Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has challenged the Taliban to stand in the upcoming elections but cast doubt that “anyone would vote for them,” adding that the militant group “derives their power from killing” people.
Ghani, who is running for re-election on September 28, told Al Arabiya in an exclusive interview that the Taliban must prove to the Afghan people that they are capable of being productive.
“They need to demonstrate to the people of Afghanistan that they are capable of being productive, of being able to become an instrument of transforming the country. Their affiliations are with the most destructive people,” Ghani told Al Arabiya’s Saad al-Matrafi during his recent state visit to Saudi Arabia.
The United States, which has been in talks with the Taliban, said it will withdraw almost 5,000 troops from Afghanistan and close five bases within 135 days under a draft peace accord, the chief US negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Monday.
Ghani is said to have been briefed on the draft of the deal and will look at details of the deal before giving an opinion, his spokesman said.
Afghanistan’s presidential elections is scheduled for Sept. 28 in which Ghani is seeking re-election to a second five-year term. The Taliban have consistently rejected the elections.
Here is the full transcript of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s interview with Al Arabiya:
Al Arabiya: Mr. President thank you for giving us this opportunity.
Ashraf Ghani: In the name of God, It’s wonderful to be with you. It’s a pleasure to be able to speak to your audience through you.
Al Arabiya: Thank you very much. Mr. President you’ve met with the Saudi king. King Salman and you’ve also met with some ministers. What were the major issues that you focused on with the Saudi leadership today in particular?
Ashraf Ghani: Well first of all, I congratulated the Custodian of the Holy shrines on yet another Hajj. This is the largest most complex logistical operation in the world. Mecca and Medinah is a very special place in the hearts of every Muslim but particularly for every Afghan. And we’ve had an enduring relationship since the founding of Saudi Arabia. And long before that. Bilateral relationship is on a very solid foundation. In that context our discussions focused both on opportunities and on threats. Opportunities on how to work together to enhance the momentum in Afghanistan toward self-reliance, towards regional connectivity and towards the utilization of the immense resources of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan fortunately is one of the richest countries in terms of water, mineral resources, location and human capital. And in this regard the Custodian of the Holy shrines give instructions. And I’m delighted that I’d be working with Dr. Majid, the Minister of Industry and Investment. And I’m looking forward to a delegation that would be coming to work with us equally. We’ve worked with the Islamic bank, the Saudi Development Fund and the OIC the Organization of Islamic countries. So a stable Afghanistan is not only the frontline against this threat it is also the frontline for defense of the kingdom, the world at large. Europe and the United States. Our security coordination will be enhanced in this regard.
The third is an opportunity for peace. Where a condition-based approach to peace. Our offer to the Taliban was unconditional but peace itself must be conditional to enable us to preserve the gains of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and to make sure that the Taliban separate themselves from terrorist organizations and narcotics which are both strong threats. And here, the kingdom’s foreign policy Minister [Jubair] and others will work together with us to move forward in a coordinated approach that is sustainable peace. That is the goal of a free Afghan and the goal of the region is realized. And in terms of that coordination both of the United States and the Europeans and with Pakistan. That is a special role in this will be enhanced.
Al Arabiya: You’ve talked about great opportunities and a very optimistic way of the negotiations and the talks with the Saudi leadership. But what does Kabul really expect and or hope from Riyadh? Having said all what you have just said about the opportunities that you’re looking forward to?
Ashraf Ghani: Well what we’re hoping for are movement fairly rapidly on some questions like labor and opening up of the Saudi market towards Afghanistan. Afghanistan is moving to really becoming an export-oriented country. And in this regard, they are quick wins and we’re working on that. There are other parts where coordination is important and the voice of Saudi Arabia, and the world community and in the region is important. We’ll be coordinating. And then there is a longer horizon. That after the election of the presidential election 28 September the new leadership of Afghanistan whether it’s us or other people, we’ll be working because relations between Afghanistan and Saudi are not dependent on a person. This is the relationship between two countries that are foundational in nature and will endure.
Al Arabiya: Moving on to another issue the US envoy to Afghanistan Mr. Khalilzad has taken a tour and visited also ended his tour in Afghanistan. How effective do you think that tour will be?
Ashraf Ghani: We the government of Afghanistan that particularly created the conditions for peace. It’s I who asked for unconditional discussions with Taliban. Leading to of course the condition-based peace. We created the conditions for a ceasefire for the first time in 40 years. We persuaded President Trump and the United States to support peace before this. My predecessor set 13 conditions on beginning of talks and the United States had many conditions. This is because the overwhelming majority of the Afghan people want peace but peace has to be sustained. The discussions on the first ground between Ambassador Khalilzad and Taliban are to persuade them to discuss the issues that pertain to the United States priorities. The second round of discussions will be between Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. In there, we will be talking in earnest about how to both integrate the Taliban but also to understand that they are a minority and the government, and the people of Afghanistan constitute the majority.
