EFSAS Conference in EU Parliament: Situation in Afghanistan and future trajectories for the region and the West

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In recognition of the importance of a comprehensive and coherent European response to the situation in Afghanistan and the ramifications for the wider region of South Asia, the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) organized a very well-attended conference, ‘Situation in Afghanistan and future trajectories for the region and the West’ at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, in close collaboration with Member European Parliament (MEP) and Chair of the delegation for relations with Afghanistan, Petras Auštrevičius. Besides MEP Auštrevičius, EFSAS hosted a diverse panel consisting of four Afghan scholars and activists from different backgrounds and an engaging audience. The EU Ambassador to Afghanistan, Mr. Andreas von Brandt was also welcomed as a panelist and expressed his views. The Conference was moderated by Mr. Junaid Qureshi, Director EFSAS.

The 3-hour Conference featured 6 presentations by panelists, who presented different views on Afghanistan’s past, present and future, followed by a Q&A session providing the audience with the possibility to engage with the panel. The first speech was given by Ms. Horia Mosadiq, an Afghan journalist, Human Rights activist and winner of various awards including the prestigious ‘Women’s Rights Defender Award’ of Amnesty International. Ms. Mosadiq pointed out various human rights violations committed by the Taliban, including the systematic persecution of journalists and critics, the forced displacement of entire communities, as well as the wide-spread extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances. Her main concern, however, lay with the inhumane treatment of women in the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, which she stressed was unprecedented in the Islamic world.

Ms. Mosadiq made concrete appeals to the EU regarding engagement with the Taliban. In particular, she underlined the need to ensure that no aid delivered for the people of Afghanistan ended up with the Taliban. In this context, she proposed the implementation of an oversight mechanism for aid distribution.

Ms. Mosadiq also called upon the European Union to take serious action against Pakistan for hosting, sponsoring and exporting terrorism to the region and the wider world. She concluded by saying that Afghans, unfortunately, had not heard about serious action being initiated against Pakistan even as the country continued to support and harbor over a dozen terrorist groups.

The second speaker was Mr. Bashir Ahmad Gwakh, a renowned journalist who currently works for Radio Free Europe. Mr. Gwakh zoomed in on the future of the South Asian region in terms of terrorism following the Taliban takeover. He emphasized the Taliban’s terror connections throughout the region including with the Uzbek terrorist organization Ansarullah, the infamous Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), but also with the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP), a group that is often presented as the Taliban’s most prolific enemy but which, in reality, at times collaborates with the Taliban.

Mr. Gwakh pointed out that these terror groups function as blackmailing chips for the Taliban. By presenting themselves as the only regional force with some degree of control over them, the Taliban has successfully compelled powerful neighbors including Russia, India and China to initiate some sort of engagement with the Taliban, Mr. Gwakh explained. According to him, the fear of spillovers of terrorism across national borders is likely to lead to an increasing international engagement with the Taliban over time, and the eventual full diplomatic recognition of the Islamic Emirate. Furthermore, Mr. Gwakh pointed his finger at the State of Pakistan, which he said had never ceased to support the Taliban. He elaborated that the State of Pakistan has always distinguished between ‘Good’ Taliban (those who attacked NATO forces in Afghanistan) and ‘Bad’ Taliban (those who attacked Pakistan), but the new situation with China having stakes in Pakistan and Afghanistan is going to be even more interesting as China will seek to protect and manage its investments in Pakistan while the security situation in the region is only deteriorating. He queried what the international community could do with Pakistan, and observed that the situation was tricky.

Mr. Gwakh said that the Pakistani Army is very powerful and does not suffer from economic crises as its budget keeps increasing every year. He added that every time a European delegation goes to Pakistan and meets the Pakistan Army Chief and other Generals, Europe sends a signal to the democratic forces in Pakistan that they are not important. On the other hand, if a European delegation chooses not to meet the Army Chief while on an official visit, it will give a clear message to the Army that Europe does not want to deal with the Army and would like to engage with democratic forces in Pakistan.

Lastly, Mr. Gwakh highlighted that the Taliban are not politicians but battle-hardened jihadi fighters. Many of them have no interest in peace, and if conflict in Afghanistan subsides, it should be expected that terrorism will spill over into neighboring regions such as Central Asia and Jammu & Kashmir, where the Taliban and its partners will look for new battlegrounds. Mr. Gwakh said that terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir will increase and that “these militants will come for India”. 

The third speaker, Ms. Peymana Assad, representative of Roxeth, South Harrow on the London Borough of Harrow Council and the first person of Afghan origin elected to public office in the UK, delivered a very movingly personal speech.

Ms. Assad described the emotional toll on Afghans of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and added that sharing life stories of those affected was as relevant as discussing politics. The Taliban takeover, she continued, created a change in perspective by comparing the previous ideals of Europeans versus how they actually act now in the given circumstances. Talking about the role of NATO, the EU, UN and generally the Western powers, Ms. Assad explained that Afghanistan is still being seen through the prism of 18th century regional and colonial aspirations, being experimented on by former colonial powers. She highlighted that while foreign interventions are complex, one needs to listen to the people, yet, Afghans have not been listened to and their opinions have not been included in policy decisions that have come out. Ms. Assad cited the example of the views of the Afghan people not being taken into consideration by the US when it put people in power in Kabul after 2001. On many such occasions, Afghans saw themselves sidelined and observed power being put in the hands of those they considered perpetrators of violence. Forcing a country to do something that will harm it simply because one is out of patience is not a strategic remedy, Ms. Assad emphasized.  When it comes to Afghanistan’s dependence on foreign aid, Ms. Assad highlighted that more than 50% of the aid money went back into the coffers of Western donors, who despite their attempts to put blame solely on Afghans, have themselves been deeply involved in Afghanistan’s corrosively corrupt system.

