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The Fundamentals of Russia-US understanding on Afghanistan — EastWest Institute President

TASS exclusive interview with President and CEO of the EastWest Institute Cameron Munter

Established in 1980 to resolve conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union, the EastWest Institute (EWI) has recently created a new working group to explore the potential for counterterrorism cooperation in Afghanistan. President and CEO of EWI, Cameron Munter, gave an interview with TASS on the possibilities for bilateral cooperation and whether Russia and the United States have common ground on issues pertaining to Afghanistan. Among other issues discussed were the role of the Taliban (prohibited in Russian Federation) in the Afghan peace process and how “terrorists” can be determined.Established in 1980 to resolve conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union, the EastWest Institute has recently created a new working group to explore the potential for counterterrorism cooperation in Afghanistan. President and CEO of EWI, Cameron Munter, gave an interview with TASS on the possibilities for bilateral cooperation and whether Russia and the United States have common ground on issues pertaining to Afghanistan. Among other issues discussed were the role of the Taliban (prohibited in Russian Federation) in the Afghan peace process and how “terrorists” can be determined.


— Mr. Munter, you are President and CEO of the Institute for the EastWest Institute. What are the goals of this organization today?

EWI was formed in 1980, when the East was Budapest and the West was Vienna. It was an old kind of European organization trying to make sure that we found common ground in a very different area. In the 21st century we have evolved where we do a lot of work with China, a lot of work with Russia, a lot of work with Turkey. These are three key countries which we believe America and the other western countries need to understand better because the public - let’s face it - has a lot of misunderstandings about where these countries are going and how they work together. So we work in those areas on trust-building, we work in the area of cybersecurity, we work on issues all the way from the Balkans to South Asia on trust-building.

What we hope we can do is that there are people who are truly looking from a global point how to find common ground. I mean, not to come up and say here are your answers, here are your solutions, but how do we learn to listen to each other, how we learn that people can respect each other and build understanding about what other people want. Because I believe that does lead to finding common ground. We are privately funded, we don’t take government money. And that is the point - we want to be people who are open-minded and not take sides.

— Now you are creating Russian-American working group on the possibility of counterterrorism in Afghanistan. Our question is - why now? Do you see the threat of the terrorism in Afghanistan as growing? Is the general situation in Afghanistan worsening?

I think it is a program that has a long history and has long future. It is not an immediate issue; it’s much more the kind of thing that the EastWest Institute tries to do. The EastWest institute is an international network of people that doesn’t just study issues, but rather, we try to come up with concrete solutions that we can deliver to our leaders. Russia and the United States are both concerns, and we both have common interests in fighting terrorism around the world.

So what we at the EastWest Institute are looking for is finding common ground between Russia and America especially at this difficult time, when our relationship is tough. And we have common ground; terrorism in Afghanistan is obviously one issue that concerns us both.

— If we look at Syria we can see that Russia and the USA sometimes see different groups as terrorists. What about Afghanistan?  Is there common understanding as to who are the terrorists in Afghanistan?

I think that in a fundamental way - yes, both countries want to see an orderly Afghanistan, at peace with its neighbors. It is important, for example, for Russia that Afghanistan has good relations with the Central Asian countries whereas for the USA it is important that Afghanistan has stable relations with its South Asian neighbors, and in fact it matters for both countries.

Your question is a good one - do we agree on what to do about terrorism?  I think both sides would agree that ISIS (terrorist group prohibited in Russian Federation) is a threat to both countries and both countries have to address that question. There is a different kind of story, I think, in relationship to the Taliban and now there is an open and frank discussion about the nature of the Taliban and its future. It is something that is useful for Americans and the Russians to deal with.

It's a very complicated situation in Afghanistan, it’s not like a bunch of football teams – Barcelona, Milan Arsenal, it’s not a different bunch of groups, it’s a very complex group of people. Some of them have tribal affiliations, some of them have ethnic affiliations, ideological affiliations. So this is not a simple question and the fact that we are talking about this is the first step to understanding what is the common goal.

— So we can’t say definitively whether the Taliban is a terrorist organization?

The Taliban is a very complex organization; it’s not just one group. It perceives itself as a national group, as many people do. But there are different groups within the Taliban who are terrorists. Some groups see themselves as freedom fighters; this is a perception and what we are trying to figure out is in which way do we agree about behavior that is unacceptable — that is blowing up women and children in Kabul — in which way do we figure out that there are solutions to the conflict in Afghanistan that might involve the Taliban, talks with the Taliban, even Taliban participation in solutions to the problems there. There are many difficult issues that are very much worth talking about and simply to say that the Taliban is good or the Taliban is bad — I think this is not really the answer.

