On Engaging the Taliban: In Conversation with Robert Kluijver (Part 1/2)

Ghazni, Afghanistan (December 2005) by Robert Kluijver

Please note that the interview will be followed by a fundraiser for the cause of mobilizing a national dialogue in Afghanistan, in which the readers of Le Dragon Déchaîné are encouraged to participate. More information to be released shortly.


Interviewer’s Introduction:

On the afternoon of August 14, an initial round of news about the resignation of Ashraf Ghani as President of Afghanistan had come to my attention. Following the fall of some northwestern provinces, Taliban militants by then had strategically begun to surround the peripheries of the capital city; and regardless of the quality of a substandard figurehead, the idea of the Presidential Palace in Kabul being left empty at such a crucial moment in time struck mayhem amongst people. This, history now confirms why. My initial response to that piece of information was a momentary urge to reach out to Professor Kluijver and ask whether this too he could provide a rationale for; I was angry, but more with the order of events than him. The last time I saw Professor was after a session where Nader Nadery, former Advisor to Ashraf Ghani, had been invited to speak, when we took a walk together to La Plage. His views contained a degree of nuance unlike anyone else connected with Afghanistan that I have come across thus far, of which my readers will get a glance in the interview that follows. I don’t necessarily agree with certain things he says, quite often our stances are at polar ends from each other, but I have come to understand this respectable gentleman better with time. My relationship with Professor Kluijver evolved with the sequence of events that unfolded in Afghanistan over the course of the month of September, much to his unawareness. But it also had its merits. I could not possibly ask anyone for a complete comprehension of the following conversation, even in my case I needed time and regular revision of the dialogue to read the situation from the given perspective; but what I would request from my readers is to have an open mind – for them to acknowledge that regardless of personal struggles, we’re still reading this from a position of privilege. That our understanding of pain and injustice in the context of Afghanistan may not be comparable to the sense of injustice and pain that 43 long years of war have inflicted upon the people there. And to return the authority of putting down into words their losses, their resistances, their stories to Afghan people themselves. 

Most people would have a passionate opinion on the subjects being discussed below, but a lot of it is presented in a different light with insights deterring from mainstream ways of thinking. Hence, it would be in the interest of both Robert Kluijver and I that one pays close attention and takes a moment for introspection rather than reacting at first glance.
The conversational tone of the interview has been kept to preserve the emotions that it ignited.


The conversation:

Samaya Anjum: Professor, you’ve worked in Afghanistan for more than seven years now and you’re still in close contact with the country and its people. I don’t want to give in to the idea that academics or political scientists do not have emotional reactions to events happening in their work fields, from the need to engage or assess scientifically. Having said that, can we start by talking about how you felt witnessing the post-US withdrawal events in Afghanistan unfold?

Robert Kluijver: I felt surprised, Samaya. I understood that the Taliban had a clear military strategy which worked, but I was really surprised that the Afghan State fell so quickly. There had been an enormous sense of loss, because along with a lot of other Afghans around me, who I think are really excellent people, I too have contributed many years of my life on building not only this state, but this society. In bringing more chances to the society, and helping the economy and it seems that a lot of that was erased. 

SA:  Do you think your views have changed regarding how to handle the current situation  with the Taliban taking hold of Kabul, since the publication of your policy paper on “Engaging the Taliban” on September 1?

RK:  Yes, I think so. That article assumes a readiness on the side of the Taliban to actually be engaged in a way by the European Union or the international community. But now it seems less likely. The Taliban have made it quite clear since then that there are certain chapters that they will not accept having discussions on, for example the civil society. They’ve accepted the distribution of humanitarian aid by NGOs but no civil society organizations can return to work. The other thing is the government that they have announced; first of all it’s only Pashtuns, and then it’s only mollahs and religious people without much worldly experience. And the people know as well that they’re really linked to the ISI in Pakistan. So they say, “We’ve had the English trying to control us, next the Russians and the Soviet Union trying to control us. We’ve had the Americans trying to control us, and now, Pakistan is trying to control us.”
My Afghan friends who live in Kabul tell me how suddenly now they hear Urdu spoken everywhere on the streets, as though the city is full of Pakistanis. Hence there is a sense of being occupied again by another country and their proxies. A sense of the onset of another war. 

SA: One of my initial take-aways from your paper “Reflections on the Crumbling State of Afghanistan” was that you considered Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan was inadequate and could not compare to Western forces that are militarily and technologically stronger. But history tells us that successes of historical armies such as the Mongols and the Huns was precisely due to their mobility, not technological superiority. Western troops and the ANDSF relied on the failed strategy of a static army in every piece of territory against the mobile Taliban forces. While writing this paper, how much had you taken into consideration the geographical proximity of Pakistan to Afghanistan and the scope it allowed for supporting the Taliban?

