Governance in Afghanistan and Pakistan: A German perspective
Updated: Feb 2
November 2018 | Interview by Maia Brown-Jackson
Fletcher Security Review: Thank you for speaking with us. To begin, can you provide some general background on your experiences working as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Bernd Mützelburg: I've been dealing with Afghanistan since the early eighties. It's when the big issue was how to get the Russians out of there. I was also dealing with Afghanistan by participating in the international conference on strategy that took place at the Hague. Then I got this call, whether I would be available for the task as a special envoy while I was serving as ambassador to India. Obviously when your foreign minister calls you, you don’t say no.
FSR: What were some of the key moments during your time as special envoy?
BM: My colleagues wanted me to become the first chairman of Afghanistan. It was more of a support group, which consisted of the national special envoys to Afghanistan. I was chairing for a couple of times and we tried to coordinate as much as possible on national policies, as well as to inform each other on what we did. We tried then to feed this into our national apparatuses. But I think a defining moment was when I was finally able to talk with some of the members of the Quetta Shura in order to open up a political dialog with them with a view to finding at least the beginnings of a political solution.
FSR: And how did they respond to you in person?
BM: Well, I think their first response was: you made a grave mistake by joining this NATO alliance of devils invading our country, but since you are German and since we have a long interest in a relationship, you are the only one, nevertheless, we might trust. I think this was just the way to flatter me. The main problem for them was really that they wanted to speak to the big devil and not to a smaller one. In other words, they hoped in this way to get into direct talks with the Americans, who were excited about the idea, but somehow the internal processes in Washington were so difficult that they were not really able to afford to. This was in 2009, early 2010.
FSR: And how do you think issues of governance have developed in Afghanistan since your time there?
BM: I would say two things. First, I think that in many respects in Kabul, they have developed further than we think and than the outside world knows. The Afghans have not only had a couple of elections, which were not perhaps as free and as fair as we would have wanted, but they were elections and they were relatively free and relatively fast given the circumstances in a tribal system. The second point I wanted to make was that the Western expectations are sometimes exaggerated in order to sell our Afghanistan commitment, which also meant commitments in blood, not just financial commitments. We had rather illusionary objectives about the transfer of our system of democracy.
It's not democracy as such: the transfer of democracy by the gun, which is a contradiction in and of itself because democracy is obviously about self-determination. I mean, all of these things were perhaps not really helping us in stabilizing the country as much as would have been possible had we had less ambitious objectives. Nowadays we would be happy if this country were able to help itself, if the country were to have a government which would function and have at least relative stability. Unfortunately, we still haven’t learned to have more achievable objectives.
FSR: In the current peace talks between the Taliban and the government, what do you think will be the outcome? Do you think there’s any possibility for actual peace between the two?
BM: One thing has become clearer and clearer: that no side will really be able to win militarily. When you look at the advances that the Taliban has made by the way, there's a third player in the game, and this is IS (Islamic State). The ANA forces are still unable to sort of contain both the Taliban and the IS threat, and Afghanistan is still vulnerable almost everywhere. I think you must come to the conclusion that the only way forward is a political solution. And in order to get to a political solution, you can't only talk to people who agree with you, you must talk to the other side, otherwise, how on earth are you going to bring peace to a country that isn’t one sided?
I don’t think this insight has always been translated into practice. There have been attempts, but never far reaching attempts. And in the opening of these negotiating processes, you have a tendency on both sides to start only once you have achieved the high ground. In other words, you want to be in a better position than others because then you don't have to give away as much as you might be forced to. The attempt to continuously improve your military position on the ground before you enter into meaningful discussion is not helpful. Plus, on the official side you often have different views amongst the different players, their clans, the ethnic people whom they represent. And you have a government which is not as strong as it should be. There’s always Karzai looming in the background, who might have different views from Ashraf Ghani. And there are still some people who are saying, we have made so many sacrifices, why should we come to a sharing arrangement? I think, at the end of the day, this sentiment is unavoidable.
FSR: Yes, I would agree with you on that. And you brought up the Islamic State. Will they be able to create the kind of territorial control that they had in Syria and Iraq? What do you see as their future?
