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Faculty Insights Podcast: Humanitarian Efforts in Afghanistan

JPI Online’s Roya Lotfi sat down with Dr. Shinasi Rama, Clinical Professor of Politics and International Relations to discuss the timely topic of humanitarian efforts by NGOs and INGOs in Afghanistan.

Listen below:

JPI Faculty Insights Episode 1: Human Efforts in Afghanistan with guest Dr. Shinsai Rama

Meet Dr. Shinasi Rama:

Dr. Shinasi Rama is a Clinical Professor of Politics with the International Relations Program at NYU. He has studied at the Albanian Military University and at the University of Tirana, Albania. He was one of leaders of the Student Movement in Albania and a co-founder of the Democratic Party of Albania. He also served as a Political Advisor and as the Spokesman of the Provisional Government of Kosova in the US. He also was the Political Advisor of the Kosovar Albanian Delegation at the Rambouillet Conference. After the war of Kosova served as a Senior Political Advisor to the Prime Minister of Interim Government of Kosova. He served as the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Albanian Studies. He also has appeared in a variety of media outlets including Voice of America, BBC, C-Span, PBS (Lehrer News), ABC, NBC, CBS, CBC, Huffington Post, Brian Lehrer, Democracy Now, Fox News, as well as in numerous printed and visual media outlets in the US and abroad.

Transcript:

Roya Lotfi: Hello and welcome to JPI Faculty Insights brought to you by The Journal of Political inquiry at NYU. My name is Roya, and I’m a graduate student in the International Relations program here at NYU. I’m very excited because this is our first interview, and today we’re going to be talking about a really big topic that has been circulating the news cycle and the international community for a couple of weeks now. And that’s the Taliban resurgence and takeover in Afghanistan. For this episode, I specifically want to talk about what’s being done by organizations such as NGOs, IGOs, and the world community as a whole in response to this human rights crisis happening right now in Afghanistan. So to dig into this topic, I’m joined today by Professor Shinasi Rama, so why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself?

Shinasi Rama: Hi, I’m Shinasi Rama. I’m a professor of International Relations, a clinical professor, with the MA program. I hold a PhD from Columbia University. And my specialization is international relations, balance of power, nation building, state building. I am teaching the international relations core class – theories of IR. I am also teaching nationalism and ethnicity and nation building, and also a class on thesis seminar. Classes are seminar-based formally but I tend to lecture pretty heavily because when you deal with theories and arguments, students need that kind of information and exposure. But then I always set up some time when students can participate, and participation is, of course, encouraged in my classes. 

RL: All right, great. Thank you. Now on to the topic of today’s episode. So let’s rewind a bit to August 15th 2021, when the capital city of Kabul fell to the Taliban.

Audio clip of Peter Alexander for NBC Nightly News: Major breaking news tonight, the fall of Kabul as the Taliban completes its takeover of Afghanistan . . . 

Audio clip from CNBC: The fall of Afghanistan happened quicker than almost anyone expected.

Peter Alexander: 20 years after US forces first arrived in Afghanistan, the Taliban completing its stunning takeover in little more than a week.

Audio clip of President Biden at the White House: My national security team and I have been closely monitoring the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and moving quickly to execute the plans we had put in place to respond to every constituency, including – and contingency – including the rapid collapse we’re seeing now.

RL: What happened on that day?

SR: What happened was that there was an agreement between the Taliban and the United States on handing power to the Taliban. And this, of course, was implemented fully on the side of the United States, but the factor that changed the game, the game changer was the attitudes of the leading Afghan players, mostly ethnic players, and other clusters of power – tribal, religious, etc. – that really has led to that kind of rapid collapse of the Afghan army and the handing of Kabul to the Taliban. The point is that this was both done after careful planning, but it also happened with other purposes. Kabul is a large city of six and a half million people. And anybody who takes responsibility for that city, the first thing that it has to do, it has to provide for order, for food, for care, for, you know, handle the social pressures, etc. So Taliban got Kabul, but it was, in a sense, a very mixed victory for them. People outside of Afghanistan viewed it as a victory for the Taliban. But the reality is that the situation is much, much more complex than that. And every day that goes by, we see that the fall of the capital was a huge, huge problem for the Taliban itself.

RL: And by problem, you mean this huge responsibility that the Taliban now have to basically build a nation with its comparatively limited resources, is that correct?

