Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies - European University Institute - School of Transnational Governance

'It was too late to prevent the fall of Kabul' - Olivier Roy on Afghanistan

In light of recent events in Afghanistan, Professor Olivier Roy sat down for an interview to discuss the potential impact of the fall of Kabul, the resurgence of the Taliban and the role the EU can play in assisting the country.

31/08/2021 | News

1.) Olivier Roy, the media has been reporting on the catastrophic situation in Afghanistan for a few weeks now, but the US and its allies’ exit was decided years in advance. You are a world-leading expert on Afghanistan. Were you surprised by recent developments?

I was not surprised by the collapse of the Afghan national army: it existed mainly on paper, lacked fighting spirit as well as ‘esprit de corps’ and was totally undermined by corruption. I was also not surprised by the collapse of the government, which had never been effective, nor united. What did surprise me, with the temporary exception of Panjshir, was the lack of resistance of the ‘warlord’ militias when defending their territories (such as Herat and Mazar). The reasons are two-fold: firstly, their best members left the field to be involved in business, and secondly, the Taliban had already been negotiating for a long time with local authorities in order to ensure a smooth surrender. In a sense, it is good news because it prevented the return to a full-scale civil war.

2.) Still remaining on the ‘surprise’: Is the present situation really a surprise to those in power? And if yes, what major errors were made and what could have been done to prevent all this from happening?

The people in power in Afghanistan were convinced that the Americans would never leave without a formal agreement between the government and the Taliban; so they were dragging their feet to gain more time. They were taken by surprise when Biden confirmed the withdrawal and instead of fighting back rushed to make individual agreements with the Taliban. As for Western political leaders, as usual they were not aware of the catastrophic situation on the ground, although there had been numerous reports written by intelligence officers describing the real situation. These reports were either ignored or re-written to provide a picture closer to the moderate optimism shown by political leaders. Anyway, it was too late to prevent the fall of Kabul. One should have fixed the problem of state building in the years following the initial military intervention: after that it was too late.

3.) What do you think is the most likely scenario now? Could there been any positive influence by China developing commercial ties with the Talibans’ regime?

The Taliban will confirm their hold on the power, because no credible alternative exists. They will probably be able to make a deal with the last existing stronghold of their Northern opponents (Panjshir). The real challenge will be of two kinds: the management of micro conflicts between local actors (often on an ethnic basis), and ISIS, as we have just seen with the attach at Kabul airport. China bought or rented huge assets inside Afghanistan such as copper mines by paying bribes to officials of the former regimes. The Taliban will certainly re-negotiate the deals but will keep strong commercial links with China. This will have no specific impact on the domestic situation: China has always stated that it deals with the country, not a specific regime, and it has always remained outside of the internal feuds in Afghanistan.

4.) What about Russia’s potential influence?

Russia will focus on assuring security for former Soviet Union Central Asian states. Russia’s influence among these former Soviet republics, many of which already understand that the West is not an alternative, will increase. That is part of Putin’s plan to regain the monopoly of leadership in this sphere of the world. However, as long that there is no return to the civil war that engulfed Afghanistan from 1994 to 2021, Russia will be careful to avoid interfering in the country.

5.) What about the EU: could there be any positive role beside its ‘damage limitation’ efforts to stop migration flows?

The EU might play a role at two levels. The first one is to support the NGOs working inside Afghanistan. The Taliban wanted to close them but have recently shown a more open approach. The issue is of course the role of women both as NGO’s employees and beneficiaries. What the Taliban really oppose is gender mixing in public space or at work. They will not compromise on that, but precisely because of this gender divide, unless one forbids both education and health for women (as was the case before 2001), there will be a need for female teachers, doctors, civil servants etc. Training and teaching these categories could be a potential field for cooperation. The EU’s second role will be to help maintain diplomatic relations with Afghanistan under the Taliban and accept the ‘normalisation’ of the Taliban regime on the international scene. The Taliban are eager to be recognised, and that is the only tool of pressure that can work on them. They will not negotiate the Islamic dimension of their regime.

6.) Is there any hope that the situation for women could improve this time compared to the previous Taliban regime, or will they be subject again to the same oppression? Could there be some heritage left in terms of rights recognition, after an entire generation of Afghans grew up embracing those ideas?

Women's statuses cannot be worse than what was established by the Taliban in 1996, when women were not allowed to leave home except when wearing a burqa and accompanied by a male tutor. The Taliban know that they have to make compromises with the new urban culture because they need civil servants, technocrats and experts that would leave the country if zero rights for women are offered. That provides a potential common ground for negotiation and cooperation. There were some 300.000 people in Kabul when they took the city in 1996. Now they are 6 million inhabitants who benefitted from 20 years of education and openness.

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