A New Afghanistan Agenda

On 2 September 2021, just two weeks after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan ATA UK held a webinar on “A New Afghanistan Agenda”.

On the panel were: Stanislava Mladenova, Jack Segal, Jamie Shea, and Jim Townsend, and guest commentators were Sir Hugh Bayley and Baroness Kingsmill.

The intention was not to focus on the circumstances of NATO’s final withdrawal from Afghanistan, but instead to discuss how NATO and the international community must face the reality of the transformed situation in Afghanistan and formulate “A New Afghanistan Agenda”.

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To that end, panellists were invited to address a series of questions:

  • How will “Taliban 2.0” differ from “Taliban 1.0”.

  • What should our goals and priorities be in dealing with the Taliban government?

  • How can we encourage the Taliban not to return Afghanistan to the Dark Ages?  What leverage might we have?

  • Who is the “we”? NATO, the G-7, the UN, the EU, etc?

  • Who else should we be working with and how? Pakistan and the neighbouring Central Asia Republics?

  • What are the Russian and Chinese agendas for Afghanistan? How will they converge and conflict with the West’s?

Webinar summary

Taliban 2.0 vs Taliban 1.0

The years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan were characterized by brutality and intolerance, and the Taliban regime provided Al Qaeda with a haven from which to operate.
A different Afghanistan
With a new Taliban regime now in place, a key question is how “Taliban 2.0” will differ from “Taliban 1.0”. The prevailing view among the panel was that Taliban regime will have to take into account the significant changes that have taken place in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Certainly, some of those changes will be enduring. Afghanistan’s population has almost doubled, and this young population has different expectations and experience, most notably, of course, among the female population. Whatever damage Afghanistan has suffered over the last 20 years, the standard of living has improved, along with infrastructure such as airports and road links, access to electricity, communications, sanitation, health care, education etc, all with Western support. Indeed, images of healthy, young Taliban are strikingly different from the images of yesteryear.
Governance challenges
Humanitarian and Economic Crises

Afghanistan, however, is in the throes of a humanitarian crisis, with severe food shortages caused by drought, plus enormous numbers of displaced persons.

Unless the “Taliban 2.0” is prepared to preside over mass starvation and economic collapse, it will have to ensure that foreign aid is restored and that it retains the educated elite needed to maintain civil infrastructure and services. Indeed, it might even have to look at how to persuade Afghans who have fled the country to return.

The Taliban regime also faces additional governance challenges.

Divisions within the Taliban and a possible ISK insurgency

It is not clear how appropriate it is to refer to “the Taliban”.  It appears that in certain regions, the Taliban are already reverting to their former brutality and draconian practices, and there is likely to be tension between different factions within the Taliban, such the Haqqani network, as well its more conservative foot soldiers from the villages and those well-travelled, university-educated individuals who have had more engagement with the modern world.

Furthermore, alliances with local warlords might be fragile, and the Taliban also faces a possible insurgency led by Islamic State Khorasan (the Afghan branch of ISIS) insurgency.  Thus, there it is possible that Afghanistan will again face civil war.

Choices: the nature of government and ideological purity over well-being

The Taliban itself was surprised by the rapidity of its takeover of the country, and it is now realizing that running an armed insurgency is quite a different matter from governing a state which is far more complicated and developed than the Afghanistan of twenty years ago,

In terms of government structure, one possibility might be a regime not unlike that in Iran, with a government under a supreme religious leader. And like Iran, the youthful, educated population might occasionally rise in protest.

The clear hope is that “Taliban 2.0” will want to present itself as being more moderate than “Taliban 1.0”, but the situation remains highly uncertain, and it remains to be seen whether the Taliban will favour ideological purity over the physical wellbeing of the Afghan people. 

Relations with the International Community

If the Taliban regime seeks to establish itself as a credible government and seeks to avert a humanitarian disaster and a massive economic crisis, it will have to access foreign resources and Afghan funds abroad, which are currently frozen.

It is therefore quite likely that the Taliban regime might seek to quickly patch up relationships with countries and international organizations that have fled. Its own survival could depend upon restarting the flow of foreign aid, deals to get sanctions lifted and access short-term funding.

The United States and NATO have lost face in the region, and their scope for direct involvement is now rather limited. NATO nations and other international organizations should, however, seek to maintain contacts – embassies etc – in order to conduct diplomacy and maintain dialogue with Afghanistan.

Although the west has obviously lost influence, it must play a longer game and not shut down the dialogue.

Certainly, the United Nations and the European Union could play major parts in positively influencing the government in Afghanistan. In the future, certain NATO nations and partners such as might also be able to play a particularly important role, drawing upon their experience in assisting other nations to address issues such as the interpretation of Islamic law, the training of imams and reconciling religion and modern society

China and Russia

Both China and Russia will seek to make the most of what they will portray as NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan.

Both have kept their embassies open and are in dialogue with the Taliban.

Today’s China is very different from the China of twenty years ago. Its economic and political influence grown both regionally and globally, and it has already shown interest in Afghanistan’s largely untapped mineral resources, such as deposits of strategically important rare earths. There is speculation that China might propose to develop Bagram airport as a large international transport hub. Certainly, China will view Afghanistan as a means of increasing its strategic influence, and the Taliban will see China as an alternative source of funding and development assistance.

That said, the Taliban are no doubt aware that several countries have come to regret their entanglement with China, and have found themselves ceding control of infrastructure when lower than promised dividends left them unable to repay the loans taken out to cover their share of the project.

