Shaida Mohammad Abdali, Afghanistan ambassador to India, discusses the situation in Afghanistan and the country’s relationship with India
Aditi Bhaduri | June 4, 2016
The news from war-ravaged Afghanistan is not encouraging: a resurgent Taliban, an increasing Islamic State footprint, a fractious government and a weak security force. This year has already seen the Indian consulate in Jalalabad being targeted by a suicide attack.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan is very much on top of India’s diplomatic engagements. Economic cooperation with Iran and Afghanistan is a top priority for India, prime minister Narendra Modi said in Tehran on May 23, as the three nations signed a pact to develop Chabahar port in south Iran. This strategic port will give India access to Afghanistan and Europe bypassing Pakistan. Modi is also slated to visit Afghanistan on June 4, to inaugurate the Salma dam, built with help of India’s water resources ministry.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, Shaida Mohammad Abdali (who did his PhD on ‘Afghanistan’s engagement with India and Pakistan: A study of political stability and economic cooperation, 2001-14’ from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi), discusses with Aditi Bhaduri the situation in Afghanistan and the country’s relationship with India.
Kabul witnessed a bloodbath recently. The Indian embassy also issued a travel advisory. What explains this Taliban resurgence after years of a global war on terror?
Well, there are a number of reasons. To begin with, the withdrawal of NATO forces has a role to play and it was expected that the Taliban and other terrorist groups would take advantage of the situation in terms of filling the vacuum that was created. Moreover, there are a couple of dimensions here. Our troops are battling now, till recently we had the foreign forces fighting but now our troops have got into combat. So it’s a kind of test for the Afghan forces and they are doing very well.
The second dimension is the peace process where various attempts have been made with our neighbour Pakistan to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. We had many expectations but unfortunately we are much behind our expectations in this regard. The third dimension is the regional one. The region as a whole – South Asia and West Asia – is witnessing new, emerging challenges. For example, take the situation in the Middle East – the chaos and the instability has spilled over into our country. In concrete terms it is Daesh. We do not know exactly what this new emerging threat is aiming at in our country. However, Afghanistan has been dealing with various security challenges for the past two decades. We are a resilient nation and we are optimistic that we will be able to cope with the situation towards bringing peace, stability and prosperity.
Does Daesh have presence in Afghanistan?
Well, yes, but it’s still premature to conclude the ambitions of Daesh in Afghanistan and beyond in our region. It evolved in Iraq and then Syria and that has spilled over and now we are seeing a situation where they are trying to hold territory and disrupt life and have caused many civilian deaths. I can say categorically that there is presence of Daesh in Afghanistan and they have undoubtedly affiliations to Daesh in Iraq and Syria. But perhaps they do not constitute the same kind of threat or presence at least now. But their ambitions are similar, that is to dismantle borders, they may use Afghanistan as a base to target Central Asia and dismantle the borders in the states of that region, and further to Russia. Russia has also expressed this concern. So in future India could also be a target.
The point is that we always talk about the challenges we face but we seldom talk about the solutions to those challenges. And solutions are important because whatever happens to us will eventually affect others. Whether it is Daesh or the Lashkar-e-Taiba or any other terror group, they are all forces of destruction and no one should make distinctions between them or any other terror groups. All of us should have a unified approach to fight terrorism for a peaceful and stable region.
Would you apply that to the Taliban too?
We do not see the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Taliban. What we do see is the reconcilable and the irreconcilable Taliban. Those who want to renounce violence and come to the path of peace, we welcome them. But we will not sacrifice the gains made in the last 14 years. The government in the last year and half has made many efforts to reach out to them. But they have given a clear answer and so our government has responded accordingly. However, we will continue to reach out to those who choose the path of peace. Our position with regard to terrorists is clear that we should not distinguish between the different terrorist groups. At the end of the day, they are like the many-headed snake.
Here you are obviously referring to the distinction made between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban...
As far as India and Afghanistan are concerned, we fully see eye to eye with each other on the question of terrorism. We do not deal with them selectively. We have unfortunately not been able to rally a unified response in the region to terrorism so far. We see double standards in the fight against terror. Countries like Afghanistan and India have a common approach, a common vision, a common understanding of terrorism and we hope others will join us.
Are you referring to Pakistan?
