Signs of Hope for Afghan Peace Talks
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Ambassador Wells: Thank you. And I want to thank USIP for organizing this event, and I really want to congratulate the government of Afghanistan on the Second Kabul Process Conference. And I also want to thank, of course, the Afghan, the U.S. and the NATO forces for continuing to ensure the safety of the conference and all that they do, of course, to ensure the safety of Afghanistan.
I believe that the Second Kabul Process Conference was really a landmark event. President Ghani endorsed a dignified path to a political settlement, and put forward a vision of reconciliation that was both credible and detailed. This was a true pan-Afghan overture to the Taliban with President Ghani’s partners in the National Unity Government, including Dr. Abdullah and Foreign Minister Rabbani participating, along with members of civil society including women.
The conference was attended by 25 countries, the UN and EU, and a Joint Declaration adopted by consensus showed the strong international support for a vision of peace shared across Afghan society.
It’s now up to the Taliban leaders to respond to this serious offer. This is a peace offer that the United States supports and is prepared to facilitate, but we cannot substitute for the direct negotiations that are required between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership.
Today in my remarks I want to outline this inter-Afghan peace that was offered by the National Unity Government, the U.S. role in a peace process, the Taliban’s stated grievances, Pakistan’s role, and the benefits of peace. But I’ll do it briefly because I’m looking forward to the questions and answers.
I assume that all of you have reviewed President Ghani’s remarks. I was struck by the President’s description of peace as both a national and religious responsibility. He made clear that there are no preconditions to negotiations while underscoring that the rights of all citizens, especially Afghan women, must be safeguarded.
He discussed the political framework for talks that produce a ceasefire, the Taliban’s registration as a political party, and participation in an electoral process. He noted the important signals that were sent by the Hezbi Islami deal, Hekmatyar’s return to the political mainstream, the prisoner releases, the delisting, and the demobilization. He discussed the legal framework for peace, which would include a constitutional review through legal mechanisms as well as legal processes for prisoner releases and sanctions release. He suggested methods for reaching peace, such as official recognition of the Afghan government, respect for rule of law, further efforts for government reform and balanced development, the return of Afghan refugees, programs for social development including for refugees and former insurgents, and security measures for all citizens, particularly the reconciling Taliban. And underscoring the need for a dignified process, I think President Ghani also talked about very important elements -- an office for the Taliban, a path towards travel documents, being allowed to travel freely, help in the removal of sanctions, access to the media, repatriation for their families.
When it comes to the United States, our conditions-based South Asia Strategy ensures the Taliban cannot win on the battlefield. But it recognizes that a resolution to the conflict will be through a negotiated political settlement.
The recent Taliban letter to the people of the United States I believe misses the point. For eight years the United States has been prepared to support a peace process, but we cannot be a substitute again for the Afghan people and the Afghan government in a negotiation with the Taliban. The Taliban was at war with the Afghan people long before U.S. military operations began in 2001.
Now obviously, the United States has a direct interest in the resolution of this conflict, and the Taliban have frequently stated the need for all foreign troops to depart Afghanistan as a precondition for negotiations. We are in Afghanistan as a guest of a sovereign Afghan government that’s recognized by the United Nations and international community. With our presence enshrined in the Strategic Partnership Agreement, and a Bilateral Security Agreement which were approved by a traditional Loya Jirga, we’ll continue our mission so long as a sovereign, independent Afghan government agrees to host us and work with us.
For those Taliban who have grievances, the legitimate path to resolving their concerns is going to be through negotiation. The Afghanistan of 2018 is not the Afghanistan of 2002. The institutional capacity, governance and security are greater. A technocratic, political and economic leadership is emerging.
While the Taliban are part of the social fabric of Afghanistan, they do not speak for all of the Afghan people, and consistently we see that only a small percentage of the population claim sympathy for them.
The United States does not have any hidden agenda or motives in Afghanistan. We acted in self-defense to bring justice to those who plotted the September 11, 2001 attack. Let us not forget that it was the Taliban who repeatedly refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. And to this day, the Taliban retain relations with al-Qaida and a host of other terrorist organizations.
We will remain in Afghanistan as long as it takes to keep it from becoming a terrorist safe haven. We will help the Afghan people Secure their country, and we envision Afghanistan to have friendly, state-to-state relations with all of its neighbors.
We are not in Afghanistan to acquire its natural resources, to impose our own form of government, to prevent the free practice of Islam, or to destabilize the region.
Pakistan has an important role to play in a peace process and in stabilizing Afghanistan. We believe that Pakistan can help change and shape the calculus of the Taliban. We’re engaged with Pakistan on how we can work together, as well as address Pakistan’s legitimate concerns through a negotiated process. Pakistani officials have long expressed concerns ranging from border management to refugees to terrorism that emanate from ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan. These are issues that need to be addressed during the course of a reconciliation process.