It’s a discussion that is it then it’s still at the mid stage and to take stock of the mid stage, we need to be both optimistic but also careful to make sure that the outcome that we are seeking is achieved.
Al Arabiya: Mr. President why do I get a feeling, maybe I’m wrong, that you as the Afghani government fear of neglection, to be neglected if there is talks between the Americans and the Taliban?
Ashraf Ghani: No we are not on the contrary. Peace cannot come without the government of Afghanistan speaking directly to the Taliban or the Taliban talking directly to us. Do you think a single one of their prisoners can be released without my signature? Do you think they can come to Kabul without us welcoming them?
Al Arabiya: Don’t you think it will turn out to be an American-Taliban full talks...?
Ashraf Ghani: No it’s impossible. Look we’re the legitimate government of Afghanistan. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. And we are not fearful. Do you see me shaking?
Al Arabiya: Of course not.
Ashraf Ghani: No. Because, why am I not shaking? Because our security forces are performing brilliantly in the field. We are not a defeated army. We are not a defeated police or defeated intelligence. In the battlefield we have not lost. So we are not suing for peace. We are seeking peace out of conviction, not out of defeat.
And the request for reduction of numbers of American troops came from me in January in a letter to President Trump. We agree with President Trump that the expenses of the American presence in Afghanistan should be reduced and this can now be reduced because we have significantly reformed our security forces and are able to. In terms of enablers and support. That relationship is based on mutual interest. Afghanistan, the presence of the international community in Afghanistan, it’s been welcome, it’s been essential but it’s not a free gift. We sacrifice more than anybody else both for our freedom but also for global security.
Al Arabiya: I’m now going back to the talks between the Afghan government and Taliban, the Americans and Taliban. How far do you think Taliban will be committed really to any agreement that comes out of the talks between whether it’s the Afghani government, official government or the American talks with the Taliban? How far do you think they’ll be committed?
Ashraf Ghani: That’s the billion-dollar question isn’t it? It’s not who is committed and who’s not. It’s how talks are conditioned. Trust and verify. We need to take a jump of fate. Because people demand peace.
The Taliban are not a positive. They're negative power. They derive their power from killing. From killing civilians, from attacking hospitals, schools, universities. But this price is too high.
The blood. As the president of Afghanistan, I’m president of all of Afghanistan. I don’t differentiate between a child or a woman or non-combatant civilian as to whether it’s Taliban or otherwise.
The society wants an end to this with it. We’ve seen 40 years of conflict. So as a result of this we held our Loya Jirga or grand assembly three thousand two hundred men and women. In more than 30 percent of them woman for the first time from all walks and they said they instructed me to go solve the problem. Talks are essential in order to put an end to conflict. But how do we trust it be specific conditions that need to be put because the society is making a huge step to reintegrate the Taliban and its fault. Taliban are different from internationally transnational terrorist organizations because they are Afghans in essence but the choice is going to come, each Talib must choose will they prefer their homeland over these international ties. These are difficult decisions for them. Time will tell if they move forward. With conviction and with courage the way we’re doing then there can be the right outcome. If they don’t, then unfortunately there will be loss of trust and the consequent loss of opportunity that we will have to cope with.
Al Arabiya: Now it was an interesting you said that you are the president of all Afghanistan. How do you challenge the position that says that the president or the Afghani government only rules Kabul and has no actually power on the rest of Afghanistan? So, the presence is only in Kabul?
Ashraf Ghani: No it’s a fantastic question that they used to tell of my predecessor that he was mayor of Kabul because he didn’t travel. You know I’ve just completed my 74th trip to the provinces of Afghanistan. Is there a single province of Afghanistan that is run by Taliban? That’s my answer. I have been 74 times in the last five years to the provinces. The Afghan army, is there a single province of Afghanistan that the Afghan army is not present, that that Afghan administration and a governor is not present? Judges are not present? Services are not delivered? This is a mythology that was a plight when we had over 130,000 international troops in that country.
When I became president the combat role of international troops ended over 100,000 troops were withdrawn. Everybody was then saying, well of course they will collapse.
Al Arabiya: 100,000 was from Taliban?
Ashraf Ghani: No from the international community. Over 100,000 Americans and other, particularly Americans, who were fighting in my country. During my predecessor’s time, President Karzai’s time. I took the responsibility for planning, designing the process where all these troops left by January 2015 and I became president. We have been able, who is doing the fighting? The Afghan security forces was doing the dying. This is a mythology we are of course you’re dealing with a network. Taliban are not a government. They are a network and who are targeting civilians. They are in the spaces between people. So yes, they have a presence. They have a violent presence, but that presence does not mean that we are Kabul-bound.
