Taliban are ordinary Afghans, tired of war too – Afghan Deputy FM
The Afghan war against the Taliban has dragged on for 17 years, but the terrorist group shows no signs of defeat. What are Afghanistan’s chances to finally end the bloodshed? We asked Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Nasir Andisha.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Nasir Andisha, thank you for being part of this show today. It’s a great please. Afghanistan is always such a hot topic of discussion. The latest version of the Afghanistan war that has been going on for 17 years now, and it doesn’t seem like anyone is close to claiming victory. How long, do you think, this stalemate will last?
Nasir Andisha: There’s an effort to get rid of what’s been holding us in this stalemate militarily, and that is an approach towards peace and reconciliation, on one hand. But then on the other hand, the fight has to continue between irreconcilable elements because in this war we have really serious terrorist groups who aim (and their goal hasn’t changed ever since) at the destruction of the Afghan community, the Afghan way of life, but also they are threatening the region. So while we’re focusing on bringing peace and reconciliation to Afghanistan, we should also keep in mind that we need to fight with the groups whose goal is to spread terrorism and extremism in the region. And that will continue until we get rid of them.
SS: All of Afghan leaders, past and present, told me that this war needs to be negotiated to the very end. Is there a reliable Taliban leadership that you could negotiate with?
NA: I think, it’s been one of the difficulties - the Taliban’s address and their leadership because their leadership is outside the country. It has been difficult to find and reach them. You know, in the past we had groups who were pro-peace, but also we had groups who were against peace. Right now there’s an address which is in Qatar and there’s a political office of the Taliban to whom we’re talking. But then, of course, there are elements within Afghanistan that have a different approach. At least the address we’re having right now - we’re trying to reach peace with them.
SS: What kind of a settlement is realistic right now? What kind of concessions to the Taliban in a postwar settlement, do you think are feasible?
NA: This is something that need to be left for negotiations because we’re not at that stage. We’re right now at the stage of facilitation…
SS: What is the best-case scenario? I’m sure you have one…
NA: Probably my best-case scenario will be of my own view… But any settlement means there have to be compromises. The two sides have to accept the best solution - a compromise solution. But one thing is very clear, and it’s been made clear again and again by our leadership and by the international community that has been helping us, including the Russian Federation, that state in Afghanistan is something very important, something very precious. And the problem over the past fourty years has been that every time there’s a change, that’s a state which is changing, that’s a state which collapses. So if we keep the structure of the state, whatever happens within the structure of the state in terms of governance and the way of governing, how much accountability and responsibility, concentration of power and decentralisation and delegation of power - I think, this is something that we can negotiate and discuss. But overall the structure of the state which we put forward in 2001 has to be kept intact which means that we should not go from a republic where people decide towards an emirate where a few clergy will decide. That is an overall framework that we’re thinking about. Within this framework there are many things for negotiation. And that’s how the settlement should look like.
SS: Speaking about the Obama administration, it was ambiguous about talks with the Taliban - in a way initiating some processes, but then being really tough on Taliban militarily on the field. The current administration is more favourable, accepting the idea of talks - do you think these are just empty words or they will follow up on them?
NA: Even in the past, in 2011 there was a surge of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And this surge was a means to an end. The end was peace, but the means was to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to exert enough military pressure on them, which is happening everywhere in the world. We’ve seen this in Vietnam and etc. that the military leaders believe that to bring the insurgents or terrorist groups sometimes to the negotiating table you have to show resolve. I think, the aim of that surge at that time was showing the resolve for the peace. But the problem was with the dates because if you announce that you are looking to exert this much pressure in this span of time, of course, these terrorists won’t fight you, they will hide until that time comes to an end. That’s one of the difficulties that that surge had. They announced an end date: “We are starting in 2010 and we’re finishing in 2011.” And the Taliban said: “Ok, fine, we’ll go far on and on.” And they went to Pakistan and they didn’t even fight Americans. But when the time was over they came back. Right now it’s different, it’s not only a question of talk. The South-East Asia strategy of the United States is about the whole South-East Asia, it’s not only Afghanistan, because they also recognise that the sanctuaries, the bases of the Taliban, the bases of Al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters (we shouldn’t forget that bin Laden was not from Abbottabad) are all in Pakistan. So I think, this pressure on both Pakistan and the Taliban are at the same time a real offer of peace.