We’ve not yet seen decisive or sustained changes in Pakistan’s behavior, and as a result we suspended our military assistance. But we’re not walking away from Pakistan. This relationship is important to us, and we’re continuing our intensive dialogue through both our military and our civilian channels to discuss how we can better work together. Just yesterday the Deputy Secretary Sullivan and I met with Foreign Secretary Janjua.
In conclusion, for those Taliban who seek a peaceful, prosperous and just society, now is the time to step up and chart with the government of Afghanistan a new way forward. The majority of Afghan people refuse to return to the oppression and isolation of Taliban rule.
Today nearly 40 percent of Afghans are under the age of 14. The next generation of Afghan leaders are building trade routes, they’re establishing business networks, they’re studying abroad at top global universities, and they’re connecting with the rest of the world through the internet and social media. Afghans are wealthier, healthier, living longer, and are more educated than at any time in recent decades. The Afghan people want peace, but not at the cost of their own dignity and advancement. The Afghan people want to maintain the constitutional legal system, representative democracy and strong ties to the rest of the world. Ultimately, the United States wants a peaceful Afghanistan that is part of a stable region with strong connections to the international community and the global economy.
So the question I pose to the Taliban is how will you rejoin this Afghanistan, this new Afghanistan? And what positive role are you willing to play to secure its future? Because the best way to determine the answer to these tough questions is at the negotiating table with the Afghan government.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador Wells. Let me also welcome you to USIP and welcome all of you, including those who are joining us on-line, so thank you for coming today.
Our event title as Bill pointed out is Signs of Hope for Afghan Peace Talks. Many of you who have worked in Afghanistan may perceive this as a risky title. Afghanistan has a tendency not to always reward people who express optimism. But I do think this is an important time. I think we’ve had years of setback, often false hopes, but I do think that there’s a risk of being so skeptical that we miss opportunities. So not to be naïve, but not be so skeptical to give up on the prospect for peace. Certainly peace, that’s our mission. Peace is possible.
So just with that context, you outlined it a bit. You just came back from Kabul. President Ghani gave a very forward-leaning speech, a very generous offer on behalf of the Afghan government to the Taliban to come to peace talks.
But also the U.S. and President Trump and the new South Asia, Afghanistan Strategy announced in August, also as you articulated, made very clear that the end objective of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan with the Taliban was a politically negotiated end to the conflict, and that we don’t see it as a military victory.
And also just in the last few weeks, the Taliban have also issued their letter to the American people, and with many caveats included, they also expressed their interest in political negotiations.
So I think with that context, I’ll then move on to the first question which is do you see this as an opportunity for more serious talks? And would you go so far as agreeing with the title of today’s talk, that there is hope for peace in Afghanistan?
Ambassador Wells: I think there’s opportunity for peace in Afghanistan generated by President Ghani’s vision that he laid out. And again, I want to underscore this is the most specific, the most forward-leaning, I think the most thoughtful proposal put forward as to how the Afghanistan government envisions a reconciliation process. And I would stress the word reconciliation. The fact that President Ghani also put on the table the prospect of constitutional amendments through the legal, through the process that is provided for in the constitution suggests a greater accommodation and a willingness to arrive at a dignified settlement with the Taliban.
I think, unfortunately, we see a continued insistence by the Taliban to equate negotiations or exploratory talks with the government with recognition of a government that they see as imposed. And I think that’s a fundamental mistake and something that all of us, all of the countries who engage the Taliban needs to focus on.
The government of Afghanistan does not recognize the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as the Taliban like to call themselves. The Taliban don’t recognize the government of Afghanistan. But at the end of a process is where you achieve that mutual understanding. The Taliban have imposed a precondition that I think has made it impossible so far for them to take up what have been sincere offers from the government of Afghanistan. But I see with this proposal, I think we’re seeing signs that the Taliban is assessing and analyzing the proposal, and we certainly believe now is the time for the Taliban to put forward its vision of a road map to peace.
Moderator: On the strategy, as you’ve noted, the political negotiated settlement is the objective, but that often gets lost in the discourse. The perception is that American policy is military led, and certainly traveling and spending time in the region as you have, as I have, you often hear that skepticism expressed in terms of how serious are we about the peace process. I think it can also be a factor. I think the media likes to report on the military effort as well, to a greater extent, and the peace process. But what do you see as an opportunity to try to counter that impression and convince Afghans, the Taliban, the region, as well as the American public, that we are indeed really committed to a peace process in Afghanistan?
Ambassador Wells: Well the Kabul process is part of that commitment to a negotiated political settlement. It’s easier in a way to document military effort. You know, sorties that are undertaken, expansion of armed forces, you know, increased ability to undertake attacks against the Taliban and limit their ability on the battlefield. Diplomacy tends to be a little bit more subtle and a little bit more quiet, but the Kabul process was a public manifestation of the commitment to a negotiated political settlement.
