Career U.S. diplomat James Dobbins spent decades as an American diplomatic troubleshooter in some of the world’s most intractable conflict regions, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, he sees a long road ahead for the peace negotiations that could eventually end nearly 40 years of war in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: After four decades of war, any signs of peace are welcomed by Afghans. But why has the recently claimed “progress” in talks between the United States and the Taliban raised concerns and alarms in Kabul?
James Dobbins:I think there are probably two reasons. First, because peace will require making compromises, and those will be controversial, but also because there’s uncertainly stimulated by the president of the United States about the durability of the American commitment and the danger that the U.S. would withdraw before peace was assured.
RFE/RL: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recent said and I quote, “The bitter reality is that international experiences have shown that 50 percent of peace agreements have resulted in worse wars and the reason for this is haste to achieve peace.” Do you agree him that Washington is looking for a hasty peace deal?
James Dobbins:I think that Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalizad and the U.S. government are looking for an enduring peace. The question is whether the United States has the endurance to stay until that is assured.
RFE/RL: From what we know now, U.S. talks with the Taliban will continue later this month, but already the impression in Kabul is that Washington is talking with its adversary and leaving its ally out. What do you think?
James Dobbins:It’s not the United States leaving the Afghan government out; it’s the Taliban. And the U.S. has made clear in its talks with the Taliban that any agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban is contingent upon the Taliban agreeing to talk to the Afghan government and to stop fighting while they do.
RFE/RL: The Taliban are insisting on not talking to the Afghan government, so how do you think the talks can develop?
James Dobbins:I think they won’t develop if the Taliban maintain that position.
RFE/RL: The Taliban also say they are in contact with influential Afghan figures and will continue talks with them at the Moscow meeting on February 5. With them insisting on not talking to the Afghan government because they call it a U.S. puppet, do you think the Moscow talks may affect the U.S.-Taliban talks and the talks between Afghans?
James Dobbins:Not in any serious way.
RFE/RL: How do you assess the role of Russia in these talks?
James Dobbins:I think Russia would like to feel included. I think Russia sees itself as a major power, and I think Russia is trying to play a role. I don’t think Russian influence is particularly strong, and I don’t think people should be too concerned about Russian activity. I don’t think it’s necessarily harmful, but I also don’t think it will do much good.
RFE/RL: There are fears among young men and women in Afghanistan about the return of the hard-line Taliban. While the insurgents say they have changed and would allow women education and work, they still want everything according to Shari’a law. The Taliban interpretation of Islam is particularly worrisome to the new generation of Afghans. How serious are these concerns, and what does Washington need to do to address them?
James Dobbins:The concerns are perfectly legitimate. But we’ll have to see the degree to which the Taliban has evolved since 2001; we just don’t know. I think it’s really up to the Afghan representatives, in talks with the Taliban, to address those concerns.
RFE/RL: Do you think that as the United States leaves Afghanistan, they would be able to influence the Taliban to respect the deal they are making with the Afghans regarding the rights issue?
James Dobbins:I think the United States should stay engaged in Afghanistan, militarily as well as diplomatically and economically, at least until a peace agreement is not only reached but fully implemented.
RFE/RL: The Taliban also say they have fought for an Islamic emirate, and they will consult with Afghans about a government system of a peace deal. Do you think the Taliban would agree to a democratic system: to have a president instead of an emir, and to have a general election instead of a shura council to choose the next leader of Afghanistan?
James Dobbins:I have no idea, and it’s not clear that the Taliban themselves know what they would agree to. The important thing is to begin negotiations and to see where they lead.
RFE/RL: How long do you think these negotiations may last?
James Dobbins:Well, they haven’t started yet. The talks between the United States and the Taliban are talks about starting negotiations, and they won’t start until the Taliban agrees to the conditions that the U.S. has set. The Taliban hasn’t agreed yet. So, peace negotiations haven’t started. They could take quite a long time. They could take years. It’s hard to say, but it would probably be foolish to say that they could move very quickly.