Afghanistan’s 35-year-old National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib has recently had talks with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval and top officials of the NSC where various issues were believed to have been discussed. Chief among them was the security situation in Afghanistan with President Donald Trump planning a troop withdrawal of US troops from the country. Other issues included the process of talking to the Taliban and presidential polls.
In an interview to SNI’s Associate Editor Amitabh P Revi, the former Afghan Envoy to Washington and Ex-Deputy Chief of Staff to President Ashraf Ghani spoke on these matters and other issues of concern to Afghanistan. This included the US Strategic Partnership with Afghanistan and the recent comments by President Trump on the then-Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. On the India side, Dr Mohib spoke about Prime Minister Modi and the ‘Modi’ effect on India-Afghanistan relations. He also spoke about Pakistan, safe havens and sanctuaries and tackling the roots of terrorism in the country.
Amitabh P Revi (APR): Dr Mohib, you’ve had a very productive meeting with NSA Ajit Doval, the two Deputy NSAs, the Vice Chiefs of the Army, the Air Force, Joint Secretary in the PMO and India’s Ambassador in Kabul among others. What can you share with us on what was discussed?
Hamdullah Mohib (HB): Like you said India is a strategic partner of Afghanistan. My visit was to reinforce what was already in place. We talked about what is happening in the region right now, about the progress Afghanistan’s democratic process is making-the contribution to that progress as well as the peace efforts that are underway in Afghanistan. It was a wholesome discussion of our partnership as a whole. But, it was also to renew our commitment to each other and to regional security as well.
(APR): Talking about security, India has been training Afghan personnel of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), the Afghan National Army (ANA), the Afghan National Police (ANP) bureaucrats, lawyers and students for years. Security wise, in the current scenario, is there anything more you need from India?
(HB): I don’t want to speak on the specifics. That’s not why I came to visit India on this occasion. This was more of a strategic dialogue. In this time and phase, it’s important for us to collaborate on what we can do for each other collectively in the region and for our mutual security. These are matters that are tied to each other, there are no islands anymore.
(APR): You don’t want to talk about specifics, but for the first time, PM Modi has reversed policy to give you 4 Mi-25 attack helicopters. We have also been told that there are efforts to procure another four from Belarus and give them to you. How far has that project progressed?
(HB): We will receive the first of those two in March hopefully. It’s just a process that’s taking time. The other two should come in June or July. It’s just a matter of preparation. They will arrive soon.
(APR): You had a large role in the discussion and documentation for the US signing its Strategic Partnership with Afghanistan. President Donald Trump has been making a lot of statements that have rankled with people. But what are your reactions to his comments when he raised the issue of the invasion by the then Soviet Union and then seemed to belittle India’s efforts in Afghanistan by talking about the ‘lack of importance’ of a library?
(HB): India and Afghanistan are two democratic countries. The fact that India has contributed to the democratic process symbolises what it wants to achieve in Afghanistan and how it sees itself and the role it wants to play in the region. We, in Afghanistan, appreciate those gestures and will continue to build on the progress we’ve made in the last 17 years. Afghanistan has gone through a lot of difficult periods in the last four decades. We are on the cusp of achieving peace. We’re committed to seeing that through.
(APR): There have been statements from President Ghani’s office, from his chief of staff and the new acting defence minister after President Trump’s comments. Those comments have not gone down well in Afghanistan and many other places.
(HB): Look, the fact of the matter is that we all have to keep continuing what we’re doing. In my job, it’s important that I keep focused on national security and I will continue to do that. This is the reason I’m visiting India. India too has to focus on its national security not only for itself but for the region. As I said, we’re all tied together.
(APR): Let me come to President Trump’s South Asia policy that was announced in August 2017. Do you see that as now having been totally reversed? Reports are coming out even though the White House hasn’t yet officially confirmed it, like it has in the case of Syria, there is likely to be some sort of drawdown. How will Afghanistan’s NSA deal with a situation like that?
