CEO of Afghanistan: We are ready to accept Taliban as part of the government

Afghanistan - a place, where war has been going on for more than a decade. The withdrawal of NATO didn’t help the matters, and now, with ISIS trying to get a foothold in the country, the fate of Afghan nation depends on whether the Taliban will join the talks – and lay down arms for good. What are the chances for peace for Afghanistan? And what is Afghan government ready to sacrifice for the sake of ending the violence? We ask the Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan - His Excellency Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Сhief Executive Officer of Afghanistan, thank you very much for being on the show with us today. Now, Your Excellency, four-way peace talks have been taking place in Afghanistan, so far, without the Taliban. As a condition to joining these talks, the Taliban demands to be removed from the UN blacklist. Is the Afghan government ready to support these demands for the sake of continuing the talks?

Abdullah Abdullah: Official talks between Afghan government and Taliban have not started yet, there’s a quadrilateral group - Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S. and China, which was working together in the past few weeks in order to work out the terms of reference for the talks or for the roadmap for the talks; that has not been finalized as of yet, and then, as you may be well aware, that now Taliban has different groups and is represented by different people. They are not as united as they were under Mullah Omar. That’s a different issue. As far as the position of Afghanistan is concerned, we are serious about peaceful solution and we have made our intentions clear in that regard and so far, official talks between Afghanistan and Taliban has not taken place.

SS: Your Excellency, one more time - is the Afghan government ready to support demands of the Taliban to be removed from the UN blacklist for the sake of starting the talks?

AA: Afghanistan has made its position clear that we are ready to talk. Anything could be discussed and could be talked at the table, but pre-conditions will not be acceptable.

SS: Alright, but if you really want the Taliban at the negotiating table, what steps will Afghanistan have to take to get them there?

AA: The point is that they realize today that they cannot win militarily - the Taliban. They tried, together with other terrorist organisations which are working together and the only thing that has happened is suffering of the Afghan people and Afghanistan losing and missing opportunities; but at the same time, it is very clear that Taliban cannot win militarily. It is time for them to come to terms with the reality, and at the same time, countries which are involved are encouraging the Taliban to come to the negotiating table and it's for the interests of Afghanistan and for the interests of anybody who is involved with Afghanistan to pursue peaceful means rather than violence. So far, the official talks have not taken place and those countries which are involved will continue, together with Afghanistan, to prepare ground for these negotiations.

SS: Sure, but I just want to know what precisely is the Afghan government ready to do in order to encourage and get Taliban at the negotiating table?

AA: That’s the call that we have made in the past, that’s the call that we are making today, that we are ready to talk. That’s what our position is.

SS: Your Excellency, I know you’ve said that Taliban fails to fulfill its plan to topple the government and replace it with its own - what do you base your conviction on? Do you have some kind of intelligence that shows they have abandoned this plan?

AA: I’m not saying that they have abandoned their plans. Unfortunately, the fighting continues - there might be some groups amongst the Taliban that still think that they should pursue military operations. But, there’s no doubt that we do have intelligence that there are some groups of Taliban that think they cannot win militarily. Often,after  the revelation of the news about the death of Mullah Omar, their leader, the divisions developed among them, differences developed amongst different Taliban groups, and today, they are not united in their stand.

SS: So now that the Taliban is fragmented, after the death of its leader, Mullah Omar, there’s no one individual now leading the Taliban - who will Kabul talk to?

AA: They are divided, at least, into 3 or 4 groups, main groups, and then, there are groups which are fighting within Afghanistan, some of them are in contact with local government officials - this is a different issues. But, as a whole, they are divided into 3-4 groups, main groups.

SS: Yes, but so, there’s no one leader from the Taliban that you can talk to - so who will Kabul talk to? There’s no one man on the side of the Taliban because they're fragmented - so who you’re gonna talk to?

AA: The ones which are ready to talk. There, as I mentioned earlier, there might groups that want to continue further, or, if they get together and they present a single voice - that also we welcome. But, at the same, the determination of the Afghan government to stand ready to talk and those leaders of these different factions are well-known people. If they come forward and if their response is positive, we welcome it.

SS: A part of the Taliban is demanding foreign troops leave Afghanistan, and its rejecting the mediation of China, the U.S. or any third party for that matter. Is that something that you’re willing to allow to happen just for the peace talks to go ahead?