SR: They don’t have the resources, they will be dependent on the existing power structures, they will be dependent on the elites, they need the support of large parts and segments of the population that have been active with the previous Afghan government. And so in a sense, there is a lot of issues for the Taliban, that in a sense, would force them to get out of the security zone where they felt that they were just the Mujahideen, and now they have to govern. And that is not easy. And in many, many ways, it is impossible for that. And this has led to major issues, and they are very, very aware of it. But at the same time, it bodes well for the future because they have no other way but to negotiate their way through.

Audio clip of Seb Walker for Vice News: There was a conversation over the weekend with a senior US commander here from the US Military Central Command which is located here in Qatar. And officials from the Taliban, representatives from the Taliban, sitting down with the US military for conversation about the unfolding situation on the ground.

RL: So this ties in really nicely to the next topic I want to talk about, which is basically about humanitarian intervention. But before we dive into that, I want to touch upon the moral gray area of intervening in Afghanistan, because obviously, the US and other countries have tried that before, did it work before? And is it possible or even moral to try to force an outside culture upon Afghanistan?

SR: Well, to begin with, we have to be clear that it is not always impossible to change a society. The United States has been one of the most successful countries in rebuilding entire societies. And you can look at Germany after World War II or Japan. And then you can see that the outcome was usually positive – from very militaristic societies, we ended up with democracies, albeit they have their own shortcomings. 

In the case of Afghanistan, what is a major concern is – and it is not a failure by any stretch of the imagination, because there are millions of Afghan people, women, and the younger generation that really have been exposed to a completely different understanding of a modern society, of their possible role in this society, and the values that should define them. So in that sense, I would not say that it was a failure as people say. But Afghanistan has its own specific way. For 40 years, it has – now 42 years – it has been involved in a war, first the Soviets, then you have the Civil War, and now we have the United States intervening, and now we are on the verge of another Civil War, which is almost inevitable. And in the sense, then, Afghanistan has seen the extremes of the sides. It has seen on one side, a radicalized cluster of people that have been following leaders or ideologies that are extreme on the, let’s say, religious version of them, and on the other side, has seen the rise of a group of people, basically, a lot of them young, educated in the West, etc, that have tried to change the situation within Afghanistan. 

So that is a clash that seems not to bode well for the modernizing forces in Afghanistan, because a lot of these people have left and are getting out of Afghanistan as fast as they can. But having said that, I would also insist that not everything is black and white. There are entire areas of Afghanistan, major cities, where you’d see and you would feel the presence of these individuals, clusters of people, groups, highly educated people, professionals, without whom no society can function, that are present. And Taliban has no way but to deal with that. So in that sense, then this is the specific situation of Afghanistan.

RL: So it seems like there’s two parts to this where in the US and many Western countries, we like to focus on the idea that we have to help enact change and progress from the outside. But there’s also this front of people on the inside – those who have stayed – who are also pushing for change.

Audio clip of Alistair Bunkall for Sky News: [sounds of sirens and people protesting]The protests against the Taliban have moved on to the streets of the capital.

Audio clip of Yalda Hakim for BBC News: Afghan women around the world are protesting the Taliban’s new hijab requirement in schools by posting photos of themselves wearing colorful traditional dresses on social media. 

SR: Absolutely. What happened is, people forget or the tend to ignore the fact that although Afghanistan is basically a Muslim country, fundamentally Muslim country, a Sunni Muslim country considering leaving aside the Hazaras and the others, but the key point is the issue that from 1960’s onward, every political movement that was started in Afghanistan, even from the times of Zahir Shah to the time of his overthrow, and after, including the Communist Party, and including the time of the Soviets and the United States intervention, etc. All of them had this kind of modernizing streak, an effort to reach, if you want to put it in these terms, a concordance, an arrangement between the Islamic views and the modernization views. And the modernization, the westernization in Afghanistan was pretty much understood in terms of technology, in terms of education, in terms of, let’s say, new norms in the society, treatment of women, employment, education, etc, etc. 

What happens is that, particularly in times of crisis, and Afghanistan went through one of the most incredible periods of ethnic and social strife that is unresolved as yet during the Soviet crisis, when you see people falling on the side of extremism, religious extremism, because that kind of religious extremism provides, in their view, the appropriate solution for every problem that they have. And this has led to a chasm, to a divide in the Afghani society. And this is bound to continue in the future. It has led to a civil war, it has led to clashes before, even during the presence of the United States, and it will be so in the future. 

