Andrew Schwartz: I'm Andrew Schwartz and you're listening to the Truth of the Matter, a podcast by CSIS where we break down the top policy issues of the day and talk with the people that can help us best understand what's really going on. To help us get to the truth of the matter about the geopolitics surrounding Afghanistan, we have with us Dr. Jon Alterman, one of my long time and closest colleagues, who is a senior vice president at CSIS. He's the Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and the director of our Middle East program. Jon, thanks so much for joining us today. We've got a lot to talk about, but let me start first with Iran. Where are Iran's interests in Afghanistan? They don't necessarily align in terms of religion with the Taliban, but what are their interests in Afghanistan, and what are they hoping to get out of the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal?
Jon Alterman: Thanks Andrew, it's always good to be with you. Iran has a lot of interests Afghanistan. Not only is it a neighboring state. There are some things they are afraid of in Afghanistan. Drug smuggling is something that has been a long problem, and drug addiction is a big problem in Iran. I think they're concerned with some of the terrorist groups. They have worked out a modus vivendi with some of the terrorist groups in Afghanistan over time. I think they see some economic opportunities in Afghanistan. If you have an Afghan state that is isolated from the world—and Iran is isolated from the world—then Iran can sell things in Afghanistan. They see Afghanistan as an embarrassment to the United States. That's good for Iran, which sees itself locked in a competition with the United States. I think that they see a place where they can deal, and the Iranians want to be in a position where they can deal, where they can negotiate, where they can advance things. There are a whole bunch of Afghan refugees in Iran They've been there for years. I think you probably have more than a million Afghans in Iran now. Some of them are Sunni, some are Shia, some have been enlisted in a brigade that has fought in Syria. Maybe they'll go back to Afghanistan. So I think Iran mostly sees Afghanistan as a place where it's on the board. Where it has interests at play. Where it's going to see what it can exploit. Where it's going to see what it can advance, as part of Iran's broader view that they're isolated in the world, that they don't have a lot of friends. If they can create a friendly border in Afghanistan, then that would advance Iranian national security. They're going to be willing to do it, regardless of whether there's a sectarian division between a Sunni Taliban leadership and a Shia Iranian leadership.
Andrew Schwartz: And there is some precedence for the Iranian Shia leadership partnering with other Sunnis around the world, like Hamas for instance, correct?
Jon Alterman: With Hamas, with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Iranians are not hung up on the ideology; the Iranians are hung up on national interests. And the Iranians aren't hung up on sort of coloring somebody, friend and enemy. One of the reasons the Iranians have gained so much influence in Iraq is because they've been wanting to do deals with anybody, and they’ve been willing to double-cross people in order to advance things. I mean, Iranians have a sense for what their national interest is, and what steps they might want to take to advance it. And nobody is beyond the pale. I remember being told in Iraq five years ago that the Iranians had every imaginable group on the payroll in Iraq: that there were Sunnis on the payroll, there were Shia on the payroll, there were secular folks on the payroll, there were Kurds on the payroll, everybody is on the payroll. And The Iranians are maneuvering because they see themselves, again, not as dividing the world into friends and enemies, but seeing the world as where do I find an opportunity? Can I use that? Can I advance that? There's a subtlety to the way the Iranians approach this that Americans—in many ways accustomed to a Cold-War division of friends and enemies, the free world and then the communist world—we just don't see the world that way. We want more purity. Iranians don't even hope for purity. The Iranians say “Look, the world isn't pure at all, but we have interests, and how do we advance our interests?”
Andrew Schwartz: I want to talk about Iraq in a minute but let me ask you when it comes to Iran, what are some of the specific things that you see them doing with the Taliban that might be a problem for the United States?
Jon Alterman: Well look, the first thing they're doing is they're fanning the stories about how the U.S. is a completely unreliable partner. I'm not surprised they're doing it. I think it certainly advances their worldview, and it helps make them feel less isolated in the world. They are clearly exploring increased trade with Afghanistan. The Iranians have oil they can't sell in the global market. The Afghans need oil and gasoline. I would expect you're going to see the trade, which already was significant, actually tip upward. I would be concerned about Iranian forces or Iranian-backed forces moving into Afghanistan. They will have their own interests, and that could be a complicating issue. But I think the Iranians look at this as they look at many things. Where are the opportunities? Who could we make it deal with? Who could we explore an accommodation with to advance our interests? And their interest is diminishing American hegemony, diminishing their isolation in the world, drawing more resources. That's what the Iranians are up to. I think they'll be looking for ways to do it.
