‘My biggest fear is world diverting its attention from Afghanistan’ - Afghan politician.

Afghanistan sees a new chapter opening up for the country’s politics, as the new president stepped up to take the rule over the country devastated by decades of war. Will he be able to bring the Afghan nation out of the black hole of suffering, conflict and economic downfall? Many threats are on the way, including the rise of Islamic State, the never-ending peril of Taliban – is there a chance for the country in such circumstances? We ask these questions to prominent Afghan politician Ahmad Wali Massoud on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Ahmad Wali Massoud, prominent Afghan politician, head of the Massoud foundation – welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, Ghani’s first act as president was to appoint his main rival in elections Abdullah Abdullah to the newly created post of Chief executive. Are you enthusiastic about the national unity government? Do you think it will hold together?

Ahmad Wali Massoud: Well, let me say that it’s not that appointing Abdullah Abdullah… I think that’s been based on the political agreement between the two – so Dr. Abdullah signed Mr. Ghani as the president, and Mr. Ghani signed Dr. Abdullah as the CEO, or the prime minister. So, therefore, there’s an political agreement between the two leaders. When none of them could win the election, therefore at the end of the day they came to a sort of settlement between themselves, so one becomes the president, other becomes the CEO. We all hope that they can work together and create a framework of a unity government. I think it’s a best opportunity for them, as well as for Afghanistan. We hope that we can take it from here and open a new chapter for Afghanistan, and I’m pretty sure that if they can work together, especially to really accept each other and create confidence and trust among each other, have a very clear vision for the country…

SS: But do you have confidence that they will work well together, do you have the confidence in your personal opinion? Do you feel like it’s in the work?

AM: Well, it has to be seen, because no one can tell, really. Of course, there are some opportunities that they have got; there are some threats which still exist there, so therefore it really depends on which one they can utilize. They can opportunities or the threats. So, it still has to be seen whether they can work together.

SS: Now, President has spent a great deal of his life in the West. How close are president’s ties with traditional Afghan ethnic leaders and tribes, do you think that he can consolidate and bridge ethnic divides?

AM: I think that if they can get together – I think, they can do that – that’s a good opportunity for both of them and Afghanistan, so they can break that ethnic divide. President, as well as prime minister - if they can work together, they can bridge it. But if they can rival, if they can continue some sort of rivalry between each other, I’m pretty sure that they will soon fail. And because that’s a political agreement rather than an overall election result, therefore they have to go to this sort of experience to show the people of Afghanistan what exactly they can do. If they want to, they can bridge the ethnic division as well.

SS:I just want to take a closer look at the president’s figure right now, without Abdullah Abdullah. I mean, Ashraf Ghani studied at the American university in Beirut, at Colombia University, taught at Berkley, John Hopkins, but most of his 90s in West working in the World Bank. Both of his children carry a U.S. passport – how will Afghans trust him? I guess that’s what I’m asking, how will Afghanistan trust him?

AM: Let me say, as I mentioned before, that’s a result of the political settlement between the two leaders. None of them can work alone. So, therefore, it’s very hard for the Afghans to trust either of them alone. Therefore, once they put that political settlement in between, the Afghans have given them the opportunity to work together. I think it will be pretty difficult for either of them to individually form their own government or be trust by their own.

SS: I get it. So it’s either the two of them together, or nothing, that’s what you’re saying.

AM: Exactly, you’re absolutely right.

SS: There was another interesting moment. During his inaugural speech, president Ghani got very emotional and he took time to thank his wife for the support. This is something, from what I gather, pretty groundbreaking in Afghanistan, in Afghan culture. Some perceived it as if she would also taking part in decision-making – do you think that’s the case? And, do you think women could play more important in country’s social and maybe political life?

AM: Women have assorted their plain role ten years ago and after Bonn, 2001, the women contributed in Afghan political affairs actively, and I’m pretty sure as the new chapter is opening up, there are more roles for women in Afghanistan, so I think that women can play them, and as politicians in Afghanistan – this is not very strange for them anymore, to give a role for the women. So, women in Afghanistan can play a very constructive role in Afghan politics.

SS: The president’s predecessor Hamid Karzai warned the new government to take a careful path with America and the West – what’s there to be careful about?

AM:I don’t know really. I hope that president Karzai said that a long time before, so the Afghan people could have known what was going to happen. As at the end of the day, when he’s leaving office, and he’s saying such things – it already have created confusion, it will further confuse the situation, so therefore, I think that this has more to do with this, sort of, personal politics, than anything else. We don’t know, the president have to explain why the people of Afghanistan should be careful, why the government of Afghanistan should be careful about the U.S. There might be something, must be something that the President knows, and the people of Afghanistan don’t know. It’s better to explain it, what should they be careful about, why America, why he did not say it for so long? Why he’s saying this now? He was very close to America, and he was, in fact, been brought to power with America’s help. In the end of the day, as he’s leaving the office, he’s saying that the people of Afghanistan should be careful about America – so I don’t know what is he playing, and he has to explain it, really.