Ms. Assad voiced grave concerns about the West’s engagement with Pakistan. Western officials have been rolling their eyes on the words of Afghans about Pakistan’s duplicity and brutal intrusion into their country, Ms. Assad said. She felt that Western officials, particularly those of the UK, which is the biggest donor of aid to Pakistan, were purposefully avoiding any conversation on Pakistan’s culpability in Afghanistan. Oftentimes the argument on behalf of Western States for not sanctioning Pakistan is that the country is a nuclear State, yet we are now all looking at the West sanctioning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, Ms. Assad said, while pointing out that this hypocrisy in policy needs to be corrected. Simultaneously, Ms. Assad added, the Pakistani civilian population suffers as a result of the West's decision to back the military regime in Pakistan.

Ms. Assad concluded her speech by calling upon MEP Petras Auštrevičius and Ambassador von Brandt to support the creation of a truth commission that will take evidence from all sections of society and provide justice to the survivors and victims of the Afghan conflict.

Malaiz Daud, Political Analyst, formerly Chief of Staff of Afghanistan’s former President (Mr. Ashraf Ghani), Research Fellow at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs and Research Fellow at EFSAS also took the floor. In an academic format, Mr. Daud explained the hybrid nature of the Afghan conflict that was characterized by State and non-State inbreeding, the development of intricate networks, the transcension of national boundaries, and the flexibility and resilience of terror groups. He gave the example of Pakistan, which has been very cunning and successful in engaging with a wide network of non-State actors. Such fluidity of belonging and interaction further explains the longevity of the conflict, Mr. Daud argued. These are precisely the reasons why the Americans did not succeed in their war in Afghanistan. Their interaction with the wrong parties led to mere suppression rather than transformation of the conflict.

Mr. Daud discussed the path forward and emphasized the necessity of aligning and finetuning with the Afghan realities in order to get a clear picture. This could take place, he averred, by engaging with non-violent movements such as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) and other non-State outfits that pursue their peaceful and humanitarian objectives without resorting to any form of violence.

Following the four speeches, the EU Ambassador to Afghanistan, Mr. Andreas von Brandt, commented on the different presentations and laid down the EU’s perspective on the issues raised. He argued that the EU indeed did not grasp the gravity and depth of the problem immediate after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August 2020. Yet, while Mr. von Brandt acknowledged that many mistakes have been made by the West in the past 20 years, he said that it is important to look at the present and acknowledge the many successes, especially in the fields of health, sanitation, media, budgeting and finance.

He further pinpointed the lack of a unified Afghan “voice” that has solid ideas and propositions, and which provides alternatives to the West to act. Regarding the case of Pakistan, Ambassador von Brandt said that, “What was said about Pakistan is also very important and I think we are not speaking enough about Pakistan. That is probably all I can say, but I agree with that”. Mr. von Brandt explicitly emphasized that the EU and the UN are not sending any money to the Taliban, and they are exploring alternative channels to provide humanitarian aid to the people. While fraud may still exist, as of now the EU is delivering food and other assistance to 19 million Afghans, and this has helped avoid the worst hunger, von Brandt stated.

Ambassador von Brandt further argued that the criticism directed at the international community is very contradictory – on one hand there are allegations that not enough financial assistance is being provided, while on the other there are comments regarding neo-colonialism and foreign intervention. While there might be truth in both contentions, he said, this mix of opinions makes it very difficult to come up with an appropriate response. However, as of now, the consensus of the international community is that the Taliban will not be granted political recognition.

Ambassador von Brandt closed his statement by saying that although some have called for more time, there is no scope for patience when faced with famine and a humanitarian disaster, and the international community must act swiftly.

Finally, MEP Petras Auštrevičius took the floor and expressed his thoughts. He conveyed his concern at the growing terrorism in the region and the fact that terrorist groups have become emboldened. The affiliations with the Taliban created by them carry the potential of having devastating consequences for the region. Regarding Pakistan, the MEP stated that the EU has granted GSP+ status to Pakistan, which is very important for Pakistan and its interests as it is a major boost to its economy. He added that safeguarding Human Rights is also a major element of GSP+ status, and the EU will keep checking Pakistan in this regard. There will be no stepping away from this policy. He elaborated that the Human Rights Committee of the European Parliament plans to visit Pakistan later this year, and he had no doubt that a strong signal on Human Rights will again be sent to the Government of Pakistan. Auštrevičius added, “On the Pakistani Military I can’t comment more than what was already said. I hope that those concerns which have been expressed do not constitute a strategic threat for our cooperation. Here dialogue is not an easy one”. 

The MEP argued that criticism needs to be accompanied by constructive proposals, and he urged the audience to consolidate their opinions in structured recommendations. He added  that while there is a need for a long-term vision, it is better to base action on short-term considerations as of now. For a long time, the EU has been the largest donor to Afghanistan, and the need now is to establish a concrete action plan for the next 5 or 10 years, made and owned by Afghans, in order to convince the European Parliament to continue with its support, Mr. Petras Auštrevičius concluded.

The panel discussion was followed by a vibrant Q&A session during which the speakers and the audience deliberated upon several important issues. Some members of the audience argued that minority voices of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others are not being heard enough and they need to be included. The speakers and the audience continued their interaction during the networking lunch that concluded the event.

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