From Trump Admin Withdrawal Decision to Prospects of Peace Talks: An Interview with Omar Samad

Omar Samad is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. He is also the chief executive officer of Silkroad Consulting. He served as Afghan ambassador to Beliguim and was also a senior strategy advisor to Afghan Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah since 2014, in the National Unity Government. He served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada from 2004 to 2009 and to France from 2009 to 2011. He was a senior Central Asia fellow with the New America Foundation in 2013-14 after working as a senior Afghan expert at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C. 2012-13. Mr. Samad is an expert on Afghanistan. Reporterly conducted an interview with him on December 19.

Reporterly: What is your immediate reaction to the latest decision of the Trump administration on Afghanistan and Syria?

Omar Samad: So far it looks like these decisions were taken abruptly and as part of calculations that are not widely consulted per tradition. Also, not sure how closely the two decisions, which led to the resignation of Defence Secretary Mattis, are strategically linked to each other. What is obvious is that Syria is not Afghanistan. In my view, this decision on Afghanistan which is still being worked on and is not final, is influenced by domestic and foreign policy drivers that are partly connected to the 2020 elections and maintaining support within the “America first” popular base, partly by geopolitical dynamics that not many can explain in regard to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and policy towards Russia, China and Iran. The danger lies in not understanding the thrust of the radicalized terrorist threats that stretches across the Islamic world and beyond or not paying attention to critical stabilization missions – like the Afghan mission – and aiming for political expediency at the expense of future blowback. We have seen that scenario repeat itself in the 80s and 90s until 9/11 hit.

While we do not know if the US Congress will step in and try to moderate and guide policy, what is also not clear is whether these decisions will help the Afghan peace and reconciliation talks that are being pursued and how will they either embolden or incentivize the Taliban and their support networks. How will the rest of Afghanistan’s political communities and elites react, and can it help strengthen their bonds as part of a more unified entity or will it lead to more hedging? Finally, how will it impact morale on the battlefield? It is crucial that the non-Taliban parts of Afghanistan stand firm, renew their bonds, support the war efforts and strengthen their hand in case talks are pursued.

Reporterly: Do you still think that US president Trump and his administration view Afghanistan as a priority in their global foreign policy, and if so, then what are the indicators?

Omar Samad: Current U.S. foreign policy is very different from anything seen since World War II. It is selectively interested in some specific regions and themes based on new criteria, while showing less interest in more global and multilateral issues that are of interest to most of the actors on the international scene. Afghanistan is an important topic for specific reasons, but not in the same fashion as experienced since after 9/11. Some see a gradual end to the Afghan mission pursued by the international community as we have known it, while others see the end of one chapter and the start of another. It is not yet clear how the transition will define the next chapter as many hurdles have to be overcome. At this stage, the Afghanistan transition is work-in-progress causing alignment shifts and re-prioritizations. It is also generating political rethink inside Afghanistan as the political process is being tested with new sets of drivers.

Reporterly: Some particularly with the NUG leadership think that recent developments in Washington, especially those on peace talks, are a ‘face-saving’ scenario for the US and that the US is looking for a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan. Do you believe that US policies with regards to Afghanistan are heading in that direction?

Omar Samad: The NUG leadership had for a long time lacked a common view or stance on many issues, including US policy towards Afghanistan. It is now attempting to align its policy priorities. The hope is that it’s not too late. It is important for the NUG to separate its partisan political agenda tied to elections from the country’s best long-term interests through credible consensus-building. Assumptions have to be based on reality and not just short-term and immediate political gain. It is not clear yet whether the US is aiming for a quick withdrawal. Some say it could be a tweet away, others say it will be gradual, while others think that it will not happen swiftly as there will be a need for a residual counter—terrorism force. The question is what, how, for how long and for what purpose? For now, US policy is heading toward finding a political solution. The rest is not yet clear. The latest decision on US disengagement from Syria and possible troop reductions in Afghanistan is telling but also raises new questions about overall strategy and end-game scenarios.

