Transcript: “Lessons for Afghanistan from Lebanon’s peace process”

IRFAN NOORUDDIN: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening to all of you joining us this Wednesday. My name is Irfan Nooruddin. I’m a professor at Georgetown University and director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. 

On behalf of my colleagues here in Washington, it is a real pleasure to host this conversation in partnership with our friends and colleagues at the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Washington. My colleague and assistant director of the South Asia Center, Mr. Harris Samad will be moderating the conversation. But it is my great pleasure and honor to ask 

Ambassador Roya Rahmani to provide welcoming remarks. Your excellency. 

ROYA RAHMANI: Thank you, Mr. Nooruddin. Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, depending on wherever you are sitting right now and joining us for this session. Asalamalakum. May peace be upon you. 

It is my great pleasure to welcome you to this second event of the Embassy of Afghanistan’s Lessons in Peace Series. We are glad to be hosting today’s event on Lebanon’s tie of agreement and partnership with the Atlantic Council, a wonderful partner of the Afghan embassy in Washington. 

I want to offer a very warm thank you to the Atlantic Council for their help in organizing this very important discussion and all the great work that they are continuously doing. Furthermore, I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Patricia Karam and Dr. Daniel Corstange for taking this time to share their knowledge and insight with us today. Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, I thank you not just for joining us today, but for all the great work you have done in Afghanistan over the years. It’s an honor to have you with us today. 

And Mr. Samad, thank you for moderating and guiding us through this conversation. For those of you who were not able to join us for our Lesson in Peace event with the United States Institute of Peace last month, where are we focused on Colombia’s Havana process, I want to take a moment to reflect on some of the most critical lessons we have learned so far as we continue our journey to learn more about the peace processes all around the world. 

The first main lesson has been how critical consensus building is for securing a lasting peace. We know that peace cannot be just crafted between those who hold guns. Peace necessitates all of society coming together and working in harmony. This means involving women, not just as an issue on the table, but as a party to any negotiations. This means involving youth, the future of our nations, who must have a stake in the peace that we are forging. 

This means including people from all backgrounds, from every socioeconomic level, from every ethnic group, and from all corners of the country. Inclusivity is critical to durable peace. This is not just in line with our Democratic values. It is a national security imperative. It is the only path to lasting security. 

The second main lesson is that peace processes are called processes because they are just that, a process. Securing a feasible settlement is just the beginning. We need to ensure we create an environment where culture of peace can be nurtured and the agreement achieved can be implemented. Negotiations may have begun in Doha 10 weeks ago, but we have been working to build peace on multiple fronts for over the past 20 years from building up our Democratic institutions, to promoting economic development, to increasing access to health and education. 

Although there is an urgent need for cessation of violence, a national ceasefire, we know that the rest of the process cannot be rushed. We know the hard work that it requires. And we are ready for it. We have been seeking peace for a long time. We have yearned for it, planned for it, and fought for it with the type of commitment that comes from knowing what it is like to live without it. 

The Afghanistan of my youth was always fragrant with the heady scent of tulips and daisies. Each flower signaling a change, the start of the school year, exams, summer vacation, and so on. It’s my hope that one day the scent of fear will not overpower everything else, and we will once again have the freedom to, as the Americans say, stop and smell the roses. 

Soon under the healing light of compassion and perseverance, peace will bloom. And I am sure that nothing could ever smell more sweet. It is my absolute pleasure to pass this off to today’s wonderful panel so that we can all begin to learn about the lessons within the Ta’if Agreement and how we can apply them to make sure that peace is no longer just a dream for efforts. Lessons like today’s will bring us one step closer to making that dream a reality. I thank you all. 

HARRIS SAMAD: Thank you so much, Ambassador Rahmani and Irfan for the warm introduction. And Ambassador, it’s a true honor to collaborate with you and to jointly host this event with you as well as the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington DC during such a crucial moment for Afghanistan and the peace process. 

My name is Harris Samad and I’m the assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. And I’d like to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world to this conversation about lessons that can be learned from the 1989 Ta’if Agreement which ended 15 years of civil War in Lebanon, and how they can be applied to the ongoing peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha. 

Joining us today is an esteemed panel of experts. Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi who, among his many hats, is the former Arab League special envoy for Lebanon, and former UN special envoy for Afghanistan. Dr. Patricia Karam who is the regional director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of the International Republican Institute. And Dr. Daniel Corstange, associate professor of political science and of international and public affairs at Columbia University. We thank you all for lending us your time and expertise today 

So just to give a quick rundown for our viewers of how this conversation is structured, we’ll start by discussing some general lessons that we can take away from the Ta’if Agreement regarding the field of conflict resolution more generally, and then we’ll discuss how these lessons both can and cannot be applied to the ongoing peace process in Doha. And then, we will move on to some questions from the audience. So, for our audience, please submit your questions through the Q&A box, and we will try to get to as many as we can. 

