Watch | Former US National Security Council official Lisa Curtis on what led to the current situation in Afghanistan

In an interview with The Hindu, Lisa Curtis, Former South and Central Asia Director of the U.S National Security Council, lists down the factors that led to the crisis in Afghanistan today.

Lisa Curtis, Former South and Central Asia Director of the U.S. National Security Council, says a concerted international commitment is necessary to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

In an interview with The Hindu, Ms. Curtis, who is currently Director of the Indo Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security, discusses what led to the current situation with the Taliban, the US’ counterterrorism interests, and the future of US-Pakistan ties.

Excerpts from the interview:

I wanted to talk to you about Afghanistan. Very broadly, what went wrong? Could anybody have foreseen that the Afghan security forces would not really fight back?

Well, look, I think there are several contributing factors that have contributed to the disaster that we’re seeing today. And I think both the Trump and the Biden administrations bear responsibility for the way things are playing out. First, there was a very weak agreement that was negotiated with the Taliban during the Trump administration. It undermined the legitimacy of the government, by being weighted very heavily toward the Taliban. The U.S. forced [Afghan President Ashraf] Ghani to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, before the Taliban had even really committed to a genuine peace process. So, I think that contributed to undermining the legitimacy of President Ghani, as well as the U.S. negotiator talking about an interim government, of which Ghani would not be a part. So, I think that fuelled the political divisions that were already there among the Afghan political elite. So that’s one factor. The second factor is the way in which the Biden administration withdrew. It was an extremely hasty withdrawal, and the fact that they thought necessary to withdraw 16,000 contractors, all at once, it literally was pulling the rug out from under the Afghans.

So, I think that there are a lot of things that have contributed. Not to mention the Taliban safe haven in Pakistan all these years. No U.S. administration — going back four administrations — was ever able to do anything about that safe haven. So, that’s certainly contributed to the Taliban’s ability to make these rapid military gains.  

So there’s a combination of factors that have led us to this point. And I think what is important now is that we relocate as many Afghans as possible, resettle them in the U.S. These are people who have helped us, who supported the mission in Afghanistan, we have a moral responsibility to take care of them. Second, we need to prevent a humanitarian disaster. This will require a concerted international commitment to making sure that the people of Afghanistan are fed, that they find places to stay. There’s a lot of IDPs, internally displaced people, so that has to be dealt with. And lastly, I don’t think that the international community should rush to recognise the Taliban, any diplomatic recognition should be conditioned on human rights, respect for human rights, women’s rights in particular, and counterterrorism. And until we see action, not just words, but action on these issues, they certainly don’t deserve international recognition. 

The Trump administration was and is being criticised for, by and large, leaving out the Afghan government from its negotiations for a settlement in Afghanistan. It sounds like based on what you’re saying, there were differing voices within the Trump administration. Why did they end up pretty much cutting out the Afghan government from those talks and is what we’re seeing today a natural consequences of that? 

Well, the decision to hold direct U.S.-Taliban talks and not insist to the Taliban that the Afghan government be there, which is what the U.S. was doing in previous years (the Taliban did not want the Afghan government at the table, said they were illegitimate) — and the U.S. had respected that for many, many years — the decision was made in 2018 by the Trump administration to allow the U.S. to engage directly with the Taliban. The U.S. felt that its hands would forever be tied and it would not be able to reach any kind of political accommodation, without being able to engage directly with the Taliban. The idea was always that eventually the Afghan government would be brought into those talks. And I think there also was an expectation that the U.S. would represent Afghan interests. If the Afghans were not at the table that the U.S. should at least try to represent the Afghan interests. But unfortunately this is not what happened. What we saw was a consistent undermining of the Afghan government, negotiation that was heavily weighted toward the Taliban, making concessions to the Taliban, because, frankly, that was easier. It was easier to extract concessions from the Afghan government and give concessions to the Taliban. Unfortunately, there was not a balanced handling of that process, it wasn’t a ‘peace process’. We neither got peace from the Doha Agreement, nor did we get a clean break from terrorism. We didn’t get the Taliban actually breaking from Al-Qaeda. The only thing the U.S. got out of the Doha Agreement was the fact that Taliban did not shoot at U.S. forces as they were departing the country. So it really should be [called] the Doha Withdrawal Agreement, not the Peace Agreement. 

Officials in the Biden administration have said alternatives to the way in which the exit was actually conducted would have come with their own human costs borne largely in these counterfactual situations by American soldiers and their families. What would you have suggested, in terms of an exit?  