So one has to acknowledge that Afghanistan is a Muslim country, yes, but there are large segments of the population that are urbanized, highly educated, professional, and that do not take that easily this kind of extremism that comes from the harshest rural areas, if you want to put it in these terms, or from the religious quarters of where the Talibs tend to grow. So that’s the issue. And it’s going to be permanently there, it’s not going to disappear. Because either in the form of resistance, or in the form of social discontent, there always will be this kind of presence in Afghanistan that is not easy to eradicate. 

RL: So obviously, then, there’s this internal view of the push for more humanitarian policies within Afghanistan. But there’s also many external factors, one of them being NGOs or non-governmental organizations. And in this case that can include Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. So can you speak to the extent of which these organizations have been trying to uphold the rights of those who are currently being oppressed in Afghanistan? And how are they doing that? Are they involved on the ground, or are they more trying to solve the problem from the outside? 

SR: Well, to understand what happens to the NGOs and to such structures, one has to go back not to what happened in Afghanistan before, or what’s happening in the eyes of these reporters of these organizations now, one has to look at the particular attitude that the Taliban had towards these NGOs and IGOs that were operating in the Taliban dominated areas. And what we know, or what we remember, or what we have seen, from the way the Taliban behave, we can say that A: any organization that will operate outside the purview of the Islamic religion will have a hard time operating in Afghanistan. Which means that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, etc., that in the eyes of Taliban are seen as instruments of control or influenced by certain governments and interest groups, will have a hard time operating in Afghanistan. 

The second point is that we will see that Taliban itself is deeply interested in having a set of NGOs that provide particularly health care, or issues that are related to shelters and food and so on and so forth, that they basically will end up being favored and tolerated by Taliban. Remember, in 2015, when the Talibs attacked Kunduz, the first thing that they did, they basically notified the NGOs, the various NGOs in Kunduz, that A: to identify their aid workers and whomever was there and second: they are guaranteed that they will not be touched. So the Taliban understands pretty well how to handle this part. 

The third element is, or, has to do with the agenda of these groups. As I said, it is not easy to operate in an Islamic society and advocate for change. So what we’ll see in the case of Afghanistan, I think we will see a fundamental division between the manner in which such organizations will be treated that are seen as agents of change, that deal with issues that are sensitive to the Taliban mindset and to their values – women, education, employment – everything else that intervenes in the idea of the perfect Islamic society that they have in mind, that will be deemed as detrimental. But on the other hand, the, you know, the Red Crescent [Cross] organization and doctor organizations or structures that have to do with the various NGOs, from the World Food organizations, or United Nations High Commission on refugees, etc, all of them will be tolerated by Taliban, because they bring resources and they help them achieve the pacification of the society. So people have to realize that there is going to be this kind of alignment in terms of the organizations that fall within the interests of Taliban, organizations that are acceptable, whose mission is tolerable, and organizations that Taliban views as nothing else but agents of destruction or as agents of foreign powers, and so on. 

And regrettably, there is a third issue: the Taliban doesn’t operate in a vacuum. So it has learned a lot from the way that other countries, Islamic countries in particular, have evolved an understanding of what constitutes human rights, or what constitutes social justice, or the way the women must be treated. And this is an ongoing debate in the Islamic world. And this has been ongoing for the past 70 years. And so all the examples and all the justifications that one sees, or finds in the arguments of countries coming from Saudi Arabia, or United Arab Emirates, or in some cases, even in the extreme version, say Yemen or so on and so forth, have become part and parcel of the political discourse of the Talibs. 

All what I said does not preclude the fact that the Talibs understand – the Taliban government – understands very, very well that Western countries, that are not extending recognition to the Taliban government like they did in the 90’s, will make it a point of, let’s say, recognition that the Talibs have to tolerate such organizations. And thus far, even if some organizations have moved out of Afghanistan, others have maintained minimal presence. But the Talibs have been – the Taliban has been very careful not to openly intervene with them, openly persecute them, although there have been assassinations, arrests, you name it. But they will try to do that as hush-hush as they can, as silently as they can. This is to be expected. It always happens in situations of conflict. 

RL: So you’re saying that the hold that other countries have over Afghanistan, basically, like the most powerful card that they can play, so to speak, is in recognizing the country? Is that correct?

SR: Absolutely. Here is the issue: the rapid takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban was misinterpreted in the West as being, you know, the irresistible advance of a particular army. But the issue is that the Taliban are part of an ethnic group and actually a minority within that ethnic group. And one has to recognize that Afghanistan is a country that has about 30 different ethnicities, there are four major groups, and all the major groups have their own part and share of the Afghan army presence. So what we read in the West was the surrender to the Taliban, as a matter of fact, was a negotiated handling of power by these local potentates to the Taliban, all the while they were maintaining their own armies and their equipment and so on. 