SS: We’re getting to Pakistan, because there’s a lot to discuss with the recent change of power. But there’s also this change in creative diplomacy in America. America says they’re ready to talk to the Afghan Taliban directly, the Afghan Taliban is also saying “we don’t want to talk to the Afghan government, we’re ready to talk to Washington directly”. What happens if you are left out of the process? Is that a possibility?
NA: I think, that shouldn’t be a possibility coming in the minds of anyone in the region or in the United States. In the past we had a very negative experience because when you leave the legitimate government of the country behind and go and talk behind their back. This hasn’t happened and we’re not going to let this happen in any case. I think, the tactics of these terrorist and insurgent groups are always the same. We had this during the 1980s when Afghan mujahideens wanted to talk directly to Moscow, and we saw the result of it - it was a complete collapse of the system in Kabul. So they want to show that they want to go to the talks with the Americans, but there’s a consensus that the peace in Afghanistan has to be Afghan-owned and -led and through the direct talks between the Afghans themselves. The others can facilitate and maybe can mediate.
SS: But the Taliban are Afghans too…
NA: That’s what I’m saying: between Afghans means between us and the Taliban. That should be the peace; mediation and facilitation always happen in all the peace talks around the world. You need somebody building the confidence and the level of guarantee. They want some guarantee that this agreement will be fulfilled, we understand this. Whoever agrees to guarantee the peace agreement or to facilitate the peace talks - one of them is Moscow, this is one of the venues, we have the regional forum called the Moscow Forum; beside the others the QCG which is United States and China, we have the Heart of Asia which happens in Turkey in Istanbul. So we have multiple forums that can guarantee and mediate. So everything behind the back of the Afghan government will be counterproductive.
SS: So you’ve mentioned Pakistan a couple of times in the interview. Many Afghan officials I spoke to in the past mostly blame Pakistan for the mess that Afghanistan is in. Pakistan has now a new Prime Minister Imran Khan, he seems to be more progressive, very popular with the people. Do you think anything will change with him in power?
NA: We’re hoping so. We really hope that with Imran Khan in power things could change. Also, whenever you have a change of leadership in the country there’s a window of opportunity to change policies. We’re really looking forward to see some of the strategic changes in Pakistan’s approach and in Pakistan’s mindset vis-a-vis Afghanistan and peace in Afghanistan, and in their broader approach towards the region - India and Iran, or whatever that has been in Pakistan for many years. So if we see a sign of change in Pakistan, which is not so far away, we understand Imran Khan is busy with other priorities going to Saudi Arabia and other places, but we’re hopeful and we’re expecting that even for him it will be good if he does something that his predecessors couldn’t do. We had Foreign Minister Qureshi who came to Kabul and we haven’t heard anything news - we had the record of everything we heard in the past 17 years, it’s just here with us - I think, the time of rhetoric is over between the two countries when it comes to our relationship. We are very optimistic, we think that he can take it out of the box. He’s a new person, he’s not part of these political parties which have been in power in the past couple of decades that we’re working with Pakistan. So somebody new, somebody close to the military, that sounds like an advantage, if he could use it properly, so we think that that could be helpful.
SS: Dr. Andisha, for Pakistan Afghanistan has always been a tool of rivalry with India, and now Imran Khan is trying to cool down its relations with India. So maybe that could be a big change?
