Pranay Sharma Interviews Zalmai Rassoul
Afghan foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul was in New Delhi to hold talks with his Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna, and give meat to the 'Strategic Partnership Agreement' the two sides signed last year. He spoke to Pranay Sharma on Indo-Afghan relations and the challenges before Afghanistan. His visit comes at a time when the US and NATO troops' deadline to leave Afghanistan draws closer, and when US president Barack Obama visited Kabul, where he and Afghan president Hamid Karzai signed an agreement governing the US presence after troop withdrawal in 2014.
"Economically, India-Afghan relations have shifted from aid to investment—both mining and agriculture. We want Indian firms to set up shop there."
What are Afghanistan's expectations from India in terms of translating the Strategic Partnership into concrete initiatives, both in areas of economy and security?
India is already doing a lot for Afghanistan for the last 10 years. India is not a donor country but it has contributed over $ 2 billion and it has much more value because it has been spent on projects that we wanted to have and from which the Afghan people benefited directly. For example the construction of a strategic road in our border with Iran, in energy and health care, especially in the future of Afghan's education. Among the Afghan children who are going to school over 40 per cent are girls. For the first time in our history so many children and going to school and so many of them are girls. But more importantly it is the scholarship that India is giving to Afghanistan. Because of three decades of war, three decades of Afghans could not go to school. So the amount of scholarship that India is giving will help in educating a large number of them and create a knowledge pool for the country.
What else do you seek from India?
For Afghanistan, India is a model of democracy. We believe that if India can become the biggest democracy in the world there is no reason why Afghanistan cannot do that. "The market in India is so big all our agricultural produce can be sold here. That's why better India-Pakistan relations are so important for us."
Our students who study here—not only learning science and technology—but the democratic environment in which they study will be prepared for the future of creating something similar in Afghanistan.
The US and its allies had abandoned Afghanistan in the past when the Soviet troops had withdrawn from the country. Are there fears that you may face a similar situation in 2014 when the US and NATO forces leave the country?
For the last 10 years the Americans are telling us all the time that they will not repeat what they had done after the Afghan jihad. And we understand that. The way we are preparing post 2014—we have a very important Strategic Partnership with the US.
Has it been signed? I knew it was finalized?
Yes, it was signed late last night (Tuesday). We also have similar kind of agreements with the UK, France and Italy and very soon we will have one with Germany, the European Union and also with NATO before the Chicago Summit (scheduled to be held later this year). But the most important agreement that we signed first, was with India. It is a major country in the region and we will stay in the region. Our future is closely linked—geographically, historically and socially- with India. That is why the Strategic Partnership with India is very important. The first meeting of the consul yesterday was very positive. And it gives us lot of hope that this partnership is just not a piece of paper but will have a lot of material for the future.
But what are your expectations from India on the economic and security areas?
On the economic front, we are already engaged. But it has to shift now from aid to investment. India has already invested in a major iron ore project in Afghanistan and we are working with our Indian friends on other projects. Not in mining but also in agriculture and we want India's small and medium enterprises to come and set up shop in Afghanistan. It is a win-win situation for both sides. In our vision, by the next decade the Afghan economy should be self-sustainable. We have the potential—of mining, agriculture, which is very important in the region. We are also the bridge between South and Centre Asia and the Middle East. But the potential need to be used so that Afghanistan by the end of 2024 can be fully self-reliant.
But this decade as you mentioned is so important and, therefore, what kind of financial support do you need from the international community?
There is no doubt that withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan will create financial problems. We cannot have a vacuum. For that reason—first, the political support for Afghanistan is needed. And that was discussed in the Bonn Conference. Even countries that don't have good relations with each other agreed this to be very important. Parallel to that we need support for our national security forces—for training, for equipments, etc—that's something that be decided in the forthcoming Chicago Summit. About $ 4 billion will be given to Afghanistan by the NATO countries and the major part will be given by the US and other countries will be asked to extend their support and help. That's on security but the Strategic Partnership we signed with the US also talks about certain amount of money the US will give Afghanistan annually. This is not only for developing various projects but also in terms of budgetary support.
Do you expect a similar kind of financial support from other major countries?
We have the upcoming Tokyo Conference that will look into the financial side of support to Afghanistan for the next 10 years. It is not going to be a donor' conference but it is going to be a forum to discuss how the money that is already committed to Afghanistan will be used. Because the problem that we faced in the last 10 years is not on the amount of money but how it was used and it should be used according to our plans.
India is already training the Afghan police force, but is there any talk of expanding that to other areas under the Strategic Partnership?
Yes, we are talking about training our officers and also about equipments—that is something that we are lacking. We are pushing our allies to give us more equipment. The Afghans are good soldiers, if you train them well and equip them well, they can do the job.
What are the prospects for a political settlement by early 2014?
It is difficult to predict but the process has started. Not just a theoretical process but one that is based on facts. They are all our people, the Taliban and others so to make sure that this process is accepted by the Afghan people we had the 'loya jirga' which represented all parts of Afghanistan and for the first time there was participation of women. They are the ones more worried about the consequences and have question marks on the peace process. The conclusion of the jirga was that Afghanistan wants peace. But it also asked peace at what condition? Therefore, the conditions or the "red lines" have been drawn by the jirga.
And what are these conditions?