I personally think that the U.S. could have kept a limited presence there’s some 3,500 troops that were there when Biden took office in January, along with the 7,000 to 8,000 NATO troops that were also willing to stay. And I think that there are ways to protect those forces. When I engaged with senior military leadership before the decision was made to go to zero, they had assured me that there were capabilities, there were ways to protect U.S. forces, and also to respond. It’s not as if the U.S. were sitting ducks — we had ways to respond to the Taliban. So, that would not have been a solution that would defeat the Taliban, it would have largely been a holding position just a way for the U.S. to continue to protect its counterterrorism interests, and give the government, an opportunity to perhaps negotiate a better deal with the Taliban. So there are no guarantees that there would have been a peace deal, but it certainly would have allowed us to not be in the situation we’re in now, which is: the country has completely been handed over to the Taliban. The jails have been emptied… Al-Qaeda, ISIS other terrorist leaders …I mean you think about the resources and efforts, the billions of dollars and intelligence and military operations that went into putting these people in jail, and now they’re just roaming freely around the country. We’re really going to have a problem with a re-emerging terrorist safe haven in the country. So, I think the thinking behind keeping a small CT (counterterrorism) presence there, while not solving the problem completely, it would have at least protected fundamental U.S. national, counterterrorism interest. 

Speaking of safe havens for terrorists, what’s unfolding in Afghanistan is a gift of sorts to Pakistan, and Prime Minister Imran Khan has not hidden his appreciation for the turn of events. How do you think this is going to impact America’s relationship with Pakistan? Is there necessarily going to be greater engagement with Pakistan, or are the Americans going to toe a harder line now?  

Like I said earlier, it’s a fundamental failure of U.S. policy that across four administrations, we were not able to deal with the Taliban sanctuary inside Pakistan. The Trump administration had cut security assistance to Pakistan. In 2018, now that didn’t fundamentally change Pakistani behaviour, with regard to Taliban, but at least we didn’t have U.S. taxpayer money funding a military that was supporting our enemies. Now what? It’s a little late to get that sanctuary, but I also don’t think that U.S. officials should shrug off the fact that Pakistani support for the Taliban, over the last 20 years, is what allowed the Taliban to be able to race back to power. We can’t ignore that fact. So I think it’s a very unsettling fact. And I think it’s gonna leave a sour sour taste in U.S. officials about Pakistan. I don’t foresee any reinvigoration of the relationship or any great efforts made to try to re-establish an alliance or anything with Pakistan. I don’t see the relationship plummeting, either. I think it will just probably remain rather stagnant over the next several years. 

The Biden administration has said that it has ‘over the horizon’ capabilities to keep terrorism in check in Afghanistan, but that was based on the assumption that there would be some kind of power-sharing agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Are these capabilities diminished now that the Taliban will be calling the shots? 

Absolutely. You know, I just talked about [how] they’ve already released terrorists roaming freely in Afghanistan. We’re not going to have intelligence assets on the ground. We’re going to lose our eyes on the targets that are there. It’s going to be much more difficult to collect information on what’s happening. You know, we will keep capabilities in the Middle East, but it’s going to be much more difficult. I never thought the Taliban would ever be a counterterrorism partner. I don’t believe that they will. I think that was pie in the sky, wishful thinking. And so, yes, our ability to monitor terrorist plots as they’re developing, or to keep an eye on building threats in the country, has been greatly diminished. I think this is one of the reasons, like I said, that I continue to argue for at least a small counterterrorism presence to be left in the country. 

Do you see Beijing using Afghanistan to destabilise India in any way ? On the one hand, they’ve said that there will be a qualified recognition of the government once it’s formed, providing certain conditions are met. But on the other hand, they could be playing with fire because they don’t want groups like ETIM (East Turkistan Islamic Movement) growing in Afghanistan as well. How do you see this playing out between China, Afghanistan and India?   

I think China is worried about the instability in Afghanistan and the threat of terrorists coming back. So, that is probably their top fundamental concern: that Afghanistan again becomes a base for a host of terrorist groups that could indeed threaten China. So, that will be their fundamental concern. Certainly I can see why India would be concerned that now you have this regime, this pro-Pakistani regime, this regime that’s supported by Pakistan. And I think that really is the concern that India should have: that Pakistan now has a country where it’s virtually going to be able to call the shots in many, many cases. So that is a problem. But, I think China will be careful because China is worried about terrorism developing and they haven’t always given Pakistan a pass on this issue either. We’ve seen, in the past, them put a certain amount of pressure on Pakistan to rein in terrorists on its territory, but certainly they understand that Pakistan is sort of in influence has grown in the region, because of the Taliban takeover. And if they seek to operationalise that or use that in any way, remains to be seen. But I do think their concerns about terrorism will be their foremost concern.

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