Reporterly: You are a senior fellow with the Atlantic council. A report published by the South Asia desk of this think-tank in October says that US South Asia strategy is on the right track and needs to continue with its implementation. Do you agree with the authors of that report and do you think that South Asia Strategy of US continues to matter to the Trump administration, given that the peace talks are new development?

Omar Samad: That is a report that was published before I joined them, has solid analysis by experts and also good recommendations. However it is a report that was concluded in October. Since then, developments have been fast and focused on seeking a political settlement, initially through talks between the US and the Taliban, but also involving other regional actors. At this point, the focus of the South Asia policy has shifted to some extent, whether we agree with the timing and focus or not.

Reporterly: On the view of Washington, aside from how the developments with regards to peace and counter-insurgency shape, what do you think is the view about the NUG and its leadership? Do you think that they continue to be viewed as reliable partners for the US?

Omar Samad: It depends on who you talk to in the foreign policy community. As is tradition, the views in Washington can be diverse until unified. The NUG is obviously a product of the post-2001 transition that brought a constitutional order to Afghanistan, albeit one that has had a lot of issues along the way because of manipulation, hasty decisions, lack of a national strategy and electoral fraud. I believe that the NUG is a part of the political fabric and cannot be sidelined because it would then raise questions about legitimacy, sacrifices and investments made by so many since 2002. The State system where the Islamic Republic is a pillar cannot and should not be traded or negotiated without the explicit and legitimate consent of the Afghan population. How we bring corrections and reforms is another matter that needs to be dealt with through consensus and in an inclusive and comprehensive manner. In any case, Afghanistan’s wider political community needs to be involved on key decisions, not just one faction or entity.

Reporterly: The US officials continuously talk about their unbiased approach to the Afghan presidential elections and the tickets, and that there is no favourite candidate. Do you think, that none of the current potential contenders in 2019 elections are favoured by the US?

Omar Samad: The official US position is to be impartial and not be involved in domestic political choices and elections. That should be the norm. I am sure that there is personal favoritism in some circles, and some actors use their connections and networks to influence policy and decisions, but the system should not allow for the distortion of the Afghan people’s will through the mechanisms put in place. That would be counter-productive down the road.

Reporterly: If we talk about the issue of peace talks and negotiations with the Taliban, in your opinion, how has Washington and the Trump administration come to a consensus on the political settlement to Afghanistan’s insurgency and instability?

Omar Samad: The US policy-making process is not simple nor always clearly apparent because it deals with sensitive issues. It involves different agencies and other establishment actors. Each new administration brings their own agenda and priorities which are then debated at various levels, including by Congress which holds the appropriation purse. Of course, there are cases when some policies are secretive and not openly discussed. On Afghanistan, we have seen more than half dozen major policy reviews and formulation since 2001. While the opposite armed side has followed a narrow strategic objective and been consistent with its wants, others have gone through many adjustments and fluctuations that have not always been coordinated accordingly. The Trump Admin started with a set of assumptions and then decided on a policy which then shifted and was readjusted after a few months as political and strategic priorities shifted for some inside the administration. Now we saw that a new policy shift was announced somewhat abruptly, a sign of a different style. I hope that other actors, like Congress, step in and play a role in guiding policy.

Reporterly: What is the difference between what we see today on peace talks as compared to what has  ever happened before, in the last 17 years? Some believe that a major difference is that all the key pillars of US foreign policy including the white house and pentagon, have come to agree that the way forward is to invest on political solution and peace and negotiations. Do you agree?

Omar Samad: Looking back, the last 17 years has had a mix of good and bad policy decisions inside and outside Afghanistan accompanied by good and not-so-good results, progress, but also waste and corruption. The result is what we see today. Afghans have to take responsibility for their actions and inactions. The same applies to other contributors and friends of Afghanistan. Today, even though there is no major active popular opposition in the US to the low-intensity conflict in Afghanistan, and most people still connect the mission to the tragedies of 9/11, there is a certain degree of fatigue mixed with cost and loss of lives concerns. Obviously, American elections in 2020 will play a role as well. Also, there are shifts in strategic priorities. There is this notion, right or wrong, that the war on terror accompanied by nation-building projects a la Afghanistan are no longer required. While terrorism is very much alive, strategy is shifting to what is called great power competition. I am not sure how Afghanistan is viewed in that context, but I think that we need to recall the lessons that led to 9/11 and realize that we need to complete the job in Afghanistan in a manner that is sustainable and durable, resulting in stability and prosperity. What needs to be avoided is allowing for half-baked solutions leading to another void while all sorts of terror groups are still active or creating conditions for a proxy war battlefield that could have dire consequences and result in blowback.