Andrew Schwartz: Do people around the world—do countries around the world—buy this notion that the United States is an untrustworthy partner, given what's just happened in Afghanistan?
Jon Alterman: People look and wonder where the U.S. is going. There's I think a competence question that is coming up in peoples’ minds that they feel that this has been bungled. This was mis-assessed, and we thought the Biden administration was going to be the one that did a proper assessment and acted accordingly. I think people are surprised. I think there is a question of American resolve and American loyalty to its partners and leaving people behind in Afghanistan. We're going to be hearing more and more stories about people left behind in Afghanistan. That will give pause to people who feel they're taking risks in order to advance ideas they thought they shared in common with the United States. And there’s a question of allies who feel they weren't consulted, and they just have to go along for the ride. I think there's something else going on, which is everybody understands that there's no military in the world that can begin to do what the U.S. military is doing in Afghanistan. The U.S. military is light years ahead of anybody else’s capability to do something that complicated that far away from home, for as long as we want to do it, ultimately. It’s something that nobody else can do. And I think that, you know, the first part reinforces the tragedy in the second part, that there's nobody but the U.S. who can do it, so, what does the U.S. really want to do? That then becomes a source of insecurity, because if we're not going to have the U.S. doing it, what do we have to do for ourselves? What will we have to accept not being done at all? The unsatisfactory nature of U.S. decision making, in their mind, is exacerbated by the fact that the Americans are still the only ones who can do a lot of these things, and that is going to be a problem that people are going to have to work through. And I think one of the opportunities for the Biden administration is using this to reinforce a sense of partnership and reassuring allies and partners, rather than having this be the beginning of a really deep divergence with allies and partners.
Andrew Schwartz: So, what happens in Iraq?
Jon Alterman: I'm not sure anything immediately happens in Iraq. Prime Minister Kadhimi had a really successful visit to Washington. I think the Iraqis will spend a lot of time telling people that Iraq is not Afghanistan. The U.S. ended combat operations, and the Iraqis got ahead of that, and they got ahead of it in a way that supported the current Iraqi leadership for their own political needs. But I think if you're an Iraqi who is committed to partnership with the United States, you can't help but look at Afghanistan and get a little bit worried. Is the U.S. really going to stay there? Is the U.S. really committed? If things got more uncomfortable, would the U.S. double down or walk away? And Iraq has elections coming up in October—unclear how those will go. We could be looking at a very different environment in Iraq after October and what the White House’s relationship with Iraq would be without a prime minister who used to be the intelligence minister, is committed to reducing the Iranian presence, is committed to partnership, is committed to a lot of things the U.S. has wanted for Iraq, including connecting Iraq more with Arab States and building energy trade with Jordan to wean them off Iran, and all those kinds of things. If you don't have an Iraqi prime minister who is forward-leaning on that, will the Biden administration be forward-leaning on helping Iraq? I think it has to be an open question.
Andrew Schwartz: So, if you're the Iraqi leadership right now and you're going into an election this fall, you have to be concerned not only about the election. You have to be concerned about what is going to happen with the United States interaction—ongoing interaction with Iraq—and everyday people who are working with U.S. personnel there have to be worried as well, as they see Afghans who did the same being left behind, or being put on hold.
Jon Alterman: You also have to wonder about how much wind in the sails the Iranians get out of what's happening in Afghanistan, so there's a lot going on. I think a lot of Iraqis would like to limit the Iranian influence in the country—they resent it as a foreign force—but they also don't want to be occupied by the United States either. And how you walk that line between using the United States to balance against Iran but not becoming the battleground where the U.S. and Iran fight, is a hard line to walk. I think that the prime minister is trying to walk that line, but we may have some very difficult days in Iraq coming up, or the Iraqis may figure out a way around this. I think it's too early to say.
Andrew Schwartz: We're often talking about terrorism in this region, and in fact, that's why we were there in the first place, of course. Lots of folks in Washington are worried these days. In fact, on a podcast last week, Seth Jones of CSIS and I had Alan Cullison of the Wall Street Journal, who had just left Kabul talk about how he thought Afghanistan was going to become a “Burning Man Convention for Terrorists.” What do you think of that notion? Do you feel like it's a Burning Man-Jihadist convention on the way over there?