AA: The point is, that the foreign troops, the international troops, are in Afghanistan because of the atrocities of Al Qaeda and the situation that the Taliban has facilitated earlier, and they will be here until Afghanistan is stable and has its institutions - military, security institutions developed to a stage where we can defend our territory as well as provide security for our citizens. That’s an agreement between the government of Afghanistan and the international community, and the international forces are here based on that. We need their support at this stage. If Taliban are sincere in their demand for making peace or in their call for making peace, the best way is to come forward and help establishing peace and security in the country and then once that situation comes, then there might not be need for the presence of foreign troops. Foreign troops are here only because of insecurity and the threats from Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the country.

SS: Is Kabul ready to see the Taliban as part of the Afghan government if the peace deal demands it?

AA: Before the start of negotiations, what you’re saying is only a theory, but the point is that if Taliban gives up violence, severed their links with terrorist groups and wants to be part of the political environment in Afghanistan - they can do that. That is where politics of the country will be decided - they want to achieve some of their goals or pursue some of their goals without violence, without resorting to terrorist actions, without linkages to the terrorist groups, in a peaceful, democratic environment; that is there. But, a specific point that you yourself mentioned - we are far from it at this stage.

SS: But even hypothetically, if you consider that, for 15 years the U.S. has been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and American troops are still there, and moreover, are there to stay for some time under the current agreement with Kabul. How will that work, if, theoretically, like you say, the Taliban will be represented somehow in the political life or in the elections. How can the  two coexist?

AA: I would say that we are not talking about the hypothesis. The reality is that Taliban failed to achieve their goals. Yes, the American troops - or international troops that have been in Afghanistan for the past 15 years -  Taliban has been fighting together with Osama Bin-Laden and all terrorist groups against people of Afghanistan for 20 years. The point is that they can choose the path of continuation of violence which will not bring anything to them, or come to the negotiating table and be part of the political environment. That is not clear at this stage, and once they are participating in the negotiations, they can raise their concerns, they can raise their views, and things will be discussed. That’s why I’m saying that conditions and pre-conditions will not take us anywhere. We have proved our sincerity and seriousness in this, and that is what expected from the Taliban as well.

SS: Does Kabul see the Taliban as a lesser evil compared to Daesh, now that ISIS is trying to establish a foothold in Afghanistan?

AA: As long as people are resorting to terrorist actions and killing civilians, in essence, there will not be a difference between different groups. There are foreign terrorist groups which are working together with Taliban, including people from Central Asian republics, from Russia, parts of Russia - Caucasus - and from other parts of the world. They have joined Taliban long before Daesh name has become known to the people of Afghanistan. At the same time, recent phenomena is Daesh - but there's no doubt that Taliban as a movement has a background in the country, has established its presence in part of the country in earlier days, but there was resistance against their way of life throughout the country before the presence of the international groups. For us, threats are threats, unless Taliban opt for other options in the way that I described earlier.

SS: The Taliban is waging its own campaign against ISIS - could the Afghan government start working with the Taliban on this front? Could this be a unifying factor? Could the Taliban become an ally in the fight against ISIS?

AA: There are differences between the Taliban themselves and different groups of Taliban. Sometimes they are fighting against one another, and sometimes also they are fighting against the groups which are called Daesh… In terms of our position, as long as they are fighting, Taliban or Daesh or other groups, we have to challenge them. We have to tackle them. That is our position.

SS: No, the point is that the Afghan government is fighting ISIS and, parallelly, the Taliban is fighting ISIS as well. Could fight against ISIS be a unifying factor, could the government and Taliban fight ISIS together?

AA: The point is that they’re fighting against the Afghan government as well, and the Afghan government is fighting against Taliban. Only when Taliban gives up violence and wants to talk and wants to enter negotiations, it's only under those circumstances that the situation will chances, not under the circumstances that are “choose evil versus bigger evil” or “lesser evil versus evil”. The fighting continues in Afghanistan, at the same time, there are clashes between groups which are called Taliban and Daesh, but the Afghan government is dealing with both of them at the same time.

SS: Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan has said that “if the peace talks with the Taliban don’t start by April this year, the conflict will intensify”. Are you positive you will get them to the table by then? Are two months enough?

