by Giuliano Bifolchi
Afghanistan plays a strategic role in the international arena according to Mackinder’s Heartland theory which highlights the country’s role as a logistics hub. For centuries superpowers have tried to conquest and control the Afghan territory facing the opposition of the local population and creating confrontations with regional and international actors.
During the 19th century, the British and Tsarist empires clashed over Afghanistan starting what Captain Arthur Conolly described as the Great Game. In the 20th century, Afghanistan represented the theatre of confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States in the Russo – Afghan War (1979-1989) which determined the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Nowadays, Afghanistan represents the military, economic and diplomatic battleground where the United States, the Russian Federation, and China are struggling with the aim at influencing local dynamics and controlling a strategic area connected to the entire Asian continent and rich of natural resources.
Although since 2001, after toppling down the Taliban regime, the NATO Resolute Support Mission has struggled to stabilize the country, Afghanistan is still a place where local military and police forces supported by the international coalition forces are facing and fighting the Taliban with serious consequences on civilians (read more Taliban attacks increased in Afghanistan in the last quarter of 2019).
Because Afghanistan matters in geopolitics and its stability might be considered as one of the main goals of the international community, we decided to meet H.E. Helena Malikyar, the Ambassador of Afghanistan to Italy to discuss issues related to the security, stability, economic development and future challenges in Afghanistan.
Although since 2001 NATO has fought a prolonged war in Afghanistan there are still areas under Taliban control. What is the current and real status of Afghanistan in term of security and stabilization? How far is your government from controlling and managing the entire Afghan territory?
“The situation in Afghanistan started changing in 2008-2009 when the Taliban re-emerged after they escaped in 2001 when the US-led coalition forces came to the country. In 2001 the Taliban were not completely disbanded but they just found refuge in neighbouring Pakistan and from there they eventually re-emerged and started attacking Afghanistan. When in 2014 the US President Barack Obama announced the initial plan for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, as many analysts underlined, the Taliban increased their activities and saw the opportunity for winning in the absence of international forces.
The Afghan national defence and security forces have done an amazing job in countering the Taliban and other terrorist groups in our country despite the high level of casualties they suffered in 2015-2016. I believe no one expected that our national security forces could have such success.
When he was elected, The US President Donald Trump stated that he wanted to remain in Afghanistan and win the war. The US increased the number of its military operations. This, in turn, prompted the Taliban to change their tactics and to increase the level of violence, including suicide attacks in crowded places and attempts to capture provincial capitals. This resulted in an increase in the number of casualties.
In Afghanistan security and stability is threatened by different actors and factors: undeniably, there are now different Taliban groups—splinter groups from the original movement—who enjoy the support of regional powers and are used for advancing foreign interests. We should also add the threat represented by the Islamic State, although it has now been largely contained, there is also al-Qaeda Arabs, as well as Pakistani, Chinese and Central Asian terrorist groups.
Another big problem is the drug issue and the exploitation of narcotics by terrorist groups to finance their activities. There are, of course, foreigners and some influential Afghans who also benefit from the lucrative drug business.”.
Do you believe that the US – Taliban deal can result in success even tough over the last quarter of 2019 the number of Taliban attacks increased by 17% according to the quarterly report published by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)?
“The idea of making a deal with the Taliban is more for the US domestic politics and the upcoming US presidential elections. Since the US – Taliban negotiations started more than a year ago, the number of casualties among civilians (especially women and children) has increased because the Taliban want to put up a show of strength to gain the upper hand in the negotiations.
There is no doubt that all Afghan are tired of more than four decades of war and they want and need peace. But also, many Afghans who have benefited from opportunities for education, equal rights and freedoms don’t want to compromise these values for a tenuous peace deal. The now re-elected president Ashraf Ghani came up with a conceptual framework for a peace process in March 2018. True and lasting peace requires a lot of groundwork to address all factors and drivers of war. That is why what was initially billed as a ‘peace deal’ in Doha ended up being an agreement between Washington and the Taliban to allow safe passage to the departing US military.
So, a serious approach to establishing peace in Afghanistan should take care of every aspect of the problem and must avoid oversimplification. If you oversimplify the problem, you can find a simple solution which does not resolve the current situation.
There are measures written into the text of the US-Taliban agreement to lead to a negotiation between the Taliban and the Afghan people. They call it the “intra-Afghan” dialogue. But, in fact, it should be the elected government of the country, which is the constitutionally legitimate representative of the Afghan State that should negotiate with the Taliban.”.
It is undeniable that Afghanistan plays a fundamental role in the Eurasian geopolitics and attracts the interests of regional key players and superpowers. If the White House is directly involved in your country because of NATO Resolute Support Mission, in which way Moscow and Beijing have been trying to operate inside the Afghan territory and collaborate with your government?
“As you know Afghanistan is a country which has had many conflicts for decades starting with the USSR invasion. After the mujahideen defeated the Soviet army with the support of the United States, Afghanistan experienced a proxy war in early 1990, which involved regional and foreign actors. Because many people in Afghanistan were tired of the conflict among the mujahideen, the rise of the Taliban was welcomed as a solution until the local population discovered the real nature of their government.
Unfortunately, those former clients of the regional powers are still in Afghanistan and in the past two decades, we had a lot of foreign aids and a window of opportunities for the same actors to enrich themselves, monopolize business, and influence the political arena. In the past five years, they started fading out until the last presidential elections and the beginning of the peace talks in Doha.
As you know there is a rivalry between China and Russia to be the dominant power in Asia.
