Shaida Mohammad Abdali, Afghan ambassador to India talks about peace and more
Shankar Kumar | December 11, 2017 | New Delhi
Close on the heels of the new US policy towards Afghanistan, India gave a new meaning to its strategy towards the country when it took the Chabahar route to supply wheat to the insurgency-hit landlocked nation. In conversation with Shankar Kumar, Afghanistan ambassador Shaida Mohammad Abdali talks about these developments and praises India’s effort for peace in the region. He also subtly lashes out at China for its OBOR initiative in the disputed areas (read Pakistan-held Kashmir). Edited excerpts:
How do you see India-Afghanistan relationship in the fast changing geopolitical situation of South Asia?
Afghanistan-India relationship is on a high trajectory. At any given time, it is only growing; its foundation is very strong; it is exceptional; it has a broad spectrum of engagement -- from politics to economy to trade to security and others. Given the geopolitics of the region and fast changing global scenario, India is taking centre stage of the development. It is not just engaging with Afghanistan, but also with [other] nations of the region and beyond for the safety and security of the region. India is no longer a small power, it is a major power and we want continuance of its leadership in the region for its benefit.
Recently, India sent wheat to Afghanistan through Iran’s Chabahar port, bypassing Pakistan. Do you think this has sent a strong message to Pakistan?
Absolutely, the development sent a sound message to Pakistan that anyone can delay development but cannot stop it. For the past 14 years, Afghanistan has been trying its best for an alternative route for trade and commerce. Luckily, India offered an answer to Afghanistan’s quest for that alternative through Iran. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want Pakistan to become a route for our trade and commerce [with the outside world]. We want the whole region to be well connected so that anyone can take benefit out of it. But it can’t be achieved without cooperating sincerely with each other and without fighting terrorism. We have always been asking all our neighbours including Pakistan that we should focus on building relationship in a way that it brings peace and stability everywhere in the region. Therefore for us, to work in multiple ways to achieve peace in the region is a goal, but unfortunately the situation in the region is such that even trade and commerce have become hostage to terrorism, sponsored, given space and used for political purposes [by Pakistan]. It [terrorism] will benefit none. It is dangerous, which has hurt everyone including Pakistan.
In order to achieve peace in Afghanistan, would Kabul engage with the Taliban?
Afghanistan has a roadmap for peace in the country. It has a peace process based on conditions. We have always put forward those conditions. We like to resolve the problem politically; we don’t want war, rather war has been imposed on us. Afghanistan has been compelled to defend its interests. We want this conflict to end through political settlement and hope that Pakistan genuinely cooperates with Afghanistan’s peace process and the Taliban are presented to the table for negotiations. Afghanistan has peace and reconciliation mechanism in place. Yet the main reason for the lack of move on peace front is the lack of political will to resolve terrorism in the region.
That means Kabul will not compromise with its conditions while engaging with the Taliban?
Not at all. You see, our constitution whose acceptability also forms part conditions for talks, incorporates aspirations of all Afghan nationals. It is based on Islamic values. Therefore, there is no question of anyone objecting to it. Yes, it is manmade constitution. But it is open to an amendment for which there is a certain laid down procedure.
Has any overture been made in the recent past for talks with the Taliban?
It is an ongoing process. Individual contact [between Taliban leaders and Afghan government officials] has always been there, but frankly speaking, we have not been able to convince the parties involved for peace talks in the country.
That means you are not seeing any breakthrough coming on the peace front?
We have not given up hope. But it depends on the other side also. Afghanistan is deep in a situation which can’t be resolved unless Pakistan supports it. Pakistan has to wholeheartedly support the Afghan peace process.
Recently, Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai said that ISIS has made its presence felt inside the landlocked nation. Is it true?
You see, it [ISIS] is an additional phenomenon. Terrorism is manifested in a number of ways; in a number of names and we hear about 20 terror groups’ presence [inside Afghanistan]. So ISIS is part of a group or system that is involved in terrorist activity. This is a new phenomenon and that’s why we have said that Afghanistan’s problem is a global phenomenon as such requires global action. Terrorism in this part of the world has state support. Therefore, it can be resolved only when there is genuine support [for the move] at the state level.
While outlining his government’s policy towards Afghanistan in August, US president Donald Trump said India should support Afghanistan on the security front also. Do you agree?
Sure. Afghanistan has a multifaceted relationship with India, but it is largely in economic and civil areas. A country has potential in one area and others have in other areas. India is so far helping us in the infrastructure sector and capacity building. But no cooperation is excluded from a package of assistance. We want India to support us on the security front also.
How do you view the new US administration’s policy toward Afghanistan?
There is much more clarity in the US strategy towards Afghanistan. The Trump administration has rightfully asked India to do more for Afghanistan because of its close relations with Kabul and because of the goodwill that exists between the two countries. Hence, the new US policy towards Afghanistan is clearer than the previous strategy. But we would like that the US strategy is implemented at political, economic and security level to make it complete.
Have you sought supply of more helicopters and weapons from India?
There is a joint security group between the two countries which meets regularly. They do talk based on their priorities. India has supplied us with four helicopters. We have sought more. India has agreed on a range of issues, including help in availing spare parts for helicopters.
Is India also involved in providing training to Afghanistan’s defence personnel?
Yes, India is providing training to Afghanistan’s military personnel. So far, 4,900 Afghan defence personnel have been trained in India. Currently, 300 personnel are undergoing training in India.
China shares boundary with Afghanistan and hence wants peace to prevail in the landlocked country. But despite strong relationship with Pakistan, China has not been able to leverage its influence on Islamabad in curbing sponsored terrorism. Your comment?
Yes, we want China to leverage its influence on Pakistan, given that Beijing has a direct stake in Afghanistan’s peace and stability. Not only it shares boundary with Afghanistan but also has investments in the country. Therefore, if spillover effect of Afghanistan’s instability hits South Asian countries it will equally hit China.
In which area has China made investments?
China has made investments in coal mines and iron ores of Afghanistan. But so far no [extraction] work took place because of the prevailing security situation there. Nonetheless, we want Afghanistan to become a place for positive engagement.
What’s your stand on China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative?
Afghanistan has always sought goodwill [from other countries]. For the sake of economic development, Afghanistan has been advocating for peace and seeking cooperation from the countries of the region. Afghanistan successfully finalised the Chabahar port because of this [economic development]. We also want any initiative to be a kind of tool which doesn’t exclude anyone out of economic prosperity. We hope for comprehensive approach to all activities, including business and trade.
For years, Afghanistan requested Pakistan for a transit route for supply of goods from India. Unfortunately, Pakistan has not been cooperating. Hence, there comes our stand that unless we take everyone along, whatever initiatives we put forward, they will not achieve success. Trust is pre-requisite to any trade and commerce at regional or global level. Therefore, it is important that trade and business should not be used as political tool for any purpose, especially where there is dispute and tension.
(The interview appears in the December 15, 2017 issue)
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