Rasoul Mousavi, Iran's former ambassador to Tajikistan, Finland and Estonia, advisor to head of Center for International Research and Education, affiliated to Iran's foreign Ministry, and senior fellow at IRAS, sat down one week ago with IRAS for a comprehensive interview about different issues on Afghanistan. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Given the rise of Trump to power in the US and the possible policy changes of the US toward Afghanistan, what will be Afghanistan’s choice for its foreign policy based on new conditions?
“What should be discussed here in relation to Mr. Trump is that first, he has not talked about his policies very openly. Second, he has not talked about a number of topics. In some cases, he declared that he had no intention to reveal his policy on the related issues. Trump criticizing the policies of Obama, says that he sees no reason to announce his policies. He says Obama weakened the US by announcing his policies about where the US forces would be sent, or withdrawn. Trump says he will not repeat this mistake. His unstated positions can be either due to his policy or his lack of policy - it is still unclear. At times some gestures are used not to show the real situation. Accordingly, it seems to me more likely that Trump does not have a policy, and that is why he is not declaring anything.
“The reason for this is shown in his two or three announced policies which were faced with problems, particularly on the domestic scene. The fact that during the first two or three weeks of his presidency, his National Security Adviser was forced to resign is a very important issue for the US. This subject can mean a simple matter to a non-American or a third world country, but for the US with all its intelligence capacity, this is a [grave] mistake to choose a person as the closest to the President, and as the one who coordinates everything with the main intelligence agencies, and then [force him to] resign. The issue of Afghanistan is also subject to this policy of Trump. Mr. Trump, as the presidential candidate or as the President, has said nothing directly related to Afghanistan. After his election to the US presidency, Trump only had a general contact - a telephone message - with the Afghan President.
“Nothing is generally discussed about Afghanistan, and this issue has remained unclear. So we should see indirectly how the US policy will be in Afghanistan, because at the moment we have no direct evidence. Trump may implement his words, for example, we can refer to his statement that he saw no reason why the US troops should have stayed in places at different costs, and Washington paid the cost for state-building and nation-building.
“Trump said he was against the presence of US troops in various parts of the world, and if the US wished to be involved in other states’ security, they must have paid the costs for their own security. It is possible for states like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to contribute to the security costs. Or on NATO, he said that the European states should have paid their share. European states have almost accepted and announced that they would contribute to. European capitalist states, as well as states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, are willing, out of desperation, to somehow contribute to the costs of security and defense.
“But how about Afghanistan? Of course, we should not forget that NATO has approved a remarkable figure ($20 billion) for five years for the costs related to training the Afghan Defense forces. This is part of NATO’s budget. Besides, the US has committed to pay five billion dollars a year for five years, in addition to funds donated by NATO to Afghanistan - this was done under Mr. Obama. If Mr. Trump’s words mean that he will not finance [other states’ security] from his own people’s budget, and the budget should be provided from somewhere else, one of the questions raised here is whether the US is willing to spend money in Afghanistan or not. If it is willing, it will be the continuation of policies under Obama and before him, but if it is not, then what will happen in Afghanistan?
“Afghanistan is almost in a dangerous situation at this time that NATO and the US are currently present and spend money there. According to the latest official news that the UN sources confirm 40-50% and sometimes more of the Afghan territory is in the hands of the Taliban, and other towns and villages including seven provincial capitals are still threatened by the Taliban. If the US Air Force is not present, they will capture the cities. The US Air Force and the NATO forces have currently established a balance there. With this in mind, we can say that either the US is willing to continue following policies that Mr. Trump is criticizing, or the US is not willing to follow them, and in this case, the situation in Afghanistan will be back to the time before the presence of troops in this state. And this is dangerous for everyone.
“Mrs. Theresa May, British Prime Minister, at the Munich conference announced that if Afghanistan collapsed, refugees would flood into Europe, so we had to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan to prevent the influx of refugees. This is a very sensitive and important issue. So as a summary of the first part of my talks, it seems that the US has no choice, but to continue its policies of the past. Conditions in Afghanistan seem to have the US more involved. Now we see that the Trump administration talks about the possibility that the US increases its forces in Afghanistan.