So to get us started, the Ta’if Agreement instituted a number of religiously grounded power sharing mandates. And that said, the document states that these structures were intended to be an interim arrangement of sorts supported by the mandate that legislation would be passed down the road to amend and eventually remove the religious basis for power sharing in the government entirely. As is well documented, this never ended up happening and the agreement makes no explicit mention of when or by what point these reforms should occur. 

Mr. Brahimi, given that these open ended and originally temporary arrangements soon became permanent features of the Lebanese government, how might this case inform our thinking about power sharing agreements in general as a long-term method of conflict resolution? 

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Well good day to everyone. And thank you very much indeed for inviting me to participate in this discussion. I, like everybody who got involved in Afghanistan, I have a lasting really lifelong interest in what happens in that country. And I’m keeping my fingers crossed like everybody else to see that these negotiations that have started a few weeks ago will succeed where others have not. 

I’m in fact a little bit surprised that you are looking at the Ta’if Agreement. I think there is very little to learn from it because it is very, very specific to what the problems in Lebanon were. I think what is terribly important to understand for any peace process the best conditions for a peace process to get somewhere is for the people who are doing the fighting and their respective sponsors to agree that they haven’t won, and that they cannot win, and that they are genuinely looking for a compromise and an agreement. 

That is what happened in Lebanon in 88, 89. Why 88 and 89? Well because it was very clear that the Cold War was ending. And everybody was trying to get ready for the post-Cold War period. The parties in Lebanon and also their various sponsors. So all the factions inside Lebanon were ready to deal. And I was lucky enough to get directly involved in the process at that time because a lot of much, much better informed, much abler people dealt with this process before and they didn’t get anywhere. 

So the circumstances were ready for us to make a deal. We made a deal. And also, the other thing that’s different with Afghanistan is that we actually returned to what existed already. That is what we did. There was a big hope and also a commitment by the Ta’if Agreement that we are going back to what existed before the civil War and, as you said, as a temporary measure. And then we would end this system that existed since 1943 which is the independence of Lebanon. 

We never got there. And ever since Lebanese have been extremely critical of the Ta’if Agreement. But until now, they haven’t been able to work out something different and better. Perhaps this is enough for the beginning. 

HARRIS SAMAD: Certainly. Thank you. Dr. Karam, I know that you had some thoughts on this question, if you’d care to jump in. 

PATRICIA KARAM: Well, I mean that taking into account, I mean Dr. Brahimi talked about how there’s little to learn. But I do want to sort of say something about the principle of an approach that is based on power sharing. And my reaction is just that while it’s ideal to have a political system that’s inclusive and sensitive to the diversity of a country like Afghanistan, power sharing efforts in my view may exacerbate and perpetuate division. 

So I just wanted to say a few things about that. From a procedural perspective in particular, I think enshrining divisions in power sharing structures is somewhat counterproductive to state building efforts. I mean, again, trying to learn from the experience of Lebanon. And also counter-productive to the state’s survival in some ways. Once you set a structure in motion, I think it becomes the norm, the reference, the fait compli as happened in Lebanon even if it’s intended to be temporary or interim, and by default, would perpetuate itself. 

So for me, rather than a temporary solution, there should be building elements that are part of the ultimate concept or the solution. And conceptually speaking rather than procedurally, I think interim arrangements tend to satisfy the factional interests and mindsets when they tend to satisfy them, tend to reinforce them. I think of not just Lebanon but Iraq in particular when you think of a set up that was supposed to be inclusive, but in reality ended up catering to the factional. 

And the moment you have an arrangement that breaks down the composition of a nation– a national identity into identifiable groups like Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Kurds, I think you have effectively, rather than empowered them, disempowered those who aren’t included. And I say this because in Iraq in particular, a good third for example of a population in Baghdad were mixed marriages and represented sort of the creative progressive core of the middle class and the cosmopolitan class. 

And so, in some ways we shouldn’t really confuse recognition of diversity with progress. So I’ll leave it at that. I have much more to say in the subject but I leave it at that. 

DANIEL CORSTANGE: OK. May I jump in with a comment on what Patricia was suggesting here? One of the things that we’ve noticed a lot in studies of ethnic politics or on sectarian politics is the case of Lebanon, one of the complaints is often that the attempt to formalize different group cleavages will essentially keep those cleavages in place and will force people to think about themselves as one particular thing as opposed to all the other things they happen to be at the same time. 