SS: Now, the first thing the president does, is sign a bilateral accord with the U.S. – was that, you think, the most important thing to do, the important thing on the Afghan agenda?

AM: That was important during Mr. Karzai. I don’t know whether it is as important as it used to be before. Of course, it was going to be signed anyway, because the Loya Jirga has agreed on that, they’ve consulted with Loya Jirga of Afghanistan. The only one who did not agree, or who did not sign that was the president Karzai, and on what pretext Mr. Karzai did not sign that – we don’t know. Was that personal politics, or was that national interest that he did not agree with that one? It was signed during president Karzai, Afghanistan would not have been hurt that much. Don’t forget that for the past one year since Mr. Karzai did not sign that one, Afghanistan have lost a lot of revenue and economically it has lost a lot of things. So, therefore, I don’t know if that is as important for Afghans as it used to be, but let’s see – it’s not symbolic, of course it’s not symbolic, but how forward that will help Afghanistan? We hope that…my main concern is that it will not somehow encourage the regional countries to support some sort of rivalry in Afghanistan. If that starts, then Afghanistan one more time becomes a victim.

SS: Like you’ve said, Karzai refused the basing deal with Washington, the point of contention being a demand for the U.S. guarantees of non-intervention in Afghan affairs. So, is this no longer an issue?

AM: Non-intervention is still the case, but we hope that everything goes properly. What I’m trying to say is that Afghanistan has traditionally been sort of non-aligned country until the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, so the whole thing went that way around. Afghanistan became the victim of those games, rivalries. We hope that once again that won’t go through that channel, as U.S. signed that agreement, so Afghanistan once again became a potential for some sort of games. Don’t forget that we’ve got many centers of power, and we’ve got many players around Afghanistan, so it’s not the sort game as “Great Game” we used to have in our history between the two main countries; if it starts again, it will be a huge game – many players, many centers of power, so that will be much greater games in the region, so that would be dangerous for Afghanistan.

SS: Are you just being hopeful or you have more grounds to believe that, because, essentially, one more time, I want to talk about the security pact, what it does is that it puts U.S. troops beyond the reach of Afghan law – how’s that going to work?

AM: It really depends on political leaders of Afghanistan, how exactly they’ll go through, and how exactly they can consolidate that one, how exactly they can implement that one, what would be their foreign policy with the U.S., how exactly they can have a balance foreign policy in the region. It all depends on the Afghan leaders, really. We hope that the Afghan leaders would be able to really take the advantage of that pact for the good of Afghanistan, not for somehow giving the chance to other to interfere into each other’s country.

SS: Now, just a little bit about the new deal, which permits the U.S. and NATO troops to stay until 2024 and beyond – I mean, that’s a really pretty long time? Why do they need to stay for at least another decade?

AM: It has been worked out that the Afghan forces will not be able to sustain themselves, and they still need NATO, and we do have national terrorism around our country. We are confronting many other threats, inside and outside of Afghanistan. So, therefore they maybe saw the need for that one, to support Afghanistan, so that might be the reason. Of course, we are seeing it from our own perspective, and the best interests of Afghanistan. You know there is other impact, outside Afghanistan, so I’m pretty sure the others know better.

SS: But the primary explicit purpose of the deal is to the permit the U.S. to continue training Afghanistan’s roughly 350,000 security forces - so the national forces cannot protect Afghanistan as of today, right? I mean, we’ve seen the Iraqi army fold like house of cards in a short time without the U.S. help…

AM: The Afghan army at this point is a formidable army – there’s no doubt about this one. Yes, of course, they need the equipment, they need training, they need support – they need that. But we can say that the bulk of our main problem is not that. If we do have sound political leadership in Afghanistan, then of course, we can do it. But if we don’t have that one, no matter how much training they get, no matter how much equipment they can receive, they will not be able to deliver. Therefore, for Afghanistan the main challenge, even if security really depends on our political leadership and our political vision of the future of the country. If we can do that, of course, then we can depended on ourselves, but of we cannot do that, we will to continue to depend on our friends, for a long time to come.

SS: Under the new accord, the U.S. will have access to 9 major land and airbases, including massive airfields at Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar. Apart from air operations in Afghanistan, what other purpose will they serve for the U.S.? Drone strikes on Pakistan, maybe? Spying on Russia, China?

AM: I cannot really speculate what other things…as I’ve mentioned, it all depends on our leadership…

SS: Yeah, but what do you think, as someone who can analyze the situation from the outside, because you’re not part of the leadership, so you can just tell me your opinion.

SS: I’ll put it this way. There is some part of sort of legitimate interest of the country. Of course, the U.S. have got legitimate interest in Afghanistan, and we have legitimate interest, the neighboring countries have got their own legitimate interest on each other, but at the same, what I am really afraid of is that if once regional rivalry escalates, then Afghanistan becomes the victim, and that is the main worry that we do have in Afghanistan. So we hope that that will not go towards that direction…

SS: What would be the worst-case scenario of that happening? Could you give an example?

