Interview Conducted By Matthias Gebauer – Der Spiegel
The Taliban ravaged Afghanistan during the war, torturing and killing countless people. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani explains in an interview why his government is still willing to negotiate with them.
DER SPIEGEL: President Ghani, both you and Abdullah Abdullah are claiming victory in September’s election even before the counting of the ballots has really begun. Will we see the same chaos and infighting that we did in 2014?
Ghani: I have not claimed victory — that needs to be very clear. My team and I are strictly abiding by the rules and will wait up to the moment the election committee announces the results. Anything before that are predictions and claims that are not helpful.
DER SPIEGEL: But your running mate, Amrullah Saleh, made comments that were perceived as declaring victory.
Ghani: There is initial confidence, but that is all. Based on the first numbers we are hearing, there is excitement in my team, but we will wait for the final results.
DER SPIEGEL: On Election Day, almost one-third of the polling stations were closed due to security risks and threats. How valid and legitimate is an election in which whole parts of the country are barred from voting?
Ghani: First of all, we have to consider that this is still Afghanistan. I am asking you: Would anybody in another country participate in an election if they were up against the same massive threats and dangers that every voter here is facing? I have the utmost respect for any voter who came out. Ultimately, the goal was to be able to hold this election at all given the dire scenario — and we succeeded in facilitating that.
DER SPIEGEL: But there is sure to be a confrontation with Abdullah, who joined your government as chief executive officer as part of a power-sharing agreement in 2014.
Ghani: There must not be chaos like in 2014. We do not have time for a months-long power struggle this time. Afghanistan needs a government that tackles the major challenges we face — mainly the peace process and improving the livelihoods of every Afghan. We need to proceed, and a government with two heads as we had in the last five years will not succeed in this scenario.
DER SPIEGEL: According to the official estimate, turnout was historically low this time, with only 2.5 out of 9 million voters casting ballots. It seems the Afghan people are fed up with democracy after fraud-plagued elections in recent years.
Ghani: We have to view the participation in relation to the threats all Afghans are facing. Given the situation, the numbers weren’t too bad. I think Afghans are not fed up by democracy but by the unity government of the last years that was not able to push reforms forward to enhance the living situation. They are fed up with all these backroom deals and compromises, which slowed the delivery of any political measure. This needs to change now — we have no time left.
DER SPIEGEL: The Taliban say the low participation numbers underscore how tight their grip already is on large parts of the country.
Ghani: The Taliban’s goal in recent years was to overthrow the legitimate government in Kabul and divide the country into the government-controlled areas and the territory they hold. They did not achieve that. Only a few years ago, we still had more than 130,000 international soldiers here in Afghanistan to secure the election and yet we still faced massive threats and saw attacks against the polling stations. These days we have taken over responsibility for our own country. Obviously, I would like to see a better security situation. Of course, I would rather only focus on reforms and not a war against the Taliban. But that’s not the Afghan reality today.
DER SPIEGEL: Just a few days before the election, Donald Trump used Twitter to announce the abrupt end of peace talks with the Taliban. Were you angry or relieved?
Ghani: Neither. I had repeatedly warned the U.S., the last time only four days before the collapse of the talks, that Washington’s approach of negotiating with the Taliban alone would be stillborn. Peace talks can only be successful if the Afghan government is not only joining, but also leading them. We have to return to this approach. Of course, we need the international community’s support, but we also have to take things into our hands. We should never forget that it was the Kabul government that organized the first cease-fire with the Taliban, without international help. We need to come back to the course that is chosen by us, not others.
DER SPIEGEL: Did President Trump call you before he informed the world about his decision on Twitter?
Ghani: No, usually Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks to me – that’s the protocol these days. But we were engaged before the Tweets came out.
DER SPIEGEL: How close did it really come to a meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban at Camp David? And what were your expectations for that meeting?
Ghani: We did not expect more than a symbolic meeting, where both sides would formally commit to a political solution and to ending the violence to bring this shared goal forward. But it makes no sense to discuss it further. We were not expecting any historic deal. The cease-fire that President Trump accepted as a starting point for further talks was not delivered by the Taliban, who were either not able or not willing to deliver it.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you know the reason?
Ghani: The Taliban miscalculated massively on all fronts. First, they underestimated the resilience of the Afghan people, who they wanted to use to strengthen their position in negotiations by conducting one attack after the other. They also fatally misread President Trump. They wanted to portray the talks as their own success and they accelerated attacks to reach more of their goals during the talks even before any peace deal was reached. They painted a picture in which the Afghan government and the security forces have been defeated. But Afghanistan is not Vietnam — nobody is hanging on to helicopters here in Kabul to flee the country.
