Guest interview with Dr. Greg Mills
Q: Dr. Mills, could you tell us about your background with the ISAF and your present work?
A (Dr. Greg Mills): I served four assignments with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2012. In 2006, I was invited by the then-Commander General David Richards, to establish a civilian think tank within their headquarters. We basically provided think-tank type advice within their headquarters in Kabul.
I was asked to go back in 2010 by the man who is now the Chief of the British Armed Forces, General Carter, and be a member of The Prism Group.
This was at a time when the British forces were leading operations in the Kandahar area. And I did that twice in 2010, and then went back as General Carter’s advisor at the end of 2012.
In February of 2021, I returned to Afghanistan for the first time in roughly a decade to finish a book that I’m writing on the challenges of trying to deliver development and stability from outside [the country]. It’s essentially a book about foreign aid, but also about external consultants and foreign military intervention in a post-Cold War context.
This book is based on my day job, which is heading the Brenthurst Foundation in South Africa. The Foundation offers a policy advisory service for mostly African heads of government, offered at their request. It’s a pro bono initiative funded by the Oppenheimer family, but headed by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who serves as its Chairman. I’m the Executive Director.
President Obasanjo and I went back to Afghanistan this past June-July together. He joined me in a mission to conceptualize what lessons we could offer the Afghans and what sort of regional process will be necessary to be able to create peace under the current circumstances.
Going back now is not just timely, but it’s obviously very pertinent given the pressing security issues that the Afghans face and given the link between current military events and the international withdrawal.
We were working together to identify the opportunities and methodology for peace, based on our own experiences in helping to facilitate an end to conflicts elsewhere. We have prepared a short documentary video entitled ‘The Asian Roundabout’, which presents a different look at Afghanistan in terms of finding a route to peace.
Q: Can you tell us about the state of Afghanistan as NATO accelerates its withdrawal?
A: It is instructive to look at this through the prism of the Afghan government.
The West had a particular way of going about peace-building in Afghanistan, which ebbed and flowed as circumstances demanded. Back in 2001, of course, it was all about “regime change”.
This quickly shifted, despite initial opposition to the idea, to the need for “nation building”, realising that for regime change to be permanent you need to bring about a different Afghanistan and its governing structure.
As 9/11 receded from collective memory, the international community became less interested in managing this process, hence the slow drawdown of troops over the last ten years. The region, of course, has continued to play its own games, given its own sets of interests.
Occasionally, those interests aligned with what Kabul wanted to do and other times it didn’t.
It was fundamentally, even though its international partners might disagree, a very abbreviated international mission by comparison to the needs and condition of the Afghan state. There’s an axiom in state recovery and state building, which is that even if all the conditions are right, even if you have willing participants, the period of recovery is at least as long as the period of decline.
Afghanistan has been in conflict more or less perennially since the Soviet intervention in 1979 during the Cold War, the outcome of which was only stabilized, ironically, by the advent of the Taliban in the mid-1990s. Then came 9/11.
Then you’ve got a period of recovery, another 20 years, on top of that. At best, in terms of the state decline-recovery axiom, we are back where we started.
In these environments, patience is the greatest strategic warrior, offering the sort of commitment to enable long-term changes to take root. This has been upended by the decision to withdraw.
Added to this, in Afghanistan and the surrounding region, you have always enjoyed willing and benign participants. To the contrary today.
Indeed in contrast to the need for long-term strategic patience, the current levels of instability and the surge of the Taliban has been accelerated by the peace that the United States made with the Taliban, its enemy, without at the same time ensuring peace between the Taliban and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, America’s ally.
Basically, the U.S. left its ally at war with its former enemy. This is particularly difficult given that the Afghan government has effectively inherited the system in which the United States went about leading prosecuting to the war in Afghanistan, which was through a set of outlying, scattered bases; many of which had to be supplied by helicopters in a very fragile patchwork of alliances and relationships all kept together by a steady flow of money and supplies. That has now ended.
It’s little surprise then that the security situation has deteriorated. The Afghans are going to have to work out their own way to try and make peace very quickly. I think the best-case scenario is, hopefully, that if they can hold on militarily to enough of the country, they will put themselves in a position to negotiate an end in the form of the ceasefire, perhaps create some form of inclusive government, thus avoiding a return to the situation of civil war of the 1990s, and then hopefully, ultimately, hold elections.
Q: Former President George W. Bush recently spoke out against the move to withdraw by the Biden administration. What do you project the consequences will be in Afghanistan and for NATO powers?
A: We’re seeing the consequences for Afghanistan unfolding at the moment, which is the collapse of the rural areas and some of the regional capitals undertaken by the Taliban.
The government continues to fight on in the key provincial capitals, where the fight for the future of Afghanistan will essentially be determined. The government’s job has been made much more difficult by a change in Taliban strategy, which is to cut the country off, or at least Kabul off from its supply routes to the North, which were considered once sort of safe territories for the Kabul administration. This allows the Taliban to put pressure on the supply routes to the South, which of course come mostly via Pakistan. But it’s not just about supplies. It’s also about income from customs revenues. So, this is going to boil down to fiscal pressure, as well as supply pressure on the government.
The Taliban is fighting a sort of war with multiple moving parts, which involves not only military aspects but also the creation of alliances with groups across the areas which have fallen to its control. It’s almost as if the Taliban has become a badge of convenience for various local interests and leaders, like ships flying a Panama flag.
