Pressuring Taliban in Afghanistan like cutting grass without removing roots – ex-Afghan intel chief

Afghanistan is still struggling to contain the resurgent Taliban, 18 years after NATO troops went into the country to get rid of the extremist group. Can Kabul manage and what can the West do to help it? We ask former chief of Afghan national intelligence Amrullah Saleh.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Ex-intelligence chief of Afghanistan Amrullah Saleh, welcome to the show. It’s really great to have you with us. Mr. Saleh, the latest international conference on Afghanistan has been held in neighbouring Uzbekistan, with more than 20 countries taking part. Taliban wasn’t there. Does it make any sense to hold meetings like that without one side of the conflict present? 

Amrullah Saleh: I think, it does make a lot of sense and I’m very glad the Taliban were not there, they should be treated like a terrorist group and a terrorist group should not be invited to an international event. The aim of the Tashkent conference was to endorse support for the position of the Afghan government. And with regards to the peace process it was not aimed to equate the democratic process with the terrorist group. So the absence of the Taliban is not a regret, it’s a pleasure. 

SS: The Afghanistan peace process is being discussed at several platforms: the Kabul Process Conference, then the conference in Tashkent, while Moscow has offered to host peace talks with the Taliban. Will even more events like these help to bring the Taliban to negotiating table? Does the increasing number of international conferences here downplay the significance of the talks themselves? 

AS: Well, you’re very right, the approach has been fragmented, but this fragmentation is not because of Afghanistan. This fragmentation is due to the growing misunderstanding between various players at the world’s stage. And because there hasn’t been cohesion on the side of the international community (to be honest, the very term ‘international community’ has lost its unified meaning and definition) and, therefore, various countries have tried to show they can do something for this globe, for this part of the world and, therefore, there has been Kabul Process, Istanbul Process, now Tashkent Conference. There was Moscow Process some time ago. But what distinguishes Tashkent from the rest is participation of Russia at the higher level. Foreign Minister Lavrov was there and EU Foreign Chief Mogherini was there. That gives it a new dimension and we’re very pleased that the countries of the region, particularly our near neighbors who avoided to send high delegations to Kabul Process, will come to Tashkent Conference. 

SS: President Ghani offered peace talks to the Taliban last month, but the Taliban called for direct talks with Washington instead of Kabul. If these negotiations take place, do you trust the Americans with Afghanistan’s future? 

AS: Well, we understand why the Taliban want to negotiate directly with the foreign countries - because they want to legitimise their claim that they are not a terrorist group and that they own Afghanistan. I’m very glad that our foreign friends are refusing to give them that access and that chance because if they ever agree to speak to the Taliban directly that will downgrade the position of the Afghan government, of us as a legitimate state and of us as a sole representative of Afghanistan on the world’s stage. And it will also set a very bad precedent for other conflicts and cases. As I mentioned earlier, the world order already has black holes in itself as a structure. And if any country negotiates with another state’s actor involved in terror activities directly the unintended consequences will be damaging the relative peace and stability that are there. It will also boost the morale of all those illegitimate terrorist and insurgent groups who want to undermine the constitutional order not only in Afghanistan but elsewhere. So that won’t be a good thing to do. 

SS: You’ve been opposed to making a deal with the Taliban for a long time. You want them defeated instead - but how many more years will that take? If a deal stops bloodshed, isn’t it worth making? 

AS: You’re absolutely right, we’re suffering, there’s no doubt people are suffering, the economic development has slowed down, the Afghan civilians are facing stress and depression in their lives. So there’s a thirst for peace. And we’re ready to pay the price to achieve peace, but we’re not going to sacrifice our dignity and honour to achieve it. So, therefore, the package is out, the ball is on the court of the Taliban and Pakistanis who are supporting terrorism in our region. The Tashkent Conference clearly showed that the position of Afghanistan has legitimacy both domestically and internationally. If the Taliban reject to engage in the peace process and if their backer the Pakistanis do not convince them or put pressure on them to engage in the peace process both the Taliban and the Pakistanis will face further isolation. The continuation of the fighting and war is no doubt costly for us from multiple dimensions and multiple aspects. But this situation is not going to ensure a bright future for the Pakistanis and the Taliban either. So our hope is that we do a recalculation and we revisit the overall policies which has kept our region fragmented, divided and engaged in proxy conflicts and policies of manipulation for so many years, for so many decades. We should learn from other corners of the world where economic cooperation, regional cooperation has rescued the nation from the state of stress, depression, backwardness and misunderstanding, and they have braced a better future. So why don’t we take ourselves out of the 19th and 20th centuries’ politics and embrace the new life with the new realities? 

