Ashraf Ghani on the Prospects for Peace in Afghanistan

An Afghan woman walks home with her children carrying humanitarian goods after being seen by doctors with the Bagram Provincial Reconstruction Team during a medical civic action program in the district of Tagab in the Kapisa province of Afghanistan April 30, 2007. (Department of Defense)

Ashraf Ghani is Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. The main focus of his academic research has been on social theory and the political economy of state formation and religion. His work on Afghanistan encompasses the period from 1747 to the present. He has broadcast frequently during the last 20 years through the Persian and Pashtu services of the BBC and Voice of America to Afghanistan.

In this interview with The Asia Society, Dr Ghani discusses the American war in Afghanistan, the exclusion of the Taliban from the talks held in Bonn, and the composition of the interim administration in Kabul.

You said in an earlier comment for the Financial Times that the US can act either quickly or wisely in response to the attacks of September 11; the former would entail dealing with the symptoms of terrorist movements while the latter would address the underlying causes. On October 7, the US launched a military campaign in Afghanistan which continues to this day. Do you think the United States acted quickly rather than wisely?

The United States acted under its own imperatives. The consequences of that will need to be analyzed carefully because there’s not much sense in discussing now what has happened. I think the fundamental issue now is how to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

As you are aware, Wali Masood (the brother of Ahmed Shah Masood, the assassinated commander of the Northern Alliance) criticized Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi for including you as part of the delegation to the Bonn talks, saying that you have always been in favor of the Taliban and against the Northern Alliance. How would you react to this accusation?

Wali Masood and I had some very constructive discussions in Bonn and I think this has been clarified. His comment was not based on an accurate understanding of what I had said in Britain. For the record, I am the only Afghan against whom the Taliban have issued a formal fatwa, long before September 11. They expelled the BBC representative, Kate Clark, from Afghanistan based on one of my interviews to the BBC after the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan. So I think that any attribution of pro-Taliban views to me is just not accurate and Wali Masood has fully understood that as well.

Did you agree with the decision to exclude all elements of the Taliban from the Bonn meeting? Do you think this might have any impact on the success of the agreement, even in the initial six-month phase?

The Taliban excluded themselves from the Bonn agreement. They were not a credible force, they did not engage the international community at all. The international community had engaged the Taliban over the years asking them for a political solution for Afghanistan and they did not offer any.

In addition, who would have represented the Taliban? When Bonn took place, the Taliban did not exist as a credible political force that could be engaged in a dialogue. The accountability of the Taliban to the Afghan nation remains to be addressed. They perpetuated untold suffering on the population and they brought on a terrible confrontation with the world. They are the ones who have consistently excluded themselves from any political dialogue with the international community.

We also need to differentiate between different aspects of the Taliban. There is a Taliban movement which has ebbed and flowed. At one time, among some people they were popular; over time they became extremely unpopular with larger segments of the population. There are people who worked with the Taliban as an administration because they had nationalist views or other views that required a compromise with the Taliban and those people are likely to change their minds now and work with other parties. Then there is a hard-core Taliban leadership that confronted both the Afghan people and the international community and those people are simply not acceptable to the Afghan people or to the international community. A people who destroyed the Buddhas need to account for that action to the people. Terrorism notwithstanding, just the destruction of the Buddhas is a crime against the nation for which those responsible should be held accountable. How would you deal with people who destroy the cultural heritage that all Afghans have long been proud of and adhered to in whatever form? Then to expect other parties in Afghanistan to deal with them while they imposed a reign of terror over the population and were refusing to engage in a political dialogue was not a very constructive approach.

The larger question of course is that the agreement in Bonn needs to be endorsed and accepted by the majority of the Afghan population. For that a clear mechanism has been laid out, which is the loya jirga. If there are groups of former Taliban who have an acceptance within the Afghan population, then the loya jirga will deal with them accordingly.

Do you agree with claims that the agreement reached in Bonn regarding an interim administration for Afghanistan gives disproportionate power to the Northern Alliance, particularly given the fact that the most powerful portfolios in government (foreign affairs, defence and interior) have been retained by Northern Alliance members? These positions have also been made more powerful since the Intelligence Ministry has been abolished.

The key issue is whether Afghans who have been divided in the past can now work together. The question is not predominance of the Northern Alliance or any other group; the question is whether the administration will work as an overall Afghan administration. Political bargaining for positions is part of the reality of political life in all countries. Free Democrats bargained with Christian Democrats because they held the balance of power, while the Greens bargained with Social Democrats [in Germany]. There is nothing wrong with political bargaining. The key is that Afghanistan has not been divided along ethnic or sectarian lines. There is an inter-Afghan dialogue. None of these distributions is a permanent feature of life; it is an accommodation and a call for a dialogue that needs to move forward.

There continues to be some disagreement about the mandate of the multinational peacekeeping force to be deployed in Kabul, about whether they will be able to use force only for self-defence, whether they have the power to disarm local militias, etc. (this latter has met with strong opposition from the Northern Alliance, who insist that this should not be possible given that their members are carrying out police duties in the capital). Could you comment on this? Also, do you see former militias eventually being integrated into a national army or any branch of the Afghan security forces?

There are different issues. One is the mandate of the peacekeeping force, and that is the authority of the Security Council and the coalition of the willing to define. Those are not within my sphere of competence to judge or to discuss. There is a clear procedure within international law and within the mandate to establish those issues; once established, we will know what the parameters are.

The second issue regarding the creation of a national police force and a national army is a goal that is both articulated by various groups of Afghans and also enshrined in the agreement. We hope that mechanisms can be found to turn those into concrete realities but of course it will not happen overnight so we need to be both understanding and supportive of the process that would lead to the achievement of those goals.

There has also been much skepticism about the likelihood that this agreement will be successful. What level of international engagement do you think is necessary to ensure its success?

The agreement has laid down a very critical foundation that was missing before, namely enabling the Afghans to make a decision to work together. This decision is supported by the international community to enable Afghans to work together. Simultaneously there had been accusations and allegations of foreign interference in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan. The current agreement has resulted in a change of climate where the constitution of a government in Kabul is being endorsed as being in the interest of all the neighboring countries, where creation of a government that would have legitimacy at home and abroad is the critical goal. The translation of this goal into concrete achievements is going to require the engagement of the international community in the area of reconstruction, in the area of institution-building, and in terms of a commitment to the process, to assisting and facilitating that process.

What Ambassador Brahimi has been very clear about is that it is not the UN that is administering or running anything, it is the Afghans. This philosophy has been translated into a process, into mechanisms to bring about this goal. We have to know that the responsibility for achieving the objective is that of the Afghans, the goal is that of the Afghans, and the means are being devised by the Afghans, but being facilitated by the international community. Engagement of the international community is paramount because all Afghan parties want the reconstruction of Afghanistan and attention to the building of institutions that would bring peace and stability.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.