Interview with Rahmatullah Amiri on the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan and the increasing challenges for the peace process and civil society.
Only a few weeks after the German mandate in Afghanistan was extended until January 2022 by vote of the parliament in the beginning of April 2021, the Biden administration suddenly announced the unconditional withdrawal of all US troops – they will now pull out by 4th July. Hence, international military forces have started to leave the country as well since 30th April. For the German army it has been the longest military mission in its history. At the same time, the involvement in the Afghan peace, reconciliation and democratization process was of great importance for Germany. This involvement meant an unparalleled merging of foreign policy, security policy and development policy interests for Germany. Now, with the withdrawal of the international troops from Afghanistan, development efforts of the international community are at stake. Not only will there be a sharp decline in financial support for Afghan civil society – also democratic voices that speak for human rights and women’s rights will come more and more under threat.
In this interview, we talk to Rahmatullah Amiri, research coordinator with The Liaison Office, our partner organization in Kabul.
Amiri, can you already observe some ramifications of the decision to withdraw the international forces on the ground?
A lot of Afghans have been leaving, a lot of expats are also leaving the country. The Australian embassy has already been closed and other embassies are taking stern measures. Some have reduced their staff while others increase their security. A new era is going to start soon. And for that era, new measures will be taken. The economy has been hit hard. Car sales have been hit hard, food prices have gone up and Afghani, our currency is going down against US Dollar. Overall, there are a lot of signs that show the impact of the withdrawal of the international forces. A lot of people are getting jobless. People feel uneasy because they don’t know what is going to happen. On one hand international forces are getting withdrawn, on the other the Taliban are trying to take over new districts. But people also know that they can’t do anything about it, so they simply sit and watch the situation. Fighting has also increased across the country. These are all impacts of the withdrawal of the forces that we can observe right now on the ground.
“International representations or embassies are already closing or reshuffling their locations and presence in the country because of security reasons. Those circumstances ultimately impact Civil Society Organizations. “
From your point of view as a researcher and as part of the Afghan Civil Society, can you describe how the above mentioned changes relating to the withdrawal of international military forces will impact on Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and their work in the future?
The complete withdrawal of international troops will change the dynamics in Afghanistan overall and hence have an impact on the work of CSOs in the future because the international community has been part of the social public landscape of Afghanistan over the last 20 years. They had a major role in the creation of many CSOs, assisting with forming their agendas and ensuring that the Afghan government and the Presidential Palace are acknowledging the CSO’s demands and take them into consideration. The international community has been funding at least partially many CSOs and their projects and thereby indirectly helped decide what those funded CSOs focused on in their work. With the international communities’ influence now reduced, it is unclear by which criteria those CSOs will now set their agendas and what issues they will focus on in the absence of funding earmarked for thematic priorities. Moreover, in the current political and security climate, many CSOs will also struggle to safely explore new priorities.
There are further uncertainties that remain. Especially the media is projecting a very pessimistic outlook on the future. But the media is merely criticizing the international community for leaving now – without portraying the achievements or even acknowledging that a continued international presence might have more risks than its absence. For example, it would give reasons to the Taliban to continue fighting as troop withdrawal is one of their key demands.
CSOs are also an issue for the Taliban. They do not want all foreigners out of the country, but they want the Americans and what they call ‘Americanism’ out of the country. It is mostly the US approach to fostering the CSO work that is being targeted by the Taliban, the US so-called soft power. The Taliban are also interested in targeting CSOs that have a strong focus related to the democracy concept, which is also rejected by the Taliban. On top of that is very likely that human and women’s rights activities will be heavily curtailed. They associate CSOs with that context. If the Taliban come to power now by force and if there will not be a proper engagement; they will very much limit the CSO’s activities in Afghanistan. CSOs then will hardly have any distinguished role any longer; except for service deliveries and health and education which are somewhat stand-in for humanitarian aid – and they will even limit that. The nature of projects funded is also likely to shift away from long-term institutional capacity building projects or human rights emphasizing projects, which might not be acceptable to the Taliban.
Therefore, it is going to be a very tough time for CSOs in the future; unless the international communities in coordination with CSOs come up properly engaged with the Taliban on their activities or on how things should look post-peace deal.
What do you mean by “properly engaged with the Taliban”?
