Cr-Isis of state? Ft. Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan

The Islamic State has grown out of the ashes of failed states stretching from South Asia to the Middle East, melding medieval-style brutality with modern technology and organisation. And though the international community has mounted a response, its effectiveness has been stymied by shortcomings in cooperation. Has the ecology of terror become the new norm? And can increased cooperation in the Asian region help meet the challenge of spreading terrorism? Oksana is joined by Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan, to analyse these issues.

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Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. The War on Terror unleashed the terrors of war on South Asia and the Middle East, with the goal of eliminating extremism. But more than a decade and a half later, that extremism has morphed into something almost unrecognisable, threatening the very structures of borders, states and the regional order. How does one fight an enemy that combines the worst of medieval thinking with the best of modern technology? Well, to discuss that, I'm now joined by the President of Afghanistan, Mohammed Ashraf Ghani. Mr President, it's a great honour to have you on the show, thank you very much.

Mohammed Ashraf Ghani: It's a pleasure to be with you, thank you for having me.

OB:Mr President, we are speaking on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and one of the issues that was discussed here at length is the growth of the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh as Americans refer to it. And the issue of how you call them is interesting, because it's a choice between the extremists' self-aggrandising spin, the Islamic State, or the American, rather derogatory spin. Doesn't this framing limit how we conceptualise this challenge, and how we ultimately deal with it?

MAG: Well, first of all, we need to make three distinctions. One is an ecology. Terrorism is a system now. Morally, it's an aberration, sociologically it's a systemic phenomenon. Second, it is a morphology. If Al-Qaeda was terrorism version one, Daesh is terrorism version six. It's a fast-changing phenomenon, and one needs to grasp it in its own terms, not imposed categories from outside. Third, there's a pathology. It's brutal. The form of brutality is increasing. But it's also the theatre of terror. Its actions are designed to overwhelm, to strike fear and to frighten. All these need to be taken together as a system. What enables it? The weakness of the state system, the lack of coherence in the national system. Terrorism as an organisation and as network is fast, it's rapid, it's decisive. The response to it is fragmented, partial and episodic.

OB:Now, when you talk about terrorism, you often use, and you just did it, these biological metaphors. You refer to ISIS, I think on one occasion you likened it to cancer, you just used this ecology metaphor. Can I push it a little bit further and ask you whether you approach it as let's say a mutation, an accident of nature, or something that is a product of evolution that is here to stay?

MAG: It can be both, the jury is out. When you use the term ecology, it's not judgemental, it's a descriptive, analytic term. Because an ecology both has elements of symbiosis and competition. Part of the terrorist networks are in competition with each other, part are in harmony, in symbiosis. But what is characteristic now is that the state collapse has become a pattern. It's not an isolated event. So previously, if you had a weak link, now you have a broken chain. In this regard, what strikes us, leave that phenomena aside, is that we now do not have rules of the game in conduct between states. And we do not have an agreement as to how to reconstitute the state system as a viable way, or to coordinate our responses at the national level, the regional level, and the global level. And that's what is required.

OB:You also argued, I think, on many occasions that the war in Afghanistan, for example, shouldn't be approached from this classic war theory. And as a former war correspondent, I would say that it applies to every conflict. Because every war has its own ugly face, its own dynamic. So in this respect, what do you think is so special, what do you think is so unique about ISIS?

MAG: What is unique about it is the combination of network and organisation. The military thinking comes from the Baathist officers, both Syrian and Iraqi. So the level of territorial conquest that it has managed to achieve is unprecedented. It has managed to do, in a period of collapsed time, what took Al-Qaeda or other organisations years, or at times decade of planning. So, that speaks both of its own abilities, but also an enabling environment – the collapse of the Syrian state on the one hand, and the incompetence of the Iraqi on the other. Their factional quarrels, lack of focus enabled it. Now, with Yemen, Libya, others, the theatre of operation is expanded. And for networks, that type of situation is an ideal situation to grow. But equally significant, while the end of the world, the eschatology, is very medieval, the organisational form is totally modern. The means of communication deployed, the networking, the recruitment through Internet and others, combined forms. So the morphing or the morphology involves very rapid - If you look into network theory, and there are some very good studies which are available through Sitcom online, it shows that Daesh is turned, it's bypassed about four to five stages of network formation in a very short period. That means that innovation within the psychological system is very rapid. And if you are going to contain it, we need to be equally fast, creative and coordinated.