BM: Not necessarily. I don't think it's so much a tribal issue. The Taliban threat is still basically a Pashto threat and so if you could somehow come to an agreement with the majority of the Pashto communities, then I think you would have a major step ahead. What is important is the struggle for power, the struggle for influence, and now there is also the situation after four decades of warlords who have a manifest interest in maintaining the war economy which has been feeding them. And for them, peace is the real threat to their income.
In addition to that, you have the IS. And in addition to that, you have a situation in which the United States has decided not to immediately leave. So you have the continuous threat that the troops, who are there still trying to further enable the ANA forces, will leave one day. And then of course, especially with the Taliban, they have many people within their ranks who are saying, “why shouldn't we wait until they finally withdraw because they don't have the political commitment and will any longer to fight it out?” And then Afghanistan will fall like a ripe apple into our laps. This is all of that right now. And therefore, I think the situation is more complicated than it was before.
FSR: Certainly. And how would you describe the relationship between the current IS commanders who are present in Afghanistan and the warlords?
BM: It depends. I think some of the warlords are extremely helpful for the IS commanders — they are being used by them — and vice versa. But then you also have warlords who are still siding with the Taliban. It's very difficult to define: who is amongst the Taliban? Is Haqqani a typical Taliban fighter or not? It seems that the Haqqani network, for example, the organization responsible for most of the attacks in Kabul, is sometimes acting in contravention to what the Taliban leadership had decided. In other words, even for the Taliban, they’re a spoiler. And therefore, one of the problems for a political process is that you don't know exactly who must be included in that process. Plus, you don't have Mullah Omar any longer as the Taliban leader who is basically making the decisions.
FSR: What do you think has caused some of the districts to fall to the Islamic state instead of the Taliban? Does the civilian populace have any impact?
BM: I think at the end of the day, the central government has not been able to bring peace, stability, justice, jobs and so on to the provinces, which is what they need. And I'll tell you a little story. A friend of mine was working for the German development ministry. He had been working for some of the Pashto district cells. He recently went back there, and he encountered a very sad story. That story was about a young man from one of the families who had been working for a couple of years in Iran. He came back with a little bit of capital with which he wanted to open up a shop. Some gangsters had heard about this. They killed him and took away the little money that he had.
The family members had two options. They could go to the representative of the central government, who was not from the region at all, who they didn't trust, and who, according to what they know, would not really be able to find the culprits or find justice. So they went to the local Taliban leader. Two days later he got the message that the two culprits had been found. They had met their fate, and here was the money. What do you think the people of the village would believe in?
FSR: Of course they would believe in the Taliban, if they can provide protection and assurance.
BM: That, of course, is one of the major issues. And in that respect, there's still a long way to go. Having said all that, you have, on the other hand, people now who are so tired and want to build a better life for the young people. In Germany, in the context of this migration crisis, we have so many young Afghans applying for asylum. I think in spite of all that, there is an overwhelming yearning of the Afghan people for more stability. The politicians of all sides have to take this into consideration, which is for them a starting point for finally making a more serious political process. I think the underlying willingness is basically there.
FSR: Do you have any thoughts on this trend of some of the Taliban commanders shifting their allegiance to the Islamic state?
BM: There are not too many. I think the majority of them consider IS a grave threat and an alien threat. I think this has not happened with many. They consider them as arch enemies who are forcing them to fight even harder as competitors on the ground. Nevertheless, it seems to me that, especially the young in the Taliban, have become rather impatient. They are also looking for decisions on the battlefield. I have the feeling that the fighting gets tougher and more determined also on behalf of the Taliban.
FSR: What other topics would you like to discuss?
BM: The role of Pakistan and the role of the regional neighbors of Afghanistan. Most of them are looking at the situation in Afghanistan as a zero sum game. If their respective enemy is winning, they are losing and vice versa. None of the regional conferences have really brought any meaningful results because the regional players have been spoilers of positive constructive approaches. And that is also part of the Afghan tragedy I would assume.
FSR: How would you describe the current relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan?
