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‘Pakistan using Taliban to influence Kabul’: Afghan vice presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh

Saleh, who is contesting the election as a member of President Ashraf Ghani’s team, cited the fact that the Taliban leaders running negotiations with the US in Doha fly to the Qatar capital from Karachi or Islamabad

world Updated: Mar 31, 2019 02:30 IST
Shishir Gupta and Rezaul Laskar
Shishir Gupta and Rezaul Laskar
Hindustan Times
Pakistan,Kabul,Afghan vice presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh
Amrullah Saleh (AFP)

Afghan vice presidential candidate and former head of intelligence Amrullah Saleh says Pakistan is using the Taliban to influence the situation in Afghanistan “through terrorism and violence,” citing examples of the kind of patronage the militia enjoys in Pakistan, which he said was its “first home.” Saleh, who is contesting the election as a member of President Ashraf Ghani’s team, cited the fact that the Taliban leaders running negotiations with the US in Doha fly to the Qatar capital from Karachi or Islamabad. “Sometimes they are provided with special flights arranged by Pakistan Air Force,” the former minister said in an email interview from Kabul. “The Taliban leadership council commonly known as Quetta Shura is in reality a network of persons scattered in major Pakistani cities but they use Quetta as their headquarters to strategise and coordinate.” Edited excerpts:

What do you make of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statement that Afghanistan should have an interim government to help with peace talks? US Ambassador to Afghanistan John R Bass has called this ball tampering by PM Imran Khan, who has been accused of the same tactic during his fast bowler days?

A: The aim of Pakistan has always been either to install a puppet clerical regime in Kabul or keep it as weak as possible. The call of PM Khan for an interim set up is thus aimed to derail the Afghan constitutional order. Contrary to their rhetoric the Pakistani establishment sees its interest in chaos in Afghanistan. The statement of PM Khan was just an outburst of a covert policy going on for years.

Many in Afghanistan and India believe the Taliban are backed by Pakistan and that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s controversial remarks on the formation of an interim government were only a reflection of this ground reality. What are your views on this? Is the Taliban shura based across the Durand Line in Quetta or Peshawar? What is its relationship with Pakistan ISI ? What steps can Islamabad take to gain Kabul’s trust?

A: The Taliban leaders who run the negotiations in Doha fly there from Karachi or Islamabad. Sometimes they are provided with special flights arranged by Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The Taliban leadership council commonly known as Quetta Shura is in reality a network of persons scattered in major Pakistani cities but they use Quetta as their headquarters to strategise and coordinate. The only way for both countries to build trust is to start-state-to state dialogue. Currently Islamabad speaks to Kabul via Taliban and they want to influence the situation through terrorism and violence. This is a rotten policy which has widened the gulf of mistrust and it has deprived both countries from enormous economic opportunities which can be utilized if peace and trust prevails.

What sort of a relationship do you envisage between Afghanistan and Pakistan? Do you think the Pakistani military establishment has given up its policy of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan?

A: Our aim is to see Afghanistan, Pakistan enjoy normal, good and friendly relations. We want to see a relationship in which the main focus is on trade, people-to -eople relationship, energy, connectivity and a relationship in which there is mutual respect and mutual interest. Unfortunately, that is not the state of our relationship right now. Pakistan is seen as a hostile state sponsoring the Taliban and other terrorist outfits who destabilise Afghanistan and have caused so much bloodshed and destruction. Pakistan is stuck with the classic idea of strategic depth. They can pursue a legitimate policy for gaining strategic depth which will only come through strong economic links. A policy to gain strategic depth through militancy and violence is truly odd and won’t work. Pakistan must realize that it can’t be a mini imperial power. It lacks all the necessary means to pursue such a strategy. A blueprint of strategic depth relying on bloodshed, violence, terrorism and blackmail won’t materialize. It is a waste of time and resources and we hope they wake up and stop it.

It has been 17 years since Taliban was bombed out of Kabul but the Afghan army, despite all training and the best of equipment, shows little signs of standing up to fight. Is this because of Pashtun tribal filiality or lack of will to fight?

A: The Taliban were defeated in Afghanistan, but they never came under pressure in their first home, which is Pakistan. There was and still is a flaw in the US / NATO policy in regards to the Pakistan based sanctuaries, all out support to Taliban by Pakistan army and lack of hard pursuit of terrorism within Pakistan. So we did our homework but Pakistan was paid for a job they never did and as President Trump once said they were all into fooling the world and seems they succeeded.

Why can’t Afghanistan stand up on its own rather than rely on any third power -- be it the US, the erstwhile USSR or may be China in the future?

A: We are victims of our vital location. Our location is both our asset and our liability. Our quest is to convince the neighbours including Pakistan that they must look into the positive side of the Afghanistan’s location. Of course it can be seen as a launch path against anyone but it can also be a hub of connectivity for everyone. Our dream is to invest on the latter vision.

China has extended its Belt-Road Initiative in Pakistan and is now looking towards the resources of Afghanistan through its all-weather ally, Islamabad? What are your views?

A: China is indeed a neighbour which has massive and enormous capability to invest in Afghanistan. But they haven’t done much yet. We hope they do. We also hope our bilateral ties grow sans influence of third-party interference or reservation. We hope China will start work on Ainak mines.