“Reportedly, under Mr. Obama there were 140,000 troops, and 130,000 troops were withdrawn, i.e., now there is 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan. That is why the Taliban says that it has expelled 130,000 of the US troops, and there is only ten thousand troops left to be expelled. If these troops are expelled as well, the situation in Afghanistan will also change. The US should either increase its forces, or change the situation to its own favor, otherwise, the situation in Afghanistan moves towards a crisis. And this is what has concerned Afghanistan’s neighbors.”
Regarding what you said, we can discuss two scenarios in relation to the US and Afghanistan. If the US support for Afghanistan is maintained or increases is one scenario, and if the US withdraws or reduces its support is another scenario. What are your analyses for these two scenarios? What conditions, you think, can either of these two scenarios create?
“If the US is willing to continue its policy in Afghanistan, it must be still spending in this state, and it is not only the military spending. It should also spend for civil costs, road-building and in general nation-building - whatever a country needs - and this is inconsistent with the policy of Mr. Trump. Mr. Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan under Bush, has a book called The Envoy
- it is also translated into Persian. In some part of the book he says that “Mr. Bush told me that we were not going there [Afghanistan] for state-building, but for solving a series of our military problems. That is why we were sent there, and after a while should have withdrawn, but I took the US there to contribute to the expense of state-building.” In fact, the US must either maintain its garrisons, meaning Afghanistan will be like the past, a desert in which there are some garrisons, and this is not feasible in today’s world, or come to Afghanistan, and pay the costs of running this country - this has its own problems.
“The major event that happened in this regard is that the Bonn Process has failed. The Bonn process meant that Afghanistan could make peace through an internal agreement, and establish a state in the country, and continue its function as a normal government. But the Taliban resistance virtually showed that this stability does not exist. Another problem emerged at the regional level. The US has adopted a policy imagining that it could maintain Afghanistan as an isolated island in the region, and help the country develop. But the conditions in Afghanistan are not like that. I think Afghanistan has three major crises: crises of stability, security and development.
“Afghanistan’s stability crisis is a domestic issue which must be overcome through a balance between different ethnic groups and the participation of all social groups. But now this balance does not exist. Security crisis is a regional crisis. The region and Afghanistan’s neighbors not only can contribute to rebuilding and securing Afghanistan, but also can feel they are not threatened by this state. Afghanistan should be a country that can ensure its own neighbors that no threat will face them from this state - whether threats arise from internal developments, or result from the presence of foreigners. Whether it be the US or other foreign forces, as the Soviet forces were at one point. Non-governmental and terrorist forces like Al Qaeda or the ISIS are also among the foreign forces. The deployment of forces by which Afghanistan’s neighbors feel threatened will in return lead to the lack of security in Afghanistan.
“The development crisis can also be overcome through international cooperation, and the region cannot take action unilaterally, but this is possible through a regional and an international cooperation. The Bonn Process had such an idea, but over time the US maintained the stability only through repressing groups opposing the status quo. If the US had been able to suppress these groups, the situation would have changed, but they failed. On the security of Afghanistan’s neighbors, [it should be said that] the US turned to the policy of no participation of Afghanistan’s neighbors in its security. The US defined a theory in the name of security, meaning the US wanted to ensure the security of Afghanistan through [the presence of] its military forces, but achieving this goal was possible to some extent - neither the Soviet Union could nor the US can.
“To provide the security for Afghanistan through military, the US leaders should send 200,000- 300,000 troops from the US which will cost a lot, and even a power like the US cannot afford it. The US must provide security in Afghanistan through the participation of Afghanistan’s neighbors; otherwise, the US will certainly face a dead end. On the development of Afghanistan, [it should be stated that] a kind of partnership with its neighbors and the international community is required. At one point, the US, under various pretexts, even prevented the cooperation of neighbors such as Iran in Afghanistan’s development projects, and the situation is still like that.