Furthermore, large-scale development projects face formidable practical difficulties ranging from the absence of a clear legal framework to the lack of basic infrastructure.

Russia has a long history with Afghanistan and is maintaining dialogue with the Taliban. It will be keen to establish influence and ensure that instability and terrorism are not exported to Central Asia nor Russia itself. It is conducting military exercises with certain neighbouring states.

It too has mineral wealth in its sights. However, it is still likely to keep the Taliban at arm’s length. It is under no illusions about the Taliban which is consistently referred to within Russia a terrorist organization.

In other words, Russia and China are unlikely to be able to compensate for the support hitherto provided by the West, certainly in the short to medium term.

Implications for the International Community

The webinar explicitly focused on Afghanistan and what sort of agenda the international community should have in its dealings with the Taliban regime. Inevitably, however, some observations were made about the lessons to be learned by the international community after the last two decades of engagement and how the takeover of the Taliban will affect international security.

One immediate issue will be the increase in the flow of refugees, which could accelerate further, depending upon events in Afghanistan.

A Disinformation Challenge

Russia will celebrate NATO’s defeat and relish the opportunity to portray NATO as a “paper tiger”, highlighting any events that might suggest weakness or a lack of cohesion. NATO nations must therefore be prepared to counter disinformation campaigns intended to undermine NATO solidarity and questioning Allies’ capabilities and commitments to each other. The first priority must be NATO unity and in particular allaying any possible doubts about American commitment and leadership.

Emboldened Terrorists

Another issue is that anti-western terrorist organizations the world over will feel emboldened and empowered by the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, so the West must be prepared to face an increase in threat levels. NATO might therefore seek to increase its counter-terrorism capacities, intelligence sharing, and efforts to build resilience.

However, counter-terrorism operations against terrorist threats emerging in Afghanistan will be much harder without the ability to operate from bases in the immediate neighbourhood.

NATO: Back to Basics

In any event, Allies are likely to be more averse to humanitarian intervention in the future, although calls for future interventions are almost inevitable in the long run. Any such interventions will certainly be informed by the experience in Afghanistan and will therefore pay greater attention to cultural sensitivities. Military training is also likely to more context-appropriate.

In the near future, however, Allies are more likely to want to focus on strengthening deterrence and focusing on more immediate challenges to the NATO nations themselves.

It is also likely that a key lesson will be the need to strengthen the “European pillar” within NATO, both in terms of capacity and political will.

A Note of Optimism?

Finally, on an optimistic note, it was pointed out that events can take surprising turns in the long run. For example, comparisons have been made between the evacuation from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War and the withdrawal from Kabul. Back in 1975, few would have anticipated the nature of today’s relations between Vietnam and the United States. And given the realities of dealing with Russia and China, Afghanistan’s leadership might not take too long in waking up to the benefits of having good relations with the west.

About the Panel

Stanislava Mladenova has both practical and academic expertise on the interactions between civil and military entities.  She is a former Political Adviser to the NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan, where she advised on economic issues, governance, corruption, disaster management, gender, humanitarian assistance, and the recruitment of child soldiers.  She then became Chief of Operations for the Atlantic Council’s Afghanistan Rising Initiative, before joining the US Institute for Peace where she ran projects to establish dialogue between law enforcement bodies and local communities in six West African countries.  She also has experience in the US Department of State, the US Department of Homeland Security, and the United States Agency for International Development.  In addition, she has worked at NATO Headquarters on reforming business processes to ensure that NATO’s organizational reforms aligned with the Alliance’s political and structural objectives. Stanislava is currently a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London.

Jack D. Segal is Adjunct Professor, Northwestern Michigan College and Co-chair of the International Affairs Forum of Traverse City.  His vast experience in the military and the foreign service included eight years and Chief Political Adviser to NATO at Joint Force Command, Brunnsum, the operational headquarters for NATO’s missions in Afghanistan.  In that capacity, Jack visited Afghanistan on 40 occasions and contributed to the strategic assessments of Afghanistan operations prepared for NATO and the White House.

Jamie Shea is a well-known foreign policy and security commentator and analyst whose perspectives are informed by a wealth of experience within NATO Headquarters.  During his 38-year career there, he occupied numerous positions: Director of Policy Planning in the Private Office of the Secretary General, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for External Relations, Public Diplomacy Division, Director of Information and Press, NATO Spokesman. His final position was that of Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges.

Throughout his career, Jamie Shea has remained committed to education, and taught at several prominent academic institutions. He is currently Visiting Professor of Strategy and Security at the University of Exeter and serves on the Group of Strategic Advisors of the NATO Special Operations Forces Command at SHAPE.  In addition, he holds senior positions at several leading European and United States think tanks.  Among his many awards and commendations, in 2020, he was awarded the honour of Companion of St. Michael and St. George for services to NATO and diplomacy.

Jim Townsend is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Century and is the President of the Atlantic Treaty Association.  Before taking up his current position, Jim spent eight years as Deputy Assistant Secretary Defense for European and NATO Policy.  In addition to his extensive service in the Pentagon and at NATO headquarters, Jim also held a variety of positions in the Atlantic council of the United States.  During his service with the Department of Defense, he helped execute US military engagement in almost every conflict from the Gulf War to reintroduction of US forces into Europe following Russia’s occupation of Crimea.