Moderator: You alluded to it, we’re at a bit of an impasse in talks, which we’ve had actually for a long time because of the Taliban’s insistence that they want to talk to the U.S. and not to the Afghan government. And our insistence that no, they need to talk to the Afghan government.
Do you see, are there ways for creative diplomacy around this? This has really, I think, prevented more formal talks from moving forward.
What are the options for working around this problem? What can the U.S. do to try to address that impasse we have?
Ambassador Wells: I think that what I’ve seen, first off, we’ve seen a great deal of creativity from the side of the government of Afghanistan, and over the last six months in particular, since the first Kabul Process, efforts by the Higher Peace Council to mobilize the Afghan people in support of peace. We’ve had Ulama gatherings, gatherings of women and civil society who I think are sending a very consistent and what should be a positive message to the Taliban that it’s not just one government, that it really is the Afghan people who seek a permanent solution, a political solution to this conflict.
There have been a variety of Track 2, I’m looking in the audience, and a fair number of you have participated in Track 2 events and international conferences that have all tried to lay out and spell out options for the Taliban in terms of thinking about how to be creative and flexible about negotiations. There’s a wealth of history on peace processes and on negotiations that can be drawn from what I would underscore is that neither the United States government nor the government of Afghanistan has established preconditions to these negotiations. We have left this very open for creative solutions and creative approaches. What we have called for is what comes out at the end of the process. The cessation of hostilities, a cease in ties with terrorism and a respect for the Afghan constitution, particularly the rights for Afghan women and minorities. But how the Afghans choose to get there is a question for the Afghans to decide.
Moderator: My next question, you touched on it in your remarks. I just wanted to dig a little deeper. Of course the number one issue the Taliban have kind of raised since day one is the issue of foreign troop presence. Troop presence, and some form of a conditioned drawdown would seem to be a primary source of U.S. leverage over the group.
So I guess my question is, should the U.S. consider putting the issue of foreign troop presence on the table in some fashion alongside some of the other internal Afghan issues?
Ambassador Wells: I think it’s clear that the Resolute Support Mission is in Afghanistan as a result of the war and of the continued presence of multiple terrorist organizations, which is why we have the additional 3500 troops that are dedicated to counterterrorism operations. You know, if the war goes away and the terrorist groups are defeated obviously the question of presence can be taken up and will be taken up.
But what I would underscore is that this is not an occupying force. This is not a force that has been imposed on the Afghan government. This is a presence, an international presence and a United States presence that has come at the invitation of the government and that has been affirmed in the traditional way by the Afghan people.
Moderator: I want to move on to a little bit more on the regional dynamics, the conflict. We often talk about the need to rebuild the regional consensus for peace in Afghanistan. Certainly traveling in the region a couple of years ago or before, the big concern you heard expressed by all of Afghanistan’s neighbors was that the U.S. is actually pulling out too quickly, and the situation’s going to collapse and leave a mess, and there did actually seem to be consensus we want a stable because after Afghanistan it’s the region that’s going to pay the price of a collapsed state more than anyone.
Then, however, now however, there does seem to be more hedging behavior by some of the regional actors in terms of some of their relationships with the Taliban, and you hear the reports of growing Russian support for the Taliban, or Iranian engagement with the Taliban. And of course we have the outstanding issues of Pakistan.
As someone who’s spending a lot of time in the region talking to people about this, I wonder if you can address that issue about the regional consensus, and how do we rebuild that?
Ambassador Wells: As I said before, we have been disturbed by some countries’ justification of the Taliban as a fighting force against ISIS Khorasan. And the only way to defeat ISIS Khorasan is also to defeat the Taliban. To strengthen the government of Afghanistan, to defeat the Taliban and the ecosystem that the Taliban provides to other terrorist organizations, and of course to aggressively go after ISIS Khorasan as we have.
So over the last year you’ve seen more than a thousand combatants removed, leaders removed from the battlefield. Additional assets have been brought in as a result of our success in Syria and Iraq, so we’re more aggressively able to go after the ISIS Khorasan presence which is small but has been persistent. And obviously, it’s a concern to neighboring countries.
But I think we see a tendency to exaggerate the ISIS Khorasan threat as a pretext, almost, to justify hedging behavior. So I think we have to be alert to that, and keep the focus on strengthening the Government of National Unity and its capacity both to continue military operations, but also its capacity to make peace.
Moderator: Following on the regional theme, to more specifically on the Pakistan issue which of course we often hold entire events just on that issue. We had a recent very lively discussion on U.S.-Pakistan relations. But a key issue, and I guess my specific question is, how has our approach affected Pakistan’s view of, or involvement in the Afghanistan peace process? And do you see signs that Islamabad is contributing to the effort including by pressing the Taliban towards peace negotiations?