So and this is more of a comment about the Lebanese system which was reimposed through the Ta’if Accord. But the idea that Christians have to think about themselves as Christians, Sunnis have to think about themselves as Sunnis, Druze as Druze, and so forth. In some senses, it was almost obligatory since that’s how people had been thinking about themselves at the time when they were coming to the table. But the challenge is that, as Patricia was suggesting, it keeps people in that mode and prevents them, or makes it more difficult at any rate for them to think about themselves as something other than a member of such and such a group. 

And so, perhaps one of the challenges we have to think through when you apply it to other settings is that formalizing these sorts of group differences makes it more likely those group differences will perpetuate themselves into the future, at least in part because the people who will subsequently be writing the rules will themselves be getting into power on the basis of these groups on the basis of those rules originally. 

So if you think about, we sometimes call them ethnic entrepreneurs. You can call them whatever you like. But the politicians that we empower on the basis of the rules at the time are probably going to want to perpetuate the rules that keep them in power. So to the degree you wish to make this a more open system or a system that can adapt to changing realities and changing demographics, it’s perhaps useful to think about building in those sorts of rules at the same time you’re building in the groups that happen to be relevant at the time you’re coming up with the agreement. 

HARRIS SAMAD: Thank you. Thank you. So I think that that’s a good segue into the next question, which is a little bit more focused on the civil society post peace. And so, subsequent to 1989, there developed and remains a civil society watchdog community that is working to obtain justice in Lebanon for crimes committed during the war. 

Dr. Karam, could you speak to the development of Lebanon’s civil society sector in the post Ta’if Agreement period, and how it has or has not been able to fill some of the gaps in transitional justice and accountability that remained open after 1989? 

And secondarily, what lessons can civil society more generally take away from the Lebanese case to be more effective in attaining transitional– or supporting transitional justice–in a post-conflict setting? 

PATRICIA KARAM: Thanks, Harris. Patricia by the way. I want to say that I’ll first start by saying that more than 20 years after militias laid down their arms, the Lebanese today sort of live in a sort of officially sanctioned amnesia that conceals memories of war and discourages them from looking back. 

The only official initiative that was conducted to establish really what happened after 1975 was a government report that was released in 1992 that sort of estimated the number of victims of the war. Without a more comprehensive truth-seeking process, there was no meaningful sort of reparations program, no updated history curriculum preventing even school kids, which is this new generation, from engaging in critical thinking about the multiple narratives that are in circulation today, as well as the potential for radicalization that remains in an environment where resentment and fear endure. So that’s my first point. 

Secondly, so as a result, there has been very little public debate about the war, about its origins, about its consequences. And even the Syrian occupation. Many of the same leaders remain in power thanks to a sweeping amnesty law that was passed towards the end of the war, which prevents prosecuting ordinary militia members and senior politicians. 

My second point is that one of the most devastating consequences of this 1991 amnesty law has been really a perpetuation of a sort of culture of impunity that permeates all aspects of life in Lebanon. In the absence of accountability for growth violations and a selective approach to criminal justice, much of which is actually the result of political power sharing agreements, this has really robbed the victims of justice. 

And the failure to hold perpetrators accountable has really eradicated civic trust in state institutions. And I say this because I’ll explain in a bit. So as a result, the militias that folks have only renamed themselves as political parties continue to rule and ruin the country as a for profit elite that operates in a system that really abuses every resource available. 

The most tragic thing about the civil war in itself is that it’s not the tragedy in the consciousness of the Lebanese. So and then there is the current context which is after banking crisis, economic collapse, mismanaged pandemic, impunity of the political class. The context is actually deadlocked and is dominated by one political force which is the main power broker. Iran backed Hezbollah. 

So that is leading me to this creates, not unlike Afghanistan, a sort of cement ceiling in terms of the potential action of civil society in any regard. So in both cases, because of the limits of the state, and I think this has to do with the control that the warlords slash kleptocrats have and that Hezbollah has or that they exert over the states and society. The accountability drive is really limited to what is permissible or within the bounds of acceptable. And you have examples in Afghanistan as well. The one that comes to mind was the former VP, the general Dostum’s returned to Afghanistan. 

So besides discreet the efforts of some brave groups who are defying the status quo as well as those who are documenting the missing and the disappeared, civil society has not been capable of holding those responsible for civil war abuses accountable, because they are part of the post-war arrangement. The only thing that civil society can do is investigate, document, and wait in some sense. 

Research and advocacy work has been carried out by a number of civil society groups, including victims groups, researchers, academics on issues linked to transitional justice. They’ve mapped violations that occurred during the civil war, mass killings, enforced disappearances, assassinations, et cetera to indicate a pattern of violence and doing analysis in the framework of international human rights and humanitarian law. 