(HB): The increase in troops that happened in 2018 was quite recent The drawdown will not have a significant impact. We have been preparing and have been leading actually the security efforts since 2014 when 100,000 NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan. We’re continuing to build on the capacity and capability of our own security forces and we are proud of the achievements that they have had over the last four years. We’re prepared for whatever is to come and I have full confidence in their capacity. We have also recently had a change in the leadership to fix the gap that may have existed. Let me make it clear here, Afghanistan has defended itself for centuries and we will continue to stay strong and defend our rights. It’s a sovereign nation that has never ever given in to anyone who has tried to conquer us. Today, I must say, we are in a very strong position to be able to bring long-term stability to Afghanistan.
(APR): As you said, there have been changes in the Afghanistan administration. Amrullah Sales who has being appointed as the new Interior Minister and the new Defence MinisterAssadullah Khalid, both ex-NSA directors, are known to be very virulently against safe havens or sanctuaries in Pakistan which the Taliban or any other terrorist organisation can use. What is the message being sent out by the new administration at the current time?
(HB): Peace is the desire of our people. But until there is peace we must defend our people. The message is simple. We will defend our people and we will do it with strength.
(APR): The US has been repeatedly asked Pakistan to take out safe havens for terrorists or make sure it takes action against them. How do you visualise that progressing in the current scenario? President Trump started it off with a tweet on the 1st of January and made strong statements but now he’s writing letters to the Prime Minister Imran Khan and seemingly wants to engage. How do you see the US vis-a-vis Pakistan in holding the government, the administration, the deep state responsible for acts of terrorism against the people of Afghanistan?
(HB): Terrorism is the enemy of us all. One of the reasons we are such good partners with India is because we see eye-to-eye on this matter. Terrorism is bad for the region, it’s bad for the world, it’s bad for humanity. We would like to see all our neighbours playing a constructive role in ending or curbing terrorism. It’s not good for anyone. We are willing to discuss how we can play a constructive role and assist anyone who would want to eliminate terrorism.
(APR): That leads me to my next question. Is Pakistan still stuck in a mindset of the 1980s? Is it willing to change?
(HB): I can speak of what Afghanistan is doing. For us, it’s important that we bring stability to Afghanistan. We will do it at any cost. We have made a tremendous amount of sacrifices for this by first defeating the Soviet invaders that had come in the ‘80s. We will continue to defend our nation today. In the last 17 years, some 55,000 Afghan security forces were martyred. They sacrificed their lives for us to be able to see a better future. We’re not going to give up on that.
(APR): We should of course not get trapped by the numbers. There are individuals and families that are being affected. But if you look at numbers, when you talk about the capability and capacity of the forces, the numbers of those being killed is larger than ever before when they started being reported in 2015. So, how do you look at the situation? You’re saying you’re on the cusp of peace, but is it at a crossroads again?
(HB): In terms of territory, Afghanistan is a mountainous country. For the size of the country, we have a very small population. We would ideally like to man and control every inch of the territory. But realistically, in the current security scenario, it’s not possible for us to do that. So, we do make priorities, where we want to keep. Our focus is on population rather than manning or securing every inch of the territory. So there is significant for us to control certain areas and there are areas that we consider not as significant at this point in time. In terms of population, about 89 per cent of the people is living in areas that are being provided for by the security forces and the government as a whole. We provide humanitarian and public services to all Afghans, wherever they are so they can enjoy all aspects of what the Government is supposed to provide. It’s easy for one man to bring terror to 100 people, with a gun. That’s exactly what it is. There are areas that the Taliban and other terrorist groups are able to put fear into the citizens. We’re working through a rigorous plan to eliminate that fear. Peace is the ultimate desire of the people and we’ll continue to work on that. It’s also our job to provide security to the people so they can make sound decisions and judgementsabout how they want to live their lives. In the recent past, we had parliamentary elections. Despite all kinds of threats, people stood in lines and voted. There was a clear message by the people that they want to be in full control of our future. As a government, we must provide them with that security.
