Didn’t discuss troops for peacekeeping or for New Delhi to engage Taliban directly: Dr. Ab...

Didn’t discuss troops for peacekeeping or for New Delhi to engage Taliban directly: Dr. Abdullah Abdullah

The participation of India in the inaugural session of the negotiations was welcomed by the people of Afghanistan and also the rest of the international community, says Afghanistan’s Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation

Afghanistan’s Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation has been in Delhi this week to brief the government on the Doha peace talks with the Taliban. Speaking to The Hindu, he said he received India’s full support for the peace process in talks with PM Narendra Modi, NSA Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

You said you are on a mission to build regional consensus for the reconciliation process. Were there specific assurances you were hoping for during your visit to New Delhi?

Well, it wasn’t like we were expecting something specific — more like we were exchanging our views. India has been supportive of the people of Afghanistan, supportive of the peace process and we wanted to share the details of what is going on and see how best each country can contribute to that was the aim of the visit. I found very friendly audience like always. All the leaders that I met were supportive of the people of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, a unified Afghanistan, and also a peaceful Afghanistan, and supportive of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process. It’s a common view between us and India.

India has taken one step by attending the inauguration of the Doha talks, the first time an Indian official has actually addressed a gathering including the Taliban. Did you discuss whether India would engage the Taliban more directly now?

The participation of India in the inaugural session of the negotiations was welcomed by the people of Afghanistan and also the rest of the international community. All the countries of the region, in the neighbourhood, are being affected because of the continuation of the war in Afghanistan. A peaceful Afghanistan will be an opportunity, so India will be further engaged there. I didn’t have a specific recommendation as far as engagement with the Taliban is concerned, but I will say India will be playing an important role, active role with the rest of the partners of the international community from the region [in the process] and beyond.

India has at times been cut out of the process. Like for example when the six plus two plus one regional discussions were held, it did not include India. Do you think India will be included in all future regional conversations?

I think so. We should bear in mind that these negotiations only really started in September, and prior to that those were discussions in different quarters and countries. But talks have started now between the Afghans. India’s stand is that so long as the outcome is acceptable for the people of Afghanistan, and is not a threat to anybody, through harbouring terrorism or other means, that will be acceptable for India. That is a very principled position which is welcomed.

One of the outstanding issues has been the lack of a ceasefire announcement by the Taliban. And a large part of the Taliban leadership does live in Pakistan. Did you receive any assurances on Pakistan’s support when it comes to announcing a ceasefire, during your visit there last week?

[We are still hopeful of] a ceasefire or significant reduction in violence. [Pakistani officials] were supportive of that idea and they also promised that they will communicate this and they will try to use their own influence to achieve that. We had extensive discussions on that as well as other aspects of the situation, for a peaceful Afghanistan. And thereby, I was assured that they will make efforts.

Even so, are you at all hopeful? I’m just looking at the figures — 1,300 civilian casualties in the first half of this year, a 60% rise in attacks on Afghan forces from this quarter compared to the previous quarter….

If you speak of the expectations of the people of Afghanistan, they were expecting that as the talks start, we will have a ceasefire or a significant reduction in violence. Our negotiating team was ready from day one to start discussions on a ceasefire. But these are complicated situations and we are only meeting the Taliban for talks now, rather than in the battle zones as we have for the past three decades. We are not under any illusions about the challenges that we are faced with. The progress so far has been slow. Hopefully, with the help of different players and also with the patience that we will show, the civility we will show there will be a transition to less violence.

But will talks continue regardless of whether that violence continues?

The talks should continue. But it’s not as if the violence can continue forever and the talks will continue forever. Without progress in the talks that’s not viable, that’s not sustainable and we do want to get to the other parts of the agenda.

What else is part of the talks? While the government has said the political structure of Afghanistan is not negotiable, from the Taliban side, the understanding seems to be that everything is on the table. So, is there a bottom line that says democracy is non-negotiable, the rights of women and minorities are non-negotiable?

Taliban will raise their own ideas and we will raise our own ideas. Can we agree on a common stand which accommodates the different views? The question is can we agree that while maintaining different views, we live in one system and compete and contest for the realisation of those ideas peacefully, through civil and peaceful means? That’s the bottom line.

Are you on the same page as the Afghan government? Just 10 months ago, you were in a legal battle with President Ghani contesting the presidential elections you both fought. Do you feel that the differences that you and President Ghani have had are an impediment to the peace process?

That’s democracy. Given the fact that we contested elections [against each other] means that we were not on the same page on some issues. But when it is in the interest of the country, in the interest of peaceful Afghanistan, democratic Afghanistan, an Afghanistan which respects the rights of its citizens, men, women, minorities and others, on that we are on the same page.

President Trump has already said that by Christmas, he hopes to have U.S. troops return. Other officials have said maybe 2,500 troops will remain in Afghanistan. Are you also considering the possible need for a regional peacekeeping force if the Americans do pull out completely?

First of all, on the recent announcement by President Trump, the details are not yet available to us. They already had announced according to their agreement, to keep 4,500 troops and to pull-out the rest of it, which will be completed by November. So, we are not sure what these announcements refer to. But eventually, Afghanistan needs to stand on its own feet and support from the region for a peaceful, inclusive settlement in Afghanistan is important. Hopefully, we will get to an agreement that that will not require security forces from other countries to keep us safe.

But have you discussed that possibility in India?

No, no, that was not part of our discussions.

As part of the Northern Alliance you fought with the Taliban for years. In government you were targeted, suffered attacks. Have you reconciled with a process that will bring the same people into the mainstream, perhaps into a place of power in government, that you have fought for so much of your life?

The point is that I have fought for certain principles in my life — the independence of Afghanistan, certain liberties, the rights of the people and those values. And that will not change. What type of shape that fighting will take, whether we can fight for it through peaceful means and without resorting to violence, that can change. What happened to me, and I survived several attacks, some very close calls. But look at the suffering of the people: sometimes as many as 50-100 people are killed in one day, sometimes, that needs to come to an end. That’s much more than these emotions or feelings and certainly when it comes to my experience in Afghanistan, I believe that there are no winners in a war, there are no losers in an inclusive, peaceful settlement.

Are you saying peace at any cost?

An acceptable, dignified, sustainable peace.

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