In terms of lessons, there needs to be a recognition in some ways of the limitations that are in place for civil society, I mean. The lessons. And of the tools that are used to perpetuate them. Much of transitional justice, and this is going back to my original point, it depends on the existence of civic trust which is absent. 

And I’d like to make just a final point to compare the two. civil society is also accused often of being a foreign agent, either of being a foreign agent, or of departing from socio-religious norms. So I think in Lebanon, the former is more prevalent. In Afghanistan, the latter though some of the former happens as well due to all the foreign interference. 

In the case of Afghanistan, what needs to happen I think is to underline and integrate more rights-based activism even among solidarity based civil groups, especially where some of this work on women and children can be leveraged. And in some ways, the experience of Tunisia in this regard is very instructive. There’s also the issue of coordination amongst NGOs doing the same work but not working together because of differences in orientation, religious or political belief. 

The point is that where a rights-based culture is happening, we need to enhance it. And this should be the foundation of more accountable governments. Thank you. 

HARRIS SAMAD: So thank you for that. So given this context where there is this concrete ceiling in a sense of how much civil society can do, and civil society being in a role where they are supposed to be holding people, institutions, and groups accountable. But then, paradoxically they’re also a part of the system which may involve some of these groups. 

I think that it would be interesting to hear Dr. Corstange a little bit about your research on identity and political participation in Lebanon, and what lessons more generally we can take away from your research regarding collaboration and peace in a setting which is strongly defined by sectarian conflict. 

DANIEL CORSTANGE: OK. So just a little bit of background for those of you who don’t know, my research, which is all of you. So a lot of this work deals with public opinion work, a lot of surveys and a lot of experiments in Lebanon with Lebanese citizens, but also the Syrians as well, which is an interesting side bit here. 

One of the core takeaways that I’ve got out of all of this research is that fundamentally there’s a lot of Lebanese-ness for lack of a better term underlying a lot of Lebanese political behavior. But a lot of it is overshadowed by the sectarian discourse and a lot of the sectarian practice as well as the clientelistic practices that are kind of part and parcel to sectarianism within Lebanon itself. 

So more broadly, people are quite content to have religion play a guiding role in the broad ethics of government. So that should be familiar to a lot of people who study much of the Islamic world, is that many people want some sort of ethical role for religion in the context of government. 

But at the same time, people are very content to have very basic democratic principles. So there really does not appear to be any sort of contradiction in the minds of most people within Lebanon and presumably in lots of other places, that you can have religion play a role in public affairs. You can also have democratic practices. And there’s no particular reason why you can’t have both. 

The hard part though is in a place like Lebanon, much of what we see as what we might criticize as anti-democratic practices or anti-liberal practices, or undesirable from a general sense, tend to follow more from the sectarian aspect of it, or the group politics aspect of it rather than some sense of differences over doctrine or over basic religious norms. 

So a lot of the same basic ethical principles are things that people subscribe to across the different communities but those tend to take a backseat to just basic political competition between groups. And a part of the challenge there is that a lot of that is guided by what we’ll call clientelistic practices or patronage-based practices, that keep politicians in power who are able to win over supporters with material benefits or side payments in a way that would be different from the sorts of programmatic policies we tend to like to see instead. 

And so, the development of the electoral system and the representative system within Lebanon has tended to be really overshadowed by a lot of these clientelistic practices, some of which come from resources that politicians can access from control of the state but also from a lot of bankrolling that comes from abroad. So whether or not it’s Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or various other groups, pour a lot of money in which allow politicians to maintain a hold on power without necessarily representing maybe the ideals of the people that they claim to represent. 

So there’s a bit of a disconnect between what citizens would like to see in an ideal sense and the sorts of politicians they end up with instead. And it’s not to say that this is a story of saints and sinners. There are very few saints and very few sinners there. Most of them are just ordinary politicians doing what politicians do. But they are responding to a system which allows them to hold power in a way that does not necessarily represent what the Lebanese as a general sense would like to see their government performing. 

So that’s kind of a broad overview of what to think about in terms of identity politics. And identity politics is a big feature of Lebanon but a lot of those can be thought of in the context of, how do you get people into office? A lot of it has to do with clientelistic practices which gets you people in power that are not necessarily the ideal types that many of the voters themselves would like to see. 

HARRIS SAMAD: Thank you. So I think that in the context of bringing these different parties into power into the fold also presents an interesting question. And Mr Brahimi, you alluded to this a little bit earlier, which is essentially to say that by 1989 when the Ta’if Agreement was signed, the signatories in Lebanon demonstrated a very strong mutual interest in ending violence and a readiness for peace. And there was a fairly clear sense that the parties were ready to negotiate and they were ready for peace. 