Ambassador Wells: We haven’t seen the sustained and decisive steps that we would like to see Pakistan take. We have seen some positive measures adopted over the last couple of months, but believe that Pakistan really can play a much more important and critical role in shaping Taliban behavior or incentives for undertaking negotiations.
Pakistan has an important role to play. It has interests that it also wants to ensure are met during the course of the stabilization of Afghanistan which we take seriously. So the dialogue that we have with Pakistan, whether it’s through military channels or through civilian channels, seeks to address these core concerns.
Moderator: Come back to President Ghani’s speech. Many of us were waiting for the Twitter message, the loud condemnation of the Taliban and rejection of the speech, and I think there have been a couple of critical remarks that we’ve heard, but there’s not been a big full frontal attack and a dismissal, it hasn’t been completely dismissed outright by the Taliban, at least as I’ve seen, or as vocally as I think I expected. And I’m wondering, do you see that as a sign of hope? Or how would you interpret the somewhat muted response to President Ghani’s speech?
Ambassador Wells: You’re intent on me saying hope. Hope is not a strategy.
I hope that the Taliban deliberate carefully over their response. I mean obviously this is a significant package. It’s been recognized as a significant package by the international community. At the UN yesterday we saw during the course of the debate over the UNAMA presence, UN Ambassador Yamamoto underscoring now that the onus is on the Taliban to respond. So I think it’s worthwhile for the Taliban to think carefully about how they take up what is this very serious offer.
Moderator: Moving to more domestic politics. We talked about the region and the Afghan Taliban and U.S. policy, but I want to come back, in my perspective I think one of the trickiest things is even if we get the Taliban to the table in the negotiating process, there’s obviously many other Afghan actors and potential spoilers in this process. And how do we start rebuilding, you know, the consensus of the Afghan political leads and the Afghan public for a peace process where tough decisions are about to be made and compromises made.
I guess more specifically, linking it to elections. We’re heading into election season in Afghanistan. I think that could be a time of real critical fragmentation. So how can we ensure or potentially use the elections as a unifying event rather than a fragmenting event, precisely when we need the Afghan government and other political actors I think also involved in bringing, supporting a peace effort in Afghanistan, rather than further fragmenting it.
Ambassador Wells: I think we need to have a strong and unified and inclusive Afghan government to be able to undertake a difficult process of peace. So we continue to encourage President Ghani and his government to take steps to maintain that inclusivity, to continue to advance a reform agenda that addresses what have been some of the underlying grievances that have been raised by the Afghan people of the need for reform, economic growth, of security reform, of support for conciliation. And we certainly support the efforts of the High Peace Council to make this not just a government discussion of peace, but again, a pan-Afghan discussion.
Obviously, there are going to be tremendous concerns raised by a real peace process for Afghans who have come of age, who have become increasingly urbanized, who are increasingly linked to the international community. The prospect of a return of the Taliban to political life in whatever form can be very unsettling. And so those issues have to be addressed. We saw some of that concern even with the return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. What does that represent for modern Afghanistan and modern Afghans?
So this has to be a national dialogue, and Afghans have to chart a course themselves.
And I do, I’m sorry, I do believe elections play a critical role, obviously. There has to be transparent and timely and credible elections. The quality of the elections is really going to speak to the Afghan people about the seriousness of the government’s intent, and so we are working with the UN and with our international partners to support the Independent Election Commission to ensure for instance that voter registration, which is about to kick off, you know, is done in a comprehensive manner. That the polling center base voter registration, which we see as a critical reform in this round of the elections is successful. And that we also work with the government, Minister of Interior to, through Resolute Support Mission, to provide whatever security assets we can to ensure that the process goes smoothly.
Moderator: I’m conscious we have lots of experts in the room as well who are going to have questions, as well as media, so I want to take this opportunity to sort of open it up for some questions from the audience. We’ll start here with [Naster Schaefer]. Wait for the mike. Please identify yourself and try to keep your questions short so we have a lot of time for as many questions as possible. But do identify yourselves because we have people watching on-line.
Audience: Thank you very much, and thank you, Ambassador Wells, for a wonderful presentation.
I wish you all the best in the negotiating phase, but the phase that I worry about more, even more, is what comes afterwards, the implementation phase. There’s not a whole lot of precedent for compromise settlements taking root in Afghanistan.
I wonder if you could address that a bit. There’s so much one could say, but I’ll start with one thought, and that is that the Taliban have been the enemy of orderly and settled governance which arguably is one of the benefits that peace has to offer to ordinary people.
How does one attempt to build in things that will strengthen that and deter some of the spoilers that would want to use a few well-placed bombs to blow it up?
Ambassador Wells: Do you want to do a couple of questions?
Moderator: Yeah, why don’t we take a couple more questions.
