Fatemeh Aman was a little girl living in Iran in the 1970s. Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was ruling her home country and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was Pakistan’s prime minister at the time. The two states – as well as their rulers – were very close to each other. Her own family, too, partook in the bonhomie. Her parents were friends with a Pakistani couple who worked in Iran as doctors. “They worked very hard and were nice people,” she says of them in Karachi where she came last month to attend the Adab Festival, the latest addition to Pakistan’s annual literary gatherings. “My love for South Asia started with my interaction with that Pakistani couple.”
Fatemeh is a non-resident senior fellow at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, an American think tank focused on the study of international relations. She has written extensively on Iran, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries for more than 17 years. Her first job, however, was as a science correspondent for Radio Free Europe. “I did that for many years and then I just started covering South Asia,” she says. “That was my dream — travelling through this region, discovering everyday life here and knowing its politics.”
Following are excerpts of an interview with her.
Huma Baqai. After so many years of using force as the only option to deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the United States seems to have taken a 180-degree turn by talking to them. The international community is now promising them an [official] status in a future political setup in Afghanistan. Are these developments legitimising the Afghan Taliban?
Fatemeh Aman. Yes, they are. The issue is that there is literally no other option. Every other option has been exhausted. The Taliban got together with the Afghan government several times in the past in the Persian Gulf and Arab states but those negotiations never came to anything. Whenever there was some hope of reaching a settlement, the Taliban would increase their violent actions inside Afghanistan and the Afghan government, under emotional and psychological pressure from the population, would pull back from negotiations.
The Taliban have been also insisting for years that they would only talk with the United States. They have been demanding that they would negotiate with the United States directly, without any mediation and any involvement of the Afghan government.
Huma. Has the West in general and the United States in particular reached a situation where they have to abide by all the terms and conditions being set by the Taliban — be it a stake in a future government in Afghanistan or their demand to talk to the United States directly?
Fatemeh. The Taliban are not in a position to dictate but the Afghan government is weaker than ever before [and] circumstances in the United States are completely unique considering [President Donald] Trump’s campaign promises to pull back [American forces] from Afghanistan and Iraq. And then the new Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, has been released from a Pakistani prison last October even though we do not know what kind of weight he has within the Taliban. Still, I do not read all these developments as the Taliban dictating the process though I read these as their strengths.
Huma. So, they are negotiating from a position of power?
Fatemeh. Yes. Taliban are in a strengthened position. I [still] found it extremely disappointing that a deputy of Abdullah Abdullah [who is the chief executive of the Afghan government] was in Moscow taking part in [intra-Afghan negotiations] with the Taliban. When the deputy of the second most important person in the government is participating in negotiations that the government has rejected, it shows that there is chaos within the Afghan government. This is kind of scary.
I also do not know how successful and legitimate negotiations can be without an active participation of the Afghan government. There is no disputing the fact that the government is weak but it still represents the Afghan people who voted for it. They did not vote for the Taliban. So, just ignoring the government and bringing [people like former Afghan president Hamid] Karzai and whoever has been in opposition to negotiate with the Taliban is going to be very complicated. Firstly, it is taking the legitimacy away from the Afghan government. Secondly, it is going to be harder to sell [the outcome of the dialogue] to the population [without the government’s involvement].
Huma. How do you see China’s role in the peace process? Has China compelled the United States to negotiate with the Taliban?
Fatemeh. China is a contributing factor because it obviously has investment in both Afghanistan and in the rest of the region but I do not see it as the lone actor. It also supported and encouraged earlier negotiations – whether those were in Qatar or in Dubai – but those negotiations still failed. Where the current negotiations differ from previous negotiations is that all the regional players somehow are participating in these now. Iran is [doing] direct negotiations with the Taliban. Pakistan is obviously [in contact with the Taliban]. Prime Minister Imran Khan is promoting negotiations and has been very helpful [in making them possible]. This has been a good public relations move for Pakistan in the western world. Russia is also participating in the peace process while China has always been very active in it and has never broken its connection with the Taliban.
Huma. When you say everybody has a stake, there is a soft power thrust by the Indians also. Do you see the Indians getting subtracted or marginalised in this new initiative for peace in Afghanistan?
Fatemeh. India is very much involved in major projects in Afghanistan and is viewed very positively by the Afghan people. That is why it stayed away from any type of engagement with the Taliban. This is now turning out to be a mistake, I believe. India missed an opportunity by insisting from the beginning that the Taliban were puppets out to disrupt normal life in Afghanistan. I, however, will not be surprised if India is invited to negotiations or if it reaches out to the Taliban.
Huma. Do you see the conflict between India and Pakistan being a spoiler for peace in Afghanistan? Do you think China can convince Pakistan to let India be a part of the peace process?
Fatemeh. If there is any justification for Iran, Pakistan and China to be part of negotiations because of their investments in Afghanistan, it does make sense that India, too, should join the process. Either India will completely ignore its investment in Afghanistan and go away or it will want to be a part of negotiations. Any agreement will be securer if more players are involved in it.