So are there any notable factors which supported and catalyzed this readiness for peace amongst the parties? And what might they tell us about understanding when a conflict environment is in fact ready for a negotiated peace? 

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Let me just first say that I would not speak of religious affiliations. But religion is taken as a part of the identity. It has nothing to do with the practice or even of the influence of the religious elements in any of the religions either it’s Islam or whether they are Muslims or Christians, Shia or Sunni. And then, Christian identity is split in 17 different groups. 

About holding anybody responsible for all the atrocities that have taken place in Lebanon, that wasn’t really part of the conversation either in Ta’if or after Ta’if. For political reasons, one man only went to jail accused of all sorts of things. That is [Samir] Geagea. And he has been released. And he is now back as one of the main players on the political scene in Lebanon. So that has not been part of the conversation. 

And civil society, you have wonderful organizations and very highly sophisticated, very representative, very often not sectarian at all. But I’m afraid that their influence in the politics is very limited. And it’s extremely interesting to see this popular movement that has been going on for one year now. They are completely against identity politics. They really want to jump into the 21st century. But they haven’t been able to do so. They haven’t been allowed to do so. 

Another point is that you see of all the traditional groups and factions and so on, there is one that is the youngest, the newest of them all. That is Hezbollah. That is playing today the biggest, strongest role in the political life of Lebanon. I’m sure that our Afghan friends will benefit from taking a look at what has happened in Lebanon. And in spite of the huge differences of the situations between the two countries. 

The Ta’if ended the war and people went into end the war. And the idea was that once you end the war, then you will allow the Lebanese people to come together. They have come together. And then shout out a new dispensation. They haven’t done so. They were unable to move away from the system that has been put together in 1943. 

As a matter of fact, it has become worse. You see? For example, the division and the sharing of positions in the government in 1943, it was about the main positions, prime minister, president, speaker of parliament, major ministries. Now, it goes down to the drivers. You have so many drivers from that faction. Why not drivers from my faction? 

So I think the system has become worse, not– And the will of the people is totally ignored. How are the people of Lebanon going to impose their will on the leadership of these factions that are fighting one another, hating one another? But when things come to a crunch, they are all together. You see Hezbollah, the Christians, the Sunnis, they are all together in protecting the system that exists. 

And would help from outside be useful? I don’t know if it is going to be available or not. I think Mrs. Karam said that the identity politics make it extremely difficult to move forward. This is what has happened in Lebanon. And one year of mass demonstrations and of beautiful fraternity between everybody, people in the streets don’t care who is Muslim, who is Christian, who is Shia, who is Sunni, who is Mennonite, who is not Mennonite. They don’t care about that. 

But they haven’t been able to move one little step towards not ending, at least asking the political class to ask questions. Or they haven’t been able to– I mean they speak all the time about all the stealing that has taken place, about the huge, huge corruption that has happened. But things continue as they were. 

From this point of view, I think if the Afghans could create a group to study what has happened in Lebanon and see how they can avoid it, that would be useful. 

HARRIS SAMAD: Thank you. Thank you. I think that that’s actually an excellent segue for us to shift gears and talk a little bit about Afghanistan before we move into taking some questions from the audience. So for those who are joining us on this call, please submit your questions through the little Q&A box at the bottom of your screen. And we will be getting to them shortly. 

So like I said, just shifting gears a little bit, we spoke about civil society earlier and I think an interesting question that is definitely relevant to the different context in which we’re operating now versus in the context of a the Ta’if Agreement is social media and digital campaigns. 

So Patricia, could you speak a little bit to how social media and digital campaigns might factor into Afghan civil society and their role in the peace process more generally in a way that traditional print media would not have been able to in the context of the Ta’if Agreement? 

PATRICIA KARAM: Yeah. I mean there isn’t much to say about this except that the one thing we need to give the Afghan government credit for compared to other countries in a similar situation is sort of the media and the extent to which Afghans have been able, and Afghan civil society has been able, to sort of express itself freely through social media in particular. 

There doesn’t seem to be, I should say, much government censorship in this regard or repercussions for stating opinions that are counter sort of the main tendencies. And activists are especially vocal on Twitter and Facebook. We know that. And we have many instances where digital campaigns have gone viral. So my only recommendation is, or my only addition, is that these should be sort of supported, and leveraged, and amplified as ways to kind of let groups kind of express their concerns and make their voices heard in some ways. 

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: May I say something here? 


LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: You spoke earlier about impunity. In Afghanistan, that warlords wanted a blanket decision on not going after anybody in Bonn [Agreement] already. When we were in Bonn, they said, can we have an amnesty? That’s the word. Amnesty for everyone who participated in the wars. And I think it’s the foreigners who said no. 

They tried again during the constitutional [INAUDIBLE]. And then, again, because foreigners were there and participating and so on, we respectfully told them no. It can’t be done. And as you know, the United Nations cannot participate in anything where there is a blanket amnesty for [INAUDIBLE] behavior. 

But when the parliament was elected, then of course you had the sovereign government. Then they voted a blanket amnesty for everyone. And at any rate, you see, the big, big question that Afghanistan has to learn from past experiences, you can deal with these problems of past misbehavior and corruption only if you have the rule of law. The rule of law requires three things. Good, well-run prisons, a good, well-run police force, and most importantly a good judicial system. 

And you see, in Lebanon you have a beautiful constitution, you have a beautiful everything. But you don’t have any of those three. And justice is not independent. So I think, again, if foreigners want to help a country coming out of conflict, this is where they should concentrate, not on holding elections that create more divisions than anything else. 

And I mean look at Afghanistan. So creating a rule of law system is paramount. And I hope that if these negotiations in Doha get somewhere, I hope that the first thing that the new Afghan dispensation whatever it is would work out is about the rule of law. 

HARRIS SAMAD: Thank you. On the subject of foreign intervention, Dr. Corstange, you’ve done some research on the case of foreign intervention and how it affected the attitudes of voters in the 2009 Lebanese parliamentary election. 

So could you maybe give us a quick rundown of your findings from that research? And perhaps shed some light on how we might interpret the support of the United States, NATO, and allies both for the democratic process, the democratic system, in Afghanistan as well as its obviously pro-government position in the peace negotiations vis a vis the opinions of Afghan voters, if there is indeed a relationship there. 

DANIEL CORSTANGE: Sure. OK. So a lot of the work that I had been doing is with Lebanese. But I’ve done work beyond that particular election. The thing to start off with is that when we talk about foreign intervention, I think we tend to project our own views of intervention onto others onto the ordinary people we’re talking on behalf of. 

And the views that we tend to have here in this virtual room tend to be those of principle Democrats and that we object to partisan interventions and support interventions on behalf of the Democratic process. But the problem is that most people aren’t like that in practice. 

So here’s the short version what’s coming out of this research, which is that people don’t object to nonpartisan intervention. They’re fine with that. They don’t have any major problems with nonpartisanship. But there’s a very simple story here. There’s nothing very surprising about this. They don’t like partisan intervention on behalf of their opponents. And they’re happy to rationalize partisan intervention on behalf of their own side. 

So in effect what that means is that partisan intervention in one form or another effectively polarizes public opinion. So intervention by one outside actor on behalf of someone tends to make that group’s supporters happy, tend to makes its opponents unhappy, and vice-versa. 

And so, you can think about this as a glass half full versus a glass half empty sort of problem, which is glass half empty, why bother supporting the Democratic process if we’re not getting plaudits for being good citizens of the international community by supporting the Democratic process? The glass half full version is simply that that’s great in some sense as people are behaving the way you would expect them to or you would hope they would which is they’re not going to be lavish in their praise of intervention on behalf of the Democratic process or on behalf of the country as a whole because that’s what you would hope the international community is doing. 

Instead, what it means is that there isn’t going to be an impediment on the basis of public opinion towards those sorts of interventions. So to the degree that you can get a truly nonpartisan, or a truly neutral intervention, you’re not going to find problems on the basis of public opinion barriers to that or objections on the part of the mass public, which means that it’s possible for the international community to focus on the technical aspects that might make elections freer and fairer to focus on the technical aspects that political leaders or elites might care about in terms of the implementation of peace accords. 

So in that respect, it’s great. There isn’t going to be a barrier on the basis of public opinion. The challenge, of course, is that it’s very hard to put forward a truly non-partisan intervention. Because even the sorts of things we tend to think of as nonpartisan, i.e. the support for the democratic process, is a problem if the party that you yourself happen to support is not particularly a Democratic party. 

So you can see how there are various ways that interventions can occur that are still going to be problematic from a public opinion perspective. And so, the degree to which it matters is just simply the degree to which the international community or outside actors can find a way to mitigate the concerns that various actors would have in terms of the degree to which their intervention upsets the balance of domestic power. 

And I think it doesn’t really matter that it’s NATO doing it or that it’s the United States doing other than they happen to be the ones doing it in these particular cases. The other aspect of this research is that there really isn’t– to the degree I can discover, there’s not really an anti-Western bias or an anti-American bias that people have for these sorts of things. They focus much more heavily on the intervention itself for the act as opposed to the actor. 