— I guess we can agree that the Islamic State is bad and Russian officials last month said that the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan is growing. Do you agree with such view?

I don’t know the specifics about whether the Taliban is growing or not. I think that the American presence in Afghanistan, which has been reinforced under President Trump, assesses ISIS as a terrorist group that needs to be resisted everywhere. Whether or not it’s getting stronger or weaker is really hard to say because there are developments that are taking places in Syria such as the surrender of their capital Raqqa.  We don’t really know how that’s going to affect the group; we don’t really know how it’s going to affect ISIS. Is it going to be a weaker because they no longer have access to the territory, is it going to be stronger because it splits up? I don’t know, but I think this is something that experts need to discuss.

— US officials in the last months accused Russia of supplying weapons, fuel and other material to the Taliban. Do you see some ground for these accusations?

These are very serious accusations and I think it is important that they are explored. Just as I’ve heard allegations from the Russian side that sometimes Americans are helping someone who was bad, in my mind this is made worse by the fact that communication between the two countries is so difficult now, that the relationship between Russia and America is suffering from what everyone refers to as trust-deficit. In order to answer the questions you have raised, the experts really need to share information, to build trust among them.

I think these accusations are partly taking place because we don’t talk enough. The more mechanisms we have to try to come up with communication the more likely we are going to understand whether it is true or not.

— As an expert in this field do you have a see any proof of such cooperation – between Russia and the Taliban?

Well, I live in New York City. You were very kind call me an expert but I resigned from Foreign Service in 2012 when I was an ambassador in Pakistan. Since that time I have visited [the region] but I see very little more than what others see. So to your question – it is an important issue, the question of whether people work alongside each other, but I just have no evidence because I’m not really on the frontlines right now.

— And what about Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan — do you think that there is a place for Russia in it?

It is an interesting idea, I mean it is a long-term strategy, long-term commitment that I think the American military and American intelligence community is committed to, and I think in a very broad sense, yes, there can be no long-term solution to Afghanistan without taking into account the actions of all of its neighbors, Russia included. That is the fact that America is having difficulties these days with Iran. We also have talks about some difficulties with Pakistan. This makes it even more difficult for us to look at a long-term comprehensive solution for Afghanistan.

So my own personal sense and the sense of those of us who work at the Institute is that bringing into the discussion all of Afghanistan’s neighbors is very a much necessity to come to a conclusion. Will Afghanistan be democratic, will it be stable and will it be in peace with its neighbors?  It is going to take talking with everyone.

— Are you going to discuss the question of US sanctions against Russia? Earlier Russia supplied helicopters to Afghanistan which were very helpful in the fight against insurgents. Now there are no helicopters, no supplies for them, no training of pilots….

Well, in our working groups we try to maintain a certain amount of discretion; we do not really out here having public talks. We are talking about experts talking among themselves about building trust, but every one of these kinds of issues is on the table. We want to discuss the full impact of the US-Russian relations, whether good or bad, to figure out what is possible. So while I’m not at liberty to speculate about what we will say about regarding the difficulties in the US-Russian relationship, I can promise you that we are to talk openly and frankly about the way in which we try to figure out how do we best work with each other to solve the problem.

— Well, Moscow tried to organize some talks with participation of Central Asian countries, with Afghanistan itself in Moscow. There were also different conferences in Kabul about the future of Afghanistan. Why can’t we consolidate our efforts?

There are at least two levels on which such talks can take place. One is what we call Track 1 talks – government-to government-talks. These require enormous amounts of preparation and enormous amounts of care because once governments make commitments, once they make statements to each other, they are making agreements.

One of the things we do at the EastWest Institute is take part in what we call Track 2 talks or talks by independent experts where we can discuss ideas that are not the ideas of our governments. They allow us to be creative. So we can then go back to our government and say: you are not committed to this idea but here is idea that we talked about in Bishkek that we talked about in Dushanbe or we talked about with different people. We like to think that you need Track 2 in many cases to preparTrack 1. You need experts, nonofficial people to do the kinds of thing that EWI does, serving as an honest broker trying to bring together people just to collect ideas, and then the second step is bringing together the governments. So I would argue to you that groups like EWI are always ready to prepare the ground for those Track 1 discussions which are by definition pretty difficult.