Audience: Ambassador, I’m Will [Ebry] from DynCorps International.
What’s the current U.S. policy on the Taliban office/embassy in Qatar?
Audience: [Inaudible] from PTF [inaudible] India. Thank you for doing this.
Several Pakistani leaders here on this platform and others in the city have said that the road to Kabul, the peace road to Kabul goes through Kashmir. Do you agree with the assessment?
Secondly, after yesterday’s development on North Korea, the [power protection] meeting between the President and Kim Jong-un, why do you see that there can be no direct talks between the U.S. and the Taliban?
Ambassador Wells: Thank you.
Obviously, there’s no comparison between North and South Korea and the Afghanistan situation. I would note that North and South Korea have spoken to each other in advance of the President’s offer to also engage in a conversation.
So what we’re looking for in Afghanistan is a fundamental recognition that in an insurgency the insurgents and the government that is ruling need to engage in a conversation with one another as well as with other interested parties to that settlement. So I think we’re being very consistent in this approach.
I think thinking about implementation is almost a luxury, right? We’ve been spending so much time focused on how do we get the Taliban across the starting line in recognition of the need for a negotiation, and how do we use our military actions to help shape the conditions for a successful negotiation.
I thought that President Ghani laid out some important principles in his remarks about implementation that, you know, this would be a part of a national plan that would encompass, you know, social development that would be equitable, that would have a demobilization plan, that would require the support of the international community. There’s no way to walk away from Afghanistan, even in a time of peace, so how can the donor community through targeted support help the government at a time when it’s going to be restructuring and demobilizing some of its own forces, yet having to integrate and deal with Taliban combatants as well.
So it is a very complicated problem set, and I can’t prejudge it. But I can certainly assure you that we understand how difficult it is and how essential it is to the success of the overall effort.
And certainly, it’s only going to be when we see the success of stabilization in Afghanistan that we in the international community can draw the confidence that the level of our presence is not required.
So the Afghan government’s ability to manage a peace, a conclusion to a peace, and to manage its own security and territory in a responsible fashion will all feed into the international assessment of how we need to structure our future relations with the government of Afghanistan.
On the Taliban office, it’s not an office, as you know, but the Taliban presence in Doha. They really need, they’re there, and they’ve been there to be a conduit for peace negotiations, and they have not fulfilled that purpose. So the question that we do have for the Taliban movement is, you know, what is the purpose of the office? Certainly the office allows us to have a mailbox to deliver messages to the Taliban, but our expectations are much higher. That the Taliban need to move forward, need to empower the individuals in Doha, and need to decide how they want to structure and engage a peace process.
Audience: Hi, I’m Phil [Schrafer], I’m a retired international health care consultant. I come here because the coffee’s good. That’s one thing.
Two things I’ve learned here at USIP, and I just want to get the Ambassador to comment on that. One thing I’ve learned is that USIP has reported here on polls done systematically in Afghanistan, and has reported in general a decreasing morale due to unemployment and crime and distrust of the government. That’s one thing.
The other thing is that Ambassador, [inaudible] said the Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, and he reports that there have been a series of meetings between the Russians, Chinese and Pakistanis in Moscow in 2016 and then continuing in 2017 about negotiating with the Taliban. They asked the United States to attend and the United States refused.
Anyway, the Taliban weren’t ready to negotiate with them. But they tried. So what about their role?
Audience: Aman Asud from Voice of America.
Ambassador Wells, what exactly is it that’s holding Pakistan from extending the kind of support that the United States is looking for, given that you’ve had several meetings now?
And secondly, there’s also been a thesis that what’s happening in Afghanistan is also a subset of the ongoing conflict between Delhi and Islamabad. Is there a policy, is there a recognition of that within the ranks of the [USC] and is there a policy response to that? Thanks.
Audience: Good morning. I’m a [inaudible] Fulbright Fellow with [Southern Michigan] University from Afghanistan, of course.
The question is, how this peace package of President Ghani is attractive to Taliban, how attractive it is to Taliban, despite the fact that we have so many other deals that were proposed by the previous government.
And then looking at the demands by the Taliban [towards] the Department of Justice and the Attorney General in Afghanistan who is like the legal Islamic basis for them to put their judgment in decisions based on them, how attractive is that? If they again demand those positions, there will not be a change in the democratic balance that we have had, we have been having since last 16 years almost, I would say since 2001. If they want the Minister of Justice or the Attorney General, they will again start these extremist views that they had in the past during their own rule in Afghanistan.
Moderator: So specifically your question is how do the Taliban view the President’s --
Audience: Yeah, but what if they come with the same demands that they had before under Karzai?
Ambassador Wells: What struck me about polls of Afghan society is the decreasing support for the Taliban that we’ve seen since the polling began. With only five percent of Afghans expressing, you know, sympathy or support for the Taliban, and I think if you include empathy in there you get up to 15 or 18 percent. I’m forgetting the exact numbers. Andrew, you may remember them.
