Gen. (Ret.) Joseph Votel discusses the role of Afghanistan in US regional strategic interests, whether a peace deal is possible with the Taliban, and how important Pakistan is to achieving a sustainable political settlement.
What should be the main focus of US policy in Afghanistan?
Our main focus in Afghanistan should be on implementing the President’s August 2017 South Asia Strategy which identified that achieving a political reconciliation between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban was our principle objective. This approach attempts to put focus back into the political and diplomatic realm and recognizes that pursuing a political settlement is our best chance to bring an end to the long war in Afghanistan.
Do you believe a deal can be reached with the Taliban?
I do believe it is possible to achieve a deal with the Taliban and this has been the primary focus of our Special Envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, supported by our military forces and of course the weight of the US Government and the NATO-led Coalition. We knew from the start that this would be a difficult and lengthy endeavor – a fractured Afghan Government; continued enablement of the Taliban by Pakistan; the influence of Iran and Russia; uneven Afghan military performance; spiraling high profile urban attacks; lack of trust between the principal Afghan adversaries; and, emergence of a regionalized branch of the ISIS Caliphate all mitigate against a quick resolution. We also understood that the Taliban would not immediately open direct talks with the Government of Afghanistan --- and it became necessary for the US to begin the peace process to create an agreement that would move this to internal Afghan – Taliban discussions. There are very difficult issues that must be resolved – including the conditions under which US forces would depart Afghanistan. The Taliban will likely press for a time table and we will press for specific conditions on the ground. This will require that we follow the difficult and sometimes messy political and diplomatic process of talking, finding compromise and setting conditions for new relationships. This is where we are today in the peace process.
What are our interests in Afghanistan in the long term, and will preserving them require an ongoing American military presence?
Our enduring interest in Afghanistan is ensuring that this country and the surrounding sub-Region can never be used again by violent extremists as a platform to attack our homeland, our citizens, our interests or those of our allies. This is the reason we went to Afghanistan in 2001 following the attacks of September 11th. Beyond this, Central and South Asia is an area where our long-term interests are served by preserving a favorable balance of power. The Great Silk road that transects this region has made it an area of competition between great powers for centuries --- it is in our interest to be seen as a positive and reliable partner in this region. We should also not forget that Countries in this region possess weapons of mass destruction and we have a long-term interest in preventing any further proliferation.
How important is Pakistan to achieving a lasting political settlement?
Pakistan has always been extraordinarily important to a peaceful resolution of the war in Afghanistan. Enablement and sanctuary for the Taliban in Pakistan has prolonged this conflict. A key aspect of our South Asia Strategy was to get Pakistan to play a more helpful role in the peace process. This was a principal task I had during my time as the CENTCOM Commander and through a series of engagements with Pakistan leadership we are now seeing a marked decrease in interference by Pakistan and in fact important assistance in not only hosting but participating in the diplomatic and political process. I believe it is in our National interest to have a strong and positive relationship with Pakistan.
How does Afghanistan fit into our broader security interests in the region?
Afghanistan sits at the nexus of Central and South Asia and controls key trade routes throughout the region. It is a culturally and resource rich country. The people are industrious and honorable. There was a time when Afghanistan was net exporter of agricultural products in the region. While the broader and experienced Afghan military continues to develop --- Afghanistan enjoys one of the very best Special Operations Forces in the Region and they are a key component to maintaining pressure on a number of violent extremist threats. Stability in Afghanistan promotes stability throughout the region.
How do you see great power competition playing out in Central and South Asia?
Our National Defense Strategy puts a premium on maintaining our competitive advantage against Great Power competitors. This competition is not limited to Eastern Europe or the Asian Pacific areas --- it in fact has to take place globally, and this includes Central and South Asia. This region represents the so-called “Grey Zone” where we compete against our adversaries and competitors by means short of direct military conflict. It is my belief that our principle objective in this area should be focused on maintaining a balance of power that is favorable to the United States. We do this through our security cooperation programs; through exercises; through International Military and Education Training programs that bring foreign officers to our schools and communities; and, it is done by being a reliable partner. By itself, our military effort will not be sufficient and therefore our diplomatic, economic and informational elements of national power must also be fully engaged. This is the best way we can compete against great powers in this region.