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SOURCE: SUNDAY GUARDIAN LIVE

Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman, High Council for National Reconciliation of Afghanistan who is on a five-day India visit on Saturday said he hasn’t asked India to speak to the Taliban. Abdullah, the key negotiator in the Afghan peace process in an exclusive discussion with the Managing Editor of NewsX said that in his meetings they haven’t discussed Indian peacekeepers and the hope is that no peacekeepers will be required.

He added that India’s role in the Doha peace process continues to be critical. Mr Abdullah made it clear that there is no place for terror groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda in his country and all parties in the negotiation will have to commit to deny terror groups any space.

As far as the role of the US is concerned, he said that the timelines and specificities of the deal are currently being discussed with the US and added that he wasn’t too sure about what Donald Trump meant by his latest tweet.  In response to India’s border tensions with China and the role of Pakistan, Mr Abdullah said that Afghanistan is cognisant of the situation and peace in the conjunction area of India-Pakistan-Afghanistan will benefit all in the region. Excerpts:

Q: We have the rare privilege of having a very important conversation with a person who has already played a very important role in the region and will continue to do so in the years ahead. Abdullah-Abdullah serving as Chairman of the Council for Reconciliation in Afghanistan, it is talking through the process of rebuilding a peace process in Afghanistan and looking towards the future. Welcome, Sir to NewsX and the ITV network.

A: Thank you. Good to be here.

Q: Abdullah-ji, you spent a few days in Delhi and you met with the Prime Minister, the NSA, with the External Affairs Minister. In things developing in Afghanistan, how can India help?

A: I would say that it is an important time for Afghanistan. And also India is looking at it from an angle of a friendly country towards Afghanistan. A country that has supported Afghanistan in the past two decades since the negotiations have started in Doha. So, it’s a new phase in Afghanistan. It is important to have the engagement that I have had, in the past few days with the Indian leadership. India has been holding a principal position towards peaceful settlements in Afghanistan. Afghan-led, Afghan-owned negotiations, that’s the principle that we believe in as well. And also, a situation which is acceptable for the people of Afghanistan in which Afghanistan is at peace within and without. And also it respects the rights of its own citizens including democratic rights, the rights of women, and minorities. And does not harbour any terrorist group and threat against any country. That is India’s position. In that context, we had extensive discussions here. India participated in the inauguration of the Doha Conference, which we all appreciated. We had good interactions and discussions with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. Eventually, we were both of the idea that we should continue the engagements in a more focused manner and see how the situation evolves and share our views.

Q: How is the situation evolving? Where do you think we stand right now?

A: The fact that negotiations have started, that in itself is historic after so many decades of war and nearly three decades with the Taliban. The fact that the two are sitting across the table and talking.

Q: What is India’s position on the table? Would you like us to be talking to the Taliban?

A: I have not raised that idea. That should India decide one day to talk to the Taliban we will not have any problem. But I have no doubt in my mind that the efforts which are underway with different countries will become more engaged and more involved and India will be a part of those efforts.

Q: What is the hope from the Taliban in terms of commitment, Sir? Have they made any?

A: The fact that they announced that they want a peaceful settlement and there is no solution through war that in itself is welcomed. The pace of progress in Doha, I would have preferred much more pace to those negotiations than what it is today. But I also understand the complexity of the situation, that after so many decades we are getting to get out and talking.

Q: How do we ensure, Sir that going ahead, as you mentioned, that there are no terrorist outfits operating, to ensure that a base for Al Qaeda or ISIS is denied?

A: That’s a must. Without it, there would be no peaceful settlements. You remember that it was because of what Al Qaeda did, on 11 September in the United States, that the whole international community got engaged in Afghanistan. And then, what sort of peace it will be if we, let’s say, to have an agreement with the Taliban, which is very important. And then the other terrorist groups will continue operating from Afghanistan. It will be part of both sides’ agreement and commitment not to allow terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

Q: Do you hope for or envisage a kind of disarmament or integration into the Afghan National Army?

A: Of the Taliban?

Q: Yes.

A: This will be part of the security agenda. There is an agenda that we have not entered discussing those agendas. Security situations and what will happen to the Taliban army.

Q: So that is open for conversation in Doha?

A: All of these are things that need to be put on the table and to be discussed.

Q: Are you hopeful, Sir that the US withdrawal, which is being expedited to what we are beginning to understand, may actually go slower than most people understand?

A: The US will decide based on their own calculus and their own projection of their interest and the security challenges that they see and they have witnessed. If you refer to the recent tweet by President Trump, to be honest, I don’t have the details of that or out of my contacts nobody was able to explain it. Whether it is in the context of what has been already decided, we are aware of that and we are working with the commander on the ground, General Miller. Whether it is in the context of what has been already decided, so by end of November a few thousand troops, still, will remain in Afghanistan and the remaining will withdraw. Plus NATO forces will remain there for some time. Is it in that context? That decision being re-emphasised. Or is it a new decision? My own inclination and analysis—this is not based on fact or based on conversation…my own analysis will be that President Trump is talking about the withdrawal of troops which will leave a few thousand behind, which has been worked out already. As we are speaking now, troops are getting withdrawn.