Again, it reflects, the Taliban may be a part of the social fabric of Afghanistan as has been said. They’re very much a minority part of the social fabric of Afghanistan, and we need to keep that in mind. You know, as these negotiations go on, that this is not the dominance force in Afghanistan. They don’t speak for the majority of Afghans’ aspirations. And so while I think President Ghani said there will need to be compromise on both sides, there will also need to be, I think, respect for what the Afghans have achieved over the last 17 years in social development, political advancement, rights of its citizens. And President Ghani very much underscored the need to protect the rights of all citizens, to not lose that aspect of Afghanistan’s accomplishments, and we’re certainly very supportive of this.
When it comes to the Moscow Process, which I think is what you were referring to, the Russia-driven architecture for advancing peace, what struck us is that we are very supportive of all structures that are Afghan owned and Afghan led. And they can be either multiple structures -- the International Contact Group, Kabul Process, Quads, the Shanghai Organization, you know, and endless trilats and bilats that are all trying to reinforce messages of peace. But our criteria is that they be Afghan owned and led. And the Moscow process has not been. So for that reason, we have not participated in the Moscow Process.
We look forward to participating in the Tashkent Conference which is coming under the aegis of the Kabul Process where again, we will have I think 21 countries gathering in Tashkent on March 25th to I think really reaffirm what came out of Kabul and to provide a regional dimension of support for the vision laid out by President Ghani.
On India’s role. India, we’ve seen over the last several years play a responsible role in the economic development of Afghanistan and the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and that role has been appreciated by the government of Afghanistan. When I was in Kabul for the Kabul process, we had a trilateral meeting of the U.S., India and Afghanistan to review how we can better work together on these important development trade and investment priorities. But that does not imply that we would support or think that there’s any manipulation of Afghanistan so that it can be used against Pakistan. We firmly support Pakistan’s territorial integrity. We do not support the Baloch insurgents or the use of, or the threat of irredentism against Pakistan. And certainly our message is that any group threatening any country in the region has to be opposed. And most recently I think you’ve seen the rewards for justice for the three Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan leaders that was just put out yesterday.
So we oppose groups that are targeting Pakistan, we oppose, of course, groups that are targeting Afghanistan.
In terms of what it means for, again, the Taliban to come back, come into power or to play a role in the political process, I can’t prejudge, I think that’s the negotiation, how is this going to, how is this process going to move forward. And certainly I think today is a very different Afghanistan than 2002. This is an Afghanistan that is living 20 years, Afghans are living 20 years longer, they’re connected to the international community, cell phones are ubiquitous, the economy has grown in ways that were unimaginable in 2002. So the Taliban are going to have to demonstrate their own ability to absorb and accept this new and modern Afghanistan. And that has to be part of the compromise, I believe, of a negotiation process.
Audience: Hi, I’m [Krishmadev Kadamore] with The Atlantic.
The question that I have is, you said earlier that there were signs they are assessing and analyzing the proposal. Could you talk a little bit about what those signs may be? And secondly, could you also say when we’re talking about the Taliban, are we talking about a monolithic institution? Or are there fragments, some of whom may be more open toward dialogue than others? Thank you.
Audience: Good morning, everybody. This is a George Mason University grad, Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
My question for the Ambassador is [inaudible] the Taliban just sent a letter to the White House and invited President Trump to face to face talk, peace talks. So would you think that actually the pox on just put the Taliban first in order to gain some more benefit from the United States because the United States just suspending its aid to Pakistan, and now they are suffering receiving aid from the United States. It’s kind of challenging, it’s kind of trick that actually playing a double game in order to [share] a global community that were supporting the United States peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan can remain, but on the other side, they’re just challenging the all peace peace talks internally. And if it is true in your belief, the Kabul Process, would it make sense anymore or not?
Audience: Hello, [Joe Forsina] from Counterpart International.
I have actually two questions, unrelated to each other. Very brief.
Is the end game to have the Taliban part of the political process as a political party as we’ve seen with the FARQ in Colombia, for example?
And the second question is, having some lack of faith in electoral processes generally, how do we get civil society really on board with this peace process so that it’s a bottom-up approach to this peace process in general?
Ambassador Wells: I think what is the disposition of the Taliban, and we have not seem them reject the proposal, which I agree with [Anjir] is in itself a positive sign, and I would underscore our hope and expectation that the Taliban leadership will analyze the proposal seriously and carefully, given the support it has engendered in the international community and the praise that President Ghani has earned for being so forward-leaning and creative in putting this forward.
You asked whether the Taliban is a monolithic institution. They sort of have to prove that, don’t they? If they can come to a peace process representing their entire organization, that’s the best demonstration of how monolithic they are.
