Afghanistan Vice President Amrullah Saleh on Monday spoke exclusively to CNN-News18 and talked about what he hopes from the Joe Biden administration – after a tumultuous relationship with his predecessor – withdrawal of US troops, peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government and the India-Afghanistan relationship. He also had a few suggestions for Pakistan on improving its relationship with India and other countries.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
Q: On multiple occasions, you said you are also a victim of the Afghan war and the Biden administration should also think about withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan. Don’t you think this will delay Afghanistan to come to the mainstream?
Amrullah Saleh: First of all, we are very glad that US President Joe Biden’s administration has started the review process of the so-called Doha agreement which has a lot of flaws and cracks within it. And they have increased their consultation with us which is also a very positive sign. It has been a very complex conflict, a very long conflict involving foreign factors and a lot of issues. Certainly, there can’t be a pressure-cooked peace process and settlement. Therefore more consultation, more review and ensuring there are verification mechanisms in place, are absolutely needed.
Q: We hear two types of voices of Afghan people on this issue. You are a politician and now holding a post also in the Government. Do you think Afghan people also want that US troops should stay in Afghanistan for some more time?
Amrullah Saleh: Well, no Afghan wants any foreign troops in Afghanistan. It’s not about wishing to see foreign troops in my country. But the question is why these foreign troops came here in the first place. They came here to make sure that Afghanistan didn’t become a safe haven again for terrorism. That threat is not finished, the mission is not accomplished. We are still fighting a group that we have defeated many times. They are not headquartered in Afghanistan, that’s why they have not been fully defeated. They still have very close ties with regional terror outfits, with global terrorist outfits like Al-Qaeda, like Da’esh. And they have created an eco-system for terrorism. For as long as this threat is there, it’s in the national interest and security interest of NATO and the US to remain engaged and make sure another 9/11 does not happen.
Q: In a recent tweet you said you are ready to prove case by case that release Talibani prisoners are back to the same job and doing terrorism? What kind of evidence you have?
Amrullah Saleh: We have multiple types of evidence. This evidence is of course both circumstantial and hard. Let me first tell you the hard evidence. The hard evidence is – some of these people have been captured again as they have tried to be part of the terror campaign in our large cities or they have been captured again with smoking gun as they have tried to attack our posts and civilian installations all over the country. So we have them, some of them, back in our custody. That’s evidence number one. Evidence number two, when in the battle enemy combatants get killed we try to find their identity and we proof check it with sources. And our estimate is that nearly 200 have been killed in battle after they rejoined the ranks of the Taliban, so that’s evidence two. And the circumstantial evidence – we have traces of none of them having resorted to a peaceful life with their families as was promised to us. Our demand then that we put a verification mechanism to ensure that these terrorists do not go back to reinforce the Taliban ranks was not taken into consideration because the US was the in-between power negotiating. And that style of negotiation was not very helpful and we were not directly negotiating with the Taliban. And in the meantime, a British university did a study and they sent researchers to Pakistan and from there to Afghanistan. And they came up with a very detailed study saying 85 per cent of them at least are back in the fight.
Q: Recent UN report also talked about Taliban link with Al-Qaida? Two top commanders killed recently were given shelter by the Taliban. Your take?
Amrullah Saleh: Well, not only have the Taliban not severed ties with Al Qaeda, and I fully concur with the conclusions of the UN, but we are also seeing a very disturbing pattern of Taliban and Da’esh collaboration at a tactical and operational level, which means Taliban has created a conducive environment and at times provided a platform for Daesh to attack civilians and try to create sectarian divisions in Afghanistan. They have not been able to create sectarian division. We are very united. Two days ago, our primary intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security came up with a statement that they had apprehended a joint cell of Haqqani and Daesh. They would do the operations depending on the nature of the targets, either Daesh will take the responsibility or Taliban, or they will both remain silent and let it be an unclaimed attack. So when we say Taliban ideologically or in deep brotherhood or in Alliance with Daesh, it’s not an obstruct intellectual judgment, we have evidence in hand. It is matters like these that need very thorough thinking-through, which has persuaded the new Biden administration to give a closer look at the Doha agreement and see if Taliban have lived to their commitments and they have honored their pledges and promise.