AA: The point is that that shows that Afghanistan considers peace talks as a priority, but, at the same time, we will be realistic. It doesn't mean that in one or two weeks, even if the talks start, things will change. But, it’s important that we know and we have clarity about the prospects. The point is that our forces will continue their duties in dealing with these terrorist groups - Taliban and Daesh and foreign terrorist groups altogether. At the same time, what President Ashraf Ghani mentioned, that attributes to  the urgency, or the importance and priority that we give to the peace talks.

SS: But is April a realistic deadline?

AA: No, it’s not the issue of deadline, it’s a reality that the fighting continued throughout 2015 and it still continues in parts of the country, and there’s a prospect that without peace talks that may continue throughout 2016, sometimes with intensity, sometimes with less intensity - but that’s a reality.

SS: Taliban has long used Pakistan as a safe haven and now we’re seeing Afghanistan and Pakistan vow to fight terrorism together. Can you count on Pakistan to commit to the struggle?

AA: That’s what we expect, and that’s what we have discussed between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past few months, especially recently in different venues, in Kabul and in Islamabad, during Heart of Asia meeting, during other mechanisms which exist. Pakistan also has suffered because of terrorism, and because of terrorist actions on their own soil. It’s important that both countries work together in order to deal with the challenge of terrorism and we hope that that will yield results for both countries and both nations.

SS: But how much depends on Pakistan's leverage over the Taliban in these talks? Can Islamabad use its influence to get parties to the negotiating table?

AA: The point is that those who want to join the talks have to be encouraged and those who are not willing to talk have to be identified and the understanding between Afghanistan and Pakistan has been that we consider terrorism as a common challenge. But, it’s time to deliver on the ground and that’s what our people expect and that’s what people of Pakistan expect in terms of dealing with terrorism, radicalism, as well as instability, insecurity in our part of the world.

SS: The Taliban has intensified their attacks across Afghanistan in recent months. A leaked NATO report that was obtained by Der Spiegel says “Afghan forces aren’t able to battle the Taliban with some battalions not operational at all, amid massive losses - up to 25 people a day - plus defections”. NATO countries have spent $65 billion dollars and undertaken years of training to make this army combat-ready. Why isn’t it?

AA: The point is that only two years ago there were tens of thousands of international troops on Afghan soil. Suddenly, the number reduced dramatically, through the support continues, “Ares”, or Resolute Support mission continue to support Afghan forces in terms of training, equipment and support as whole. So the environment has changed: earlier, it was NATO troops, international forces, lots of them, tens of thousands of them. And then the number reduced dramatically, and the fact that the Afghan forces have been able to continue...the fact is that only two years back there was tens of thousands of international forces on the ground, fighting against Taliban and other groups, and then the whole responsibility was shifted to the Afghan people with much less number of the international forces in Afghanistan. If you put it into that context, then the conclusion will be that the Afghan forces has done quite well in dealing with the challenge which is there. There’s no doubt that the number of casualties has been high, that is a challenge, at the same time the Taliban has not been able to achieve their goals. Their main goal in 2014-2015 was to topple the government.

SS: The Helmand province deputy governor used Facebook to plead with the Afghan President for help holding off the Taliban. Why do regional officials have to turn to social media to ask for help?

AA: Sometimes the challenges are such that individuals decide on their own, but at the same time, in the same province, Taliban had a lot of casualties and they were not able to hold the district that they surrounded… But, it’s not a normal conduct in military, security circumstances, but it does happen.

SS: Like you’ve said, NATO have all but pulled out of Afghanistan and President Obama recently announced that only 10,000 troops will remain stationed in Afghanistan. The U.S. is aiding the Afghan army with the air campaign as well. Do you want to see the U.S. back in Afghanistan in full force if necessary?

AA: There’s an agreement and there’s a commitment from the U.S., as well as Ares mission, as a whole to support Afghanistan and it’s not only the U.S., there are several other countries which are part of this mission. We are happy that that commitment is there, and hopefully, with the continued support, Afghanistan will be able to stand on its own feet and our security forces would be able to deal with the challenges by themselves, but we are a little bit further away from that situation... I’m not speculating on another situation, but what I’m saying is that we appreciate, we are thankful for President Obama to make that decision and that provides an opportunity for the strengthening of our security forces and being able to deal with the challenge.

SS: Your Excellency, thank you very much for your thoughts and input. We were talking to Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan, talking about the confrontation with the Taliban and the prospects of peace. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.