OB:Well, it doesn't look like that's going to materialise any time soon, given the disagreements within the international community. I hear often, you hear people comparing ISIS to the Taliban. And I know that, in Afghanistan at least, you claim that the Taliban does enjoy a certain degree of political legitimacy. They are the product of war and the trauma that your country had to go through. They also have legitimate grievances, at leas you said that on a number of occasions. Couldn't the same apply to ISIS, at least where they originated from in Iraq and Syria?

MAG: In terms of where they originated, you'd need to do a lot more local expertise. I've written on the Middle East, but I need to run a country. So, analytically, I need to be very careful in terms of saying whether that indeed is the case, or not. But they differ fundamentally from the way the Taliban were formed. Because the Taliban formed in the context of internal conflict, and then connected to Al-Qaeda, which was a very minor organisation at that time. And at their current formation and nature of activities, is very different. And because of it, they're competing and are actually in conflict with these other forces. The fundamental difference is that Al-Qaeda has accepted Taliban ideological leadership. Daesh has refused that, while in the past, six years ago, its key adherents acknowledged the supremacy of Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership. What is distinctive in their relationship to Afghanistan is the naming. Khorasani – Khorasan is the medieval name of Afghanistan.

OB:And they believe that the final battle will come from your side.

MAG: The final battle will come from our side, but also that historically, it was Afghan forces, or forces from Afghanistan, today's Afghanistan territory, that overthrew the Umayyad Caliphate and installed the Abbasids. So, twice the caliphate was changed by forces from Khorasan, and because of it, there is a very significance, symbolic significance attached in their narrative to Khorasan, to Afghanistan. And the other part is, of course, if they succeed in making the elected Afghan government fail, it will be an enormous gain for them. So that's [the] symbolic importance.

OB:The reason I'm asking this question is because your government has, so far, seen some success negotiating with the Taliban. I don't want to exaggerate it, but it's been celebrated. And your efforts are supported by the so-called international community. But that support obviously came only after years of military action. The question is whether we should spend similar number of years fighting ISIS, rather than, let's say, start negotiating with them now. Do you think we can reason with these people?

MAG: Will they, will they negotiate with you?

OB: I don't know, I'm asking you.

MAG: Well, but that's the question, that's the question. You negotiate in circumstances where there is a stalemate. Negotiations do not come out of abstraction. I've looked at over 100 peace agreements, I think I wrote a very long paper in 2007 or 2008, looking at the content of peace agreements, which no one to my knowledge, had previously examined. And normally, there has to be a willingness from both sides. And the current construct of Daesh, that willingness to take the interlocutor in Iraq or Syria is not there.

OB:But they've just started their movement, I mean they are on the roll, so that's why they're confident -

MAG: (crosstalk) Well, I mean if you want to pre-judge, it's your privilege. But I'm giving an analytic answer, and you're trying to force a political answer. You insist that it is negotiable. I'm saying -

OB: (crosstalk) I'm not, I'm saying -

MAG: No, but you are, you're insisting. The way you pose a question is pre-suppositions in it.

OB:But Mr President, we did hear the same thing about the Taliban years ago. I remember, I've covered wars for many years, and the same argument was advanced about the Taliban, that you cannot negotiate with these people. These people are medieval, these people are stuck in the past -

MAG: (crosstalk) No, it is not, I'm making. No, please do not, let's stay on course of what we're discussing. I don't attribute medievalness to anybody. We're contemporaries. There's no one whose medieval. Anyone who lives in the 21st century is a product of the 21st century. It's patronising to call others medieval. People are always carriers of cultures and product of cultures. Culture is not a static phenomena. It's an ever-changing dynamic phenomena, and we need to understand how it is produced, how it produces certain types of interpretations. Somebody who spent a year studying madrasas as an anthropologist, 1985-86, I do not believe that people are frozen in time, they're always living in. But layers of time are important, they interact, and they form. The past is always with us. Every single great country has a past that it continuously invokes.

OB:Absolutely, and it could be for better or for worse, I mean it works both ways.

MAG: For better or for worse, yes.

OB:I had a chance just a couple of weeks ago to speak to your predecessor, Mr Hamid Karzai, and he agrees with you that ISIS or Daesh ideology is totally alien to Afghanistan. But he also says that if the Islamic State was to advance in your country, that wouldn't be without a strong, foreign help. Do you agree with that assessment?

