‘We need Pakistan for peace. We need an enduring relationship, a predictable relationship with Pakistan.’
The Afghan national forces would prevail over Taliban militants making advances on towns and border check-posts, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani stated but conceded that Taliban had won some battles thus far.
In an interview to The Hindu, shortly after a fiery speech accusing Pakistan of failing to prevent “jihadi” fighters from crossing the border and for not pushing the Taliban hard enough on talks, Mr. Ghani said he would keep dialogue open with both Islamabad and the intra-Afghan negotiations with the Taliban based in Doha.
“Winning battles is not winning the war. They [the Taliban] have won battles. But, they’re going to lose the war, and we are determined,” Mr. Ghani asserted, when asked about recent Taliban gains, particularly on the border with Pakistan at the Spin Boldak-Chaman crossing, where Indian photojournalist Danish Siddiqui was killed last week.
Condoles Siddiqui’s death
Mr. Ghani, who condoled the death, said there may be a need to “rebalance” the situation to win the war militarily, but the larger goal of his government was to arrive at a political settlement in Afghanistan. The President stressed he would want to avoid the fates of countries such as “Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen” that continue to see strife.
As a result, after several changes in their plans, an Afghan delegation led by High Council chief Abdullah Abdullah travelled to Doha on Saturday to begin “high-level” talks with Taliban leaders in an effort facilitated by the Qatar government and other countries to restart the stalled intra-Afghan dialogue.
When asked if he felt abandoned by the West, after the abrupt U.S. pull-out and after comments by the British Defence Secretary that the U.K. was prepared to engage the Taliban if it came to power in Afghanistan, he said, ‘No, no, I don’t . We have an engagement.’
‘India a true partner’
Mr. Ghani emphatically denied having asked India for military assistance in the face of the Taliban’s advances. India was a “true partner” in Afghanistan’s development, he said.
“This [defeating Taliban] is our job. The period of international engagement, or use of force in Afghanistan is over,” he told The Hindu during his visit to the Uzbekistan capital to attend the Central and South Asia connectivity conference on Friday.
The situation at the border with Pakistan at Spin Boldak seems to be getting more and more violent, and an Indian photojournalist has been killed. Pakistan has denied it threatened missile strikes on the Afghan Air Force if it tries to clear Taliban from the area. Could you give us some clarity on the situation there?
I cannot give you any clarity, because I’ve been in non-stop meetings from early morning [in Tashkent], and that clarification will have to come from Kabul. But I would like to give my deepest sympathies to the family of the Indian journalist, to the journalistic community of India, and to all to journalists around the world.
There were some strong words at your speech at the connectivity conference here, especially as you named the Pakistan PM for making promises on the Taliban that haven’t been kept, right as he was sitting a few feet away. Why do you feel so disappointed?
We need Pakistan for peace. We need an enduring relationship, a predictable relationship with Pakistan. We need to overcome our past. And building trust is going to require clarity, so we do not carry a burden. And then do not have the political capital or the vision to move forward. To me politics is a vocation, the way science is a vocation. I’m honoured to be the chief servant of my people. We are a plain-speaking people. And I need to reflect with logic and rigour, about the emotions of our people… because if they are not given expression, they will find other channels, and I don’t want further destructive relationships between us.
We understood that Afghanistan had postponed plans to send a delegation to Doha led by Dr. Abdullah for talķs. Pakistan has also announced it has put off the conference planned in Islamabad…
We are going ahead with the dialogue [with the Taliban]. We had a frank and good exchange today [with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan]. Without a dialogue, you cannot get through. So we have to peel the layers and get to the heart of the matter. If you examine the situation, from the perspective of a medium-term and long-term interest of Pakistan, a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan would not be in their interest. Taking this genie out of the bottle is going to have consequences for the entire region. Particularly for Pakistan, and hence, [I gave] my speech with clarity.
What is your assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan? It seems as if the Taliban has made gains on different towns, different border check posts as well. Do you think the Afghan National Defence and Security forces (ANDSF) are going to be able to hold them back, or do they need to change tactics?
Firstly, winning battles is not winning the war. They (the Taliban) have won battles. But, they’re going to lose the war, and we are determined. We need to rebalance [ the situation], but our goal is not winning the war militarily. Our goal is to arrive at a political settlement that will ensure a just and lasting peace. I don’t want my country to become Algeria or Iraq, or Syria, or Lebanon, or Yemen. I’m a student of the Middle East, I studied in Lebanon, the war lasted 15 years. We cannot allow that type of destruction to be wrought on our lives.