So far, the international community is focusing on the preservation of the achievements of the last 20 years, but there is a lack of dialogue with the Taliban on these issues and demands – even though some international and national NGOs and companies have been working in Taliban controlled areas for years. Hence, “properly engaged” means to include the Taliban in discussions about how these achievements could be safeguarded and how CSOs are expected to work after a peace agreement with them. The Taliban so far have only released some information about potential policy stance and the CSOs need to engage more on those than to just continue to restate their expectations.
“The sudden announcement of the US withdrawal has caught all members of the international community off-guard.”
How did other NATO partners including Germany react to the US decision made in mid-April to withdraw all troops by September 11, 2021?
The sudden announcement of the US withdrawal by September, but de facto by 4 July, has caught all members of the international community off-guard. It would not only impact their security infrastructure and therefore their ability to stay in the country; but it will also have an impact on the peace process as the withdrawal would move forward independently of the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations.
German representations have also reacted: They closed the consulate in Mazar-e Sharif, GIZ offices have to be moved to premises close to the remaining embassy in Kabul. With the US leaving, it will be more difficult for a larger number of countries to stay involved in Afghanistan and the peace process – the cost and uncertainty might make it too prohibitive for a potential slow and limited payoff for each nation to maintain the pre-announcement level of commitment.
On the other hand, the decision was solely about withdrawing military forces. The NATO, for example, is going to keep its civilian presence in Afghanistan. And that is important because there is no neutral solution for the conflict under the current circumstances. The US, a significant party to the conflict, is just pulling out and therefore, making this withdrawal unconditional. The Taliban however still need the US in the game in order to ensure the prisoner releases, sanctions removal and continued pressure on the Presidential Palace to move forward with the intra-Afghan negotiations. With the US withdrawal, the Taliban might also sense that they are being “abandoned” in the peace process with the Afghan Government. The Taliban only have an agreement with the US, thus with the US withdrawing, there is no direct mechanism that can bring the Taliban and the Afghan government to the negotiation table – issues such as prisoner releases and sanction are also part of it. At the same time, it became clear that ahead of the Istanbul Conference scheduled for April 2021 the Taliban felt ganged up on by the nine guiding principles which were shared by the US with both parties. The Taliban perceived them as a pre-determined commitment on these issues as dictated by the International Community. Hence, the conference was postponed, and it is not certain when it will happen.
Overall, the time is on the Taliban’s side because any pressure from a conditional withdrawal has now been removed. They also hold the belief that after the failed approach post 2001 by the International Community and the current Afghan Government, they can now seize the moment to use their approach.
What are the prospects for a long-term peace in the country then? Will the Taliban be part of a probable post-peace process/agreement government?
Long-term peace can come through engaging all parties in a more constructive way. Currently there is a narrative that the Taliban are not interested in genuine peace talks, as the fighting continues. This might be in part true, but there is also the perception that the Taliban feel not engaged properly – there could be more engagement in pressing the Taliban on more concrete ideas for the transitional and finally the post-peace-agreement government. The international conference in Istanbul was expected to shift gears and give new impulses to the process, possibly being more concrete in terms of how the Taliban envision their participation in a future government. A perceived lack of genuine engagement and willingness to consider the ideas of the Taliban has arguably gotten the process stuck at a point where the Taliban are being accused of not negotiating as the international community and the Afghan government wants them to do. The Taliban published a number of op-eds trying to address some of their vision questions.*
“The Taliban have been interested in Germany’s contribution to the process.”
Let us take a look at the German role and involvement in the Afghan peace and democratization process. In which ways/through which actors is Germany involved in the Afghan peace process now and how will the withdrawal of international military forces affect this engagement? In which role do you see Germany in the near future?
Germany is playing a vital part and is engaged in multiple ways. They have been sending messages to the Afghan people and government that they remain engaged with the Afghan people. They have continuously been funding a lot of projects across Afghanistan. They have been investing a lot into the justice sector, agriculture as well as infrastructure development or institutional capacity building and have been very much involved in a number of projects across several key sectors including migration, education, etc.
There is a general perception that all those who have worked for the international community, military, but also civilians, might be under threat by the Taliban. This concerns staff who worked with the German military, for the German embassy and for organisations such as GIZ or NGOs. The German military indicated that they are willing to take national staff with them, but the timeframe is tight. Overall, there are concerns whether the German Government will take those Afghans who might face this risk to Germany.
