Welcoming the Trump administration’s new Afghanistan policy, Afghanistan Foreign Minister and former Chairman of the High Council of Peace, Salahuddin Rabbani, says it is time for a regional approach to ending the conflict in Afghanistan. In an interview to The Hindu while on a visit to New Delhi to attend the Strategic Partnership Council meet between India and Afghanistan, Mr. Rabbani indicated that it is not just important for Pakistan to tackle terror, and development assistance from India to continue, but for Russia, Iran and China to be part of the solution too. Excerpts:
Your visit marks the first high-level meeting between India and Afghanistan since U.S. President Donald Trump announced his South Asia policy for Afghanistan, which your government has welcomed. What are your hopes from it?
We have welcomed it for several reasons. Firstly, it is not a time-based approach, it is a condition-based approach. Secondly, it addresses the core of the problem, which is the safe havens (for terrorist groups). We have always said that the effective fighting doesn’t take place inside Afghanistan. If you want to really fight against terrorism, then that fight isn’t in the villages of Afghanistan, you have to fight those who finance them and train them too. That’s why this strategy is different, because it addresses that. We also have welcomed that this policy focuses on a political solution. There has to be a negotiated settlement.
But U.S. leaders have spoken about the safe havens before, referred to “snakes in the backyard”. Both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama warned Pakistan to shut down safe havens too. Why are you hopeful this will change now?
I very much hope that this will work now, because it takes account of the regional consensus on the issue. In the fact, it also invites India to take part in Afghanistan’s development . This is something India has already been doing and we are very grateful for that. India has been very active for the past 17 years and even before that, so it is important that is now being recognised. Then the focus on the peace process and the condition, not time-based, approach gives it a higher chance of success than previous (U.S.) policies.
Last year saw the highest civilian casualties in Afghanistan. What is needed to bring the violence down?
I think parallel to the reconciliation process, the training of Afghan security forces (ANSDF) and equipping them is the most important thing we needed. The human cost of this conflict has been too much in the last few years. Next is to put pressure on those countries that support the terror groups that come and commit violence in Afghanistan.
Specifically, what would you like India to do?
Well, our strategic partnership is very important, and includes political and security cooperation. So we very much hope that India continues to help our security forces with equipment and training, and we are glad India will continue to train Afghan cadets in India. But we hope also that India, as a good friend of other countries in the region like Russia and Iran, can convince those countries to work with the Afghan government to support the peace process.
In terms of security, India trains a few hundred forces each year, and has provided four helicopters. Is that enough?
We are grateful for what India has done so far, and we do hope it will provide more equipment as we have been asking. Of course, it is not enough, but the helicopters have been very important. It was a crucial time at which we needed them, and India was the first country to come forward and deliver them to us. In accordance with the strategic partnership, we also have regular consultations between the intelligence services (the National Directorate of Security and the Research and Analysis Wing) of the two countries.
Do you think Mr. Trump’s policy will change Pakistan’s behaviour on safe havens and support to terror groups?
I think it is in the interest of any country that thinks of using terrorism as an instrument of state policy, to change that policy. They should see the blowback, how their security forces are now facing the brunt of that policy, and how their civilians are being killed. I won’t speak on behalf of President Trump, but it is clear that he feels that Pakistan can gain if it stops this support to terror groups. But if it keeps supporting them, they will lose.
Do you think cutting aid to Pakistan or sanctions are the next step?
It is for the U.S. to decide, but also for Pakistan to be realistic and change focus to bringing stability to Afghanistan. A peaceful and stable Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s strategic interest as well.
The Trump administration has also suggested that India should “do more” for dialogue with Pakistan, suggesting that if the two reach a resolution on the Kashmir issue, that will somehow help the situation in Afghanistan. Do you subscribe to that view?
I think Kashmir and Afghanistan are two very separate issues and I don’t see any link between the two. As an independent country our relations with other countries are separate from each other.
