In Afghanistan, an Opportunity for the United States to Work with China and Iran

EU Special Representative says Islamic State’s rise has created common ground for Washington, Tehran, and Beijing

Franz-Michael Mellbin is the European Union’s Special Representative in Afghanistan. In a wide-ranging interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen on Oct. 20, Mellbin discussed the need for a sustained US and NATO troop commitment in Afghanistan, the opportunity created by the rise of Islamic State (IS) for Washington to work with Tehran and Beijing in Afghanistan, and the necessity for Pakistan to deliver on its rhetoric to show zero tolerance toward all stripes of terrorists that occupy safe havens in its territory.

Mellbin visited the Atlantic Council where he earlier participated in a public discussion moderated by James B. Cunningham, a former US Ambassador to Afghanistan and a Senior Fellow and Khalilzad Chair in the Council’s South Asia Center.

Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: President Obama has decided not to pull more US troops out of Afghanistan for now. What is your assessment of the Afghan National Army’s capabilities? Will a significant US / NATO military presence be required in Afghanistan to support the ANA for the foreseeable future?

Mellbin: I see an Afghan security force which is continuously evolving in a positive direction, but it is also a force that continues to need international support to manage what is in fact a very difficult and challenging security environment. The response, therefore, has to have two elements. One is, they are doing a pretty good job. There is still room for lots of improvement. There are some key weaknesses that need to be addressed and currently only can be addressed by a foreign troop presence.

For the time being, the short answer is that when it comes to foreign troop presence longer and stronger is better. So having the ability to sustain support on key issues such as planning, logistics, intelligence are all very helpful making sure that the Afghan army continues to grow in its capabilities, but also is able to manage the job.

There are some strategic shifts that need to take place. They need to increase the efficient use of their troops and forces on the ground. They also need to reconsider how they can manage their forces in a professional way. But, overall, the direction of the security forces is a positive one and they are ready to take the fight to the enemy.

We are seeing that the Taliban can advance in certain areas, but once the Afghan army gets mobilized they will be able to push them back. The problem that the Afghan security forces are experiencing is that their stance is too defensive, so it allows the Taliban to chose where and when to confront the Afghan security forces and it also allows them to advance so the Afghan government forces typically move in from a disadvantaged position. That needs to change. This, to me, says that the Afghan security forces can continue to grow if we lend the right kind of support, but they are also in a position where they need the support to be able to stay and fight.

Q: Do you expect other NATO members to extend their military engagement in Afghanistan? How important is it that they do that?

Mellbin: One should not underestimate the influence that some NATO partners had on the US thinking on the continued presence [in Afghanistan]. We know that German Chancellor Merkel was seeking a clear response from the Americans to be ready to continue the military presence in Afghanistan. So it’s not just the Europeans coming from behind, but there were also some parts of the European side that wanted to remain engaged in a meaningful way. I think that the US decision will certainly help sustain a broader military effort there through some kind of successor to the current [Resolute Support] mission.I remain optimistic on that, and I believe that the very clear signals that have come from especially Germany and Italy will allow NATO to continue some kind of successor mission with broad-based participation from a number of Europeans.

Q: Afghan President Ghani put his political capital on the line by reaching out to Pakistan early in his administration. Is Pakistan a credible partner for peace? What should the Americans and Europeans be doing to compel Pakistan to support the peace process?

Mellbin: Pakistan has for a long time professed its interest in being a cooperative partner on peace and stability in Afghanistan, but we have not seen them act in a way that convinces the broader international community that they are actually ready to put action behind their words. What we need to see is a Pakistan that is also willing to deliver in deed what it is offering in words. There is a gap right now and that gap should be addressed by the Pakistanis in a way that convinces all of us that they are cooperative partners toward peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.

We should not forget that it is a fact that Pakistan has been helpful in making sure that the Taliban engaged in peace and reconciliation talks, and they should be commended for their efforts in making that possible. But what we really want to see is that Pakistan takes specific action that reduces the operational capacity of the insurgency to operate inside Afghanistan. Right now that remains linked to the ability of the Afghan Taliban to move within Pakistan, rearm, regroup, plan etc. All these things, of course, should not be allowed to take place inside Pakistan.

Q: In the summer of 2014, Pakistan launched a military operation against terrorist safe havens in North Waziristan. Has that operation flushed the terrorists across the border and exacerbated the problem in Afghanistan?

Mellbin: I commend the Pakistani government for having undertaken the operations in Waziristan and acting against known terrorist elements there, but I also note that these actions did not succeed in either rooting out or arresting any Taliban or Haqqani [Network] elements. I worry that that was not the case. As a result of this push against known terrorist groups—al Qaeda,  [Lashkar-e-Taiba] etc.there is no doubt that some of these left Pakistan and went over the border into Afghanistan.

In an ideal situation the Afghan and Pakistani governments would have worked together to create a hammer and anvil situation and shut down the insurgents. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the Afghan government was not ready or capable of doing that and certainly some of these groups are now out of Pakistan and present in Afghanistan instead.

Q: Earlier in the summer, the Taliban were talking peace. Then in September, they overran Kunduz; and today there are reports that they are advancing on Lashkar Gah in Helmand province. What is your assessment of the Taliban’s game plan?

Mellbin: The key objective of the Taliban is to show that they are able to take and hold permanently new territory in a military sense within Afghanistan. We often get stories about Taliban has control over “x” districts, but the fact remains that there is nowhere you can go and interview the Taliban mayor in Afghanistan.