So Afghanistan, as I said, is a country on the brink of civil war, everybody is armed to the teeth, they are trying to negotiate everything not to let that thing go to that point. Now, the reason why Taliban are very worried is that in the 1990s they understood that, but they couldn’t formally take neither the place in the United Nations and they couldn’t get beyond the recognition by three different countries, which meant that they were basically just the puppet state of Pakistan at the time. So the key issue then for the Taliban is that they understand that in today’s world, you cannot exist unless your state. And one of the core elements of being a state is to be recognized by two or more states in the international system, and one of them almost inevitably has to be one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. 

So what happens in the case of Taliban, then, they are working very, very hard to achieve this kind of recognition on the United States and its allies, and other countries like Russian Federation and the Chinese. Albeit countries like Afghanistan may be ready to extend them recognition, but nobody wants to really go against this agenda at this point. And all this then ties in to the tenuous hold that the elites have over power in Kabul. So what we’ll see in my view, is that there will be this very precarious time where in their relationship to the various organizations and the civil society in Afghanistan, the Taliban will be immensely careful, until it achieves the formal recognition. And this is something that no country is willing to extend to them without achieving their own goals. So this is how one has to look at the role of the external powers in relation to the Taliban, and the various NGOs and the IGOs and the civil society organizations. 

Audio clip of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Bloomberg: The Taliban said it seeks international legitimacy and international support, and that will depend entirely on what it does, not just on what it says. And the trajectory of its relationship with us and with the rest of the world will depend on its actions. Now, the Taliban has made a series of commitments publicly and privately, including with regard to freedom of travel, with regard to combating terrorism and not allowing Afghanistan to be used as a launching point for terrorism directed at us or at anyone else, including as well upholding the basic rights of the Afghan people, to include women and girls and minorities, to have some inclusivity in government, to avoid reprisals. And these are very important commitments. 

RL: My next question would be, why is it so important for Afghanistan, and, you know, in general, for countries to be formally recognized? What would that mean for Afghanistan?

SR: I was involved personally in the process of the acquisition of statehood by the state of Kosovo an Albanian region. So I understand the complexities of the process of becoming a state. First, recognition of your sovereignty by other states in the international system grants you a number of rights that have to do with the protection with your borders, with the armed forces, with foreign interference, and so on. 

Second, you become part and parcel of the international system because you adhere to the body of treaties and agreements and norms, etc, that regulate the behavior of the states in the international system. 

Third, you’ll need, and you can get access to the international organizations and aid, from the United Nations to the financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, and World Trade Organization, if you are admitted, and so on. 

Fourth, you then become part of this very complex edifice of the financial structures etc. And beyond that, then you can trade and you can operate as a state, you can get credit and you can get debt, and you can protect your own citizens, and so on and so forth. So recognition as a state in the international system bestows upon you, as a state, immense benefits, because any act that happens in your state would be considered almost by definition an act of aggression unless you permit it, etc. So all countries, all entities that emerge in the international system, want to acquire this kind of sovereignty that comes with the recognition as states by other states, because ultimately, everything boils down to sovereignty. And sovereignty is the ability to make decisions internally and externally without being held accountable by anybody. And that’s what Taliban wants. And that’s what every government wants, until the Taliban acquires that kind of capability, that right, they will be pretty much frozen and very limited in their own actions. 

RL: So as of right now do we see that kind of pressure for state recognition working on the Taliban?

SR: They are very uneasy in the way they want to go about it. So they send mixed messages. So one can look at the way they want to handle domestic affairs, and they cannot give up their own belief system. And what I mean is the Sharia law and the way women have to be treated, and the way the government has to work, and so on and so forth. You know, anybody who comes from an Islamic society understands very well that Islamic societies are not backward when it comes to the processes of problem solving, taxation, surveillance, conscription, if you want to put it in these terms, and so on. Even during the times the Talibs were – the Taliban was operating illegally, and was, you know, fighting against the United States and the Afghan government, they had a very rigid taxation system in place, a rigid justice system in place, and all was based on the traditional rule, etc. 

