Author and academic Barnett Rubin acknowledges that Afghanistan is marred by ethnic conflicts, corruption, and poverty.
But the former senior adviser to President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (Richard Holbrooke) says there are still signs of significant progress since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001.
“I knew the country to some extent before 2001, and there’s really no comparison,” Rubin says by phone from New York University, where he’s director and senior fellow of the Center on International Cooperation.
Rubin, also a member of the executive board of Human Rights Watch/Asia, spoke to the Georgia Straight in advance of an upcoming lecture at SFU Woodward’s entitled “What Will Happen to Afghanistan after the NATO forces leave?”
He says there are far more schools, better health care, and a lively media in the central Asian country, along with a badly functioning parliament and corrupt government and police officials. According to Rubin, there weren’t functioning institutions in the Taliban era, though Afghanistan still remains the poorest country in Asia.
“A new generation has started to be educated and that’s started to make a difference because people who are 15 to 25…now have had the chance to get professional educations and they’re starting to move into positions of responsibility,” he emphasizes. “So they’re no longer so dependent on foreign experts or on refugees who are returning back for short stints.”
In September, the two presidential candidates reached a power-sharing agreement after an election marred by widespread fraud. Rubin says the negotiations between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani would not have succeeded without a willingness to overcome ethnic differences.
Western media outlets often highlight the rivalry between the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara, and Uzbeks, who form the four largest ethnic blocs. However, Rubin says that this is sometimes overstated.
“It’s difficult, but I don’t think it’s intractable or driven by high levels of interethnic hatred,” he insists.
Canada lost 162 soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan. When asked what Canadians should conclude from their country’s experience in that country, Rubin pauses for a moment before answering.
“I think the war was sold to people really sincerely, in large measure, with unrealistic promises and expectations of how much we could accomplish how fast and how much it would cost,” Rubin says. “I can’t tell Canadians what it was worth to them, but it did accomplish quite a bit in the region.”
Neighbouring countries have taken an active role in either supporting or opposing the Taliban insurgency. Rubin points out that Iran, often an enemy of the United States, has largely played a positive role from the Americans’ point of view.
“Generally, Afghanistan is one area where U.S. and Iranian interests are closely aligned,” he says.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has been a base for the insurgency against the Afghan government. Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group responsible for horrific attacks on luxury hotels and other targets in Mumbai in 2008, remains the biggest threat, according to Rubin. He suggests that the Indian government under the leadership of new prime minister Narendra Modi may not show much restraint if there’s another attack.
“In that way, Lashkar-e-Taiba is much more dangerous than any other organization because it could create a war between two nuclear powers,” Rubin says.
He's a friend of Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, whose 2012 book, Pakistan on the Brink, highlighted schisms within the Obama administration in its approach to dealing with the Taliban insurgency in the region.
According to Rashid, Obama let his underlings squabble over policy, which led to differences between the Department of State, then headed by Hillary Clinton, and the leaders of the U.S. armed forces.
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, opposed any rapprochement with the Taliban whereas the diplomats and then Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai favoured a negotiated solution.
Rubin was at the centre of this issue while working as Holbrooke's senior adviser. He explains that the Bush administration refused to talk to the Taliban and his job was to try to reverse that stance.
"We did change their policy so the U.S. now supports a negotiated settlement, but it was a huge challenge," Rubin reveals. "The encouragers of counterterrorism as understood by people who do counterterrorism are often at odds with the encouragers of a political settlement."
He adds that this came to a head over the fate of Taliban prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, which Obama had promised to close but never did.
"Transferring a few Taliban leaders who were in Guantanamo to another location was one of their demands for starting talks," Rubin says, "and it was very difficult to get the U.S. government to agree—and Congress was against it because of counterterrorism concerns."
In addition to Iran and Pakistan, he says that China and India also wield significant influence over the future of Afghanistan. He describes China as Pakistan's closest ally. In fact, he says that Pakistan is also China's best friend in the world.
However, China is also dealing with an extremist Islamic insurgency in the western part of the country.
"That is something that has to affect Pakistan's calculus about what they can do," Rubin says. "They are subject to pressure from China now."
In his view, China favours a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, which will put pressure on Pakistani officials to discourage further destabilization.
India has sometimes seen Afghanistan as a counterweight to Pakistan, which is its main regional rival.
Rubin says that Modi's BJP party has often ramped up the rhetoric, but its leaders have often favoured dialogue with the government in Islamabad.
"We've yet to see exactly what his foreign policy is," Rubin cautions. "Certainly he's making India more assertive and nationalistic."
At the same time, Modi's primary preoccupation is economic growth. He also recently hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping, taking him to Modi's home state of Gujarat.
"That may calm some of Pakistan's fears about the Indian presence in Afghanistan," Rubin says. "I think China quietly favours some Indian involvement in Afghanistan as well."