MAG: Strong foreign help means what – networks? Certainly. Who, well who are the terrorists? We have Chechens, they are exported to us from conditions of Russia. We have Uzbekistanis, they're exported to us from there. We have Pakistanis. All these are products of a series of relationships. Wealth – who finances these? Drug dealers to various other types of networks collectively. So, financing is important, but whether it's state sponsorship, that there is an accusation that certain states – that needs verification. In the past, we've had examples, particularly in our part of the world, where states have sponsored violent movements in order to achieve their own goals. And that, I think at this moment of time, I hope that lessons are learned that that type of activity does not take place, because the blow-back from these activities is strong, not to benefit the patrons.

OB:Absolutely, and yet in my conversations with officials from Israel to Palestine, from the United States to Syria, many of them accuse each other of doing that. And my question to you is, perhaps the problem is not with one state supporting ISIS, but many groups seeing perhaps a tactical advantage in trying to utilise ISIS' negative energy -

MAG: But that was the part I was bringing to your attention earlier. You know, the ecology, the expansion of that ecology and its sustainment is not possible without weak states or uncoordinated action. So the lesson is, anyone who plays with these things, they should know they're playing with fire, their hand is going to be burned. And looking at countries as battlefields is not only morally wrong, it is politically suicidal. It will blow back, and the hand that feeds will be bitten.

OB: Well, Mr President, we have to take a short break now, but when we come back – Western political thought has long seen Afghanistan as a grand chessboard on which to realise its geopolitical interests. Does the Eastern vision of integration present a more peaceful option? Well, that's coming up in a moment on Worlds Apart, stay tuned.

OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing Afghanistan and Asian integration with the President of Afghanistan, Mohammed Ashraf Ghani. Mr President, let me switch gears a little bit. Your academic background, as you mentioned, is in anthropology, which in its broadest sense is the science about humans and human societies. How relevant do you find your academic experience to your current occupation, and have you ever changed fields? Because I think a case could be made that world politics is a prime example of cultural anthropology in action.

MAG: No, I have learned many new fields, I have never changed my field. And I practice it on a daily basis. Because the discipline has given me the capability to hear, to listen, and not to impose the categories of thought. Its greatest advantage to me is the ability to listen very carefully – listening is in very short supply. And then to be able to take an idea and express it 20 different ways, because the idiom of the interlocutor requires that understanding. And we're all in discursive, symbolic fields, and we need to be able to communicate through symbols that are mutually understandable, not mutually incomprehensible.

OB:One thing that I would argue anthropology teaches you is that there are no right or wrong societies, and that something that works in one society does not necessarily work in another society. I think your country is a very good example of that. You know, foreigners did try to impose their vision very unsuccessfully. And yet, I would argue that this notion of one superior way of development is still present in global politics. I think the US makes it the central pillar of its foreign policy. And I'm going to ask you, not as a very diplomatic head of state, but as a former cultural anthropologist – is it something that would have to give way sooner or later, this idea that there is one way that is better than others?

MAG: (crosstalk) Well, that is not confined to the United States. The Soviet Union was a prime practitioner of it.

OB:But the Soviet Union is no longer in existence.

MAG: No, but the habits of thought, they invaded my country because of that way of thought.

OB:Absolutely, I agree with you.

MAG: So, the level, assumptions are a prison. Assumption become means of wielding violence. A society that was no threat to anybody was pulverised. And that came precisely because of assumptions of superiority. Weren't they calling us basmichis? Weren't they calling us medieval? Weren't they calling us incapable of being able to wield? We defended ourselves. So it is important to understand that in today's world, development is multi-tracked. And the other part is that there is no such thing as an economy without a cultural framework. Economies are constructed as cultural systems, and what goes for free market in Germany will be unrecognisable in England, and vice-versa. So we have to be able to fashion - the developmental field is underdeveloped. The practitioners learn by rote, project by project etc. You know, my former colleagues in the World Bank always find me a very difficult person, because when they bring me something, I know its roots, its origins, and its not suitable to us. This is a field where we need to be enormously careful and attentive. And I think that is the key lesson that is being learned.

OB:Speaking about your experience at the World Bank, one very interesting fact about your biography is that you spent a substantial amount of time in China, in India, in Russia, managing large-scale projects. And since we're here in Ufa at the sidelines of both BRICS and CSO (sic) summits, do you think that these countries really have the synergies that they really have? And what are some of the things that they have to be careful about, what are some of the things that can pull them apart?