What we do see is that the Taliban can push forward, but they also consistently pushed back again by the government forces. Their strategic objective is to change this so that they can claim that it is a civil war and not an insurgency any more, and they need to change the organization in a way that it can conduct military operations, which is something that is very different from an insurgency operation. You will need sustained recruitment, medical facilities, financing, resupply of ammunition and other supplies, communications, intelligence to take and hold territory. Right now this ability has been denied them by the Afghan security forces and it is my hope that it will continue to be denied. But it is for sure their primary objective this year and I believe it will be the same objective that they will pursue next year if they are not successful this year.

Q: You have expressed concern about Islamic State/Daesh’s growing footprint in Afghanistan. What is the extent of this presence and what impact do you expect it to have on the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate peace with the Afghan government?

Mellbin: IS/Daesh is politically important in Afghanistan today because all relevant actors calculate with IS presence as they look into the future. It informs their current decision making. It is not a strategic threat as yet because it is still limited in scope and size and we should make sure that it remains that way. That means first and foremost that the Afghan government will have to come up with strategies on how to combat continued IS presence inside Afghanistan.

IS will feed on disenchantment with the government. A key component of a successful strategy to combat IS in Afghanistan will be making sure that the government reaches out with services, with security to ordinary Afghans, and thus closing the space for IS to step in as a better option for the local population.

Right now IS is an alternative platform for disenfranchised Taliban [fighters] who do not subscribe to the mainstay Taliban’s political view. IS commanders are, in effect, very often in an opposing position to the Taliban proper. Will that remain being the case? I believe for now it will and I hope it will remain like that in the longer run, but it is not a given.

Because IS is seeking to also increase its ability to finance itself it is encroaching on the drug industry inside Afghanistan. The Taliban, of course, also rely heavily on drugs as part of their financial makeup. This will also pit the two groups against each other because they are competing over resources for the time being.

Q: What must the United States be doing to capitalize on the opportunity created by the emergence of the IS/Daesh in Afghanistan to engage with Iran and China on the future of Afghanistan?

Mellbin: It is very clear that China seeks a close cooperation with the US on Afghanistan and sees a merit in pursuing that. It is not an easy equation because there is a wider, more complex relationship between the US and China that could get in the way if it is not managed. I think the two sides should see this as a positive opportunity and pursue it diligently, and certainly the EU and myself will try to support that because we believe that the US and China acting together will be very powerful to convince other regional partners to engage in a positive way when it comes to finding solutions in Afghanistan.

The Iranians have also sent clear signals that they want to work together with the US and China on Afghanistan, but of course the domestic situation in the US makes it very difficult for the US currently to engage. The EU has, and will continue to have, increasingly close discussions with Iran on Afghanistan and we will continue to share the content and direction of those conversations with the US side so that can bridge part of the gap.

Ideally, once domestic politics allows it in both Iran and the US for the two countries to have a discussion on Afghanistan, it is the foreign policy issue where the two countries are most likely to be able to find common ground because the key objective of both countries is short-term peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Q: Do you see a role for Europe as an interlocutor between the United States and Iran on Afghanistan?

Mellbin: We can be helpful. We have already been helpful because we have different strengths that we bring to the table on different issues, not only when it comes to Iran. Afghanistan is a good example of how through close cooperation we allow both the US and the European side to maximize our ability to influence the situation. We have a very like-minded approach to Afghanistan and that helps us work closely together in partnership and let those who have either the largest influence or the best opportunities bring these highly aligned policies to the table either through bilateral contacts or a multilateral forum. Sometimes the US can engage in a way that the European side cannot; sometimes the European side can also engage in a way that the US is not able to because it simply has another policy implication when the same things are said from the US side.

Q: Here in Washington, as we go deeper into an election cycle, do you see either the political space or the will to engage with Iran and China on Afghanistan?

Mellbin: With China there is a will, but there is also some uncertainty on how to gain results from such cooperation. China can be intriguing to work together with and it may be a learning process for everyone, especially because it is the first time that the Chinese are trying to work a security issue the way they are trying to deal with using their soft power. So it’s a learning experience for the Chinese also. We need to be patient and understand that it will take work to create results out of that cooperation, but I also think that the potential rewards are so high that it is worth focusing on and using some energy on.

Iran is very much a US domestic issue that needs to be clarified and I leave it to the [US] administration to find the right time and political space to pursue that. Meanwhile, we will certainly pursue it from the European side and that can hopefully be a partial substitute for more direct contacts if the domestic space doesn’t allow for that in the US context.

Q: What steps should the Ghani administration be taking to assure Afghanistan’s Western partners—the United States and NATO—that their investment in that country is worthwhile?

Mellbin: The national unity government [in Afghanistan] has a lot of work to do in trying to show that it can create results; that it is willing to carry its reform programs forward; that it will deliver on the promises that it made on issues such as human rights and economic development. There are a lot of things that it both can and should be doing to create the feeling among decision makers in Europe and the US that Afghanistan is worth investing in.

We have a continuous dialogue about what is important for us toward the Afghan side, but we also try to make sure that what is important for us are things that are important for the Afghan people. A lot of the things that we are asking the Afghan national unity government for are things that will be tremendously important for the Afghan people and would strengthen the national unity government’s position and popularity inside Afghanistan if they got these things done.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: "It is very clear that China seeks a close cooperation with the US on Afghanistan and sees a merit in pursuing that," Franz-Michael Mellbin, the European Union’s Special Representative in Afghanistan, said in an interview with the New Atlanticist on Oct. 20. "The Iranians have also sent clear signals that they want to work together with the US and China on Afghanistan, but of course the domestic situation in the US makes it very difficult for the US currently to engage," he added. (Atlantic Council/Victoria Langton)