overturned without a very serious fight and by fight I mean an actual internal war, a different version of a civil war.

In that sense, the Taliban has a challenge in that it is very capable of profoundly disrupting the current order but it does not  have a great alternative to offer.

There are so many other types of competition that are going on but once that insurgency gets put on the table, I'm always struck by the number of very different types of actors, from civil society activists to warlord commanders, who seem to have benefited from and remain invested in the existing political order.

By that I mean, even if you look back at the time when the Taliban ruled, there were all these strict codes of conduct that are really out of touch with the current social circumstances in Afghanistan.  I'm sure there are some districts in the countryside where the way things were in the '90s would be fine but overwhelmingly people are not interested in going back to that time. People now have an idea about government, that it provides certain services for them, that it supports different sectors of commerce and reconstruction, that it creates opportunities for education and art and leisure. These are things that the Taliban never offered when it was in charge.

If you look back at the time when the Taliban ruled, there were all these strict codes of conduct that are really out of touch with the current social circumstances in Afghanistan.

The Taliban idea was the construction a kind of dystopian Islamist order. But what about service delivery, what about providing the types of access to public goods that people require? They used to outsource that as well. The Taliban is keen for the foreign soldiers to leave but not necessarily the foreign aid. The Afghan government, and by that, I don't necessarily mean this particular administration, but I mean the Afghan state, is advantaged in that it has a more compelling model on offer.

Since Kabul has fallen very short on certain things, this gives the Taliban an opening but the idea that one would revert back to the old model strikes me as untenable. My sense is that this group hasn't evolved significantly in its own conception of what running a whole government would look like. It is coherent as a fighting force and that makes it remarkably disruptive, but in terms of actually being in charge of governance, that's a very different challenge. There, at least theoretically, the central government should have some advantage.

VI: Let's break down this body politic you talk about in Afghanistan. Certainly there is the Islamist and the Taliban element, but isn't there also an ethnic divison within the country? You have Pashtun, you have Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen - a number of ethnic groups that have power within themselves, within their tribal organizations, run by the Strongmen or Warlords or whatever you want to call them. Are they not also a part of this dynamic that is going to jeopardize any kind of peace actually being realized?

The Taliban is keen for the foreign soldiers to leave but not necessarily the foreign aid.

Dipali Mukhopadhyay: Absolutely. These elites tend to be affiliated with a particular ethnic group because that's how politics was organized as a result of the civil war and these political organizations remain salient to this day. These are the actors that I tend to focus on, as you know, and they are absolutely part of the question of whether or not peace is possible.

If you don't focus on the Taliban or the insurgency, you can identify all sorts of fractures and splits. You can look at dynamics such as struggles for power between Kabul and the provinces, you can look within a particular province at struggles between different factions, or within a given region. What is interesting about these factions, including those associated with strongmen, is that a number of groups, ethnic and regional, that used to be very much at the margins of the political conversation in Kabul, have really become part of that conversation over the last several years. That is a shift and a kind of power that I don't think they are willing to relinquish.

For example, if we just look at the historically oppressed and marginalized Hazara community from a variety of angles. It includes both strongmen that were fighting as part of that community as well as the young people who were educated in the post-2001 period who have become journalists, business people, educators, and members of parliament. This is a community that has a lot to lose from going back to the pre-2001 period.

The question becomes, "What are the ways in which all of these different communities and factions and groups can feel engaged in a process that offers them enough security to remain in politics and not resort to violence?" They have found a place for themselves in this new economy, in this new political scene that they didn't really occupy before, and that matters.

It is coherent as a fighting force and that makes it remarkably disruptive, but in terms of actually being in charge of governance, that's a very different challenge.

As I see it, different factions tend to compete with each other, but then they also tend to align with one another when they feel there is a greater opportunity or threat at hand. You're seeing all kinds of very odd and interesting relationships where actors that used to be incredibly competitive with one another are joining forces. 

The conversation on peace but also the upcoming election- these are moments in which people have to put their cards on the table. My take on Afghan politics is that it’s during elections when things get tricky. The politics that are, I think, the most functional in Afghan are the ones that tend to be fluid and agile.

When you have something like a presidential election, you can't stay in the gray. You're voting for somebody or you're voting against them. That's a challenge. That dynamic comes up around negotiations with the Taliban also. One of the things that I am interested in thinking about with this recent episode of the failure of convening parties at Camp David, is the question of whether it leaves a little bit of breathing room inadvertently for actors in Kabul who felt this process was getting totally beyond their control to reclaim a little bit of ownership around their politics.

I will be observing these different elite actors and their constituencies to see where they stand and how their positions evolve - and also looking at the neighbors. I saw the Russians have invited the Taliban to Moscow. That's the other challenge, which I think it's very important to keep in mind with Afghan politics. It's never just the politics of what's happening inside the country. Who is supporting each strongman, each community, each party in the neighborhood, in the larger region?