Jon Alterman: It’s probably a little bit overdrawn, but I would wonder whether any government in Afghanistan would have sufficient control over all the country to ensure that there was no place in the country where jihadis could establish a base. If they're not going to be connected to Western intelligence services, you're going to be largely isolated. You're going to have all kinds of economic problems. It doesn't take a lot of money to buy somebody off, and if people are desperate. It's the conditions under which parties could have a foothold whether or not the central government wants to encourage it. I wonder if the central government is going to be in a position to prevent it. Under what circumstances would the central government be positioned to prevent it? And could you provide some sorts of incentives where the central government would want to prevent it and can be enabled to prevent it, and can you have a government in Afghanistan that that people are going want to work with? You know everybody remembers what the Taliban were like, and nobody wants to work with that kind of government, but can you be a different kind of Taliban government? I've actually spoken to American diplomats who think that self-preservation is going to drive the Taliban toward being different. Maybe yes, maybe no. The Chinese seem to me to be the most forward-leaning in feeling that there will be something to work with. Whether that's true, how well it works, what happens when it doesn’t work in some places, I think are all really hard questions were going to be answering not in August, September, but in November or December.
Andrew Schwartz: Right, and everybody that's the key question, isn’t it? Everybody wants to know has the Taliban 2.0 cleaned up their act, in terms of governing, in terms of diplomacy. Or are they going to flip the switch and go back to the dark ages? How are they going to govern? How are they going to relate to the rest of the world. One thing that we've all been talking about is that the last time the Taliban were in power, the only countries that backed them were Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Pakistan. Now you have China, Russia, Iran, other major powers, Pakistan as well. These are major world powers. If you have China and Russia recognizing you, as a legitimate government, what does that do to the United States? How do you see that whole geopolitical picture there?
Jon Alterman: I’m not sure recognition is the largest part of that. I mean, the real issue is do you have ways to influence decision makers? We certainly were negotiating with the Taliban without recognizing their legitimacy as a government. And I think we had this phrase, “we don't recognize the legitimacy of their government even though they call themselves the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” But we don't recognize their legitimacy. I think you can dance around that. The real question is do you have tools to influence their behavior? And I think one of the things that that we've seen in some of our diplomacy, whether it's with Venezuela or Syria, or the Houthis in Yemen, is we have these groups, and we actually don't have a lot of tools to influence their behavior. We have been appalled by the way they've behaved, and yet our combination of sanctions and threats and all those things haven't changed the behavior to be something we're happier with. And to me, that's the challenge we're going to have in Afghanistan is how do you get to a point where whoever the Afghan government is—and I could imagine that the Taliban is sort of a controlling force, but not the face. Hamid Karzai is trying to make a comeback and whether he was always in bed with the Taliban, as some people have said, I don’t know. But the real issue is, are you really going to have an outlaw regime, or are you going to have a government that is trying to normalize and in trying to normalize that gives you tools of influence? How much you're willing to influence, and what is your agenda for what you’re trying to influence—the questions become really hard. But it seems to be the worst case scenario is if you have an Afghanistan that is totally cut off from like-minded countries, sees no prospect of not being cut off from like-minded countries, but gains enough from trade with China and trade with Iran that it can survive, and it can perhaps evolve into the Burning Man for global terrorism, because they're selling rare earth minerals to the Chinese and doing other kinds of things. They have enough cash to get by and are desperate for enough cash that terrorists can buy in for cheap. And then you could really have a mess in your hands, bordering a whole bunch of areas that are important.
Andrew Schwartz: Now, I know that a lot depends on how the continued withdrawal goes, how Afghans who have worked with the United States go as far as getting them out safely, and certainly as far as how the Taliban behaves as they govern, but what is the U.S. strategy going to be going forward. Do you think we'll have a real articulated strategy from this administration? Congress never authorized the war. Where does U.S. strategy go from here?
Jon Alterman: I'm not sure who sort of owns Afghanistan when you get below the level of the White House national security adviser. The national security advisor, the president, can't own an issue. There needs to be people who are the action officers, and I'm not sure who the action officers are on this. There are reports that Bill Burns, the CIA director, was just in Afghanistan talking to leadership.
Andrew Schwartz: They seem to be looking for a Holbrooke-like figure to be able to come in and make everything OK here, and certainly Ambassador Burns is somebody of that ilk, but he’s got a pretty busy job.