NA: In that we really wish him the best. It’s a very difficult thing. To some people the whole idea of Pakistan is that this country was created based on the ideology of fighting against India or being against it. Whatever Afghanistan could do on that… I remember in 2007 and 2005 when we were much more peaceful than today, we even offered: “Can we do something so that Pakistan and India could come together and get closer to each other?” For our part we’ve done everything possible for the both countries, to tell them: “Look, Afghanistan is not a place of rivalry, it’s a place of co-operation.” If the two countries could co-operate with each other then billions of dollars from trade will be a benefit for both of them. India’s goods, services and technologies could get into Pakistan and Afghanistan, go to Russia and then to Europe. Everybody will benefit. Somehow this idea of trade liberalism doesn’t work in that part of the world. So we hope someday it will.
SS: But you know how these big powers, especially nuclear powers… He’s trying to stabilise his relations with India, I hope, it will work. At the same time, U.S. - Pakistan relations have soured. Do you think there’s a danger that they can mess with the Americans by giving more support to the Taliban?
NA: I think, this is something they have to understand, I’m sure they do. Pakistan has a strong establishment, military and political leadership - they should know the limits of going to the Taliban and antagonising the United States. I think, the whole idea of the South-Asia policies of the United States is to convince Pakistan that whatever interests they might seek in supporting the Taliban, this is not feasible and not desirable for the future of this country. It’s a huge nation, it’s a vibrant society, it’s the country which could be as prosperous as any other country, it was going in the same speed as South Korea in 1970, but now it’s lagging behind, it’s one of the poorest. We hope that when it comes to decisions, Pakistan should take the side of peace, prosperity, commerce and trade and international co-operation rather than any terrorist group that, they think, could be used as a tool of their foreign policy vis-a-vis India.
SS: Then there’s China - what role can it play? Do you think it can play a role in peace negotiations?
NA: Yes, China can be a major player in peace and prosperity in Afghanistan. China is an important and strong neighbour of Afghanistan. The whole idea of One Belt One Road which is unfortunately bypassing Afghanistan but is going south in Pakistan and Central Asia. These links to be built within this One Belt One Road can help Afghanistan economically in the future. But right now China is involved in the Moscow format, but also in QCG which is the Quadrilateral Coordination Group of China, Pakistan, United States and Afghanistan. So they are all interested and have their ways, and their faith at the four-ministers level is very serious that the issue of terrorism is Afghanistan needs to be finished.
SS: Then there’s the topic of the Afghan army.
SS: So, it’s spread across the country, with the Taliban still making gains - capturing villages and military bases. Does the Afghan military have much staying power left? And - you can kill me, but I can’t answer this question - why is it still on the defensive after 17 years of so much investment and being trained by the world’s best soldiers?
NA: On one hand, you’ve described the situation. I think, it’s close to reality that we’ve been spreading around the country, we’re fighting in each and every corner of Afghanistan, but the second part - I can give a bit more explanation on the other side of it. The armies are built, trained and fit, again trained and then sent to some wars. But ours is not like this. They’re recruited, trained a little bit, and then they start fighting. So you don’t have the space of going back to some training, changing from one place to another. In a way it’s like you walk and you are chewing gum what armies are doing, because that happened throughout the end. When I was talking about the surge in military forces in 2009 in Afghanistan, it was also the surge of building the Afghan army. In the beginning it was like 28 thousand, 30 thousand, 50 thousand, “Afghanistan doesn’t need an army, it needs only police”. This was the idea of the international community, of our friends and donors, they were wrong in the very beginning. We told them: “Look, this is a mountainous country, it has valleys, it’s so difficult to control them, it’s not small open plains that you can control, and terrorists can go to the other side of the border, and then they come back.” The decision to increase the Afghan army up to the level of 350,000+ that we’re having right now, was after 2010. And then we pushed the army training because we’re getting out. So this army is doing the job of 120 thousand well-trained international forces including NATO. And the cost of it per person is like 1 million dollars. If you compare it to what we have it’s peanuts, it’s very meagre. Yes, we have difficulties. We have been on the defensive a little bit in the past because we decided to show a gesture for peace instead of being on the offensive. So we told the Taliban “we respect the ceasefire” which we did from the beginning but they didn’t. But now the President, the Defense Minister and the National Security Counselor are harder and we’re on the full offensive. We need to look at this strategy - do we need to fight, like I said, the insurgents, the guerilla force? We’re facing the force that can vanish inside villages.