(APR): (US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation) Zalmay Khalilzad has visited about none countries, India has so far not been one of them, though there are reports that he may come soon. How do you see the dialogue progressing? Because in each of these dialogue processes, the Taliban issues statements saying they will not talk to the Afghan Government or its representatives.
(HB): The Afghan people want peace. As a responsible government, we will continue to make every effort to afford them that opportunity. At the same time, we also recognise that groups may not be operating with full independence. There are influences and controls by entities that we both know very well. They will look at their objectives first. If the Taliban are Afghans and would like to play a role in Afghanistan, I would once again use this opportunity to call on them to have talks with Afghans. They will be no peace without Afghans-intra-Afghan dialogue. The Government has on multiple occasions, offered ceasefire and opportunities for direct and unconditional talks. Of course, peace will have to be conditional the local people will have to agree to it. But, the fact that we’re ready to sit without any preconditions with them is a big step. It was not something that was available in the past and as time passes, this opportunity may not always exist.
(APR): The next round of talks is supposed to be held in Jeddah. But the Afghan Government said that neither it nor its representatives will participate unless the Taliban engage with the Government. Is that the condition now?
(HB): That’s not a condition for talks. If they (Taliban) are prepared to speak with the Afghan Government we will then participate. The condition is on the process. If they are not willing to participate or talk directly with the Afghan Government then it’s not useful for us to go all the way and not be present in the talks. Our desire is peace. We are doing everything we must as a responsible Government to ensure that we have that process at some point, including tightening security in Afghanistan. This is also our job, to provide security to our people and we will continue to strengthen our security forces. The legitimate use of force is part of our constitution for the protection of all people in Afghanistan. I’m proud to say we’re making very good progress in all aspects of our security forces — the Air Force, the Special Forces, the Commandos. We have made significant reforms in the police and army. They’re new well trained leaders in effect at all levels. We are prepared for our national defence and have been doing it for 17 years and we’re not afraid of any sacrifices we have to make to bring that stability. If the Taliban would like to be part of this process and serve the people, we’re ready to discuss any grievances they might have.
(APR): There seem to be more and more conditions by the Taliban to participate in these rounds of talks. The last one was when the ceasefire was reportedly offered and there was a possibility of some sort of an interim government, they then asked to head that interim government. Their demands seem to be increasing as we go on. Is this what you referred to earlier as some entities, institutions, governments being in control and hence they don’t want peace?
(HB): Let’s separate disinformation from what’s actually in the process. There has been no discussion on the part of anybody on some sort of an interim Government. Afghanistan has a constitutional process, a democracy. We are committed to what we have in our hands. There will be presidential elections in July and once again everybody is preparing for that election. That is a fact. What happens in the misinformation space is not something that has any credibility.
(APR): Fair enough. Do you believe that the interests of the US Government and Zalmay Khalilzad come into conflict with your intentions for peace because of President Trump wanting to pull out troops in a hurry? Does this hamper attempts to keep the peace process Afghan-owned, led and controlled?
(HB): The US and Afghanistan have a bilateral security agreement that oversees our relationship in many aspects. That continues to be in force. And any decisions that have to be made will be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. We have been leading the peace process. We have offered the first ceasefire, the second ceasefire and we’re preparing for the possibility of a third ceasefire. The Afghan Government wants to implement whatever the people want. We would like to see reduced violence. If it’s going to come through a ceasefire, we’re always prepared for a possibility like that. But, if it’s rejected, we will continue to defend our people.
(APR): What do you see India’s role as? India has sent an observer to the Moscow meet (on Afghanistan). We sent two former diplomats including the ex-envoy to Afghanistan who is now on the NSAB. What is India’s role now in bringing peace to Afghanistan and the region?