RK: Well honestly my views have changed a little, although I still stick to the idea that Pakistan is not alone in this. But it is speculative. It’s a different ball game, people blaming Pakistan for the Taliban takeover, which I do not. The Taliban have their own dynamic, and when I remember the Taliban as I remember them, many of them are Afghan nationalists, and privately don’t like Pakistan at all, and would hate the idea that they are somehow stooges of Pakistan. Maybe that has changed, and the proximity is obviously really important, but I think that it works together with a kind of Pakistani deep state strategic interest in Afghanistan. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also share borders with Afghanistan but they don’t have the same kind of population groups that are on both sides of the border. There isn’t a same kind of influence. 

SA: You mention that Pakistan should be kept involved in all talks having to do with the Taliban takeover, but as you just said, the country has its own motives and even state officials have been relatively silent on what is unfolding in their neighboring country. On Twitter, there was a huge uproar with the #SanctionPakistan with the aim of pressurizing the country into withdrawing their involvement with the Taliban. Do you think this is a good strategy, and how much do you think that involving Pakistan in policy conversations will result in something fruitful? I personally don’t think we could meaningfully engage Pakistan at all, given their silence. 

RK: No, I mean, I agree with you, Samaya. I don’t think it is at all hopeful. It’s very duplicitous anyway. You have one part of the Pakistani Establishment participating in these talks, and another part keeping its influence where it wants to keep its influence. And as you say, with the long border and the population on both sides, it’s impossible to control even that. It’s impossible to even see what’s going on. So it would be kind of deceptive, I think. Also, like, you see in the US there have been big rifts for the past 20 years between the Pentagon and the State Department – you know, you can engage the State Department but the Pentagon is just doing something completely different? 

And I don’t like sanctions at all, because usually they just hit normal people, and I know you can have very tactical sanctions that target only specific people but I doubt whether they actually even affect those people. But again, I also don’t think that putting too much attention on Pakistan is right either. Because in the sense, yes, the Taliban are autonomous but with the government they have announced, and I’m again referring to Afghan friends because I’m not familiar with the names of all the Taliban leaders, they show that there really are strong connections to Pakistan. Recently, I’ve also heard that some Taliban groups have already announced that they are against this caretaker government because of its relation to Pakistan. That they don’t want to be part of it – they wanted to liberate the country, not impute it again to a regional power. 

SA: Currently in Afghanistan, what I’ve noticed is sort of a ridiculous situation going on where Ashraf Ghani flees the country right before Kabul falls under the Taliban, the day after he makes an announcement that he will not abandon the people. In the meantime, Amrullah Saleh – whose Twitter activity is generally really reflective of what he’s doing – had been silent for a long time, and when he returned, he declared himself the Acting President of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Karzai, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdullah Abdullah formed a coalition that would engage in talks with the Taliban. And a week later, Ghani once again releases a press statement saying that he hasn’t abandoned the Afghan population and will return very soon. So, even during this moment in time with everything that has been going on, there is absolutely no alliance between the political figures. What do you think of this?

RK: Basically, it’s hopeless. We still give them attention but really, we shouldn’t. Ghani and Saleh presided over one of the most corrupt governments, and Amrullah Saleh was always sort of whispering into Ghani’s ears. He’s like the snake from the Robinhood movie of Walt Disney where the snake is always whispering into the ears of the King. 

The reason that the Panjshiri resistance collapsed almost immediately is because it was led by Saleh and the son of Massoud. Nobody will fight for them – the Panjshiris are extremely independent but if the goals are driven by these leaders, they would really not fight for them. Karzai – sorry, it’s a bit ridiculous – always portrays himself as different figures, willing to speak to the Taliban and everything, but we haven’t really heard anything about the council with Abdullah Abdullah and Hekmatyar anymore. There has been no news of that anywhere. They’re currently under house arrest for so-called security reasons, and can leave only with the permission of the Taliban, so you’ll just see them on Twitter. This whole political class, it’s done for; they can’t even get together to form an opposition. They will try to, obviously, they will try to get funding to be seen as opposing the Taliban, but anybody who’s funding them would be seriously delusional. The whole government collapsed so fast, nobody was willing to fight for it. I was surprised to see all the provinces in the North-East which had resisted the previous Taliban takeover, because between 1996 and 2001 there were still about 15% of the country that they never controlled. But even these regions fell so fast to the Taliban, I was extremely shocked. My friends then told me that because people were so sick and tired, there was zero local resistance. 

SA: I believe Karzai was the person who denied the Taliban amnesty right after the US thew them out of power in 2001, but why do you say the same about Massoud’s son? 