It is a principled position, and I don’t want to mention any particular country but we do hope that we all unite behind one common position – whether it is state or non-state actors, it is unacceptable to use terrorism as a tool against another country. We should all stand firm and sincere in the fight against terrorism and a zero tolerance of distinction between ‘good’ terrorist and ‘bad’ terrorist. We hope the international community as well as international organisations like the UN and the Security Council will be taking this as a global concern seriously. After all, we see what is going on in the Middle East; attacks like the one in Paris, and of course 9/11 are the biggest examples. If not today, then some other day, but countries beyond this region will eventually be affected, if we do not take the fight against terror seriously and in a united manner.
In this regard I would say that we need three layers of policy: The first is the unified national approach where all the state organs should come together and form a cohesive approach to deal with this threat.
Secondly, we should rally a regional response and approach in security, military, economic terms.
Finally we need to attract global attention including the UN Security Council and other major powers to reinforce our joint effort towards a peaceful world for all.
India objected to China’s stance against placing Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar on the UN terror list. Your comments.
That’s not for me to comment on, but let me repeat our position. We should not be picky or selective about terrorists. No one should be exempt from it. There must not be selective approach while tackling terror. The long-term objective is for all of us to be safe and secure. However, we see shortsighted agendas, we see silly games. We hope we will be able to ensure openness, peace and security for all.
We have historically capsulated ourselves in shortsighted policies and the costs of such shortsighted policies have been very heavy. We hope this will be a lesson for us. And I hope we will be able to start a new chapter.
You wanted to talk about solutions. So what lies ahead now?
As implied earlier, we have been stuck for too long in shortsighted policies. These policies should be revisited and reformed. This is particularly important in the context of emerging challenges which are simultaneously more brutal than earlier ones.
So, one is that we have to stop zero-sum games and pursue the three-fold policies I mentioned – that of forging a national, regional and global approach to these challenges.
Once you are internally and regionally cohesive then you can go to the international community. So zero-sum games have to be stopped, new thinking should be embraced. Take the example of the countries of the West and look at our region. Asia is the world’s richest continent; we have so much of natural resources yet we are facing so many problems, abject poverty, and, more importantly, so divided. Our region is the least connected and integrated region. This is a shame.
You talked about internal cohesion. Now one of the charges against the current Afghan government is that it’s fractious and so unable to formulate an appropriate response to the threats it faces.
Very good question, and that’s an incorrect perception. You see, when there is no good intention in the neighbourhood then you run into trouble. Take the Taliban – it’s not a homegrown movement. It was a foreign movement, imported from outside. Had it been a homegrown movement, then we could have evolved an appropriate response based on a native context and our understanding of the movement. And in case we had failed, then we could have been blamed.
Please understand that terrorism in our part of the world is engineered, instigated, created and sent from outside. So if the terror networks, funds are dried up you will see that the movement will be finished off in no time –just as you saw in 2001, we got rid of this movement within a few months. So it is imposed on us.
If you follow the various opinion polls in Afghanistan – the latest was the Gallup polls, support for the Taliban usually hovers around three percent. So, if someone thinks that the Taliban is homegrown it’s a big error. It is not a movement that has grown organically or evolved naturally inside the country. It has been imposed on us. Afghanistan has been united for 5,000 years and will remain united for another 5,000 years, and will prevail ultimately over the terrorists and their backers.
In that survey, Afghans are asked which country or movement they like – India is always on top of the list of countries that Afghans perceive have supported Afghanistan.
So how are these networks being disrupted?
While keeping our doors open for peace talks we will be confronting those who chose to fight. But as a civilised nation we will leave no stone unturned in search of a political solution to the conflict. We hope to see the shortsighted agendas in our region put behind and move forward.
What can India do?
First let me express our deep gratitude for all that India has done so far; it is one of our biggest bilateral donors with $2 billion assistance. We have a strategic partnership in place and within that framework there is no limit to what India can do in various fields including political, security, military and economy.
Afghanistan is still far from being out of the woods. We are still facing a situation where we are fighting not only for ourselves but also for the future of others. We are indeed in a regional war, fighting for many others including India, Iran and Russia. We hope they all – for the sake of a collective peace and prosperity – will join hands and assist Afghanistan at this critical juncture.
India recently handed over four much-needed military helicopters to Afghanistan and they are extremely effective. We understand India’s position and constraints when it comes to more military hardware.
Economically, we are working with India on some major projects and one of them is the Chabahar port project [for which India, Iran and Afghanistan signed a pact on May 23 during a trilateral meeting in Tehran]. Once signed, it will be a game changer and life-changing project. We are fully confident that India will do whatever it can and is necessary to ensure a peaceful, stable and sovereign Afghanistan.
(The interview appears in the June 1-15, 2016 issue of Governance Now)
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