If you a Kabul-bound, I would not be able to have this intensive and extensive relationship with the provinces of the country.
Al Arabiya: It’s just interesting Mr. President you’re saying that Taliban are not the government and they are aggressive as you’re saying or harsh as you’re saying. Now if talks between Taliban and Americans again, I’m sorry to actually come back to that issue again. But if the talks actually succeed and the Americans withdraw 5,000 troops, the Taliban will abandon al-Qaeda. Aren’t you afraid that that will lead Taliban to power? Actually, officially being as the government of Afghanistan?
Ashraf Ghani: No because the system is a democracy. Will Taliban win an election? I’ll challenge them today to come and join the election. If the people of Afghanistan vote for them would be delighted to turn power to them. But I am convinced that the people of Afghanistan will not vote for them. They are convinced that the people of Afghanistan will not vote for them. Why are they not accepting election? Look, every single armed movement the absolute majority of them, if not every single one, in 1990s to now has been seeking an election as a way because they are confident that they have roots in acceptance. Is there a single survey, credible survey, that shows more than 5 percent support for the Taliban?
Afghanistan of today is different. The Taliban in the presidential palace. There was a half complete mosque. They couldn’t even complete the mosque in there five years in Kabul. I completed it. What did the Taliban build? Nothing. They need to demonstrate to the people of Afghanistan that they are capable of being productive, of being able to become an instrument of transforming the country. Their affiliations are with the most destructive people. Does al-Qaeda care about Afghanistan?
Does it care one bit as to how many thousands of Afghans are killed? Did Osama bin Laden care in 2001 to leave our country and thereby avoid the war. No, he insisted on staying. So, the challenge is to them. They need to move. 5,000 troops, withdrawal would make no difference to us. Because the support structure is there and we need to make sure the key is all Afghans, throughout our history we did not have international presence. These 18 years are an exception in our history. We need to put arrive at the time bound arrangement where we can secure and the main reason that national troops are there is because the Taliban are perpetuating violence. So, if we agreed. The reason for the major presence will come down and then we can focus on the threat of terrorism. And if they join us in containing that threat, the sooner, the need for international presence will disappear.
Al Arabiya: Mr. President, in the last incident of the wedding bombing that happened in Afghanistan. The government accused Taliban. Taliban denied any relations to the bombing and ISIS actually admitted to be responsible of the bombing. Aren’t you afraid that Afghanistan will be the next state for ISIS?
Ashraf Ghani: There are threats but the first thing, Taliban denial. It’s not acceptable. They declared war on the election. They’ve declared war on the civilians. Without them helping ISIS, at the beginning there would be no ISIS in Afghanistan. Now they’ve fallen apart. Second, we need to look, anybody can take responsibility. Does ISIS really have the capability of carrying these operations or are there sections and elements within the larger Taliban coalition that are supporting ISIS. And the main question would be what percentage of the Taliban are actually moving back and forth between ISIS and Taliban? These are questions that during negotiations and particularly during verification of a peace agreement that we are determined to arrive, will need to be answered.
Al Arabiya: Counter to the last question Mr. President, now with all these negotiations and all these talks the United States, the Afghani government, Saudi Arabia and this tour that you are taking along, how do you like to see the roles of these mentioned governments and these countries in the future of Afghanistan and what roles would you like them to play actually?
Ashraf Ghani: We like to see them play two roles. One is to facilitate. Create the conditions for direct talks between the legitimate government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban.
And two, help in the verification of the agreements. And three, come together for a coalition build a coalition for peace that can ensure that Afghanistan will be able to absorb this tremendous both opportunity but also challenge will need if we want to finish the war. We’ll need to absorb the refugee population of Afghanistan built in Pakistan and in Europe. Both countries are having major economic difficulties. Life is becoming hard.
Tens of thousands of people who’ve fought on the side of the Taliban they need to be absorbed. We need to end, still, a significant number of Afghans suffer from poverty, illiteracy, bad health.
And the most important Afghanistan does have the resources to stand on its feet. We need partners for a limited period of time. And then the most significant thing would be to change from an aid-based society to an investment-based society. Regional connectivity, development of the energy resources of the country, the mineral resources of the country, the connectivity advantages that come from it.
So we have a very positive agenda where our partners can come. And also, we are deep. We are 99.9 percent Muslim country who have contributed from the dawn of Islam to a great civilization, rediscovery of that civilization, consolidation of that, and the remaining threat which is that of transnational terrorism and transnational drug cartels would need to be faced jointly with us and we are confident that we can face them jointly together.
Al Arabiya: Mr. President, again, thank you very much for this interview.
Ashraf Ghani: It’s a pleasure.
Al Arabiya: And giving Al Arabiya this great opportunity.
Al Arabiya: Thank you. Thanks to Al Arabiya for giving me this opportunity.