Since the Communist coup in 1978, Afghanistan has been caught in an unending cycle of conflict, currently manifesting itself in the form of a continued struggle with the Taliban. Now, on the eve of the withdrawal of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and a presidential election in 2014, the country’s future remains highly indeterminate. During a brief visit to St. Andrews, the Foreign Affairs Review was lucky enough to have a chance to sit down with the Afghan Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Dr. M. Daud Yaar, to discuss Kabul’s plan for the future.
Ambassador Yaar, thank you for coming.
The 2009 presidential election, despite a major surge from NATO troops immediately preceding it, was characterized by some of the highest levels of violence and intimidation in Afghanistan for the past fifteen years. Considering the high probability of attempted interference by the Taliban again, and the lower levels of security that will come after the troops decrease in February, how does Kabul plan to protect its citizens and democratic processes in the in the upcoming election in 2014?
Well I think democracy has to mature, and it needs time to take root. Once it takes root and people have experience with the freedom of choice, which is actually voting, they will stick to it and they will defend it.
On the other hand, I’m confident that as the international forces draw down and as the Afghan forces take over, insecurity in the country will go down. Actually, right now about all operational activities—military operations—are undertaken by the Afghans themselves. And 99% of the territory is now secured by Afghan forces. In all those areas where Afghans have taken over the responsibility of security, it has turned out that security has improved. In a sense, to a certain degree in some areas, the sheer presence of international forces had, perhaps, some adverse affect. As their presence goes down, it seems that some people become more confident that now there’s the government and these are Afghan forces and nothing will go wrong with them. The problem with the presence of international security forces was because there was a difference in culture; some of them engaged in night raids. In the evening, they would go knock down the door of a house and they would enter. In our country that is a no-no. It’s very bad if you violate a family’s privacy and open their door by force, it is very bad—the worst thing that can happen to you. As a result of that, insecurity kept increasing. Every time that there was a night raid, the whole village was very upset and they would do something against the forces. Now, as this goes down and Afghan forces take charge, that kind of resentment is going down and will go further down, and that would create a more secure environment.
And on the withdrawal, although 2014 for the ISAF forces will mean the end of the line NATO’s direct involvement, the war is far from over. Under what conditions will Kabul come to settle with the Taliban, and what sort of concessions would it realistically be willing to make?
This is a very sensitive question, a very important question, a very complicated question.
Afghanistan has a constitution, and that constitution has been adopted by the people of Afghanistan via their representatives. Now, in that constitution we have values that may run counter to the ideals of the armed opposition. For example, the freedom of women: a woman’s right to go to work and to go to school. These are things on which we cannot compromise. As far as the participation of the opposition in the political process is concerned, the government of Afghanistan is totally ready and willing to allow them to participate politically. But it is very hard to expect that the people and the government of Afghanistan will go back to times prior to 9/11 and force back women into the house and take their rights. It’s impossible. Other than these basic rights that are enshrined in the constitution, the political issues—the participation in elections and the participation in the government—these are things that we can discuss and negotiate and find solutions for.
Would it be possible, for example—because I know the Taliban’s morals and objectives run counter in many ways to democratic ideals—would government decentralization and greater regional autonomy be a possibility? My understanding now is that it is highly centralized.
I think as long as the current constitution is in place, it will stay a centralized and unitary state. There is some talk about federalism, but I personally believe that it’s too early for Afghanistan. Afghanistan should develop to a certain stage until we start thinking about giving local authorities more power. The most important thing is that if a locality wants more authority for decision-making, it should also be able to produce the kind of finances and money to finance the projects and things they want to implement. The nature of the state is such right now that the central government receives the foreign aid and tax money and all that. I don’t, for the time being, think that regionalism or regionalization of the country will be a solution. Interestingly, neither the unarmed opposition, the political opposition, nor the armed opposition, is asking for it. Of course there are minority voices, some minority voices that they raise their voice saying that local authorities should be given more power, but this is a minority.
Outside intervention has long disrupted national unity and stable political structures in Afghanistan, playing on ethnic divisions and breeding radicalism. If an end to the current struggle with the Taliban can somehow be secured, how can the Afghan government work in the future to end the cycle of externally instigated conflict that has plagued the country for the past thirty-five years?
Well, in 1978, the Communist coup happened, and after that a lot of atrocities and the Soviet invasion. This has created a vacuum, a political vacuum within the country, where unfortunately foreign forces played the role in the politics of the country. But as we go towards normalization of the political process, and as the shattering effects of the Soviet invasion are disappearing over time, we get to the position where the room for foreign intervention will become smaller. Also, our neighboring countries, the countries of the region have realized that the more they intervene in Afghanistan, the more instability will be created in Afghanistan, and the instability in Afghanistan will affect them, inadvertently, very adversely. That is why I feel that the region has come to the conclusion that they should allow Afghanistan to stabilize and limit or eliminate their interference so that the dangers than emanate from an unstable Afghanistan can be dealt with and can be reduced.
As a final question, what do you believe is the biggest misperception that the West seems to have about Afghanistan and its struggle with the Taliban?
I think that not only the West but also the rest of us are in the habit of simplifying complex phenomena and taking shortsighted view of the complex problems the humanity is facing at the this stage of our evolution. There are many issues in the world that cannot be solved by purely military means. And, there are many problems in the world that cannot be solved within the span of electoral cycles. Shortsightedness and intellectual myopia are diseases we all suffer under. For the world to become a better place for all of us, it is important that we all realize the complexity and the long-term nature of the issues we are faced with. Patience, collective action, and prudence are the key words in this regard.
Ambassador Yaar has a Ph.D in economics and lectured at California State University, East Bay for 20 years. Prior to being granted Ambassadorship by Karzai in 2012, Yaar served as economic adviser to the Office of the Chief of Staff of the President, Director of Policy and Oversight at the National Security Council Office, and Director General of Economic Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.