We of course welcome, commanders see the reality of the battlefield and grow disenchanted with the ideology that is being put forward by the Taliban. I think encouraging them to leave and to make their own peace earlier is always an option and has not been ruled out by this reconciliation offer.
So if the Taliban are a monolithic organization, I would encourage them to, as one, accept the offer that has been put on the table to engage.
On the Taliban’s invitation to President Trump, again, I would just repeat what I’ve said before. The United States can be supportive of, we can facilitate, we can encourage, we can work with our international partners to reinforce, we can do many things for this peace process and in this peace process and with this peace process, but we cannot be the Afghan people. And there has to be a resolution that takes place. This has to be a conversation between the government, between the Taliban, but also with Afghan society. So the question of Afghan civil society, it’s very important that there be a transparency in negotiations that take place. That all facets of what is a very diverse society understand and feel comfortable with the peace process. Women who have been one of the biggest and greatest beneficiaries of the last 17 years also have confidence that their rights are not going to, their advancement is not going to be taken away. We’ve seen some of that already start with the actions of the High Peace Council. And I would imagine that in the event you do ultimately get to a serious peace process, there is going to be a need, I think, for the Taliban to demonstrate what they said has happened. The Taliban say they have evolved as an organization, demonstrate it. You know, demonstrate that you have different views on girls and women. Let schools operate in the areas where you are controlling the population. Start new schools in areas where you have a presence. Show by your actions that you are part of this new Afghanistan.
So I think there’s going to be many opportunities for exchanges to take place, and there will need to be many opportunities for Afghan people to have confidence in a peace process as it moves forward.
And in terms of the Taliban becoming a political party, and I don’t want to prejudge what a negotiation might look like, but President Ghani specifically raised the possibility of the Taliban becoming a political party, participating in elections. So again, we, as President Trump said when he announced his South Asia Strategy in August, we’re not going to stand in the way of what Afghans can negotiate among themselves. We’ll be very supportive of that process.
Moderator: We have time for one last round, and I already have three on my list. [Hamid Aba] here.
Audience: Thank you, Ambassador Wells.
In terms of building a regional consensus for peace, do you see the U.S. working with China and other regional powers to help influence Pakistan’s change of behavior that we are all hoping to achieve. So it separates Afghanistan from its strategic calculations vis-à-vis India.
Audience: David [Sedni] formerly the President of the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. I want to thank you for putting this on, Andrew, and say that I definitely agree with the title of your presentation today. I think the chances for peace are better today than at any time in the 17-plus years that I’ve been working on this because of the reasons Alice laid out, and also because of the strong U.S. commitment by President Trump and the administration to continue support of the Afghan people.
However, my specific question goes back to Pakistan. Over the years there have been a lot of Pakistani so-called moves that have just been words, gestures. But the key facts on the ground are the number of fighters that are going across the border, the amount of arms and weapons and explosives that are passing across the border, the ability of the Taliban to meet and plan their spring offensive in Pakistan. Have you seen any change in those concrete indicators? Thank you.
Moderator: Last but not least, Chris [Minda].
Audience: Thank you, Ambassador, for the new administration strategy for getting rid of the time lines that have been so damaging, for the new policy towards Pakistan, and other great decisions that the administration has made. I don’t think the Trump administration gets enough credit for some of those actions.
I would like to ask a question about two things that you said during the dialogue. The first one was, I thought I heard you say that in order to defeat Islamic State Khorasan, we need to defeat the Taliban. And then at the same time, we want to bring them into a negotiating process.
And the second one was, you mentioned that once there’s apolitical settlement in Afghanistan, we would then calibrate our presence in Afghanistan based on their ability to ensure security. Would it be the United States position if the Afghan government post political settlement said we don’t want any more foreign troops in Afghanistan, would it be the U.S.’ position to stay in Afghanistan even if we were no longer considered guests by the government? Thank you.
Moderator: If I can tag on one final question, using the moderator’s prerogative, a forward-looking comment. I mean we have Tashkent Conference coming up. If you could maybe speak a little bit about what are the main objectives out of Tashkent. And then what next in terms of a peace process.
Ambassador Wells: Thank you for calling me out on a misuse of a phrase. I shouldn’t have used the word defeat when it comes to Taliban. But we need to not reduce any of the pressure on the Taliban to come, military pressure on the Taliban, as we seek to get them to come through what has been an open door for political negotiations.
So saying an enemy of an enemy is a friend, and hedging by employing the Taliban and legitimizing the Taliban as a military force, postpones I think the day when we can actually get to a negotiating table and achieve reconciliation in Afghanistan. And until we achieve reconciliation, you’re going to have a petri dish of terrorist groups operating who all derive some succor from Taliban and the criminal networks and the drug networks and the other networks that exist to support and underwrite this new terrorist enterprise.