Q: Will it make a difference, election in the US?

A: Still the policy will be support for the peace process, depending on who comes. Because the main impact that it will have is whether the same administration continues or the next one, they will be busy with their own internal…there will be a transition period, there will be the domestic policy which will take their time and energy that will focus on the domestic issues. Prior to that the administration implies, the same administration or the next…

Q: So you are hoping there will be continuity on that front, regardless. I began by asking that you have committed friends both in government, in the establishment, in the people here, in the media here. What helping role can India play? Is there room in the future for peacekeepers from India?

A: The role of peacekeepers from any country, we have not discussed it. We hope that as Afghans we get to a solution that there will be no need for peacekeepers. So we work it out amongst ourselves. That will be the preferred situation. But what we came into understanding, which was a joint understanding, was to continue engagements as the situation evolves and to have this sharing of views and see what’s the best course. When it comes to the peacekeeping force, that was not the topic of discussion.

Q: You have just been travelling through Pakistan as well. Have attitudes in Pakistan changed?

A: I was in Pakistan, I had lots of discussions, meetings at different levels of the leadership, the President, the PM, Speaker of the National Assembly, Chair of the Senate, the military-security establishment, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, civil society, ulemas, what I saw there left me with a positive impression and I shared our views with them in terms of the expectations from Doha. And communicating to the Taliban to show flexibility. The harm, the continuation of violence has over the spirit of people.

Q: As we know, Sir, Pakistan is having its own issues in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with the Pashtuns. Is that making things more complicated? How are you viewing that?

A: We talked mainly in the context of our own relations. What is important for us, which is important for peace. And the answer from the Pakistani leadership was positive. So, I left Pakistan back to Kabul with a positive impression.

Q: So you are hoping that will be a hopeful and not an inimical role. In the end, Sir, when it comes to having a stable Afghanistan, do you think the Pakistanis will have an interest in ensuring stability in Afghanistan because they haven’t given an indication for a long period of time?

A: I don’t see how any country might have benefited from the continuity of instability in Afghanistan. I think it has continued for so long and I would say that a lot of countries including Afghanistan first and foremost have missed opportunities because of this continuation of instability. That is my sense. How is that seen from the outside that is for different countries to project their efforts towards. But when they say peace in Afghanistan means peace in Pakistan and peace in the region. That’s an important statement. In order to materialise that, certain efforts are needed and things are ahead of us.

Q: Well, it is going to be tougher obviously. But it’s a road that must be travelled. What role does China have in the Afghan peace process?

A: China’s position is also supportive of the peace process. Like they are supporting Afghan-led and Afghan-owned inclusive peaceful settlement. That’s the official line. They are also discussing the issue of Afghanistan with other countries. On one or two occasions they hosted the Taliban and they hosted our delegation as well. But they mainly hosted the Taliban. It was not a negotiation between both sides. And they assured us after we communicated that the only acceptable solution for the international community is through peaceful settlement.

Q: Are you disturbed by the confrontation between India and China happening in the region?

A: Everything that happens around us or beyond us may have an impact on us—a country that has suffered because of the continuation of conflict. We are cognizant of the impact of other situations upon us. But hopefully, everybody keeps aside things which, one way or the other, has positive or negative on each and every country around Afghanistan.

Q: If issues could be resolved between China, India and Pakistan, where the Wakhan Corridor is, would that be beneficial to the region?

A: Yes, of course. Lesser the tensions are between the countries surrounding Afghanistan, will be better in any way and under any circumstances and be beneficial for Afghanistan without any doubt.

Q: Before I let you go, Sir, growing up in Kabul, in Kandahar, how is it different? What memories do you have? You spent some time in Peshawar studying as well.

A: In Peshawar, unlike an article which was written earlier, I have not studied, but I was there as a refugee where I worked at a hospital for a year or so. That hospital was for refugees. That was the year 1984-85, towards the end of ’85 I went back to Afghanistan and joined the resistance against the Soviets. So, that was the period that I spent in Peshawar. Peaceful Afghanistan is a dream that I want the children of today to materialise now rather than getting as old as myself. Those were the situations when people from India would go and spend their holidays in Kabul. People from Pakistan would do that. People from Iran. The tourists from around the world would travel throughout this region. And the country was looking towards a better future. This happened till 1973 and then soon after that the Soviets invaded. So, a lot of memories of people in Afghanistan which was very different. But, hopefully, sooner rather than later our people would see that.

Q: Sir, you’ve had a very fascinating life. I know it has been through trials and tribulations. But you have a lot of services ahead of you and you have many friends here in India who wish the people, you, and your government very best. We are as committed to moving in with peace in the region as could be. Thank you very much for joining us on NewsX.

A: Welcome, thank you.