Defense and Diplomacy Forum Explores Escalating Afghanistan Peace Negotiations

Promoting Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law panel discussion. L to R: Dr. Katherine Brown, Global Ties. U.S.; Hamid Khan, University of Michigan; Belquis Ahmadi, USIP; Dr. Rani Mullen, College of William and Mary. Photo by: Kristopher Tripplaar

As U.S. foreign policy seemingly shifts towards renewed great power competition, America’s war in Afghanistan – the longest in its history – continues on. However, a peace settlement could be closer than expected, as President Donald Trump made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Thanksgiving and announced that he has restarted peace talks with the Taliban during a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Now, the Taliban has agreed to restart peace negotiations in Doha with the United States. With breaking news on the peace process emerging daily, the Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement organized a Forum on Defense and Diplomacy in Afghanistan, in partnership with the University of Michigan Weiser Diplomacy Center and University of Virginia National Security Policy Center. Held on Meridian’s campus, the Forum brought together key experts on Afghanistan to discuss security, diplomacy, and democracy issues surrounding the country today.

Next steps in the U.S. combat mission was the focus for the first panel, which included Dr. Stephen Biddle, Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, Col. Chris Costa, Executive Director at the International Spy Museum, Linda Robinson, Senior Researcher at the RAND Corporation, and Javed Ali, Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan. Robinson highlighted the increased military activity mentioning that the amount of U.S. bombs dropped in September of 2019 was the most since October of 2010. Nonetheless, despite this escalation, there was consensus that the U.S. is preparing to pull out of the region. Furthermore, if the U.S. does pull its forces out of the country, they will be quickly followed by their NATO allies. The panel discussed what this decision would mean for the region with opinions ranging from the emergence of a terrorist safe haven to a rapid and complete collapse of the Afghan government. To combat these scenarios, the panel agreed that a peace deal must be made prior to any troop withdrawal, and that the peace deal would likely have to include an official role for the Taliban within the government.

General John Nicholson, former Commander of American and NATO Forces in Afghanistan, continued the discussion on the future of the war in Afghanistan during his keynote address, which was covered live on C-Span. The four-star general, who was described by the University of Virginia’s Dr. Phillip Potter as a “warrior diplomat”, offered a unique perspective on the region having led a coalition of 41 nations in Afghanistan. He emphasized the need for “aid without dependency” with the caveat that due to financial aid there will always be some level of dependency. In addition, Nicholson stressed the importance of a peace agreement, and made it clear that in exchange for a troop withdrawal the U.S. needed something verifiable, such as a cease fire, in return. Nicholson also noted that the Afghan people, who have suffered through more than four decades of conflict, have been valuable allies to the U.S. and have interests largely aligned with our own. Nicholson also commented on the terrorist threat emanating from the region. One of the most striking remarks being that, “if we were just to leave precipitously that we could expect another terrorist attack emanating from the region within years or even months.”

Newly-arrived Minister Plenipotentiary and Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Afghanistan Abdul Hadi Nejrabi shared the Afghan government’s official position through podium remarks. Nejrabi noted that the Afghan government is committed to pursuing peace negotiations, but emphasized that this process must be “Afghan-made,” implying that the United States should not conclude a separate settlement with the Taliban. Nejrabi pointed to President Ghani’s 7-Point Peace and Reconciliation Plan as a good source for his government’s position on the peace talks.

Nejrabi also contributed to the panel focused on diplomacy. He was joined by moderator Dr. John Ciorciari of the Weiser Diplomacy Center, the Crisis Group’s Laurel Miller, and longtime U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson. The group discussed the prospects of achieving regional buy in for any eventual settlement, and Patterson pointed out that multilateral funding of a financial package for Afghanistan should be a priority. Furthermore, she argued that work needs to be started on the package immediately so that it is ready to go if peace is achieved. Much attention was given to enforcement mechanisms for any agreed deal with Miller cautioning that no external actors would be able to enforce a deal without all powers agreeing on the peace settlement.

The security and diplomacy conversations segued to a dialogue on the rule of law and democracy development that focused primarily on women and youth. Moderated by Dr. Katherine Brown, President of Global Ties U.S., the panel featured Belquis Ahmadi, a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Hamid Khan, recently the Deputy Director of the Rule of Law Collaborative at the University of South Carolina, and Dr. Rani Mullen, an associate professor of government at the College of William and Mary. Brown highlighted positive public opinion data from Afghanistan, particularly noting that 66% of Afghans said they would not sacrifice women’s rights and women’s education in any peace deal. The conversation quickly shifted to the Afghan level system, and Hamid Khan pointed out that a key question – which is so far unanswered – is how the Taliban could deal with integration into the current Afghan legal system. Khan continued, noting that since the Taliban sees themselves as representatives of ideologically pure law, this could be a particularly intractable stumbling block in any post-peace reconstruction process. Ahmadi was also skeptical that the Taliban would honor any commitments they may make to respecting women’s rights post-settlement. She pointed to a 1994 declaration by the Taliban stating that they would respect women’s rights but noted that once they came to power in 1996, that clearly all changed.

Meridian was pleased to partner with the Weiser Diplomacy Center and National Security Policy Center on the timely forum, which took place right before The Washington Post released “The Afghanistan Papers.” The Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement is an education and networking hub for the foreign diplomatic corps to deepen their understanding of key political, social and economic issues within the United States. Established in January 2019, the Weiser Diplomacy Center is housed within the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. It aims to serve as a leading hub for practical student training in foreign affairs and as a bridge for engagement with the foreign policy community. Part of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, the National Security Policy Center provides evidence-based teaching, research, and policy engagement on pressing security issues facing the United States and the globe.

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Weiser Diplomacy Center
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Project summary

Defense and Diplomacy Forum Explores Escalating Afghanistan Peace Negotiations | December 2019
Number of Attendees: 80
Regions: Africa, Europe and Eurasia, South and Central Asia, Western Hemisphere
Countries: Afghanistan, Brazil, Denmark, Italy, Mali, Somalia, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, Uzbekistan
Impact Areas: Foreign Policy, Public Diplomacy, Security and Defense
Program Areas: Convening
Partners: Public Sector