Islamabad should practice honest cooperation with Kabul / Relations with Iran are at their best
Interview by: Sara Massoumi / Translated by: Ali Attaran
Iranian Diplomacy: Less than a week to Afghanistan’s presidential elections, the situation seems blurry. Many citizens are even weary to attend the ballot boxes, as Taliban, just as it did in 2009 presidential poll, has denounced the electoral process. The wave of attacks started from last week, with Hotel Serena near the Arg, Afghansitan’s presidential palace, being one of the targets. The Taliban who were ousted from power in 2001 following the US-led NATO invasion are still vying to regain power. They have rejected the constitution drafted under the shadow of foreign troops, and have announced that the next president will only have a few months of opportunity to prepare for a transitional government. Political stability and peace is still threatened by extremists, and it seems that there is no master plan among the candidates to break the deadlock of negotiations with Taliban.
In late March, Iranian Diplomacy reporters made a trip to Kabul, interviewing the three main runners in the presidential race. Interview with Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was published on Saturday, and the following is our interview with Zalmai Rassoul who has chosen Moderation, Equality and Constructiveness as his slogan. Rassoul’s triad consists of Ahmad Zia Massoud, brother of the late Mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud as the first vice-president and Habiba Sarobi, Hazara female politician, as his second vice-president. Rassoul, who is a graduate of Paris Medical School, served as Afghanistan’s foreign minister from January 2010 to October 2013. In his exclusive interview with Iranian Diplomacy, Dr. Rassoul explicitly stated that it was West’s misconduct in containing the Soviet Union that led to the birth of Taliban, and Pakistan’s support for after the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq strengthened the group. Following is a translated transcript of our interview:
IRD: Thirteen years have passed since the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, and twelve years from Hamid Karzai’s presidency. However, Afghanistan is still struggling with security challenges. What are the roots of this crisis in your opinion, as a presidential candidate? Is it Taliban’s excessive power, foreign support the group, or inefficiency of the central government in providing security?
ZR: First, let me clarify that the security crisis in Afghanistan has changed form. Thirteen years ago, after the American forces and NATO invaded Afghanistan and Taliban lost power, we witnessed relative security across the country. This continued until Taliban rebuilt and restructured itself inside Pakistan and then returned to Afghanistan. Security crisis reappeared in regions which were fully in control of Taliban, and what we saw was a battle against a truly powerful entity. Currently, security responsibilities in most Afghan regions are at the hand of the government, but security challenges of today appear in form of guerilla attacks, suicide attacks, purposeful explosions and assassinations.
In response to your question about the roots of this crisis, let me lay out some points. There was a time when we reminded our friends that the epicenter of all these instabilities and insecurities is located inside Pakistan, and we had detailed information on how Taliban forces were being trained and equipped inside the Pakistani territory. We transferred this intelligence to our allies, so they would press the Pakistani government over the issue and therefore stop dispatching of Taliban forces inside Afghanistan. However, our allies rejected our intelligence data, and named Pakistan as their friend and ally in war against terror. This general negligence about Taliban’s recruitment of forces inside Pakistan served this group quite well. Of course, our security forces were also quite weak in those areas at the time, and we could not counter Taliban on our own.
The second cause was that right at the time that we needed to rejuvenate our security forces after the fall of Taliban, the war started in Iraq and NATO and the United States shifted their concentration towards that country. Afghanistan was relegated in priority while it was also deprived of necessary aid to reconstruct the army and security forces. The war in Iraq in fact gave Taliban and its supporters the respite they needed.
The third issue is that Taliban is still backed by elements inside the Pakistani government. If it was not for the logistic support and havens inside the Pakistani territory, Afghanistan could find a solution to control Taliban after all these years. Insecurity in Afghanistan does not have only domestic roots; its origins and main drive exist outside the Afghan territory.
IRD: You pointed to support for Taliban inside Pakistan. Who is supporting them? Is it the army or the government or an intelligence apparatus controlled by neither the government nor the army? Besides, why did not the Afghan government reach an agreement with Pakistan over controlling Taliban throughout the past 12 years?
ZR: The situation in Pakistan has also changed. Ten years ago, Taliban was fully controlled by Islamabad and supported by its army and intelligence forces. This was an open secret. If 9/11 had not happened, Pakistan was one step away from fully invading Afghanistan. Ahmad Shah Massoud who was the last standing man against Taliban was martyred on ninth of September 2001. That minimal resistance against Taliban was coming to an end, and Pakistan was going to take Afghanistan in control. After the 9/11 incident, the presence of international forces in Afghanistan and the fall of Taliban, Pakistan did not still stop supporting this group, and was looking for an opportunity to revive Taliban in Afghanistan.
After the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan, Pakistan started to look at our country as its strategic depth, and sought either invasion or exercise of powerful influence on Afghanistan. What we have reminded our Pakistani friends of throughout all these years is that backing Taliban and terrorism is not a one-way route; and one day it will hit back at Pakistan. Islamabad initially thought that by equipping Taliban and dispatching them to Afghanistan, it will avert harm.