But now, having said that, being a state you operate at a completely different level because, you know, a Pashtun village or region is not the same as a city like Kabul, or is not the same as the, you know, other cities, Mazar-i-Sharif, and so on and so forth. So what you see in the case of the Taliban is that they are trying very hard to have this kind of, how should I say, keeping the balance, trying to maintain the equilibrium between what they want to do, what their agenda is, and what the requirements to be recognized as a state are from the outside. So this is a very transitory period, again as I said, and the Taliban understand it, but at this point they cannot give up their own religious values, and so on. So sooner rather than later, we will see how the Taliban, based on these values, will end up clashing with the other segments of civil society and other groups within Afghanistan. 

Will that have repercussions on their recognition as a state? Yes. Everybody is waiting, each and every one of the great powers is waiting to hear and see what the Taliban is going to do. The Russians have a special envoy for Afghanistan, they have received the Taliban, and so on and so forth, delegations and so on. But they view them, and they declared them a terrorist organization. Now, the Chinese have granted like $30 million in aid, and they do trade with Taliban and so on. But they do not want to be the first to extend recognition. Pakistan, that is their inspirerer and their ally and the creator is refusing to – not refusing, but it’s pretty reluctant to be the first country to recognize Taliban because by definition they will lose a lot of benefits that it has in trade and exchange with other countries. And of course, other regional powers have their reservations. One can think just of Iran that is, and remains, deeply concerned about the Shiite, the Hazarah minority there. And nobody has an interest in recognizing Taliban unless Taliban gives them what they want. And what they want, as we saw in the last Doha agreement, is practically this transformation of this resistance movement into a governing structure. And the Taliban seem to be very reluctant to give up their identity as fighters. But they understand that they have to behave pragmatically. 

RL: The situation almost seems like the ball is in Afghanistan’s court, so to speak. And other nations are kind of just taking a more passive role and waiting to react to what Afghanistan chooses to do. Would that be correct to say? And do we have any idea what they will choose to do? 

SR: Let’s go back to the first question. A: nobody’s staying quiet. Everybody is exerting as much pressure as they can on the Taliban. And that is obvious. The Russians, the Chinese, the Pakistanis, the Iranians, everybody’s doing – and the United States above all, and the Europeans – everybody is exerting a lot of pressure on the Taliban. That’s number one issue. 

The second issue is: will Taliban change? Taliban will not change. It’s very difficult to get a fighter and make them into a bureaucrat, it’s as simple as that. So will Taliban have to negotiate? Yes. Why? Because it has no other choice. All these countries that seem reluctant to recognize the sovereignty of Taliban, on you know, in Afghanistan, all of them are basically posing conditions that will force Taliban to go to a corner, and the pressure is external and internal. All the foreign funds have been frozen, ability to take loans has been taken away from them, taxation system is not working very well because all the regions have their own sub-national structures that were fostered during the past 40 years. So the loyalties are, as I said, ethnic and tribal. And it’s not going to be easy for Taliban. So in that sense, then, one can say that foreign powers are doing – each and every one of them – doing everything they can for their own narrow national interest, depending on what it is. And the Taliban cannot get out of its skin of being a Mujahideen movement that is based on a very strict interpretation of Islam. And that will lead almost by default, by definition, in due course of time – a few months – into clashes within Afghanistan itself. 

RL: So with all these factors to consider, and just to kind of wrap up this conversation, how do you see the future of Afghanistan playing out? 

SR: Well, nobody knows what the future holds. And we don’t deal with hypotheticals. We cannot make predictions based on what the future will be because we don’t know. All we know is that from time immemorial, anybody who knows the history of that region knows that ethnic groups in particular, religious groups, and various empires, always have clashed. So the future of Afghanistan will not be decided just by what the Taliban wants to do, but will be decided by the ethnic relations, imperial clash between the various – I mean, the clash between various empires, and then in addition to that there will be the religious and the fundamentalist, let’s say, resistance to the westernization phenomenon processes. So what is the future for Afghanistan? The future will be determined by the path that all these three fundamental forces will take in the shaping of Afghanistan: ethnicity, imperial clashes, and religious clashes. 

RL: All right. Well, thank you so much Professor Rama for your insight and for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate it. 

SR: Sure. My best.

Credits

Producer and Host: Roya Lotfi

Guest: Dr. Shinasi Rama, Clinical Professor of Politics at NYU.

News clips (in order):

Peter Alexander for NBC Nightly News, August 15 2021. 

CNBC on YouTube, August 28th 2021. 

President Biden at the White House, August 16th 2021. 

Seb Walker for Vice News, August 17 2021. 

Alistair Bunkall for Sky News, August 19th 2021. 

Yalda Hakim for BBC News, September 16th 2021. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken for Bloomberg, September 9th 2021.

Photo Credit: Getty Images 2021

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