And it is not up to China to decide who should be a part of the peace process and who should not. At this point, no neighbour of Afghanistan is incharge of the peace process. There was a time when everybody thought the Taliban were a puppet of Pakistan. Not anymore. First of all, the Taliban are divided into different factions. We do not know which part [of them] is listening to Pakistan and which part is listening to some other country. The Taliban have also repeatedly said they would have friendly relations with all neighbours, including India.
Huma. How do you see Iran’s role in the peace process?
Fatemeh. There are two major concerns for Iran. One is the Islamic State, or Daesh or ISIS [which has presence in Afghanistan]. This is extraordinarily important for Iran and it is not going to ignore this factor. The other major issue which is of the same level of importance to Iran is border management. Iran has a long-running boundary conflict with Afghanistan.
The relationship between Iran and the Taliban has been very contentious. In 1998, the Taliban killed 11 Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif. They also often block the Afghan border with Iran.
Another major issue for Iran is drug trafficking. Drugs have a major contribution [in fueling violence in Afghanistan]. Poppy crop and opium which are produced in Afghanistan pass through Iran before these go to Europe and from there to other parts of the world.
Iran cannot just leave these concerns to the Afghan government to address. It also cannot leave these to fate. It has to be in contact with the Taliban to have these concerns addressed. It has to know what is going on inside Afghanistan.
Huma. There is a general perception that the United States in particular and the western community in general are quite comfortable with agreeing to everything that the Taliban ask for provided they make two commitments: one, they do not allow the revival of al Qaeda and, two, they fight against IS that is now reported to be based in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Fatemeh. First of all, the Taliban have denied the existence of IS for a long time. They said that no Afghan was supporting the IS ideology and that the western countries were exaggerating about the IS [presence in Afghanistan] just to stay longer in the country.
But, yes, the United States and the West are seeking that guarantee though they also know that the Taliban cannot give any guarantee to anyone that they can prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for either IS or al Qaeda. They are not really in a position to offer such a guarantee.
Huma. So, if something is built on a false premise, how far can it go?
Fatemeh. The western countries only want to assure their own population that all their concerns are being addressed. They only want to calm people down back home.
Huma. Do you actually see the negotiations resulting in a breakthrough? Where do you see the peace process on a scale of 1-10?
Fatemeh. As long as the Afghan government is not a part of the negotiations, I will not describe myself as terribly optimistic but the Americans are in a rush to leave Afghanistan. They are in a rush to leave all those places where American troops are fighting.
On the other hand, there are people in the United States administration and in the United States military who think the timing and the manner [of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan] are not right. So, given the unpredictability of Mr Trump, I will not be surprised if a military commander convinces him to postpone the pullout of troops from Afghanistan.
Huma. Anyway, the number of American troops in Afghanistan is so small that they can hardly do anything? If they had done something, security on the ground could have been much better.
Fatemeh. They are not involved in active combat. They are mostly training the Afghan security forces in maintaining security.
Huma. One of the concerns being identified by women in Afghanistan is that negotiations with the Taliban will bargain away their rights. The freedoms they enjoy now – including employment facilities and the freedom of movement – will be taken away from them. Do you think the Taliban will show some flexibility?
Fatemeh. With all the shortcomings of the Afghan government that we all know about and all the corruption going on in Afghanistan, that country has made some major achievements during the last 17 years. One of these achievements is protection and promotion of women’s rights. Women can own businesses. They can get higher education and no one can prevent them from going to school. The Afghan constitution also guarantees some rights for minorities.
What worries me is what Mullah Baradar said: “We are going to get rid of the constitution of Afghanistan because it is a copy of western constitutions. We are going to follow a Quranic constitution.” He did say that women can have education as long as the Quran permits it but my concern is that the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam can be very [rigid].
Huma. Is the United States ready to bargain away those rights?
Fatemeh. The United States is rushing to get out of Afghanistan but it can do no harm to the rights of women and minorities in Afghanistan if it can ensure that these two groups are part of the peace process. There should be active participation of women in the peace process. Let them join the process and defend themselves.
Huma. Will there be protests if women’s rights get curtailed?
Fatemeh. I do not see that unfortunately. Women [in Afghanistan] have experienced a lot of violence. Even those in positions of power have not been free from violence [but] I do not see any organised women’s movement in Afghanistan which can call women on to the streets and help them defend their rights. That is why it is important that all those who were a part of putting the Afghan constitution together, including women and minorities, also become a part of the ongoing negotiation process.
Huma. But you just said the Taliban are not ready to honour the constitution...
Fatemeh. What I meant is that those who previously worked on the constitution should still be a part of whatever arrangement is being negotiated for the future. They should not just leave it at the Taliban’s mercy to decide what women deserve and what they do not. Not just those who are involved in negotiations but the whole international community and women everywhere have a very big responsibility to not leave Afghan women alone.
Huma. Are you frustrated by the fact that policymaking sometimes has a complete disconnect with ground realities?
Fatemeh. What bothers me is that the majority of policymakers are men. This is true not just for South Asia but for the whole world. This is true even in the United States. Women should be a part of peace processes everywhere. A peace which involves more women will be a lasting one.
The writer is an associate dean at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.
This was originally published in the Herald's March 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.