So the research that I’ve conducted would suggest that people behave the same way or react the same way to the United States doing X as they would do Canada doing X, or Turkey doing X, or Russia doing X. So we tend to focus on anti-Americanism because the United States has typically been very active in its interventions in the past. But people don’t care about the America part. They care about the intervention part. And they care specifically about the degree to which it has partisan implications for their domestic struggles. 

HARRIS SAMAD: Wow. That’s a fantastic overview. Thank you. And then I think as you rightly state that the more provocative question out of all of that is, what does it mean to have a truly neutral intervention? And obviously is that something that’s possible given the sort of geopolitical setup of our world? So thank you. 

With that, I would like to turn to some of the questions that have come in from the audience. So it looks like we have one which is for any of our panelists. And it says, “could the Taliban become the Hezbollah of Afghanistan?” which I think is essentially to say, could they become a state within a state and that similar sort of function? So that’s for any of our panelists. Feel free to jump in. 

PATRICIA KARAM: Oh. Maybe Dr. Brahimi can go and then I’ll follow if you want. Up to you. Should I go? 

HARRIS SAMAD: Go ahead. 

PATRICIA KARAM: Yeah? OK. So what I wanted to say is I might be a little bit provocative in my response, but in some sense it’s linked to the discussion that we had before given that if led in some ways to the entrenchment of Hezbollah post-Ta’if is because they were one of the entities which were not disarmed for a number of reasons. So– sorry? 

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: The only one actually. 

PATRICIA KARAM: Yes. Yes. The only one– 


PATRICIA KARAM: Yes. The agreement allowed the party basically to keep its military apparatus intact as a result of which it began afterwards to construct its de facto state within a state. So in my view, Hezbollah is as much– again I’m being provocative, the negation of Lebanon as is the Taliban for Afghanistan. And I think these negations are facts on the ground. And the dilemma is as follows. The longer you allow these types of predatory sort of armed non-state actors to exist, the more they become entrenched, ultimately negating the country. 

If you conflict with them, they defeat you. In both cases, they’re existential threats. There is no really ready solution because if you choose to accommodate them, they will get more entrenched and acquire the ability to eliminate you. So in some ways, as much as there is no solution within the closed system that is today, that is Lebanon today. One may see that external intervention may be the only way out. And I’m throwing this out. 

In Afghanistan, the answer could be, and again I’m being provocative, not to let the US get out. If you take the US out, Afghanistan could become Lebanon. And a closed system without a US presence will lead to the Taliban taking over. 

HARRIS SAMAD: Mr. Brahimi, would you like– 

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: May I add something? 


LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Hezbollah was at its very, very start. You see, what has happened is that Syria was an overlord in Lebanon for many years when Taif took place, had brought in Iran, and Iran constructed Hezbollah in– so Hezbollah was a small entity as a matter of fact in 1991. And the Syrians came in with this idea that you see these people are fighting Israel and the occupation South Lebanon by Israel. So leave them alone. 

And Iran has built Hezbollah into a formidable force. That is what happened. In Afghanistan, we have got to remember that you see, the Taliban controlled 95% of the country in 2001. They were routed out of the big cities, but nobody stopped to ask where have they gone? Where are they? What are they doing? And I think there were a few timid ideas that, let’s see if we can reach out to the Taliban now. And they were silenced by everybody. There was unanimity. Iran, Russia, the United States, the Northern Alliance, and even [Hamid] Karzai. No, no. Taliban are gone. So forget about them. 

I think that was a huge mistake. So the enemy you are facing now in Afghanistan, the Taliban, is the people who ruled Afghanistan 95% of the territory of Afghanistan. And they were thrown out by a foreign power unjustly from their point of view, and who are now coming back. So you will have to deal with that not forgetting what the background is. 

The second thing is that you see, Hezbollah has huge support from outside of the country. They are the only faction in Lebanon that has that much support in Lebanon. So that also counts. So can the Taliban, if we come to an agreement where the agreement is not really total like Taif, can the Taliban count on such strong outside support while everybody else does not have that support? Is a question that you need to ask. 

And then if you are telling the Taliban that the Americans are leaving in May, and the basis of this negotiation is the agreement between the Taliban and the Americans that was signed. So what are you telling them? What are you telling the Taliban? You are telling the Taliban wait until May and then you will talk to your brothers, the other Afghans, but in a totally different framework. 