I think the latest statement at BRICS also denotes a realisation that even countries close to Pakistan now realise that Pakistan must take this issue seriously, safe havens should be shut down.
You spoke to the Pakistan Foreign Minister a few days ago, after he said there was a need for this sort of change. Do you think his is a serious effort?
I had a brief telephone conversation with the Pakistan Foreign Minister (Khawaja Asif) where he confirmed that we would be meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this month. Of course I have noted that there is a change in Pakistan, after the recent [U.S.] policy announcement, but that remains to be seen on the ground. If they are really changing, we would know.
What is the role of China, which has a $50 billion interest in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as well?
China and Pakistan have been strategic friends for some time and are very close. So we think China can use its influence on Pakistan to change its policy and to support the peace process in Afghanistan.
Is the India-U.S.-Afghanistan partnership the way forward? It seems as if everything else has been tried since 2001…
You can call it a partnership or an alliance — if it is for peace and stability which I think it is, no one should have any worry about it. If India can help us in development and security, that should be welcomed.
You mention the peace process in Afghanistan. But in the last few years most peace processes are run from outside Afghanistan: the Moscow process, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), the Doha process...
We welcome any initiative that supports peace in Afghanistan. But that must be in support of the main track, which is the High Peace Council that was set up for this purpose. So any initiative has to support the Afghan-owned and Afghan-led processes.
You headed the High Peace Council, taking over in tragic circumstances following the assassination of your father Burhanuddin Rabbani. Do you think it has made any progress?
It may not have yet made a big impact or change, but it has made progress. The number of armed groups to have now joined the peace process is more than 2,000. Any soldier who leaves violence and joins the peace process is positive. If it is left to the Afghans alone, we will succeed. But Afghan terror groups that are based outside our country can come under pressure from outside influences. Even so, many of those are reaching out to us.
Has Pakistan helped at all?
Pakistan has said it would on many occasions, but it hasn’t delivered on this promise. The QCG began very well as a mechanism. We managed to finalise a road map, but then the delivery faltered. If Pakistan still decides to deliver, they are in a position to do so.
To turn to ties with India, why did it take so long to hold the second meeting of the Strategic Partnership Council when the first was held in 2012 and it was meant to be an annual event?
Yes, it was supposed to be held annually, but then got held up for technical reasons. At one stage we were looking forward to holding the meeting in Kabul, but then the health of (External Affairs Minister) Sushma Swaraj was not good. Now we hope to meet more often, at least every year.
The past few years have seen no new big projects being talked about, on the scale of the parliament building, Zaranj Delaram highway, or Salma dam. Whose decision is that: India’s or Afghanistan’s?
We always welcome any kind of development assistance from our friend India, whether it is big or small. We would like bigger projects, but our New Development Project (NDP) initiative that sees smaller projects is also very important. I met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and spoke about what we call the “third era” of our development cooperation, after large-scale infrastructure projects like parliament, etc. and the small development projects have been completed. Now we are looking at the Shahtoot dam, and Kabul water supply projects, low-cost housing for returning refugees in Nangarhar, irrigation projects as a part of the NDPs.
We also want to look at regional connectivity for trade prospects, and are very keen on the development of Chabahar project in Iran as an alternative route for trade. In Afghanistan, we would like India to invest in railway projects too. There have been some delays in Chabahar, but I don’t think there are many big obstacles.
The need for an alternative route arises because of the obstacles from Pakistan in fully implementing the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA). Have you made any headway in talks with Pakistan on giving India access?
Afghanistan has always wanted to include India in APTTA. We have told Pakistan it is in their interest too, and just as they want to have access to Central Asia, we would like to access the Indian market. We would be happy to extend the APTTA to a Central Asian country (Tajikistan) if they would bring India in. We have also signed the Motor Vehicles Agreement with India during this visit, which is an expression of our good intentions, and we hope India and Pakistan will work out this issue some day.