On the other hand, Germany is also quite interested in engaging Afghans in the peace talks; including both sides, the Taliban and the government’s side. So far, there has not been much success yet, also because it is a very complicated process. It is going to be challenging for Germany to figure out how to engage with the Taliban. They have to ask how it is going to work and what is acceptable for Germany. They have to ask what the Taliban are going to demand from the EU including Germany or from the US. Those things are to some extent discussed behind the doors, but there is not much development on those key issues.
The Taliban on the other hand are interested in Germany’s contribution to the process – given that they have always been perceived as more neutral as compared to the US - even while having the second largest contingent of troops in the country. That said, the conservative and less progressive stance by the Taliban on women’s rights, human rights and a number of other issues, might make it difficult for the Germans to engage with them as they cannot compromise on these values. The Taliban potentially demanding the acceptance of an Islamic Emirate with a strict interpretation of Shariah law might be a redline that Germany is not able to accept. This could put Germany in a challenging position vis-à-vis the Taliban on the peace process as there are higher expectations towards german support for an even Taliban dominated Afghanistan compared to the support other countries might be willing to show.
Another way of international engagement in Afghanistan is through development aid. The EU, the UN, but also the German government fund civil development projects in Afghanistan. How will the withdrawal of military forces affect these projects? Is there implementation at risk?
There is some hope that development aid and funding of the Afghan institutions will hold the Taliban at bay. Without military forces, there is less security infrastructure, so the international community might cut the aid to some extent. I do not anticipate a catastrophic impact because several development projects have been going on for the last couple of years, even in Taliban controlled areas. Humanitarian assistance is also likely to continue and potentially increase in order to make up for shortfalls in the economy.
There is now a kind of momentum for engagement with the Taliban on civil development projects in order to get access and permission to implement projects in their controlled areas - which some international actors already do. One of the major obstacles for international and national agencies is that the Taliban ask for 10% taxation. In the past, they did not allow projects at all whereas right now they do allow them on condition of the tax payment.
One of the new developments is, that the international community is already trying to work with them on humanitarian issues, access to education and health. It has now become the norm – even for larger INGOs - to negotiate access and guarantees from the Taliban for unimpeded project implementation. So this is an area where all are going to make sure that this problem gets solved and the Taliban do not charge taxes to the implementators as this is going to impact the amount of funding going to the projects.
However, there will be some sort of negative impact – a reduction in funding or a change in what is being funded, possibly a shift more towards humanitarian assistance. There will be less security infrastructure to protect implementors or security arrangements to allow the monitoring of the projects as compared to right now.
One of the aims of the international engagement has been support of ‘state building’, meaning the establishment of functional governance structures and institutions – however most processes, such as the Bonn 1 conference, the constitutional Loya Jirga as well as a whole series of international donor conferences on Afghanistan have been excluding the Taliban. From the point of view of civil society: What went wrong in the “peace and democratization project”?
The international community focuses since 2001 on state-building and the establishment of functional government structures and institutions - but they badly failed. Why? Everything has been monetized and contracted out for others to implement - which required a constant input of resources. The issue was that money was poured into these efforts more on a project-like basis rather than setting up deep institutional roots. With these projects being very money driven, these institutions were not always set up in a sustainable and self-functioning way, but rather required constant input of money in order to function with the original purpose.
Very ambitious and cost intensive projects were started and then different partners took over; for example with police training or institutional reforms within the ministries. High salaries were paid to foreign consultants and experts to assist with work in the ministries, rather than focusing on building capacities within the ministries or adjusting salaries over time to levels sustained by the regular budget. The context analysis was never properly done. Hence, many of the interventions were launched without an understanding about the needed resources, capacity constraints or which stakeholders had an interest in manipulating the interventions. Decisions made by the international community were not based on what Afghans actually required.
The Afghan government is still making mistakes such as agreeing to projects offers even if they know that in the long term it would not be useful. They have also not managed to get corruption under control, which caused mistrust from the donors, who in term were then less likely to allow the Afghan government to dictate the terms of a program. Overall, they are perceived as having been willing to take any resources regardless of whether there was an actual need, thus also often wasting resources.
Basically, there was a lot of money and they wanted to spend that money on a lot of things and just give it away to whoever had some idea that they could convince the person in charge of the money. That is not how you can support state-building, meaning the establishment of functional governance structures and institutions. That is actually a good lesson learned from now on – and hopefully we Afghans and the international community don’t mess it up again. Because frankly speaking, I do not think we get a third opportunity.