(HB): India and Afghanistan see eye-to-eye on terrorism. We both believe in democratic processes. We both believe that people should be able to determine their own future. We both believe in the legitimacy of Governments and the role they have to play. Indian continues to partner with us on that process and my visit was once again a reassurance that we continue to see eye-to-eye.
(APR): When talking about elections, there are rumours that the presidential polls are being postponed to allow some sort of a peace process as the US wants. Is this true or is this misinformation?
(HB): Absolutely. There has been a slight delay. But it is because of the process. The Independent Election Commission needs some more time to hold credible, fair elections. The people deserve credible elections. There has been a small delay from April to July. But, that’s all it’s because of the need to prepare better. There is no conspiracy behind it.
(APR): The movement towards the presidential elections is also gathering pace. There are people putting up their hand saying they would possibly fight against President Ashraf Ghani. Hanif Atmar, your predecessor, talks about his ticket and a first and second Vice President in Mohamad Mohaqeq and Yunus Qanooni — the ex-Speaker. Does that give you hope that the democratic process is moving forward even if it is in opposition to your administration?
(HB): Afghan people love their elections. We participate with full commitment. People are already registering their tickets for President, some have already done so. Many others have taken the information packages. It’s important that we continue this process so the people are able to choose who they would like to lead and give them a mandate for both peace and progress. We are really looking forward to this next Presidential election. It will be an opportunity for the Afghans to renew their commitment to democracy.
(APR): You have also talked about changing the narrative of how the world sees Afghanistan. For instance, when you talk about women’s rights, we’ve seen movement on that also both from on the ground to the top. You have a woman Ambassador to the US Adela Raz who has been appointed to the UN and about 28 per cent of people in the Afghan parliament are women.
(HB): Afghanistan is a different country now. Most people do not realise how much it has changed. It’s unfortunate that the headlines abroad are still about war. Inside, our society has not remained static. It has made progress. Thanks to the opportunities we have been afforded in the last 17 years, Afghans have gone abroad, acquired high-level education including in India. They have returned putting what they’ve learnt to practice. We are all beneficiaries of what we have had in the last 17 years.
(APR): Let us speak a little about your personal journey. Your wife Mrs Mohib fell in love with Afghanistan before she fell in love with you?
(HB): Afghanistan is a country that once you go, it draws you in. Not just the country, the people. Despite the miseries that have been imposed on us, the people continue to be very gracious, very hospitable and welcoming. There is this incredible resilience so when there is even the slightest hint of optimism, people once again see opportunity and look towards a brighter future.
(APR): Patience and perseverance embody what you have done. If I remember correctly, in an earlier interview you said that you always remembered your mother telling you a story of a calf that she would keep carrying up the mountain after it drank milk. A perfect example of what you’re saying: perseverance and patience.
(HB): Afghanistan has been lifting a lot of weight. Not enough credit is given to the Afghan security forces for what they’ve been able to achieve since 2014. We have been building a military while fighting a war. We’ve been able to do that successfully and while we continue to defend, we’re on the offensive in Afghanistan now. The enemy, despite all its propaganda, is on the run. That speaks to the resilience and the commitment of the Afghan people to continue to invest in its own security. We’re fighting a war and we’re building our institutions too. I’m very proud of our security forces as those are people who know their country, know the value of patriotism and understand what they must do to secure a better future for all of us.
(APR): Does the NSA get any free time? You have two children now? Mariam is three and a half and your son?
(HB): Mariam is five and my son is two and a half years old.
(APR): Your wife has worked so much at the community level in Afghanistan, especially with especially with specially-abled children. What does the NSA do in his free time? Does he have any free time?
(HB): I am really honoured to be able to serve my country. This is an opportunity for me to do something and pay back to my nation. There will be lots of free time afterwards, once we have peace.
(APR): Thank you so much. Kabul is much colder currently than Delhi. But we hope it was a warm trip for you and we know that when we come there you will reciprocate our hospitality. Thank You so much. Toshakor. Mañan