Between emirate and republic: “Afghanistan is at a turning point”


Ellinor Zeino works for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Afghanistan. She lives in Kabul, where she feels “sufficiently safe”. The country, she said in an interview, is at a turning point: “There is an opportunity to conclude a peace agreement, but it could also be that another civil war breaks out.” She talks to about the possible consequences of the withdrawal of NATO troops, the obstacles in the peace talks and the Taliban, who want to sell themselves to the USA as a new anti-terror partner. Do you feel safe in Kabul at the moment?

Ellinor Zeino: I personally feel safe enough. But actually we’re never really safe here in Kabul and you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time every day. We all live with that here. But as long as you don’t get personally targeted by certain groups, I feel sufficiently safe. I can still travel to the big, safer cities, even if Corona has changed a little. Last year I was in Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif. But there are not many places left where you can travel safely, especially as a foreigner. Freedom of movement is enormously restricted, also in Kabul.

The US wants to massively reduce its troops in Afghanistan by mid-January. Do you expect the security situation to worsen again then?

Dr. Ellinor Zeino heads the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s office in Kabul.

(Photo: Ellinor Zeino)

That depends on various factors, such as the conditions under which the Americans and NATO troops withdraw, whether there is any kind of agreement with the Taliban – or not. At the moment this is not foreseeable at all. But security also depends on the financial guarantees, for example for the Afghan security sector, which is financed almost exclusively from international funds. The entire salaries of the Afghan security forces, including the police, are paid from abroad. If that were to be eliminated, it would be an enormous cut in the security of the country.

Do these funds also depend on the troop withdrawal?

That is independent of each other. At least on paper there are commitments by the international community until 2024. Of course, these could be withdrawn if the political order should fundamentally change. But because of these commitments, the nervousness of the Afghan government about the troop withdrawal is still limited. This is being discussed very nervously by the international community in Kabul, because ultimately the troops also protect the international employees, the embassies and all international forces.

What would it mean for the Bundeswehr if the US withdrew thousands of soldiers in January? Depending on the peace negotiations with the Taliban, April was already being discussed as the withdrawal date.

In general, I expect the other NATO allies to withdraw or at least reduce their troops. Most recently, however, NATO also said that the peace process is being supported and that the withdrawal of US troops does not necessarily mean that you will withdraw yourself. A decision should be made in January. But overall, of course, the Bundeswehr has developed withdrawal scenarios. Logistics alone takes its time.

Are you in contact with the NATO troops on site? How do they assess the situation?

They are a bit in the air because they don’t know what to adjust to and whether the decision to withdraw a larger number of soldiers at once has to be made relatively quickly. They just don’t know what to expect from the Americans.

Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said that the Bundeswehr soldiers should have the certainty “that what they fought for can also be secured in the long term”. Would a hasty withdrawal destroy the results of 20 years of presence in Afghanistan?

It is difficult to say at the moment because it is not clear in which direction the country is developing. Afghanistan is currently at a turning point and it can go in different directions: there is an opportunity to conclude a peace agreement, but it can also be that civil war breaks out again. In addition, it is unclear what an agreement could look like at all. Which compromises have to be made for this? Which political rights, which freedoms and achievements may have to be given up? I can understand that the question is what the 20 years of presence have brought. The balance sheet is really bad on many points. But I think you have to look ahead now, take advantage of this turning point and prevent worse.

The Afghan government and the Taliban have been negotiating a peace agreement in Doha for about two months. Why is there little progress so far?

The real peace negotiations have not even begun; preliminary negotiations are still ongoing. A main point of conflict is the question of whether the February agreement between the US and the Taliban should even be used as the basis for the peace talks. The Afghan government rejects this because it was not a negotiating partner at the time. However, the US is exerting strong pressure to accept the agreement. Most recently it was said that both sides had agreed on the issue, but this has not yet been officially confirmed.

That sounds like very small steps. Do you expect it to continue like this?

The fronts are very hardened on many points. It will take a long time to compromise here. After 40 years of war there will not be an agreement in which all sides can find themselves within a few weeks or months. First of all, it will be about a ceasefire, or, to put it more cautiously, about reducing violence. The withdrawal of western troops is the main demand of the Taliban, which the USA has already promised them. But there are still many complex questions: What should the political order and the distribution of power look like? Are you going back to the emirate or can the republic be preserved?

Do you think it is realistic that a militant Islamist group like the Taliban is involved in the government?

That is exactly why there are talks in Doha: That the Taliban will be transformed from a militant group into a party capable of governing. You have to assume that, otherwise you wouldn’t have to negotiate at all. The question is where is the compromise? The Taliban have a great interest in being seen as a party capable of governing and not as a terrorist group; they are striving for international recognition. On the other hand, of course, they also stand for certain political values.

Do the Taliban speak with one voice?

They are organized in a relatively hierarchical manner and make sure that they only speak with one voice to the outside world. They control their communication very strongly and have prevented different opinions in the movement from getting out. Access to them is relatively difficult, but we know from former Taliban or unofficial sources that there are of course very different camps that have different views on how modern you want to be and what foreign policy relationships you want to maintain. The tough fighters will find it difficult to recognize certain positions, for example in terms of education and freedoms for women, their role in government or in professional life.

To what extent do the Taliban differ from terrorist groups like the Islamic State?

There are clear differences. The Taliban present themselves as a national or nationalist group and not as a global jihadist organization. They also convey this image to the USA, they want to sell themselves as a new anti-terrorist partner. They promise that they will not tolerate jihadist groups on Afghan soil. Your mission is to build Afghanistan according to your ideas and not a transnational Islamist jihad struggle. But ideologically there are of course strong connection points. Many ISIS members in Afghanistan are defectors from the Taliban who do not support the new course of the Taliban leadership in Doha.

ISIS has grown stronger in Afghanistan. Could he break up the peace negotiations?

The better things go in Doha and the more progress is made, the more it will pop in Kabul. There has been a sharp rise in violence here in the last few weeks and months. These are primarily disruptive maneuvers for the peace process. That can come from different groups; there are many actors in Afghanistan who are not interested in positive peace talks.

On the other side of the talks, the government is also marked by domestic political disputes. A new president was elected over a year ago, but it wasn’t until eight months later that a compromise was reached between incumbent Ashraf Ghani and challenger Abdullah Abdullah, who refused to accept his defeat. Does that hinder the negotiations?

We now have a new unity government, but the political landscape is very fragmented and the government doesn’t really speak with one voice. There are competing camps pursuing their own interests. The Afghan Republic is thus in a weak negotiating position vis-à-vis the Taliban, who present themselves as a homogeneous and united group.

In addition to the violence, the difficult political situation and the corona pandemic, there is currently still a famine. Is this visible in daily life?

The food crisis has been massive since 2018, with droughts and floods alternating, which means that a large part of the harvest has failed. It’s almost a famine, even if it’s not officially called that yet. It is particularly visible in the provinces, but not in everyday life in Kabul.

The UN has therefore organized a donor conference. How is Germany getting involved?

Germany wants to guarantee its support as before. However, it remains to be seen which conditions will be attached to it, for example on the development strategy of the Afghan government.

Could the hunger crisis trigger another wave of refugees?

Whether there is a wave of migration depends on many factors. The climate refugees are a very important point; new waves of migration can be expected here. Of course, it also depends on whether the security situation deteriorates. In particular, people from the big cities could then consider leaving the country. But the food crisis is causing most of the displaced persons, both within the country and to neighboring Iran and Pakistan, and ultimately to Europe.

Markus Lippold spoke to Ellinor Zeino

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