So how do the Americans fit into this picture? I used a metaphor in a piece a year ago of the 'stag hunt'. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a story which then became a paradigm in game theory -  a stag hunt in which all the hunters are working together to capture the stag. If any one of them gets tempted to go after a rabbit that comes along while they're waiting for the stag, that hunter will get a small meal but everybody will lose the big feast. That metaphor for me is really useful in thinking about the American role. We are one of the hunters in the hunt. It's not that we need to be controlling the whole space. We can't do that, that's been very clear. Nor do I think there's any appetite to do it even if we could.

A number of groups, ethnic and regional, that used to be very much at the margins of the political conversation in Kabul, have really become part of that conversation over the last several years. That is a shift and a kind of power that I don't think they are willing to relinquish.

I think it's more that we have to keep our eye on why we cared about the stability of Afghanistan in the first place. It’s not to create some utopian democracy. We never cared about that. Whether it's possible or not is a separate point. It's that we wanted to see a government that was capable of actually controlling enough territory and enough violence and enough politics to keep an extremist group from taking root. That is the stag. All of the other hunters are these different strongmen, different elites. They're also looking at us to see if we are going to defect and spoil the big hunt.

Because if we do, then their temptation is to also go for the rabbit. If we can remind ourselves that we're just one among several hunters in the band, I think the costs are actually quite low to us, and the returns are high. But it requires reminding ourselves of why we cared about this to begin with, and why, for example, withdrawing without any negotiated agreement with the Taliban, which a number of the candidates endorsed in the Democratic debate, would be a mistake. 

It's an illogical move at this point. It would not actually address our core interest, and it risks an event happening down the road that leads to this entire scenario repeating itself. It's a much different thing to say, "We're going to gradually move towards a different posture here, but we're going to do it in a way, for once, that actually maximizes the leverage that we have in order to secure some minimum set of outcomes." 

I think it's achievable, but I do think that it requires more patience - and a reminder, because it's been 18 years, about why we got into this country in the first place.

I think it's more that we have to keep our eye on why we cared about the stability of Afghanistan in the first place. It’s not to create some utopian democracy. We never cared about that. Whether it's possible or not is a separate point. It's that we wanted to see a government that was capable of actually controlling enough territory and enough violence and enough politics to keep an extremist group from taking root.

I started with the story about the conference because I do think it's important to have an understanding of how much has changed in a positive way in such a short period of time, despite the really consistent, relentless amount of violence that has been there. I find some cause for optimism and feel compelled to share that. I saw Stephen Walt, a scholar of international relations I greatly admire,  had a piece in Foreign Policy recently that said nothing has been accomplished. That's just not empirically true. There's no need to jump to that conclusion  in order to justify the conclusion that we have made a lot of mistakes. We've made a lot of mistakes. We don't have to say that nothing's been achieved to know that.

VI: While there has been progress politically with new young elites exposed to Western norms and progessive ideas, what economic progress has been made in Afghanistan? The United States has made a huge investment in the military and in some infrastructure like roads, but have others - like the Chinese - been investing in projects that have come online that will impact the future of the Afghan economy?

Dipali Mukhopadhyay: What I can say is that around the 2014-time period there was a sense that the major presence of the international aid community would take a sharp cut, and that everything would collapse as a result. What is striking is that this has not been the case. When you land in Kabul and you drive from the airport into the city, and you see the amount of construction that continues to happen, and the revitalization of neighborhoods, you have a sense that this is not a place about to fall apart at all. 

Withdrawing without any negotiated agreement with the Taliban, which a number of the candidates endorsed in the Democratic debate, would be a mistake.

I think the current government in Kabul has been really focused on big development projects and soliciting outside partner investment. Part of the challenge at this point is that, while there is a sense that this is a government that has an economic and development vision, which is very exciting and compelling in the medium to long term, it remains very hard to make that vision manifest in the midst of this level of conflict. I'm really struck by just how buzzing, and this is entirely anecdotal, the scene seems to be in terms of commerce and construction in the capital. However, the fact of the matter is that this current level of insecurity certainly disincentivizes the kind of activity and investment that is required to make for a sustainable economy.

 
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Dipali Mukhopadhyay is an Associate Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, where she is also a faculty affiliate of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. She is the author of Good Rebel Governance: Revolutionary Politics and Western Intervention in Syria (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming) with Kimberly Howe and Warlords, Strongman Governors and State Building in Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Prior to joining Columbia’s faculty, Mukhopadhyay spent 2011 as a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton University. In 2016, she was a Visiting Scholar at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Professor Mukhopadhyay received her doctorate from The Fletcher School at Tufts University and her BA in political science magna cum laude from Yale University.”