I travel. I’m with my people. This thing that the President should be above and not engaged with the people is a figment of somebody’s imagination doesn’t work with our culture. If you’re not with your people, you’re not going to be taken seriously. Mazar Sharif in 2002 was a small town. Hardly with 20 buildings and those were dilapidated. Today, it’s a thriving metropolis. In 1991, I saw Khost looted, and today it is thriving and its airport was a dream come true, better than the Kabul airport. Amongst Afghan citizens, women, youth and poor are three major numerical majorities of our country, and all desire nothing but to live in peace and to pursue their lives with dignity. It is 40 years that we’ve been denied our collective right to peace. We are not a people that are going to take that lying down. That’s not our history.
But does the ANDSF have enough equipment, training they need?
It is never enough. If we went on a needs-based assessment, the world would not be able to fulfil our needs. Because what do we not want? This is not a moment of asking. It’s a moment of giving. It is a Kennedy moment for us combined with a Lincoln moment. A Kennedy moment, because we have to give for our country, and a Lincoln moment, because like Lincoln in 1861, we’re now facing the Battle of the Republic, which is for the values that the Islamic Republic (of Afghanistan) stands for. My efforts have been for women’s empowerment, youth empowerment, delivery to rural Afghanistan, regional connectivity, for a vision of engagement. It is a vision for Afghanistan to be a roundabout as [British historian Arnold] Toynbee said we did for millennia. And for that we need to focus on today. I don’t want the word to look at Afghanistan through the perspective of that America was here. It’s gone.
What is your expectation from India at this time… has Afghanistan asked for military support of any kind?
No, it has not. India has been a remarkable partner. I have the best of relations with the Prime Minister [Narendra Modi], who is wise. He has not asked of us something that will result in sacrificing our short, medium or long-term interests. India is a true partner. It’s the country with which we have a positive balance of trade. And what India stands for is the Salma dam, is the parliament building. It’s now the Shahtoot dam. It’s the transmission lines. And India is going to be booming. We want to be a participant in the immense shift that India is witnessing in terms of leadership of the fourth industrial revolution.
Do you feel that Afghanistan becomes a casualty to the hostilities between India and Pakistan?
We hope that Indian and Pakistan will be able to reach a resolution because that will change all of Asia. But accusations often made, that India is in every corner of Afghanistan, or there are 21 Indian consulates….
(interrupts) A former Pakistani minister just said that India had seven bases in Afghanistan…
It has none. None. And when [they] engage in that kind of fabrication, there is no credibility.
The U.S. has said it is pulling out its troops, and along with NATO has nearly completed that pull-out from Afghanistan. British says it will engage with whoever comes to power in Afghanistan, suggesting that even a Taliban government by force and the Islamic emirate would be acceptable. Do you feel abandoned?
No, no, I don’t . We have an engagement. As I mentioned, the assets that are left behind [by US], the capabilities that are left behind, the immense transformation that has taken place in our lives, is a product of these 20 years of [Afghan-U.S.] partnership. But so is the other side of the equation, the violence, the disenchantment, etc.
We have a proverb that says, ‘a bed borrowed from a neighbour will be recalled in the middle of the night’. Seven years ago, I predicted that the U.S. would leave. Two years ago I wrote to President Trump asking him to engage in an organised process with us. President Biden’s decision [to pull out troops] was not a surprise to me. We’ve respected it and I have the very best of relations with President Biden.
The U.S. also had a proposal which saw you step aside for a government of consensus. Would you be willing to do that?
Look, I’ve I’ve laid down my case. I’m a servant of my people. My condition is that my successor be elected by the people of Afghanistan. It’s the greatest honour of my life to serve them. I will serve them till it’s necessary. At this moment, they need a Commander in Chief and that’s what they’ve got.
What are the red lines for the Taliban that Afghanistan will not put up with?
Of course there are red lines. Our right to life, our right to liberty, our right to choose our future. Those are red line. And otherwise, we would not be fighting.
If the Taliban comes in by force, do you think that the international community should then come back to help ?
No. This is our job. The period of international engagement, or use of force in Afghanistan is over.
You’re confident that that will not happen?