MAG: Well first of all, let's give credit where credit is due. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has proven its relevance. The boundary between Russia and China is now the market. This could have been an enormous area of conflict. Two – it's proven its relevance by now, focussing on larger economic integration. What I think we are witnessing is the emergence of a Eurasian continental economy. The only previous example is that of the United States. I think the inclusion of India and Pakistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is an important step. The shape of the agenda is not become clear. What I think they are doing is operating much more like ASEAN than the European Union. There is not a particular architectural model. They are exploring cooperation. In terms of infrastructure, there's very significant movement. Because the Chinese pattern of development, and then others. In the next 20 years, globally there's going to be about $60-85 trillion that are going to be spent on infrastructure. A very large portion of this is going to be in the Eurasian continental economy.

OB:That leads me, actually, to my next question, because all these countries do have this grand vision of Eurasia being this new engine of growth that potentially may even rival, let's say, the old Europe in terms of economic growth. Do you think this vision has any opponents? Can it be realised, given that, let's say there is a strong, another strong concept of this region that has been operating in foreign policy? I'm talking about the Grand Chessboard, and the continent being the platform geopolitical competition, rather than cooperation...

MAG: Look, China and India are historical, transformation phenomena. Putting those two back into the bottle of old thinking is an impossibility. We're going, we are returning to the 18th century, where China and India roughly constituted 60% of the global economy. So, there are certain land masses, there are certain types of populations, and the key is really going to be how they're going to figure their relationship between politics and economics and culture. And how they would adjust to these types. Without cooperation, the growth, the breakneck growth that has happened, will not be sustainable.

OB:Now, speaking about these patterns of cooperation and figuring out the new relationship between politics and economy, obviously you know that we live at a time of tensions between Russia and the US. And those two countries have had a significant impact on the history of your own land in the past. In the present, you've managed to maintain a working relationship with both. Do you have any idea of what kind of mechanism could enable Moscow and Washington to co-exist peacefully, without threatening others, and perhaps even cooperate?

MAG: Well first, Afghanistan will be a prime example of everybody needing to cooperate, because the imperative of cooperation exceeds competition. The threats should be, God forbid fail, will be quite serious to all our interlocutors, particularly to Russia and the US. Second, the architecture of mid-20th century is not answering the needs of 2015. We are in a period where the rules of the game that were arrived at, and allowed for certain type of stability and certain type of conflict, are in flux. The task of the next ten years is going to be really to figure out global patterns of cooperation, and [to] arrive at this. International organisations like the UN are exceedingly weak. How the mutual adjustment takes place is very significant. And one thing one needs to learn, I had the privilege of working in Russia in 1990s, and Russia was ignored. There was, the West is paying for its historical mistake then of not taking the desires and the wishes of the Russian people. I worked in Siberia, when money had literally disappeared, everything was barter. The sort of human development indicator decline that took place, the extent of poverty, deprivation and others, that was the product of the break-up, made a very proud people very angry.

OB:Well, it may be similar to the historic experience of Afghanistan. If I may ask you very, very quickly. I heard you say once that politics is not a love marriage, it is a product of historic necessities. And I think it could be claimed that the personal rapport does, or the lack of it, does influence politics and relationship between countries. What is your own personal rule on how you deal with people that you don't even want to be in the same room with?

MAG: Well, as I said, in Afghanistan internally, when I returned after 24 years, if it were not that understanding of historical necessity, I wouldn't have shaken hands. But history gives us our interlocutors, and we need to really seriously understand that we cannot impose a view. We need to arrive at consensus. We need to build consensus, and that's what I'm engaged in. And I engage the exactly same rule in terms of my regional approach, as you witnessed. It's been very active in – reaching out has been on our side. I carefully study every country that I interact with, and every leader that I interact with. And fortunately, I've been able to find ways of communicating that allows us to have a dialogue. And that dialogue then becomes the basis of sustained interactions. And trust-building is important. You cannot, in today's world, be saying one thing and behaving another way. And it's extraordinarily important to open a field of communication in terms that are comprehensible and always requires appreciation of the other side's view, her or his history and interests. That way, I think we can find common ground in change. What I see, myself, is a catalyst for changing fields of discourse. So what was previously proxy, a site of proxy warfare, now becomes a field of production of wealth or stability. Here, you can change the perspective of the stakeholder, and thereby the stakes.

OB:Well, Mr President, that's great advice. Hopefully it will be taken in capitals around the world. But for the time being, I do thank you for being here on the show. And to our viewers, please share your thoughts on our Twitter, Facebook and YouTube pages, and I hope to see you again, same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.