Q: Afghan government feels that it was a mistake and blind trust to release Taliban prisoners. Whom you trusted? Pressure group or Taliban?
Amrullah Saleh: Well, it worked like this as it is started. We were assured by the United States negotiating team. And they assured us that they have enough…let’s say protective measures to make sure that the Taliban who are released do not go back to the battlefield. But, now it seems those measures were not in place. That’s one. And now it seems it was a massive concession to the Taliban without gaining much from them for the peace process. The Taliban have not socialized peace literature. They have created this group which serves as a facade travelling around, but inside Afghanistan, we have not seen a single Taliban operator appreciating peace and showing readiness for a political settlement. So we see a deception. The deception is, outside Afghanistan, they are promoting the narrative of peace with the help of the Pakistani establishment, but, inside Afghanistan, the military and terror activities have intensified. It’s the same with the government of Pakistan. They publicly go around and say they support the Afghan peace process, but covertly, they have not reduced their support, i.e they still provide ammonium nitrate to the Taliban which is the main material and substance which they convert into bombs and IEDs. The flow of military-grade explosives to the Taliban has continued unhindered. Again we have seen military electronics for the detonation of bombs and bomb-making. We have captured such equipment along with Taliban terrorists and we have traced them back to sources in Pakistan. So we see this double-track deceptive policy, talk peace but do war. That’s what we are seeing on the ground.
Q: You have called out the Taliban on their commitment to Afghanistan and its people. Could you explain in details about calling their bluff?
Amrullah Saleh: Well, you see Taliban at times claim that they have popular support and our argument is very simple. If you have support anyway in Afghanistan, let’s do elections. Let’s go to the people and allow the people to vote. And, if they vote for you, why not? Taliban at best are a clerical outfit. They try to create a clerical dictatorship. It’s too late for the creation and establishment of clerical dictatorship here. But, unfortunately, they are a proxy of a state – the nuclear state sitting next to us. So, we have been trying over the past several years, particularly the past one year, to have a meaningful and deep dialogue with the government of Pakistan, trying to convince them to expand their state-to-state relationship, and once and for all stop proxy games and proxy conflict. Unfortunately, we have not had much success. On the other hand Taliban without much exception every other day, they somehow damage or destroy Afghan infrastructure. They kidnapped labourers from a canal project in western Afghanistan. They tried to get some part of the money we had sanctioned for the National Meal Programmed to alleviate poverty and hunger in certain provinces of the country. Of course, we didn’t allow them to do that. Despite their claim that they are representing piousness and they are representing their religion, on the ground, we see nothing but a group deeply involved in extortion, kidnapping and forced labour. And, in a lot of places they have started forced conscription and drafting of young people. If they were genuinely Afghan groups with deep roots in Afghanistan, it would have been another matter. But we have defeated him at least several times over the past two decades. But, what we have not been able to defeat is their leadership, and their leadership is not in my country. Their leadership is called Quetta Shura… they have branches in Peshawar. They run centres in Karachi. Chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Baradar came for consultation from Qatar. Where did he go? He went to Karachi, he visited a sort of cadet centre of the Taliban where he gave praise for suicide bombers. It was sort of a cadet centre for suicide bombers. So, another question we ask them – from the international community – are we talking to the right people for settlement in Afghanistan? Do the Taliban control their affairs? And where do they go for consultation? When they needed a break in talks they went to Islamabad, they went to Karachi, they went to Quetta. So, therefore it’s a very complex conflict and it has to involve multiple dimensions to bring peace. And what I mean by multiple dimensions for sustained, solid and durable peace in Afghanistan, need regional guarantees and International guarantees. We want to end the support infrastructure that the Taliban enjoy in the whole landmass of Pakistan so that peace can be solid. So, labelling it as Inter-Afghan talks and try to pressure-cook a settlement will not work.
Q: Doha talks are going on but attacks are not stopping. How do you see the future of these talks? Taliban is not ready to accept terms and conditions and the peace process is still far away. At some stage, you think the time has come that Afghan government should withdraw from the talks?