BM: I don't think that there's only one relationship. I think there are many relationships. The government-to-government relationship has developed in waves, sometimes it was better, sometimes it was worse. I think Ashraf Ghani had put quite a bit of hope into the Pakistanis. This has now become more difficult again. There've been skirmishes at the border; there have been all kinds of problems—the Durand line is so much of a contentious issue that by necessity there are always conflicts. But then you have the interest of the Pakistani army and you have the interest of the ISI, and the ISI and the army are looking at everything in the context of the Pakistani-Indian relationships. So what helps the Indians harms them and vice versa.
Perhaps I should also give you a little example. You know, a French philosopher who was working at the court of a Prussian King, Frederick the Great, once described Prussia as a state different from others. He said normally states have armies, but in Prussia it's the other way around. And that is exactly the situation which you find in Pakistan. And of course, unless the political class in Pakistan is able to provide for the most basic of needs of the Pakistani population, the longer that situation will persist. The only fact of stability is the Pakistani army, which gives them a determined interest. And for them, the conflict with India is paramount also because, as long as this conflict exists, their role in society will be stabilized.
And they have also invented in this context, of course, the differentiation between the Taliban, between the good Taliban and the bad Taliban. The good Taliban are the Afghan Taliban, because they will not commit any attacks or crimes on Pakistani soil because they need the protection of the Pakistan army and the Pakistani intelligence. Then there is the bad Taliban —the Pakistani Taliban — whose agenda is instability within Pakistan. And so you have this very intricate situation in which Pakistan itself has not found its mission in this conflict in Afghanistan and still has its own terrorist problems.
FSR: Some Afghan commanders have been saying that the number of Pakistani militants who have been crossing the Durand line to join up with the Islamic State in Afghanistan is indicative of some sort of Pakistani plot. Now I'm not suggesting in any way some evil overarching government plot, but do you think there's any truth to the idea of Pakistan using the Islamic State to destabilize Afghanistan?
BM: I think there is some truth in it. Sometimes you wonder whether Pakistan has a genuine interest in a stable Afghanistan. With respect to the territorial claims, it's much better to have an unstable, dependent government in Afghanistan. That is also due to the inability of the Pakistani state to provide even an elementary education to each and every child, you have had over the last years this emergence of a Saudi—and therefore Wahhabi—financed madrasas all over Pakistan. Some people are saying that with Saudi money more than 40,000 madrasas have been established, many of them are following the very traditional Salafist interpretation of Islam. If you assume that only one-tenth or so of these 40,000 of madrasas is training future terrorists then you can imagine the dimension of the threat. This is also, I think, part of the nurturing source for the IS in Pakistan, which is then also directed towards Afghanistan.
FSR: And what, do you see Russia's place in all this? They're providing the Taliban with some support to fight the Islamic State. What would be the best-case scenario for them?
BM: Well, I think it would help if we, the West, would try our level best to somehow hug the Russians and to widen the field of common interests. One common interest is definitely the fight against Islamic terrorism because the Russians, with their soft underbelly of all these small states left from the Soviet Union feel this threat of fundamentalist Islam. This is a point where we have a genuine common interest together with the Russians. But in the meantime, given the situation in the United States, if I may say so, with Russia being sanctioned by the West, I also have the feeling that the Russians would only be too happy if the US faced a similar situation that the Russians faced when they were thrown out of Afghanistan. They would like to see the Americans not only lose but leave Afghanistan demolished and ashamed. I think Russia may become more of a spoiler because the “America first” ideology has suddenly opened up a game even more than before.
FSR: It has indeed. And what do you think is the role of oil and gas in the Russian motivations?
BM: It does play a certain role but not a major role. The Russian oil and gas interests are much more connected to Europe as the main client of Russia. Of course the Russians would also like to supply the Indians, for example, via Afghanistan with oil. I don't think it is a very fundamental issue for them. What is maybe more fundamental is another competitor for supremacy: Asia is becoming stronger and stronger. In the meantime, I think the main political and economic factor in Pakistan is that they have acquired the license, for example, for one of the biggest copper mines in Afghanistan. So suddenly they’re also there. In that respect, I think oil and gas are playing a limited role. Afghanistan is potentially a very rich country in terms of mineral resources. We will see.
Bernd Mützelburg is a German diplomat, who served as the ambassador to India from 2006 to 2009. He was then appointed to the Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mützelburg received his M.A. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.