“So I clearly state that the Bonn Process has failed, and a new solution should be suggested for this problem that can solve these three crises. They can call it negotiating with the Taliban or whatever else, but there is no solution other than the Afghan government negotiates with its opposition groups. Unfortunately, the terrorist organizations have used this space, and are being established. But the Taliban as a social force - I call them the neo-Taliban - is different with the former Taliban. It has changed its strategies, and proposed new discussions, and accepted to negotiate. This group accepts the argument that Afghanistan should not be a threat to its neighbors, and its last argument is that it is the National Liberation Force for Afghanistan, and does not intend to debate on issues outside Afghanistan, and disagrees with the presence of the ISIS forces in Afghanistan. A solution should be found between the Afghan government and these forces. Basically, the government has created the peace commission for this purpose.
“Mr. Hekmatyar, who not long ago was involved with the government, has now reached a compromise with Kabul, and this compromise should spread within the country. But more importantly, Afghanistan should have a foreign policy to be able to shape its relations with its neighbors easier and better than now. At present Afghanistan’s foreign policy is not a balanced policy. This policy is not established so that its neighbors are ensured that they can comfortably work with this foreign policy in the long term. A study of the history of Afghanistan shows good examples. In the historical period of Zahir Shah, Afghanistan followed the neutrality or non-aligned policy. He said Afghanistan had no special commitment to anyone, and no country - Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the US, Russia and others - could make them have a special obligation. But now that Afghanistan’s policy has a special commitment with the US and NATO, this has made the states who have problems with the US sensitive. Or on Pakistan as Afghanistan’s neighbor, if the Pakistani feel that the development of Afghanistan’s relationship with India may be a security threat [for them], they will not remain silent. Therefore, Afghanistan should have an active foreign policy that not only can expand its relations with different states, but also ensures other states - unfortunately, this country cannot do so. Afghanistan’s foreign policy cannot create the balance between different states, and this is one of the problems in Afghanistan.”
On the need for Afghanistan to follow a cooperative policy with its neighbors, in fact, you talked about Kabul is somehow ready for the scenario of the US reduced support for Afghanistan. But Afghan politics in the past fifteen or sixteen years shows that it was highly reliant on the US, and follows its dreams in having relationship with the US. Considering this option for Afghanistan, meaning to have an active policy is a strategic issue that Afghans will have to think about it, in your opinion, if the country is willing to pursue this policy, what solutions are available? Given the problems and the three crises you mentioned, especially the problem of security, if the US reduces its support for Afghanistan, in fact, this country’s security crisis will be intensified. To resolve this crisis, what kind of cooperation can Afghanistan’s neighbors do?
“Not long ago, a trilateral meeting among Russia, Pakistan and China on Afghanistan was held, and Iran and Afghanistan were also present at the second meeting of the series. Of course, no news is released on this meeting. But this is a sign of the same problem - given the existing scenarios, what might happen in Afghanistan? This continued instability in Afghanistan, that half of the country is in the hands of a group, and the other half is in the hands of others, is worrying. This crisis must eventually end. Either the US at a time should bring many troops into Afghanistan to defeat the opposition militarily, and then negotiations are undertaken and a conclusion is reached, or that the US basically withdraws from Afghanistan. These two scenarios have concerned the neighbors. Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and China, all these states are concerned.
“If the US withdraws its forces from Afghanistan, the same event will happen that took place in 1988 after the Geneva agreement and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan: the country degenerated, and any part of the country experienced conflicts, and no government could be formed, and the civil war broke out. The effects of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan can be still seen. This time the danger felt is the presence of terrorist groups like the ISIS who do not fight for Afghanistan, but for a Caliph who lives elsewhere. This is a threat to all neighbors. If the US wants to increase its troops, this will also lead to an intensified military conflict and a further radicalization of the situation. That is why the neighbors have to consult with each other on this issue.