These are—acceptance of our constitution, no link with any terrorist group, preservation and acceptance of the achievements that we have made in the last 10 years. Human rights, women's rights, freedom of the press—all the things that we have achieved will have to be respected. Within that framework anybody who does not have links with the Al Qaeda, are welcome. They can have their full Afghan citizen's right and can take part in any elections in the country and also become candidates themselves.
What happened to talks with the Taliban that was being held in a third country and why did it fail?
There was some contacts with the Americans may be because they have Taliban prisoners and maybe it was on exchange of prisoners. But the process has not started. It is very important to note that the peace talks will not succeed if it is not Afghan led and without Afghan participation. In the beginning, most of our allies were against the peace process as they all asked why we should make peace with the Taliban who are terrorists. Now everybody supports it, especially the US which is very important in this process. We've made it very clear to our American friends that the peace process will not succeed if its Afghan led. We wanted the discussions in Afghanistan but in the beginning it was not possible. So it was decided may we can start this in some other country and Qatar offered that possibility. But Qatar will not be the only place… we are ready to discuss with them in other countries, like Saudi Arabia as well.
What are the chances of that process being revived soon?
I was in Qatar some weeks ago and we put in place a mechanism to make sure that process can be taken forward. A delegation will come to Afghanistan; we will discuss with them the conditions and the possibility of a contact office for Taliban.
Is it a delegation from the Taliban?
No, this is a delegation from within Afghanistan. We need to come out with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or an agreement. The Afghan side will propose and the Qatari side with create the environment.
How prepared is the Afghan National Army to take over combat duty from the middle of next year?
The ANA has already taken over 50 per cent of the responsibility in Afghanistan. The second tranche has been finished and we are going to declare soon the third tranche. This will take care of the difficult—that is Afghanistan border with Pakistan. I think we can take this responsibility but we need continued support on training and equipments. Because our forces do not have adequate equipments and this is a subject that we are discussing with the NATO and the US.
But the ANA is said to be dominated by non-Pashtuns, will this create a problem in future?
This was an issue in the beginning but now it is a much lesser problem. At the officer's level, the ethnic balance has been established and this is being done even at the level of soldiers. Within Pashtun areas—say for example, east of Afghanistan has more soldiers in the ANA, while from the south there are lesser numbers, however, that is more because of the security situation. But the balance is being restored.
When do you expect your parliament to ratify the Strategic Partnership Agreement you signed with the US?
Soon, we will place it before the parliament for ratification.
Are there still problematic areas in the agreement that need to be clarified?
We have clarified all the issues and areas. I went to the parliament several times during the discussions about the difficulty that we have—18 months of every day we went through each word and sentence to achieve this document. All the major issues for Afghanistan, we have taken care of that.
Have the Americans given any idea on the number of troops they are likely to keep after 2014?
In this agreement and we are giving the framework of our relations. But we are going to work from today on the security arrangement. That will take care of the amount of soldiers and what they will have to do etc.
What about bases from which the US will continue to operate?
All these issues will come up for discussion in the coming days.
Is the partnership agreement with the Americans significant because it gives a clear indication of the US' commitment to Afghanistan much beyond 2014?
Absolutely, our national security forces will be a capable force but we want to have a security environment for Afghanistan and guarantee for the Afghan people that the US will not abandon us.
What kind of a role do you see for India and Iran in the end game?
India and Iran are both in the region and we will also be in the region and our long term vision is for full cooperation with the countries of the region. We want to bring about a political transformation that will create an economic environment from which everybody will benefit. I hope, one day soon, the problem between India and Pakistan will be solved and Afghanistan can greatly benefit from that.
How soon can we expect to get fruits and other agricultural products from Afghanistan?
India can absorb 100 per cent of our exports. The market in India is so big that all our agricultural products can be sold in the Indian market—it is so huge. That's the reason why improvement of relations between India and Pakistan is so important to us-- for peace and for security as well as for economic reasons. If you look at the world map, every region is booming. Why not our region? We are busy fighting terrorism and dealing with bomb blasts and loss of innocent lives every day. We have the potential—the human as well as the potential on ground—minerals, gas, energy, --South Asia, Central Asia. I hope one day will come when we can become like the European Union.
How do you see Afghanistan-Pakistan relations in the coming days?
There is no doubt that there has been a great deal of improvement between our two sides in confidence building compared to three or four years back. Now we are very close in discussing the real issues like fight against terrorism and extremism, economic and regional cooperation. That's good news. Though we have seen tangible results yet but it is the beginning of a process. We need to engage with them because there is no other solution. The security and prosperity of Pakistan is closely linked to the security and prosperity of the region. It is no longer an Afghan issue, it is a regional issue. What's happening in the region in the Middle East, Syria, Russia, China, India—we need to take into consideration of all these facts to create vision for the future of Afghanistan.
There is a trend where a lot of young Afghans were trying to leave the country fearing the situation post 2014. Will the Strategic Partnership Agreement with the US help check that trend?
The agreement was signed last night; it is too early to say. The majority of those who are leaving Afghanistan are not doing so for political reason; they are going for economic reasons, like it is in any other country. But I am sure that if our youth have the guarantee of a stable Afghanistan in the future, then all of them will stay back. This guarantee is not only in terms of security but also in terms of the economy. The moment there is good news about the stability and future of Afghanistan—about land price going up or on growth in business where investors instead of leaving the country are coming to put their money and set up shop, it will have a positive impact. But at the same time we also need to reassure our neighbours that the agreement with the US is for the benefit of Afghanistan and not directed against any country.
A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print