SS: The Taliban has to disarm and integrate into Afghan society, as you say, and okay, maybe their guns can be taken away, but what about their ideology? They are not like a regular armed insurgency, they want to impose a lifestyle on the country, how can you make them give that up? 

AS: Well, the issue is not the Taliban guns or the Taliban ideology. The issue is two things. One is that the Taliban enjoys the safe haven in Pakistan. So when we put pressure on the Taliban fighters their leaders are away, they are not under pressure, they continue to plan operations, provide logistics from beyond our borders. That’s the matter of concern. The second thing that worries us is the Taliban’s dogmatic approach to policies. If they agree to become part of the pluralistic society they will melt down. The sheer attractiveness and pressure of the pluralistic society on this group will make them irrelevant in the very short span of time. That’s why both the Pakistanis and the Taliban understand that if they don’t get any hard concessions which will not ensure their survival as a militant group they will not engage in any peace process. So we are not afraid of the Taliban becoming part of the society because the society as a whole will reject them democratically. The biggest enemy of the Taliban is not necessarily the NATO guns or our political rejection of the Taliban. The biggest enemy of the Taliban is democracy itself. And, therefore, they will do everything in their power to either undermine it or create a Taliban ghetto within a democratic process and within a democratic space so that they can survive. 

SS: President Ghani said that the Taliban could be recognised as a political party and welcomed into the political process as part of any potential peace deal. Why would the Taliban need that? I mean, they are doing well on the front line, they are a warrior movement, do they really need to sit in parliament? 

AS: Well, I do not necessarily agree with the notion that they are doing well. They are living in hell. There’s no education in the areas that they control, there’s no state system. It’s all rule of clerical bodies, cells and networks. Some people say it’s like a medieval rule. At least in the medieval times if we had nothing there were poetry, royal court or something. But in the Taliban areas except terror and economy based on poppy and trafficking, except torture of the dissidents, except a silent population like a graveyard … I don’t think that we should call it that they are doing well. No, they’re not doing well. It’s like life in hell. 

SS: I spoke to Chief Executive of Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, and he told me that the Taliban cannot win the war by military means. Yet they are now threatening 70% of the country’s territory, they are having success after success, militarily at least, - is it right to be so sure they won’t win? 

AS: They do spectacular urban attacks, no doubt about that. Because they kill so many civilians in these car bombings and suicide attacks and they dominate the news and then they cause pain, that’s not military victory, that’s terrorism. The fact that they haven’t been able to create a quote-unquote controlled zones for themselves inside Afghanistan, so they want to bring pain to the cities, to show that they exist in the scene, to show they are in the theatre and to create discontent among the civilian population vis-a-vis government saying ‘your government cannot protect you’. But for the Taliban to be able to undo the achievements of the past 16 years and to overrun Afghanistan militarily - that’s a very wild fantasy. 

SS: Mr. Saleh, why is the Afghan Army, trained and equipped by the best militaries in the world, having a hard time destroying the Taliban? 

AS: The Afghan army we’re talking about isn’t 16 years old, that’s a myth. Americans got busy and stuck in Iraq and their work on building security institutions for Afghanistan was abandoned for another 6-8 years. In that meantime, however they never acknowledged, that they were totally busy with Iraq, so actually the robust work to strengthen our forces started in late 2009. From 2003 to 2010 we were almost brushed under the carpet. And that is the period when the Taliban re-emerged. If an insurgent or terrorist group enjoys foreign sanctuary, no matter how much military pressure you put on them, they’ll be in one way or another re-hibernate themselves and come back and it will be like cutting the grass and not taking the roots out. So the roots are in the Pakistani madrasa and religious infrastructure which continuously produce these terrorists and send them to us. It is also in the interests of Russia and the countries in Central Asia also to forget the American agenda here and join our forces to defeat this phenomena. If Afghanistan, God forbidden, is dominated by this strict clerical movement called ‘Taliban’ with roots in madrasas in Pakistan’s Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, their next step, as they did in the 90s, would be exporting their rotten ideology to Central Asia and thus directly threatening Russia. So I think, we shouldn’t create a new narrative which suits our short-term interests which is to say that America is failing here. No. If this thing doesn’t go well we will all fail and we should not be happy to fail collectively. 

SS: You’re saying that Pakistani intelligence provides support for the Taliban. What exactly can be done to make Pakistan cut their ties to them? 