So you see all these things it is easy to get into for outside powers, even as strong as the United States. It is easy to get in. It is complicated to get out in the right manner. So I think the United States and the new administration would have to think very, very seriously of what is it that they want in Afghanistan for themselves before thinking of the agreement. But also, perhaps give a little bit of thought to what happens to the Afghans. The Afghans did not invite them. They came in. They helped a lot. But it before they leave, they have got to give a little bit of thought to what they are going to leave behind. 

DANIEL CORSTANGE: OK. And let me just jump in very quickly to second the point that Lakhdar has raised here that one of the core distinctions between Hezbollah and the Taliban is simply going to be the extent of foreign support for Hezbollah which probably doesn’t exist in the same way for the Taliban. So the relationship between Hezbollah and Syria was very much a marriage of convenience for purposes of continuing to conflict with Israel, although the support coming from Iran is fairly substantial in terms of financial resources, whether it’s from the government itself or perhaps from private tithing as well. 

So Hezbollah is a lot of things, one of which is a militia, one of which is a service agency, one of which is a political party. To the degree that they can continue to draw so much funding from abroad, it allows them to continue to provide those services which people need to the degree that that funding dries up or the support that they get from abroad starts to deteriorate or starts to vanish. 

They’re going to turn into a political party just like any other one. They’ll win votes, they’ll win seats, but they won’t have nearly the same degree of clout within the system as they currently do. And a lot of that is based on their ability to fund a lot of the services that they’re providing that other parties can’t provide and that the state itself can’t provide. 

So to the degree that the Taliban is going to look like Hezbollah, it’s because they’re going to get resources from elsewhere. Otherwise perhaps they win a war, perhaps to win some elections, but they’re not going to be doing it in the same way that Hezbollah does within Lebanon. 

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: If I may, one more point that is extremely important about Ta’if. You see, the elephant that was not in the room in Ta’if was Syria. Whereas practically everybody else was interested, was following what was happening in Ta’if, but was not interfering, Syria was the elephant that was not present that was really– everybody calls Syria Damascus every night. Every single night before they– 

And when the agreement took place, of course we had to accommodate a lot of what the Syrians wants and the Lebanese did not want. And even though as sure as the Ta’if was put into– the president that we elected, Rene Moawad, was assassinated two weeks later. And there came a president who made a new agreement, a total new agreement with Syria that was as much the base of what happened after that as Taif was. As a matter of fact, it superceded Ta’if. 

So you see this is also a lesson. How are you going to structure an agreement to end a civil war and build a new dispensation while a lot of people who are perhaps not inside the room have a lot of influence in what is happening? So in the case of Afghanistan, you have got to think Iran, you have got to think of Pakistan, you’ve got to think of Russia, and also others like India. 

So as you negotiate in Doha, you’ve got to make sure that those forces are supporting you and not actually making it more difficult for you to get a good deal. 

HARRIS SAMAD: Thank you. Thank you very much for that. Unfortunately, I think that we are running a little bit low on time. So to all of our panelists, again, thank you very much for your expertise, for your time. And Irfan, I will pass it over to you to close us out. 

IRFAN NOORUDDIN: Thank you, Harris. Thank you, Mr. Brahimi, Dr. Corstange, Dr. Karam, and especially her excellency Ambassador Rahmani for this opportunity in partnership with the Embassy of Afghanistan here in Washington on this very important conversation. We are cognizant of course that this is happening in the immediate backdrop of the Geneva Conference, the Donor’s Conference, [INAUDIBLE] and also another horrific bombing in Bamiyan at which innocent lives were once again made the collateral damage of this ongoing conflict. 

And so understanding how we come to peace to build a stable and prosperous Afghanistan is maybe the most important question for the world community just as it has been. And we are glad and proud to play a part in that. 

Over the last four months, we have issued a major report on how to combat illicit finance and illicit economic networks in Afghanistan as part of the anti-corruption agenda. You can find this on our website along with a high-level conversation featuring President Ashraf Ghani. And just last month, a wonderful conversation featuring First Lady Laura Bush and First Lady Rula Ghani focused on women and women’s rights in Afghanistan. 

All of this is available on our website page and we look forward to engaging all of you, especially our esteemed panelists in feature programming at the Atlantic Council. Be safe. And for those of you in America, a very happy Thanksgiving from all of us at the South Asia Center. Thank you.

The webinar can be viewed here.

The South Asia Center is the hub for the Atlantic Council’s analysis of the political, social, geographical, and cultural diversity of the region. ​At the intersection of South Asia and its geopolitics, SAC cultivates dialogue to shape policy and forge ties between the region and the global community.

Related Experts: Irfan Nooruddin and Harris A. Samad

Image: Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah speaks during talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents in Doha, Qatar September 12, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem al Omari