Reporterly: What are the expectations of Washington from Kabul given what special representative Khalilzad envisions for peace and talks with the Taliban is seen to be different from the vision of President Ashraf Ghani? President Ghani’s view is a five years long peace plan while Amb. Khalilzad thinks that before presidential elections, he might be able to broker a deal?
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Omar Samad: Despite the sudden decisions in the past few days that need to be taken seriously, it is too early to say what the ultimate expectations are at this point as the US side is still exploring and engaging all stakeholders. Afghans in general, including the NUG, have a reason to be concerned and to want to be included in all phases of the discussions and choices about a solid transition. There are reports of tension, disagreements on the way forward or misunderstandings that may have emerged, but I think that all sides need to understand that a lot is at stake and there is no room for missteps or mistrust. For the US, it should not only be about a set political deadline or risky strategic shift as the US cannot afford to either face defeat or inherit a worse situation down the road. For the NUG, it should not be all about political expediency and the next elections, especially given the lack of trust that exists in how elections are run and used. If not too late, they need to create and be part of a much larger national umbrella that is built on consensus, inclusivity and shared interests.

Reporterly: What is the view about Pakistan? Some believe that Pakistan is still dishonest and has a tactical approach in getting Taliban to the negotiation table. Do you think this way?

Omar Samad: Pakistan has its own prerogatives like all other players. I am sure they think their position is now strong and will lead to a desired outcome for them. Although Afghans have bent backwards to positively engage the Pakistanis and to warn them of the dangers inherent in double-games and use of violent extremism as a policy tools, but they have their own calculations and we have not reached that stage of understanding with them yet. I am not convinced that is the case, but their leaders now think their strategic narrative is yielding results.

We Afghans, however, need to build our own national narrative and high-level agenda after all these years. We have failed… most of our elites have failed to do so unfortunately because they have failed to understand the essence of statesmanship and responsibility. Besides, too much dependency and flow of resources also caused distractions and corrupted part of our society. But there is hope and we should never abandon the ideals and vision that our people embrace, including sovereignty, prosperity, a constitutional order guaranteeing basic human and civic/citizens’ rights within the confines of an Islamic Republic.

As far as pressure is concerned, I think that despite the fact that the West has leverage that it has not used yet for one reason or another, the US is now looking at the Saudis and China as friends of Pakistan who could play a constructive role; but I am not sure that their agendas and priorities are fully aligned or conducive to such a wish coming true at this stage. The dynamics are much more complex than that.

Reporterly: On the occasion that peace talks end somewhere good, what steps should be taken to go for a stable and durable political settlement? Do you think that delayed presidential elections could be one of those steps so that the parties would be able to integrate the Taliban into the system?

Omar Samad: I think that the will of the people matters as much as the legitimacy of any process or outcome. We cannot erase the past 17 years or go back to pre-9/11 times. That is a recipe for disaster and a lose-lose proposition. We should avoid perpetuating the war, violence and instability imposed on Afghanistan for ulterior motives. Those who espouse such a scenario have a flawed view of our history and do not fully grasp the realities of this complex society. Whatever solution is being worked on has to have a plurality of Afghan society onboard. It has to be legitimate and credible. Credible elections, after being cleansed and reformed, is ultimately the best means to move the country forward and reflect the true nature of society, modern or traditional, and its aspirations. We also cannot afford to repeat the electoral fiascos of the past. Our own elites, our international friends and others need to understand and take these facts into account as they try to help us find the right solutions.

Sarah Mishra contributed reporting.

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