AS: I think, the Pakistanis have a set of interests and agenda which they believe they cannot achieve through engaging in a state-to-state dialogue. So they find proxy battles and backing radical terrorist groups as part of their interests. There is a belief in Pakistan that the country has two deterrences: one deterrence is the nuclear bomb and the other deterrence is radical groups which are expendable and Pakistan uses these groups to promote its interests and to expand its influence in a very odd and bizarre way in the region. So when we’re saying what it takes to convince the Pakistanis to stop this, it means we want to undo at least 50 years of a very solid and strict way of thinking and conduct in Pakistan. Support for radical groups by Pakistan started not since 9/11, but it started before the 70s - Pakistan was used to counter the influence of the Soviet Union... 

SS: Just tell me, is Pakistan in control of the Taliban or is it just supporting them with bases and materials? Can Islamabad really tell the Taliban what to do? 

AS: Absolutely. If we look at the structure of the Taliban we’re talking about a group with a three-layer structure: the expendable Taliban who get killed like flies and there are the ordinary fighters who are being used as expendable ones; the mid-level Taliban are the commanders who also get killed, wounded and the Taliban manage to replace them; and there is the strategic level. The strategic level is not suffering at all from pressure. They are in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar. They are in the basements of the Pakistani army. So the strategic mind of the Taliban is not Afghan. The strategic brain of the Taliban is actually G.H.Q. Rawalpindi - the Pakistani Army. And these forces they train and send to Afghanistan are just acting like a demolishing force. They are not in control. The Tashkent Conference is, therefore, important to create a realisation that actual peace comes when we recognise the reality that the actual leadership of the Taliban is the Pakistani army. And if we cannot sort out the problem at that level, regardless of  how much we peel off the Taliban the problem will continue. 

SS: What’s the point for Pakistan to have a never-ending war on its border? Why does it support the conflict? Wouldn’t it be more profitable to have a peaceful Afghanistan as a neighbour? 

AS: Exactly, that’s what we’re advocating, that’s what we’re lobbying, that’s the logic we use. We say: “Let’s try and test a state-to-state relationship and see; if you cannot achieve your legitimate interests and you cannot overcome your anxieties through promoting a bilateral relationship then you may resort to other means, but you haven’t tried that type of relationship with us for a very long time”. But, you know, the undeclared view in Pakistan is ‘Afghanistan is a weaker state, it’s a country that is susceptible to domination, to manipulation, NATO is temporary, it’s not a constant, it’s variable - it’s here today and it will go out - and we as the most popular neighbour of Afghanistan can re-dominate it’. So what drives the Pakistani policy towards us is sheer greed, sheer arrogance and sheer stubbornness and frankly being stuck in the 19th and 20th centuries’ way of thinking and politics. It is far away from civility and civilised human relationship. If they do practise civilised human relationship I am not sure  there’s anything in Afghanistan to dictate us to hurt Pakistanis or to be against them. But they see us weak, they see us, as I said, vulnerable and easy to dominate, so, therefore, they continue to pursue these odd policies. 

SS: Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai told me that Pakistan supports insurgents in Afghanistan because Kabul is friendly with Delhi. Is Afghanistan just a proxy battlefield for the rivalry between India and Pakistan? And how does the Afghan war influence it? 

AS: Well, I don’t necessarily echo the logic of the former President when it comes to the Taliban. If you study former President Karzai’s policies towards the whole scenario he never had a consistent policy. He was fluctuating even every month in regards to the situation. And we think, he spoiled some of the best opportunities we had in this country to consolidate the state power, to unify the nation and to defeat terrorism. The very difference is that India is backing the Afghani state and is openly supporting Afghanistan in economic development and it’s providing overt legitimate assistance to the Afghan security forces. India is not into providing aid to any non-state actor in my country. So we shouldn’t say that Pakistanis are there because India is here. Pakistan was here when India wasn’t here. We also say to the Pakistanis: “If you want to reach parity and gain parity with India play according to the script - India is investing in education, you can do the same. India is investing in our security forces you can do the same. India is investing in trade, you can do the same”. You know, Pakistan is like a very angry bully in the street who cannot compete with a talented boy in the same street. So, therefore, their solution to their feeling of inferiority is to punch everyone rising. That’s not a good way to behave. 

SS: Mr. Saleh, thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Amrullah Saleh, the former chief of the Afghan intelligence, about the situation in Afghanistan and whether it’s going to improve any time soon.