DER SPIEGEL: How should things proceed now?
Ghani: First, we need a common approach. By “we,” I mean the government of Afghanistan together with the U.S. and the rest of the international community. The expectations on the Taliban were inflated in recent months because everybody was rushing only to the Taliban for the peace talks and to reach quick results. Now we need a joint strategy again, which won’t take months, but certainly a few weeks.
DER SPIEGEL: What would you do differently if you were part of the talks?
Ghani: I am not a very soft negotiator, everyone knows that. I am strictly interested in our interests. I would not accept a lasting agreement to make peace quickly if it did not address the substantial issues. These issues will come back to bite you later — every Afghan knows that from history.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you see as the guidelines or even red lines for the Afghan government?
Ghani: Any deal with the Taliban must include a guarantee for the values of the Afghan constitution, human rights, democracy and women’s rights. Without these, talks are pointless. We won’t accept any inclusion of the Taliban in the government or even Afghan society without ironclad guarantees.
DER SPIEGEL: The Taliban’s emissaries are all well-known war commanders who led a bloody war against Western troops. How would you explain to the widow of an American or German soldier killed that these individuals are now about to land powerful positions in the government?
Ghani: My heart goes out to all the victims of this war, who paid the highest price. My country and I will be grateful for this sacrifice forever. There are no words to heal the grief of a widow, but I would tell her that the international mission here changed our country substantially. Afghanistan will never again be a country where women are held at home as if in a cage. Furthermore, I would say the main goal of any peace deal is the end of the war and the end of the bloodshed against the international and the local troops. I am aware, though, that the price of such a deal is painfully high, especially for anyone who lost a loved one.
DER SPIEGEL: During the talks, we saw that the Taliban are either unwilling or unable to fulfill their promises — in this case, the reduction of violence. Can they be trusted?
Ghani: I never trusted anyone in my life without proof. Trust must be built through fulfilled promises. Afghanistan and the international community must now formulate their demands and lower expectations on the side of the Taliban. We have to say very clearly that we will not surrender to them. The Taliban are completely wrong if they believe they can march into Kabul and reverse all the progress Afghanistan has made. They can play a role again, but they will have to face elections and they will have to have the support of the population to get any post in the government.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think the Taliban would accept elections?
Ghani: They will have to. Look at the example of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of a very powerful and ruthless Islamist guerilla group that led a war against us and the international troops for years. We convinced him after long negotiations to come to Kabul, where he lives in freedom. We kept our promise and he was a candidate in the current election. His results will also be a sort of a test to see if the Taliban have strong support among the people of Afghanistan.
DER SPIEGEL: Beyond all the chaos in the White House, it seems clear that President Trump isn’t the only one fed up with the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Can you understand his frustration and that of the American people?
Ghani: I totally understand that. The international troops have been here for almost 18 years now, a very long and painful time. I am aware that Afghanistan cannot be a millstone around the international community’s neck forever. We also shouldn’t forget that the U.S. started with a different mission than the one it has today. They wanted to root out al-Qaida after the horrible 9/11 attacks. I have full understanding for the will in Washington and elsewhere to withdraw their troops once this goal has been reached. That’s why we’re working hard to be able to take care of all of our security issues ourselves soon.
DER SPIEGEL: Even if the Taliban were to agree to a deal, the question remains how much control the negotiators really have over all the movement and the terror groups like the Haqqani network or others.
Ghani: Obviously, that is the $1 billion question. I have no clear answer or strategy for that yet. But if we can at least separate the Taliban from other militant groups here like the Islamic State, for example, we would weaken these groups significantly. This would serve a common goal shared by us and the international community.
DER SPIEGEL: Let us come back to the elections for a moment. What will you do if you are defeated by another candidate?
Ghani: I would instantly go back to my love, which is teaching, research and writing. I have six unfinished manuscripts to complete, and I want to work with the young generation again. So, I would return to university as soon as I could.
DER SPIEGEL: I heard almost the same words from former President Hamid Karzai when I met him here 2014. He said at that time he would become a normal Afghan citizen again.
Ghani: (Laughs) Mr. Karzai is certainly not a normal Afghan citizen. He is still one of the political heavyweights here and he has entered into the fray. I don’t want to blame him for doing so – it was totally his right to engage himself. But my path will be different.
DER SPIEGEL: You don’t sound as though you really fear you might have to move out of the presidential palace soon.
Ghani: That depends on the Afghan citizens. The signs are good that I will have five more years to work hard for the future of Afghanistan. But just like everyone else, I will have to wait for the final results.