President Ghani: Peace talks can only be successful if the Afghan government is not only joining, but also leading them

Tue, Oct 08 2019 9:36 AM
President Ghani

Some Parts of President Ghani’s Interview
with the Spiegel Regarding Afghanistan Peace Process - Oct 7, 2019


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?

President 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?

President 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?

President 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?

President 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?

President 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?

President 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?

President 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?

President 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?

President 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?

President 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?

President 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.

President 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.