SS: Sometimes I think the Taliban doesn’t even want to win the war because it’s so much more comfortable to win the position to be seen as guerillas and fighters for motherland than to actually run the country, no?
NA: Some other people told me the same thing: “Why does the Taliban want to come?” We don’t believe, of course, that the Taliban can win the way they defined in 1996 when they came in their pick-ups in Kabul, that’s not the way they will be defined. But an insurgent group will always have cohesion, will always be romanticised when they are in the jungles, in the mountains and in the villages because they are not as responsible as the government should be. They can enforce their will through violence. But the minute they come in they will lose and it will be difficult for them. But I think they all think that the war has been long enough and they have nothing left in their lives. And they haven’t seen a day of peace.
SS: Like half of your country, they were born after the war broke out...
NA: Exactly. There’s that hope for us that this generation will change something in the country and the new generation needs a new approach.
SS: But does that generation know how to live without a war? From day one that they were born 17 years ago the only thing they know is war, they don’t even know another way life can exist…
NA: If you look at Afghanistan of before 001, that’s a good characterisation of what happened, because at that time it was so isolated, more than any country. That’s not the case right now. Even people who are living in the areas that are contested by the Taliban they have access to the world, they have access to technologies, to the internet and to what happens in the cities. They want something new for them. But on that thing you’re right, that’s why we have to try, peace is costly, we should cultivate the culture of peace, because if you grow in a culture of war then the war is the way of life. So that’s the social difficulty that we’re facing, but we are trying to reach peace, we are trying ceasefires so that for those fighters who were born in 2001 and 2002 and are now 17 and 18 years old, could come to big cities and to see that the life has changed for the Afghan people. You know we have hundreds of thousands of young Afghans including the girls that have trained themselves and came to a level that they can match anywhere around the region. So this disparity is there between the rural and urban areas, but we want to reduce this disparity, this gap and let the local people in the villages who are associated to some extent with the Taliban come and see that the life has changed and they can be part of this change in Afghanistan.
SS: Some of the Afghan officials that I spoke with in the past said to me when I asked how can the Taliban win a war with rifles against modern technologies, “because the Taliban are more connected with the people then the Afghan military at this point, and we need more foreign forces to help us fight the Taliban”. Do you think, that’s the case? Do you need more NATO forces to help you fight with the Taliban? Do you want Trump to reinforce its presence in Afghanistan? What do you expect of Trump?
NA: I don’t think we need to go back and invite more foreign forces. That’s also the position of the government that we should do it ourselves. In any case even if there are a number of contingents they will have to go back to their countries one day. So on that it’s a “no”. But it’s a “yes” if they can stay with us to help Afghanistan overcome these difficulties and to help this generational change happen because these changes in countries of conflicts like Afghanistan have to be generational. The generation that came after 2001, my sister went to school after 2001, so she needs a little bit more time to be empowered completely. The same thing happens to many boys and girls. So in any conflicts like this if governments are supported and stay in power, the insurgents ultimately decide “look, we can be in the mountains and the jungles for decades - like it happened to FARC, they were fighting since 1950s to 1980s. But ultimately they found out that in Bogota there will be elections, people going to restaurants and, yes, you can explode bombs, but people will continue with their way of life and ultimately you have to come and join. Our history has been difficult in the past because we have insurgency every time. So we want to change this, and this change will happen with the belief of our partners, if that’s the United States, Russia, India, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and whoever, that “let’s keep supporting this with whatever they can”, we can have elections, we can have life the way it happens. Otherwise if it fails, if the state collapses then you have to start with the very beginning which isn’t good for anyone.
SS: Deputy Foreign Minister Andisha, thank you very much for this interview and good luck with everything.
NA: Thank you very much.