Today, despite the power that it possesses and its army, Pakistan’s state of security has drastically changed. Relatively speaking, security state in Pakistan is worse than Afghanistan. We are witnessing daily explosions and assassinations from Karachi and Peshawar to Islamabad. Elements trained by Pakistan are biting its own hand. We hope that with the new government in power, Pakistan’s situation improves.
I believe that Nawaz Sharif’s administration has a correct understanding of Pakistan’s economic, social and security status. His priority is to improve Pakistan’s economic status and this requires improvement of security status beforehand. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s security status improves when Afghanistan’s security status improves. The interdependence of security between Pakistan and Afghanistan did not exist ten years ago. We hope that Pakistan has come to the logical conclusion that honest cooperation with Afghanistan to counter terrorism is a must, not for the sake of Afghanistan but for its own security.
The accordance between the Talibans of Afghanistan and Pakistan is threatening Pakistan more than Afghanistan, because of the ethnic sameness of these groups. Pakistan is pursuing peace negotiations with its own Taliban, and we hope that it manages to convince Taliban to sit at the table of negotiations with Kabul too, since unilateral peace is impossible.
IRD: Taliban is the quintessential extremist group in the region. What is their main demand? Can we see them as representative of a certain ethnicity, or a certain ideology in Afghanistan, or we should see them as a supranational group that can be active anywhere, today in Afghanistan, tomorrow in Syria?
ZR: Afghanistan was not created yesterday. It is a country with thousands of years of history, and it has been an Islamic country for ages. The mainstream Islam in Afghanistan has been always moderate. Also, we see minimal religious tension between Islamic factions in Afghanistan, for example between the Shia and Sunni communities, compared with other countries in the region. This culture of Islamic fanaticism was born out of the war with the former Soviet Union. Western powers supporting the Afghan Mujahedeen believed that only a radical interpretation of Islam could counter communism. At that time, support was mainly lent to radical jihadi groups of Afghanistan, not the moderate ones. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s green belt doctrine advocated radical readings of Islam to counter communism.
Soviet Union was eventually defeated in Afghanistan, but religious extremism which was a creation of the West lingered. This phenomenon has of course changed form, and the new generation who were educated in radical madrasahs in Pakistan joined the anti-moderation ideology. After the fall of Soviet Union, Pakistan used them as a tool in its own service to increase its influence in Afghanistan. Taliban came to power with a promise to end the civil war in Afghanistan and it received initial welcoming by the people. But their promises failed after they took control of the affairs.
The problem that the Muslim World struggles with these days is that religious figures that have been educated in extremist schools have risen to power. They are trying to turn Islam’s basic ethos from moderation to extremism. The fruit of their thought is seen not only in Afghanistan, but also in Syria and Iraq. Afghanistan should not be the only country that counters this ideology, the entire Muslim World should cooperate to rescue Islam. The key to this struggle is earnest cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
IRD: If you win the elections, what is your foremost concern in the domestic area?
ZR: Afghans’ demands currently boil down to two basic issues: tackling bureaucratic corruption which is now at its ebb, and healthier governance which serves the nation and establishes social justice so people enjoy their rights. Security is also another concern, but as I said before, it is not something to achieve in short term. Tackling bureaucratic corruption, and establishing healthy governance and social justice and creating more jobs are the most important demands.
Prior to this, 7 to 8 million Afghan kids did not attend school, but now, we have a same number receiving education, 30-35 percent of which are girls. Also, we are witnessing the graduation of thousands of higher education students every year, and that creates an employment crisis. The problem is that the government cannot handle this alone and it needs private investors.
The question is: how can we encourage and support private investment in Afghanistan? We need to modify our regulations, so to open the way for domestic and foreign investment in Afghanistan and create jobs for the youth in short term. We should also begin our large scale infrastructure projects, such as construction of dams, railways and transit routes. These projects can create jobs in the medium term, and also in the long run. Afghanistan is rich in terms of agriculture and natural resources, and is the link between Central and South Asia. I hope Afghanistan regains its independence gradually and in ten years, needs no foreign aid to run its affairs. We should become self-sufficient in the agricultural sector and start importing our food products. We also need to become self-sufficient in the energy sector and mine exploitation.
IRD: You have supported signing security agreement with the United States. What challenges and opportunities would it present to Afghanistan?
ZR: The most important issue in the agreement is the number of foreign troops going to remain in the country. During the last ten years, 150 thousand American troops have been in Afghanistan. If the agreement is signed, a maximum number of 8 to 10 thousand soldiers will stay in the country. This is an insignificant number. The second issue is that aids to Afghanistan, whether financial aids or security aids, depend on signing this agreement. United States is the main donor to Afghanistan. In the Chicago Summit, we committed NATO and ISAF to spend an annual rate of one to 2 billion dollars to support and equip the Afghan army and police. Who will provide Afghanistan with this funding if the security arrangement is not signed?