RK: Well, first of all, Karzai had actually announced amnesty for the Taliban but then Rumsfeld called – and it is all documented – and told him to publicly announce his mistake and inform that the Taliban will be given no amnesty. But instead of standing his ground, Karzai actually went through with what Rumsfeld had said. The Taliban knew that he was willing to offer them amnesty, because of a long history he has with the Taliban. He was on a team with Khalilzad in 1994, who was then working for the US oil company Unocal, when at the very beginning of the Taliban movement they pushed the Taliban together with Pakistan to take over, and armed them. So in that sense, there has been a long relationship between the two but the Taliban still does not trust Karzai – they see him as a weak figure. 

But about Massoud’s son – Massoud is one thing, yeah? – but his son got involved in politics from the very beginning, pushing alongside these Northern Alliance leaders who all became part of a very corrupt establishment. So, although he himself may not have been an enriching person, he was associated with the wrong kind of clique that Amrullah Saleh also belongs to. And Abdullah Abdullah – he’s not a very effective politician – but for his credit, he managed to always keep a bit of clear distance with that kind of clique, at least he wasn’t too tainted by this kind of perception of corruption. Although he got his fair share of land, houses, palaces and everything else, he didn’t seem as greedy as the others. 

SA: Right now, people like Barak Pashtana and Muskan Dastageer believe that the West should stop treating Afghanistan like a starving state – to quote them, “like another Yemen” – after they themselves have contributed to this deprivation of the Afghan people. The believe that instead of relying too much on humanitarian aid, the frozen 9.5 billion dollars of Afghan funds should be released. Because, let’s say the United Nations announces a 1.5 million dollar of humanitarian aid – 40% of it is going to go to their own workers, 60% will be distributed through NGO channels in which a lot of administrative red tape may be involved – at the end of the day, they’ll just hand packets of minimal food to the Afghan population and feel good about themselves for taking an action to combat a crisis. Do you think releasing the frozen Afghan funds should be released, or do you continue to stick with your idea of continuing the stream of humanitarian aid by unlisting the Taliban from the US list of terrorist organizations, so they can locally engage in distributing this money to reach the Afghan people more efficiently?

RK: Listen, you followed my courses, you know I’m super critical about this whole development aid industry, these workers in the UN agencies and all these international NGOs making a nice living off the misery of other people. I think it’s really disgusting. And so I’m completely for breaking up and inventing a new system of helping people. I am actually also busy with that now, setting up foundations which are structured in different ways, which will basically tell donors, “this is how we work, and we won’t work your way – we don’t care whether you have earmarked money for specific causes, we don’t earmark. We let local people we’re working with spread the money very close to the ground.” 

I’m very much interested in using blockchain to cut out all intermediaries between the donor, which can just be a private donor. It doesn’t have to be a government because we’re not talking about much smaller quantities of aid. Like with this new foundation I’m starting to set up, I had made a budget of €75,000 for the first phase, and people are already saying that it’s ridiculous because they have a budget of 600 billion to spend, they won’t agree to funding such a small amount. I’m really against this whole behavior. 

I don’t trust the UN when they talk about people starving and that they have to help them. Because I’ve seen in Somalia that there was a completely fake crisis created, and you could see it because in all the areas where the UN had no presence, and where the drought hit just as hard, there were no casualties. The UN afterwards talked about their successes, but the 40% of the country where they had no presence experienced no casualties either. However, Samaya, I just got confirmation from a colleague and people involved in agriculture in Afghanistan that the situation is really catastrophic. There has been no snowfall or rainfall, which means that both the rain-fed agriculture and the irrigation-fed agriculture which thrived on melting snow have really poor results. So we’re facing a situation where the people really have almost no food reserves, thanks to the way that we had set up the Afghan economy. 

They were importing a lot of food, but the cash reserves have dwindled, so just being purely pragmatic now, I think we have to continue with that aid system for the time being. I’m not one to easily say that but honestly I think that now there is a pretty big chance of mass starvation. People are always a bit more pessimistic but it really does seem bad. 

Given the agricultural and economic situation, and how the people in foreign agencies don’t want to engage with the Taliban, it’s a difficult working relationship. I’m worried, and I think we should go on with this corrupt and inefficient system, but I also completely agree when you say that we should stop treating any country like that. We should realize that we’re really feeding a massive industry of which almost all of the wealth and benefits stay in our own countries, and so it really needs a deep rethink. If this system is not going to function, especially this winter, and we do face starvation and mass displacements, then I really hope at least we’ll seriously rethink how it works, because it is possible to spread money close to the group. It is possible to work at a community level with all those organizations that are already there.

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