Amrullah Saleh: No, we will not abandon talks, Anand. We remain very very committed to our political settlement and we want to bring an end to the violence. But, we are not ready to sell our souls. We are not ready to compromise the dignity of Afghanistan. So, we have one golden rule which ensures that the succession is democratic and suffrage is not compromised, both male and female. We are ready to handover power to another elected leadership in Afghanistan, every other thing is technical, mechanical and we can o back and forth. But, there is only one golden rule over which we will never steep that is the election and right of the Afghan leaders and the right of the Afghan leaders to elect their leader. Actually, the struggle of the Afghan for decades has been for this. One value that they have a say in who is going to rule them and Taliban as a clerical terrorist outfit or trying to install a clerical dictatorship which goes against the well of the absolute majority of the Afghan people. Look, in other countries and insurgencies fight for election. Here it is the only insurgency in the world which is fighting against election. That should give you reason enough to understand that they do not represent the majority of the Afghan people and all the polls that have been conducted over the last two decades show maximum support they have Afghan wide and Pan Afghan is between 5 per cent – 10 per cent. Not more than that. So, our strategy is very clear, there is a lethal group which has popularity between 5 per cent to 10 per cent. Why should they be dominating? And therefore, our gates for political settlement is open. We would like to see them become a mainstream political force, but, we will not bow to the barrel of the gun.
Q: Pakistan is claiming that they played a major role in negotiating with Taliban and even top Taliban leaders went to Islamabad and received by their Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. Do you think whatever is happening including attacks right now is also because of Pakistan? And what advice you have for Pakistan leadership?
Amrullah Saleh: First of all Foreign Minister Qureshi is right about the role Pakistan played in creating the environment for talks between Washington and Taliban. And, it was possible to do at because Taliban is settled in his soil. So, that shouldn’t be seen as a very big deal. But, what was the purpose of Pakistan doing it? Not necessarily peace in Afghanistan. They did it to gain international legitimacy for their proxy. They did it in order to legitimise Taliban. They did it to get Taliban out of the blacklist. So, they did it to make Taliban less of a liability and more of an open asset for Pakistani establishment. They didn’t do it for peace in Afghanistan. If they did it for peace in Afghanistan, why the Taliban are escaping from meaningful negotiations with us? Taliban had once said that they have all the time and foreign troops have have all… watches. Now we are Afghan’s, we have all the time. We have no exit plans. So, if Pakistan wants to prove if they are on the right side of the history and they are on the part of the solution, so they should pressure the Taliban which they can because Taliban are based in Pakistan to enter into meaningful negotiations with the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Q: All leaders in Pakistan say they are victim of terrorism but they facilitate all non state actors. Even Mullah Bradar was facilitated in Karachi by visiting training camp and he thanked official Government of Pakistan for their support to Taliban. And world knows Taliban close association with Jaish-e-Mohammad?
Amrullah Saleh: You see again it comes to hard and circumstantial evidence. The heard evidence says that the Hakanis’s have businesses in Rawalpindi. They have business’ in Peshawar. They have business’s in Islamabad. But, you know time and again state commentators of the retirement or even some of them in track 2 meetings have said that Hakanis are their best allies. So, Pakistan cannot separate themselves from the Taliban and the Hakanis. And, Taliban cannot separate themselves from Jaish, Lashkar-e- Taiba from Al-Qaeda. As I said they have created and they have been very instrumental in creating an ecosystem for terrorism in Afghanistan. This ecosystem has brought in all this regional outfits and some of the international terrorists groups to my country, and those facts and those hard evidences are some of the reasons which compelled the new U.S administration to give a closer look to the Doha Agreement and to see whether Taliban have lived to their commitment.
Q: In a recent statement you said sir Taliban cannot survive six months without Pakistan support.