“I think, the US can return its forces home, and not feel the threat coming from Afghanistan. However, it is not like that for Afghanistan’s neighbors. As you talk to me about this issue, representatives of other states also talk to each other about what would happen: this is not consistent with Trump’s policies if the US enters into an all-out war, or withdraws its forces from Afghanistan. A conference was held recently on the Afghan foreign policy. Mr. Spanta, the Afghan Foreign Minister, stated the same issue that Afghanistan should have turned to a balanced multi-faceted policy, and talked to its neighbors in this regard. Of course, the security of Afghanistan is expected in the regional security, and if the US accepts this, the security in Afghanistan may be established. But if the US does not approve it - as Bush and Obama did not and Trump’s policy is also not clear in this regard -, it does not seem that Afghanistan will find a stable situation.”
What other regional powers including China and Russia have anticipated and planned for this scenario? Given the trilateral meeting - later became a multilateral meeting - it seems that the possible change in Afghanistan has made China and Russia, in particular, to be engaged more, and want to seize this opportunity. Perhaps this is a threat to them as well, but they estimate that they may be able to convert the threat into an opportunity. In your opinion, what are they looking for, and what plans they can use to do so?
“The fact is that Afghanistan is not an opportunity for these states, and it is more like an issue that something should be done about it. For example, regarding Iran, you see that the Soviet forces entered Afghanistan at the same time that the Islamic revolution took place in Iran, and Afghanistan has always cost us - from the presence of immigrants to various issues raised from this state. But Afghanistan is our neighbor, and we must manage this issue. Certainly a stable, developed, and peaceful Afghanistan will be in our favor, and a war-stricken and unstable Afghanistan will be trouble for us. British Prime Minister said that if the situation in Afghanistan was messed up, the immigrants would head to Europe.
“Europe has come to its knees because of the presence of sixty thousand immigrants, but Iran has absorbed three million immigrants. These figures are not comparable. All the rhetoric about human rights and the support for immigrants were forgotten by Europeans, because of the crisis created by sixty thousand immigrants. They even asked Turkey not to allow immigrants head to Europe. Referring to what you asked, the point is that every neighbor of Afghanistan is somehow feeling threatened. Though Russia does not share a border with Afghanistan, it is still feeling threatened - a likely threat to Central Asia would be a major threat to Russia as well.
“The threat Russia feels is that borders of Afghanistan and Central Asia are vulnerable, and can bring chaos into the region. Especially that the Central Asian radical groups - hard-liner Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and Kazakhs - have been trained almost in the ISIS, and are now returning and gathering in Afghanistan. The Chinese also have the same problem with the Uyghurs. They also state a few thousand Uyghurs are cooperating with the ISIS, and if the ISIS is defeated, they will all head into the region and will return. So the solution is to prevent them leaving Afghanistan.
“Pakistan has also the same problem. Apart from the historical issues between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Pakistan has a special border with Afghanistan. This is the region linked with Pakistan’s tribal areas where extremists from all parts are stationed there, and even it is said that al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri is also there. There are also many other forces. For Pakistan, extremist forces known as the Pakistani Taliban who have pledged allegiance to the ISIS Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are a serious threat. Pakistan claims that the perpetrators of the last week explosions in Pakistan are stationed in Afghanistan. If the territory of a country, in any form, is considered as a threat to its neighbors, they have to find solutions for this problem.
“The US does not seem to guarantee the security of Afghanistan. The US is rather willing to use the Afghanistan as a means of intervention in its neighbors. All participants in the recent meetings also believe that Afghanistan’s territory may be used by the US as a threat against the Afghan neighbors, while the neighbors expect Afghanistan to bring peace for them.”
Can Iran take the initiative for the conference proposed to Afghanistan to hold?
“No! International conferences should be held within a framework. If Afghanistan takes the initiative, it will certainly succeed. But none of the neighbors should act alone in this regard. Misconceptions will be certainly created in the minds of the Afghan. Accordingly, we think and do what is necessary in terms of our own national interests, and will participate in neighbors’ meetings, if they ask us. I think the solution to the crisis is that before an event such as the 9/11 occurs, or another conference in Europe is held, the Afghan government should come to an agreement with the neo-Taliban, and also with its neighbors in the region. This is a desired wish.”
To comment on this interview, please contact IRAS Editorial Board