H. R. McMaster Hosts Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar In Inaugural Episode Of Battlegrounds

Wednesday, August 5, 2020
Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Afghanistan’s foreign minister, Mohammad Haneef Atmar, described the recent escalation of attacks by Taliban fighters on Afghan forces, as well as the prospects for ongoing peace negotiations involving both sides of this ongoing conflict and international stakeholders, including the United States.

This dialogue was the first in a series hosted by Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow H. R. McMaster called Battlegrounds: International Perspectives on Crucial Challenges to Security and Prosperity. The Hoover-based conversations aim to promote “strategic empathy,” a concept coined by the historian Zachary Shore that considers outside perspectives before determining a course of action in defense of national interests.

Before taking his current post as foreign minister, Atmar held various senior positions in the Afghan government, including as national security advisor, interior minister, and education minister. From 2017 to 2018, when McMaster served as national security advisor in the Trump administration, his direct counterpart was Atmar.

Atmar prefaced the conversation by explaining Afghanistan’s history of conflict over the last fifty years, beginning with the Soviet Union’s invasion in the late 1970s; the civil war that followed the USSR’s withdrawal, leading to the Taliban’s ascendance in 1996; and finally, the US-supported regime change following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing two decades of conflict.

While Atmar was sympathetic to Americans’ weariness of continued engagement in Afghanistan, he stressed the importance of sustaining a strong security and diplomatic relationship between the two countries. He argued that if the United States and its Western partners disengage from their security commitments, the world community will become more endangered by unrestrained terrorist networks and organized crime syndicates in the Central Asian region, just as it was at the turn of the millennium.

“That error should not be repeated again, especially now after so much sacrifice and investment in blood and treasure,” Atmar argued.

Atmar also pointed to several failures in policy since the new Afghan government was formed in 2002, which prevented the country from swiftly bringing about security for its population, neighbors in the region, and international partners.

He explained that such major policy failures by the Afghan government included not offering an “honorable” reconciliation to the Taliban and allowing the fundamentalist political sect to seek sanctuary outside the country. These factors, combined with corruption within the Afghan government and an eroding policy consensus among Western partners, emboldened the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other forces to escalate an insurgency and undermine the state’s governing authority.

Atmar said that while the key goal of the February 29, 2020, agreement between the United States and the Taliban was the withdrawal of US forces in exchange for a reduction of violence, recent attacks by the Taliban on Afghan forces undermine prospects for peace. He held that advancing in current negotiations with the Taliban hinges upon convincing in-country, regional, and international stakeholders that the peace process can succeed, and that its outcome will be beneficial to their shared national security interests. 

He explained that the urgency of an initial humanitarian cease-fire has become even more glaring, so that the government can shift greater focus on the management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus has wrought genuine affliction on the nation’s collective public health and has impaired an economy where more than 50 percent of the population already lives below the poverty line. He expressed hope that a more permanent cease-fire would be predicated on continued security and economic assistance from the United States and the international community.

Atmar concluded that there are good reasons to be hopeful about Afghanistan’s future. Over the past two decades, Afghanistan has established foundations for the rule of law and an all-inclusive democracy that gives voice to women and minorities. It also has been able to expand educational opportunities to the more than 60 percent of the population that is under twenty-five years old.

“Inclusion for Afghan people in politics and governance to determine their own future is the kind of right for which we have struggled for many millennia,” Atmar concluded. “We have it now, and we don’t want to lose it.”

Stay tuned to Hoover.org for upcoming episodes of Battlegrounds featuring  distinguished foreign officials including Haider al-Abadi, the former prime minister of Iraq; Luis Videgaray Caso, the former foreign minister of Mexico; and Kono Taro, the current defense minister of Japan.