Amrullah Saleh: Exactly! You see the Taliban has no charismatic leader. They do not have any Che-Guevera. They do not have any Ahmad Shah Massoud. They do not have any charismatic insurgent leaders which have been key throughout the history for cohesiveness and cohesion of insurgent groups. The Taliban, have no charismatic leaders. So, that element is absolutely lacking. The Taliban not representing the Genovian National Grievance. They are fighting against election. They are fighting against a system of Republic which allows the people to vote. So, their ties with the Afghan communities is very weak. So, they one very strong… I would say component in their structure that is unwaivered, very resiliant and continuous support from Pakistan. People use the world sanctuary. That is too little. That is belittling what Pakistan is doing for Taliban. Actually, the whole of Pakistan has been turned into a land so welcoming of the Taliban presence. Welcoming of their activities. Welcoming of their command centre. 2-3 Taliban leaders did step inside Afghanistan and they were killed. Rest of them are sitting safe in Pakistani cities. And look at the physical features and physical outlook of the Taliban leaders who are negotiating. Do any of them look they are battle hardened. They are suffering from health issues from not doing much than sitting in their air conditioned rooms. They don’t look like leaders of battle of insurgency inside Afghanistan. So, and their families are all based in Islamabad. Today, I was reading news brief from Pakistani media. Pakistan government is no longer denying that the Taliban are headquartered in Pakistan. They have their leaders there. But, he question is will the new President Biden administration using these facts put pressure on Pakistan to bring the Taliban into meaningful negotiations. That has to be seen.
Q: Your comment on the Durand line raise of Pakistan hackle. You have claimed Peshawar to be the winter capital of Afghanistan. Even challenged the Taliban to take a position on this?
Amrullah Saleh: Well, you see my comment had a context. My comment had a context because there are lot of people inside Pakistan who are very unhappy with the policy of this establishment and they echo our voices. They echo our voice and our demand that the Pakistan government to stop supporting proxy group and terrorism in Afghanistan. So, we remain very thankful to all those civil society organisations, politicians even national movements, you know who have raised their voices in support of the legitimate demand of the Afghan people. And, our ties go back to the history, we cannot delete and wash the history. We cannot wash it away. It is true that… you know Durand line has cut through the heart of the one of largest ethnic groups of Afghanistan and Afghan governmnet has always recognised it as a line. But, as far as I see the history and I see the evidence, no Afghan government has given recognition to the line as the permanent border between the two countries.
Q: How you see relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India in days to come? You think India should do more in terms of talking to Taliban or other International players for regional peace?
Amrullah Saleh: Well, first of all India-Afghanistan government has a very deep and a strong relationship. Couple of weeks back, you know there was virtual inauguration of the work on one of the large water dams, south of Kabul. It was virtually inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi and President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan. That is the every fresh and latest example of India walking the path of major donor in Afghanistan and engaging Afghanistan as a development partner which is very very encouraging. We understand India, despite having it’s own domestic needs, has always been very kind and generous trying to help Afghanistan in strengthening it’s institutions. Strengthen democratic process, strengthen pluralism. These are very noble objectives and these are what we stand for. But, also let’s not forget, it’s not always quantity of India thus for to Afghanistan or for Afghanistan. It is the passion, it is the quality. It is the mutual respect India has shown to Afghanistan and we have reciprocated that. So, therefore this is an example we use with Pakistan. If you have to win hearts and minds, you don’t have to undo everything India does by IED’s, bombs and suicide bombers. Let’s copy them. If they built a dam here, you can assist us building a dam there. Let’s get into a positive and constructive competition. But, unfortunately the idea is, let’s just destroy what India does peacefully and it will backfire. It has backfired. But, for us engagement of India with Taliban is concerned, I think that will be a mistake. It will be a mistake. It will be recognition of ideological brother of Lashkar-e-Taiba and engaging with them. It will be a mistake.
Q: What is your message to world community and new Biden administration?
Amrullah Saleh: Well, to the Biden administration we are very grateful to the people of the United States, to the government of the United States. They have been very generous with us over the past two decades. They have given so much sacrifice here and they have empowered Afghanistan. And, we believe it can come to a dignified end. We remain committed to the political settlement. We should honour the sacrifices of the American people and American armed personnel in Afghanistan who gave the ultimate sacrifice and we have to honour the sacrifices of the Afghan people . We should not let the peace process to go into drain. The values must be preserved and it is doable. And today, the world is helping us, but, it is fraction of what they were doing 10-years-ago. It’s not big in terms of numbers and in terms of quantity. We would like the foreign troops to leave with dignity and grace. We do not want them to guard any part of my country. But, the question remains the same, Why did they come here and has that objective been achieved? And the simple question is, it’s not achieved and if it is achieved its not fully achieved.