We should deal with this sensibly. The truth is that no country wants to see foreign troops in its territory, but we are facing limitations at the moment, which makes signing this agreement a necessity. A look at the content of the agreement shows that we have obtained guarantees from Americans. In explicit terms, these guarantees include our sovereignty, no prisons under the US control, and no permission to raid houses of Afghan citizens. Eighty percent of United States’ responsibilities will be limited to training and equipping the Afghan army. If we don’t sign this agreement and NATO and US stop their aids to Afghanistan, our army and police won’t have adequate training and equipment. In that case, Taliban will win the battle.
We need to revive our economic infrastructures in ten years and this is supposed to take place with materialization of the 16 billion dollars aid pledged in 2012 Tokyo Conference. The donating countries hold close relations with the United States and if we don’t sign the security agreement, they will refuse cooperation. Non-cooperation from the United States’ allies and friends can lead to our economic collapse. Are there any other countries that can provide us with the 30 billion dollars that we need? I think the answer is no.
What was emphasized during the process of negotiations and was eventually included in the agreement was that the presence of foreign troops in Afghan soil should not be a threat for regional powers and neighbors. During the past ten years, 100 to 150 thousand foreign troops were present in Afghanistan, and Tehran and Washington were not in favorable terms; however, we saw no negative impact on Iran’s security coming from the presence of American troops.
Afghanistan has had the closest relations with Iran during the past decade. When the Pahlavi dynasty ruled Iran and Afghanistan was also a monarchy, only one official visit was made by the sovereigns to each other’s country. The Shah of Iran visited Afghanistan only once when relations between Islamabad and Kabul had become extremely tense, in order to mediate between them. The former king of Afghanistan also made a short visit to Tehran en route his return to Kabul from his European trip. However, during the last decade, Afghan and Iranian officials have exchanged visits on a monthly basis. Despite the presence of 150 thousand foreign troops, Kabul has acted independently in its foreign policy. Hamid Karzai’s comments regarding this agreement are also worth elaboration. Americans intend to declare end of war in Afghanistan and establishment of peace by signing this agreement. The Afghans also do not want to see more wars in the next ten years.
What are your priorities in the area of diplomacy? Is regionalism a part of your plan?
ZR: Yes, I seek best relations with our neighbors. This is in the interest of Afghanistan. We enjoy very close relations with Iran and have no border disputes. Issues such as Afghan immigrants in Iran can also be solved; and we hope that with the improvement of economic situation in Afghanistan, these immigrants return. We have asked the Iranian government to respect the rights of our immigrants, and have made necessary arrangements in this regard. Relations between Tehran and Kabul are at their best, and we want these close ties to expand into economic relations. The future of the world belongs to Asia, and everyone knows that the American and European civilizations are on decline. New powers such as China, Iran, [Persian] Gulf states are all on the rise. Our biggest challenge in the field of foreign policy, is establishing relations based on honesty with Pakistan, and the truth is that Kabul has done its best to achieve this goal. Afghanistan’s relations with its northern neighbors are also very good.
IRD: What place will India occupy in your foreign policy?
ZR: Our relations with India are fine, and we will continue this policy.
IRD: Will the traditional rivalry between India and Pakistan turn into a challenge for Afghanistan?
ZR: Afghanistan is an independent country that can regulate its relations with other countries as it wishes; but we have guaranteed both India and Islamabad that our relations with either of them will not be at the expense of the other. Pakistan is having its own diplomatic exchanges with India. Although India is not among Afghanistan donors, it has helped us in many infrastructure projects. India has plans for massive investment in Afghanistan’s mining industry, and is going to collaborate in construction of a railway to Iran’s Chabahar port which we want to be an import-export hub for Afghanistan.
IRD: Saudi Arabia is a major Muslim power. However, its aids to Afghanistan during the past thirteen years have not been as much as European countries, nor have been aids by other Arab Muslim countries. You have served in Afghanistan’s foreign ministry. How do Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, view Afghanistan?
ZR: Saudi Arabia, along with United Arab Emirates, had officially recognized the Taliban state. My personal goal is to expand ties with Muslim countries if I enter the Arg presidential palace. Muslim countries’ investment in Afghanistan benefits our country.
IRD: Is there any relation between successive visits to Pakistan by Saudi officials, and the future of Kabul-Riyadh ties?
ZR: Nawaz Sharif has close ties with Saudi Arabia, so I don’t think these visits are related to Afghanistan and could influence our situation. We seek balance in our foreign policy, including our relations with Muslim countries.
IRD: How do you evaluate Kabul-Riyadh relations? Good or average?
ZR: I can say we have good relations.
IRD: Could the political circumstances convince you to form an alliance with other presidential candidates?
ZR: [Laughs] I’m ok if anyone wants to join me. But seriously, the victorious candidate should welcome the presence of other candidates in his cabinet. You can’t marginalize an ethnicity or a political group in Afghanistan today. There are no political parties in Afghanistan, and it is individual politicians who have to unite together. In my cabinet, I have included representatives from all ethnicities. For example, my first deputy is Ahmad Zia Massoud, brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, and my second deputy is Habiba Sorabi from the Hazara community. About political alliance, I can say that there are no fundamental differences about the future of Afghanistan among the candidates.
Click here to read Farsi version of the interview