Do you think that China has a put a technical hold on designating Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist by the UN’ Security Council’s 1267 committee due to the deep links between the terror leader and Taliban on a Sunni Deobandi ideological platform?

A: I learned from media that China blocked the UN vote declaring Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. But whether China does or doesn’t see him as a terrorist, he is a terrorist. It is unfortunate that our region is having a fragmented view of terrorism. That hurts everyone including China. The issue in question is not the Deobandi platform. The matter is emergence of militancy and deviated religious politics. The militant Islam which is not necessarily Islam but a branch created by intelligence services to project cheap power and hide behind deniability should it lead to disaster which has on several occasions. See when they attack India or Afghanistan they use this tool and then survive behind deniability themselves. Although it is not sticking anymore, it is perceived a second deterrence in the hands of the Pakistani establishment. We are thus encountered with a deep and fundamental issue. Do we see these groups as independent or part of the state structures? The best description was given by the former US joint chief of staff Admiral(Michael) Mullen who described Haqqani network as virulent arm of the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency). I believe the whole infrastructure of the terrorism which breeds and operates out of Pakistan is a virulent arm of the ISI. Either we convince Pakistan to delink itself from them, which is next to impossible, or we work together to cut this venomous arm.

What are your views on the talks between US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban, which appear to have completely shut out the elected government in Kabul?

A: No talks can shut out the Afghan government. None. It is because Afghan government is central factor, it is functioning and is governing Afghanistan. We can’t dictate the US what to do or what not to do. What we can do is to be ready for protecting our national vital interest. The US talks will eventually come to a stage where it will need the Afghan government to play the central and core role. That is stage is inevitable. There are matters and issues which are strictly in the domain and space of the Afghan government. So no talks by foreign governments can substitute the Afghan state. I believe the term shut off is mainly used to put us under psychological pressure. We know it. We are not shut off. We are in control of our country.

The US seems to have set the bar for the talks so low that even former US ambassador Ryan Crocker has described the proposed framework for a deal as a “surrender”. Is Afghanistan and its national defence forces ready to deal with the situation as and when the US pulls out?

A: I don’t see the logic (why the) US should withdraw and negotiate its withdrawal with a terror group. Their presence will evolve and it will have a different shape, different scope, different aim but they won’t leave. We should therefore not be panicked based on hypotheses. Words matter and some words have been badly used. There is no withdrawal. There is one globe, one Afghanistan and one US. Where will they go?. We make part of the globe and we will always be here with or without foreign support. It is better to work with a government in Afghanistan. This government has come into existence with massive sacrifice of Afghans and our foreign allies. It won’t melt and it won’t be melted on the dictates of Pakistan or its terror proxies

What can be done to kick-start the process of an intra-Afghan dialogue to ensure lasting peace in Afghanistan? Is there any way the Taliban can be persuaded to join such a dialogue? Should an intra-Afghan dialogue follow the presidential election (in July) or should it be started immediately?

A: We don’t need the so-called intra-Afghan dialogue. That is a very deceptive term. We need Afghan government talks with the Taliban. Intra-Afghan talks is a term used in the 90s when there wasn’t any entity to represent the entirety of the country. That is a term from an era of fragmentation. Now we have a government. These deceptive terms are invented by our enemies and we expect friends not to repeat them unintendedly.

India has insisted steps should be taken during any dialogue to ensure that the basic structure of Afghanistan’s constitution is not altered and that the gains made in the past 17 years in terms of the rights of women and minorities, education and democratic institutions aren’t in any way rolled back. What ar your views on this?

A: The Afghan constitution is in the veins of all Afghans, not only minorities or vulnerable groups. Our strategic and core aim in any talks will be protection and safeguarding of constitutional order and ensuring peaceful succession.

Do you foresee the possibility of some form of talks between the Taliban and India?

A: India’s policy of staying away from talks with terror groups has earned her a prestigious place in hearts and minds of Afghans. India is a friend of Afghanistan people, Afghan government and has abstained from non-state politics within Afghanistan. That should be kept. It doesn’t suit the image of India as the largest democracy in the world to initiate dialogue with a terror group whose hands have stains of Indian blood. No don’t talk to them. Don’t repeat the mistake of others. India should continue assisting the democratic and constitutional order in Afghanistan and do nothing to shatter that noble policy.

I believe it shouldn’t be the question of can they. They must. It is needed.

There are many security experts who fear that any deal that allows the Taliban to return in triumph to Kabul could give a boost to militancy and terrorism in the area ranging from Central Asia to Kashmir. Are such fears valid?

A: Those fears are valid. The Taliban insurgency doesn’t have roots in domestic grievances. It is a manifestation of religious militancy which Pakistan has created to project power and use it against neighbours. First there is no way Taliban will run Afghanistan or take it over. NO way. None. Peace will kill them. They know it. So they will try to remain armed, militant and stay away from mainstream politics. If they do get into mainstream politics, they will become part of the pluralistic society in which they will be mocked and ridiculed and will lose. They fear democracy and thus they insist on militancy and violence. While the fear is valid, it is being over-estimated,

What are your views on the recent book that contended Taliban chief Mullah Omar hid for years in Afghanistan and not Pakistan?

A: The Dutch Journalist Bette Dam has written a book which is more like a Taliban Harry Potter. It is fiction portrayed as a real story. It is a good script for cheap Pakistan film industry to make a movie on.

First Published: Mar 31, 2019 02:30 IST