This sort of smart strategic engineering explains why a large number of observers, particularly in the Afghan government, believe that it’s not the Taliban, but other regional actors behind the current strategy.
The pace of the collapse and the manner of the American withdrawal will have an impact on the United States’ moral authority.
Who, I ask, would want to be an ally of the United States when one looks at this mess, and would trust that they are in it for the long haul?
That’s the credibility gap that’s been created as a consequence of the withdrawal: that is, if you throw your lot in with the United States, when circumstances change, should governments change or a different administration come into power, suddenly you may no longer be the ally that you once were. That’s a long-term and potentially very corrosive consequence of what is unfolding in Afghanistan.
What about the shorter-term consequences? If the Taliban does end up taking over and establishes an Emirate as is its stated objective, one has to ask of its likely modus operandi within and without Afghanistan. It may seek to be a more enlightened, less authoritarian version of itself as it was in the 1990’s, so as to improve its international legitimacy, and secure sources of funding among other benefits. This may be the idea of some sectors of the Taliban, but we are not seeing that on the ground yet, where the Taliban’s governance method so far seems to be based on fear and retribution.
And what sort of foreign policy would a Taliban government have in Afghanistan? Would it no longer be interested in the export of terror? Is the Taliban of 2021 any different to the Taliban of 2001?
There is, too, a regional dimension. In the short-term, there is a need to ensure that chaos inside Afghanistan does not spill over into the neighboring countries, which I would imagine are a prime target of the sort of Islamification ‘brand’ that the Taliban prefers.
The first concern is Pakistan, which has largely been characterized by the Afghan government as being a supporter of the Taliban and being behind much of these actions. While there are undoubtedly those in Pakistan who prefer Afghanistan weak and fragmented given historical precedents, Pakistan also has the greatest amount to lose, should a radicalizing regime come about in Kabul as a consequence of the current instability.
Q: Are there comparisons to be made between Afghanistan and Vietnam?
A: Yes; the sort of high-speed Saigon thesis is now increasingly being invoked. But there are big differences between these two situations.
One is that North Vietnam was seeking to unify the country. The Taliban are not seeking to unify the country. They’re seeking power over the country.
The Taliban are also a loosely aligned group with a whole variety of interests and leaders, which will become more pronounced over time, increasing the likelihood of disunity.
However, unlike Vietnam, this is not a post-colonial struggle. The Taliban is also not in favor of a modernizing process of liberation or democracy. It is in favor, rather, of a regressive philosophy of governance.
The other big difference is that in Vietnam’s case, while there was a regional dimension to the conflict, it was principally led and prosecuted by domestic actors.
Yet there are similarities in terms of the way in which the United States has negotiated its exit from the war.
In the case of Vietnam, the U.S. made peace with the North Vietnamese as a consequence of the Paris Peace Talks and ostensibly militarily cut off its ally thereafter, culminating in the fall of Saigon in 1975. That seems eerily familiar to what we see unfolding in Afghanistan.
The hopeful analogy is that, just as the U.S-Vietnam relationship has since developed to the point that now Vietnam and America are close allies once more nearly 50 years later, the same might happen one day between America and Afghanistan.
But hope is not a strategy, and in the immediate term there is considerable likely damage to Washington’s moral authority as a consequence of the withdrawal.
There’s also an interesting parallel with Vietnam, in terms of understanding why America’s strategy in Afghanistan has failed.
I think most would agree today that the Americans got the strategy in Vietnam very badly wrong and misconstrued from the outset the Vietnamese nationalists as acting part and parcel of what would be a communist struggle, rather than as a struggle for national unification and liberation. Likewise, the strategy in Afghanistan has been at fault.
This essentially political struggle always had to be solved at the negotiating table. And it should have been negotiated early on when the Taliban were on their knees as a consequence of 9/11 given the change of government which followed as a result of the American intervention.
The first decade of the intervention in Afghanistan illustrates a major strategic failure and a failure of leadership and politics, specifically.
The characterisation of the war as one on terror and not as a political struggle had consequences you see today; a failure to apply basic principles of conflict resolution which has led us to where we are now.
What we have learned in terms of ending conflict is that you need three core components.
You need the parties to realize that there’s more to be gained from ending fighting than from continuing it. There has to be a stake in peace.
Currently, from the Taliban’s perspective, they probably don’t really feel that they have more to be gained by stopping fighting, unless they are somehow stopped militarily. They’re resurgent, and we’ve given them 20 years to be resurgent and to organize and align themselves regionally.
The second component of three that you need is the international community and the regional actors pushing or pulling the conflicting parties to the negotiating table.
We know we also don’t have that, at least currently. The absence of regional diplomacy has perhaps been the most glaring failure of all when it comes to Afghanistan.
For all of the power of the United States in its military terms, it has been correspondingly very weak in political terms and in terms of regional diplomacy.
Thirdly, you need local leadership, method and timing in any peace process. We were blessed in this regard, for example in South Africa, by having Nelson Mandela; a man who seized the opportunity for peacemaking and was a genius at it, but one who also recognised the need for a partner to deliver the deal, which he had in F.W. de Klerk, a relationship that Mandela cultivated at critical moments.
Although it’s very late in the day, there is still a chance that we can find a peaceful route out of the situation by urging the parties to the negotiating table, This will have to occur through a combination of regional diplomacy, as well as via support for the Afghan government in Kabul.
There needs to be a political peace to be a stable peace.
This will require a level of political commitment that we’ve not seen thus far from Washington.