AM: The worst case scenario would be if the international community, especially the U.S. put less attention to Afghanistan and more to the region – then that would be the worst case scenario, because what I hear from different sources, that we have done enough in Afghanistan for the past 13 years, now it’s a time that we have to concentrate on the region. If that happens, of course, we don’t Afghanistan to be a victim of that regional rivalry.

SS: Of course there’s also new president’s proposed restarting the talks with the Taliban. How is he planning to do that, and can he be more successful than the previous attempts?

AM: No, not really, I don’t think so. The president, of course, will put more effort to do that one, but I think that now the whole scenario will be different. Of course that will not be the same as before. Let’s not forget that Mr. Karzai did not even attempt to do that one, he was not willing to do that one. It was a sheer political maneuver, but whether Mr. Ghani as a president of Afghanistan is going to pursuit a very constructive policy towards the Taliban – let’s see, but at the moment, I don’t see that the near future if it will deliver, if it will work. Once Afghanistan becomes strong, once we have got a strong unity government then we can talk from position of power to Taliban and to Pakistan. Otherwise, at this moment, I don’t see a chance for that.

SS: Taliban spokesperson said there will be jihad in Afghanistan until the Americans leave. That sounds pretty final to me, I mean, how is that going to go down with Americans staying in Afghanistan until 2024 and maybe even more?

AM: I think what they have said, they have said the absurd. I mean, they will continue to their battle, their war, because at the moment they don’t see a reason to join the Afghan government or start a peace settlement, because they don’t see any pressure – so then why they should do that one? They feel that they are stronger than the Afghan government, so that is why we really have to get strong in Afghanistan, especially with the unity government. Once we do that, then the Taliban will take it seriously. Otherwise, at this moment, with this coalition, they will not take it seriously.

SS: But do you feel like they are much more stronger than the government and the resurgence of Taliban is a huge problem – because America, precisely the ISAF and the U.S. force commander John Campbell, he said “fears of Taliban resurgence are exaggerated”, although Afghan national army is seeing continued attacks and more casualties – is there really nothing to worry about?

AM: Of course, we said that Afghan army is very formidable army, but as I’ve mentioned before, that needs a political leadership, where exactly they are going to guide this Afghan army. On the either side, Taliban may not be that strong, but they do have the will to continue the fighting, and they are united in their effort, they have got a single leadership, and they’ve got a purpose to do that, so therefore they continue their drive and they will continue so, so by the time we consider Afghan army coming under very clear political leadership to get to a stronger Afghanistan, it will take time. We hope that we can get it soon, but it will take time. But at this moment, the Taliban do not feel any pressure to abide by any peace deal or any peace negotiations.

SS: OK, but you didn’t answer my question: do you fear the resurgence of Taliban as a serious problem, or is it exaggerated as of now?

AM: It’s not a serious problem, no, of course not, because it’s not as big as it has been said. But what I’m trying to say is that when you talk about peace, that’s another scenario. But of that it’s very strong, the Taliban…no, I don’t think of it as very strong.

SS: Now, the militants aligned with ISIS launched a brutal offensive in Afghanistan alongside Taliban fighters – I think that’s led to more than 100 people dead, according to the officials who reported that on Friday. Can ISIS take route in Afghanistan and does Taliban want an ally like that?

AM: No, no. I do not see any trace of such thing, no, no. I think that has been disinformation, exaggerated disinformation in publicity, it has nothing to do at this moment… No. Of course, not. Don’t forget that we have seen for the past 20 years these Taliban and the terrorists, and their activity, the extremists, and all of them, so I think some people, they want somehow put that ISIS and this insurgence and terrorism as such… No, that has been exaggerated.

SS: So you don’t think Taliban can ally itself to ISIS in form of like, another unity government of its own?

AM: No, I don’t see any possibility of such thing to happen. The Taliban cannot really extend their hand with the ISIS. I do not know whether Pakistani will do that one, I don’t know about that, but as far as we know about Taliban inside Afghanistan - that has been exaggerated.

SS: But I feel it’s also the question of mentality. I’ve spoken to a former prisoner of war in Afghanistan and he was actually your brother’s bodyguard, Ahmed Shah Massoud bodyguard. He told me, locals often prefer to align with Taliban than accept foreign interference. How come the Taliban is still supported by so many, and can Kabul change that?

AM: It’s not that. Because of Afghanistan and that of Mr. Karzai was weak, so therefore, people like Taliban, even some people who are not Taliban, they acted as under the umbrella of Taliban to do their own thing. Let me say, for example, during Mr. Karzai, there we many governors and commanders in the south of the country, that they were operating, and they were somehow encourage the locals to rise against him, so that the locals did have their matter of Taliban to rise against him. So, therefore, that was more to do with some sort of tribal rivalry than the Taliban, so the Taliban took the opportunity to really say that they were part of that one. So it was not that the Taliban was strong, it was the government of Mr. Hamid Karzai that was weak.

SS: Alright, thank you so much for this interesting insight, Ahmad Wali Massoud , Afghan politician, head of Massoud foundation. We were talking about what’s going to happen to Afghanistan after the new elections and hopefully the new unity government will turn out to be better than the previous government that you dislike so much. We wish you all the best, you and your country. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I’ll see you next time.