Jon Alterman: Yeah, and he's got other things going on. He’s got other things that he needs to do. You know, Zal Khalilzad negotiated this agreement. I think he’s not going to be the person that the Biden administration uses going forward. I'm not sure how they’re going to do it. I think we're going to have to see the dust settle a little bit, see where the American public is, see how the evacuation goes and who's left behind and how the Taliban behave, how Afghan politics consolidate in the coming weeks and months. I think that in many ways the President had the seed of a strategy, which was we're not going to just keep kicking the can down the road, we're going to have a different approach. But I think it's actually appropriate to see where we are before we decide on what our new desired end state is. It’s been true of our Syria strategy for more than a decade. I think it was true of our Afghanistan strategy for two decades. What's your desired end state? Which is in some ways a fundamental question and it's remarkable that we haven't answered that question in Afghanistan. I would hope that in the second half of this year there will be some serious discussion in the Biden administration about what our desired end state is and what tools we can use to get there, what instruments we have, how do we work with partners and allies. Instead, I think we've always talked about what do we want? And when you say what do you want, and in a country like Afghanistan you can get an endless list. What's a realistic end state and what are the tools you can use to get there? I think that is the discussion we haven't had about Afghanistan in a very long time. I think that's the discussion we need to have. It will take months to figure it out. There are going to be a lot of moving pieces—including China, including Iran, including other things. But I think we're going to have to have it, and I think it would be appropriate as we get to midterm elections in 2022—as people think about the president's foreign policy achievements and challenges—that people say, “are we on a course that would lead to something better in Afghanistan or not?” I think that the president felt that they were addicted to Afghanistan—that we kept feeding the addiction but weren't solving any of the problems. And the challenge for the president is where are we going? And I think if there's a sense of where we're going that will obviate some of the criticism of how this was handled, because you're on a course towards something better. The worst is if you're not in a course to anything—it's all collapsing and you're the one who caused the collapse. I don't think that's necessarily where we have to be at the end of this calendar year.
Andrew Schwartz: What do you think China is going to do? Are they going to develop an Afghanistan addiction?
Jon Alterman: The Chinese are pretty averse to overseas addictions. This is a country that literally has no allies in the world. They don't believe in alliances. They have one overseas base in Djibouti—one. China likes being the big dog in a bilateral relationship. They like staying home. I think that they are certainly concerned about how Afghanistan could develop. They're worried about what they see as a terrorist movement in the west—which is the justification for the suppression of their very large Uighur population, and they're concerned with how that might play out and how Afghanistan could be a base. Afghanistan could help fund an insurgency against China. They see themselves having money. They see Afghanistan as a place with some things they might want to exploit, might want to mine. I would expect they're going to come in and try to buy some people off. Whether it turns into more than a commercial operation, I think not. They’ve gotten a little burned by Pakistan, where they initially had hopes for what their partnership might look like, and I think they've gotten soured on it. I think they're going to try to keep Afghanistan at arm’s distance. They will engage economically. They will be happy to pay people off if you have to pay people off. But I can't imagine they're going to start sending a lot of people and getting exposed, because I don't think they see it as the way they operate in the world.
Andrew Schwartz: And what can we expect from Mr. Putin?
Jon Alterman: He's a counterpuncher and this gives an opportunity to counterpunch. He's got some knowledge of Afghanistan. He has some assets in Afghanistan. I'd expect that that he will try to make life miserable for us. They certainly also have their scars from Afghanistan, so I think they're not going to want to invest very much, but the Russians love doing things at bargain basement prices. And if they can make trouble for us at a bargain basement price, I think they're going to make trouble for us at a bargain basement price, whether it's just sort of on the on the information level and saying, “Look the Americans were totally incompetent, and abandoned their friends,” or on some other level. I think they largely benefited from the American presence in Afghanistan—the counter narcotics work, and other things we were doing. I think they have some problems coming down the pike. I think that they will try to limit some of that. They certainly don't want the Chechen rebellion starting up again, having a base in Afghanistan. They're willing to be ruthless, which will help them. They may cut some deals, but I think they'll be a combination of seeing if he can exploit things to make trouble for us, and then acting in a pretty ruthless way to deal with the vacuum we've left on issues like counterterrorism and counternarcotic.
Andrew Schwartz: Jon, as always, thank you for helping us get to the truth of the matter on these critical geopolitical issues surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. I should also mention that Jon is the host of another CSIS podcast called Babel, which is really fantastic, and you should give it a try.
Andrew Schwartz: Thanks again, Jon.
Jon Alterman: Andrew, always good talk to you. Thank you.