China is a long-time close friend to Pakistan. The relationship has become closer in recent years due to the dire state of Pakistan’s economy and inability to pay its international debts. China came to Islamabad’s rescue and is now heavily invested in Pakistan. Nevertheless, China has had a rather neutral role in Afghanistan since 2001. During the first presidential term of Ghani there was good cooperation with the Chinese in terms of security and fight against terrorist groups. Recently the situation has somewhat changed and Beijing began to explore a more proactive role in finding a solution for the war in Afghanistan, considering Pakistan’s needs.
Russia too played a rather neutral but positive role in Afghanistan but recently it has become more active in having a role in the future of our country. In fact, in alignment with the US negotiation team, Moscow hosted a group of Taliban and Afghan politicians with the purpose of creating a dialogue to start peace talks.
The problem of my country is that regional and world powers have always had different and sometimes shifting goals, which has always affect Afghanistan and the future of our nation negatively.”.
In January the Italian Defence ministry Lorenzo Guerini paid an official visit to Afghanistan confirming Italy’s commitment in supporting NATO operations in your country. What are the relations between Italy and Afghanistan in terms of diplomacy and cooperation?
“The diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and Italy started officially in 1921 and the first Afghan embassy in Italy was opened in 1923 in the same building where we are today. Italy was the first western power that recognized Afghanistan’s independence from the British in 1919. King Amanullah Khan’s first stop on his grand European tour in 1927-28 was Rome.
Since 2001 Italy, as a member of NATO and the European Union, but also bilaterally has given great support to our country and I believe Afghanistan is the largest receiver of foreign aid from the Italian government. There are more than 800 Italian troops in Herat province involved in training and mentoring Afghan security forces.
There are also many Italian NGOs in Afghanistan. The most prominent being the NGO Emergency, which has built and is operating two emergency hospitals, primarily serving people injured in by the suicide attacks and battlefield.
At the same time, Italy is one of the strongest supporters of the constitutional values of Afghanistan, the democratic system of our country, and the defence of women, minorities and human rights.”.
When we talk about your country usually our mind focuses the attention on security and conflict, but Afghanistan means more than military operations and the war on terrorism. Indeed, can you describe the Afghan democratic process?
“The democratic process which re-started after decades of war as a temporary arrangement in 2001, became enshrined in the Constitution of 2004.
I want to underline the fact that, although many people in the West think that the democratic system started in Afghanistan only recently, the Constitution adopted in 1963 was based on the same values that we have today. This means that we had in our background the democratic values of equal rights and freedoms. We had an elected Parliament and an independent judiciary until around mid-1970s.
Furthermore, the tribal Afghan system is based on democratic values and many people might be surprised that even the king in Afghanistan was considered only first among the equals. In fact, the leader in the tribal code cannot do what he pleases but he must always respond to the needs of his constituents for the continuation of his legitimacy. The mechanism of Jirga (a traditional local assembly) and the Loya Jirga (grand national assembly) was a means of consultation between leaders and citizens. This means that democratic values have always been there and Afghans do not have big problems to understand what the essence of democracy is.
In my opinion, the main problem of foreign intervention in the past two decades is that the US and its allies focused too much on stability at the cost of justice and rule of law. Traditionally, justice, or rule of law in modern terms, is the cornerstone of the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the Afghan people. Compromising on rule of law, especially during the first decade of US intervention, caused the pandemic corruption, weakness of state institutions and, indeed, the rise of the Taliban. But, today’s Afghan society has also made much positive use of the window of opportunity that has opened up to them since 2001. We have an unprecedented number of our children in schools; we have a critical mass of young Afghans with a university education, many holding masters degrees from reputable world universities; we have a considerable mass of vocal women; the freedom of our media is unparalleled in the region and our middle-class is growing fast.”.
Talking about the economy, which are the sectors that attract more foreign direct investments (FDIs)? And in terms of logistics and customers market, what are the potentialities of Afghanistan?
“Regarding economic development, the amount of money that has been poured into Afghanistan has no precedent and a lot of infrastructures were built with this foreign aid and technical assistance.
There was also a lot of corruption and waste in the process. SIGAR [the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction] has documented very well how the US aid was used and abused in Afghanistan. I hope other nations also look into their countries’ aid effectiveness in Afghanistan. There was also a lack of coherent vision and close cooperation between assisting countries. All this resulted in a reduction in the effectiveness of foreign aid, but still, the country has come a long way since the days of Taliban rule in the second half of the 1990s.
We believe that Afghanistan is well on the road for economic development and self-reliance. To achieve this purpose, the current government has solid plans and strategies to move gradually away from the current level of dependence on foreign assistance and become increasingly self-reliant. The Afghan territory is rich in natural resources: gas, precious and semi-precious stones, marble, talk and rare earth minerals and metals. With good planning and wise management, Afghanistan can attract international investment in our underground riches and benefit tremendously. Of course, as you know, the mining sector needs time to generate revenues. Agricultural is the basis of Afghanistan’s economy. With large investments in this sector, there is tremendous potential in this sector. Already, our Saffron, pine nuts, pomegranates, liquorice and a number of other agricultural products are finding their ways to international markets. is performing quite well in our country.
Our geographic location is also an economic asset. The current government is actively working on transforming Afghanistan from a backyard of regional proxy wars into the ‘crossroads of Asia’ in terms of trade. With improved road systems and extension of railroads of neighbouring states, President Ghani’s connectivity plan will transform Afghanistan into a transit hub for trade between Central, South and West Asia. So, there are real and tangible possibilities for economic development for Afghanistan, which can also bring prosperity and stability to the entire region.”.