So we have to be clear eyed about our priorities. And I want to again, underscore that the United States and the Resolute Support Mission take very seriously the presence of any ISIS Khorasan in Afghanistan. They’re very much in the cross-hairs at present. You’re seeing intensified battle operations against them, and I think you’re going to continue to see their presence shrunk as we’ve succeeded in doing in Nangarhar, for instance, where they used to operate in about nine districts and are now down to three to five. Many of these areas are quite remote.
Again, we can’t dilute our focus by trying to prioritize ISIS over what has to be our objective of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.
I think that the role of China is potentially quite important. We have overlapping interests with China in Afghanistan. We both want to see a stable and secure Afghanistan that does not tolerate and is able to prevent the presence of terrorists. We have quite good diplomatic engagement with the Chinese in the past. We have undertaken quadrilateral meetings with them. That mechanism remains possible for use in the future. And our consultations are quite close. You saw when the Presidents met, the statement that was issued also includes Afghanistan as an area where we seek to work together. So China is very much an important part of the geopolitical puzzle.
On Pakistan, David, we haven’t seen the sustained and decisive steps that are necessary, so that conversation with the Pakistanis continues. We’ve calibrated I think our relationship with Pakistan in a very different way than other administrations. We’ve gone much further in underscoring the importance and the centrality of this issue to our ability to expand relations with Pakistan. You see an intensive dialogue by General Votel with his counterparts, by the Secretary and Secretary Mattis, and that will continue. But the actions that we’d like to see have not yet transpired and I don’t, we would certainly like to see steps taken that make it harder for the Taliban to plan for a spring offensive, to disrupt their ability to meet and to lay out this operational plan for the next year.
I think that the United States is in Afghanistan at the invitation of the Afghan government, and it was quite significant that the Afghan government took this decision to the people, to a Loya Jirga. The United States is not there as an occupier, is not there against the will of the Afghan people.
I came to, I visited Afghanistan immediately after the South Asia Strategy and the sense of relief among the Afghans with whom I spoke that America had recommitted to Afghanistan and was prepared to partner with Afghanistan as they go through what will have to be an extended process of both strengthening their own institutions, you know, conducting a military effort as well as embracing a reconciliation strategy. So my sense is that we have strong support from the Afghans. So as we calibrate to our presence in Afghanistan, it’s very much in conjunction with and at the invitation of the Afghan people.
Looking ahead, we have an important opportunity in Tashkent to further underscore to the Taliban the sense of unity that I feel, a real strong sense of unity among not just the regional partners, but the international partners, the Gulf, that President Ghani has stepped up in a way that the international community has requested; had asked to have more insight into his thinking on the way forward. So Tashkent will be an opportunity to reaffirm support for the Ghani Initiative, to reaffirm support for the Afghan people, to underscore the role of the region in stitching Afghanistan back into Central Asia and through trade routes, energy connections.
I was quite struck when President Ghani visited Tashkent and said Afghanistan is a Central Asian state, because certainly we would like to see Afghanistan develop and strengthen its ties as it seeks to establish an economy that will ultimately be able to reduce the role of the donor community in supporting the budget.
So there is, I think that the Afghan people and the international community have sort of thrown down the gauntlet, and now again, the responsibility is on the Taliban. How do they want to, what Afghanistan do they want to see? And do they want 17 more years of war? Or do they want to find a way to really ease what has been the enormous suffering of the Afghan people.
We can’t lose sight of, despite the best of intentions on our part, war always causes suffering. The Taliban have been indifferent to the Afghan people. We see that in their targeting of civilians, their use of civilians as shields to their effort. There is an enormous cost that Afghanistan has borne.
And it’s time for this conflict to end. There’s a way to end this conflict. There’s a will to end this conflict. There’s international support to end this conflict. It’s the Taliban who are the stumbling block to peace.
Moderator: Thank you very much. I think one take-away from today is I think the title of the event could be signs of opportunity for a peace process rather than hope. [Laughter].
Ambassador Wells: Thank you.
Moderator: But just to come back to the point I made in the beginning which is I think all of us working on the peace process, these are very difficult issues. They more often end in failure rather than success. But there is the danger of being so skeptical, and as skeptical as I am about prospects for peace, I am more skeptical about prospects that any party can win this war on the battlefield. So I think we have really no alternative but to really work this. This does seem that there are these opportunities to take advantage of and move forward.
I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank you for taking time to come, because I think it’s very important just for the people in this room that the world out there, and particularly in the region, to hear senior government officials talking about the work we’re doing on the peace process, because too often they hear about what we’re doing on the battlefield. And I think today’s even, I hope the media who are here today are going to talk a little bit about prospects for peace in Afghanistan, and not just the ongoing war and conflict.
So again, please join me in thanking Ambassador Wells for taking the time to join us.
Ambassador Wells: Thank you for organizing it.