'Pak should behave like a nuke power, not a teenage bully': Amrullah Saleh

Sadiq Naqvi

The crisis

  • Withdrawal of foreign troops has made Afghanistan more vulnerable

  • Pakistan continues to back Taliban, which is making major gains

  • Amrullah Saleh, former Afghan intelligence chief, gives his take

The opinion

  • There is a need to isolate Pakistan and bring it to book for its Afghanistan policy

  • Under President Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan has been confused in dealing with Pakistan

More in the story

  • Can there be negotiations with Taliban?

  • Do Taliban completely operate under Pakistan's directions?

  • What is the way out of the crisis?

The Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Akhtar Mansour has again refused to take part in any talks with the Afghan government to come to a peaceful solution to the violence in the war torn country. Many Afghans including Amrullah Saleh, the longest serving former head of National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's intelligence agency, have been claiming that it is Pakistan which has been bullying Afghanistan.

Saleh, who was in New Delhi to take part in the Raisina Dialogue spoke to Catch about the future of talks, the need for isolating Pakistan in any negotiations and how the Afghans remain a united nation despite all the ethnic diversity and internal tensions in the country. Excerpts from the conversation which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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How do you see the current situation in Afghanistan. Violence has grown manifold, this year itself...

The increase in violence was predictable. The number of foreign troops has decreased by almost 90%. By virtue of that decrease, the economy has also gone down. A lot of companies who were catering to foreign troops have nothing to do now. Obviously, the Pakistanis had kept the Taliban, supported them for this day to increase their activities and push for more gains in the battlefield.

Then there was a very turbulent but peaceful transfer of power. It didn't go well and created a weak government. Weak in the sense that there are too many stakeholders who do not necessarily share the same vision and who are thinking about their own future. The government of Afghanistan today is under a lot of internal as well as external stress. The internal stress is stemming from the group of rivals who are in the government. The external stress is the fight with the Taliban and the continued support from Pakistan.

Against all of these negative trends there is a positive trend which is constant and that is unlike the trend in the Middle East, Afghans do not have second thoughts about their Afghan-hood, they do not have a second thought about their nationhood and the need for having a single state in the country. While the country suffers from a lot of stress, these solid foundations keep us together. What doesn't have a solid foundation are the institutions.

You spoke about the stress that this government is facing. How long will it survive?

This government will complete its term. Unlike India and other parliamentary systems, the government in Afghanistan does not rest on the number of MPs in Parliament. The government is not under any immediate threat. The relevant question, however, is can this government create a different environment where less Afghans leave the country, where the economy grows, there are lesser attacks. We all worked towards that end. But in 2016 I am not sure we will achieve those goals.

There have been talks of new initiatives, like the one involving neighbours. How do you see them, what is their future?

There is one outlier in the 6 neighbours of Afghanistan that is Pakistan. We don't have problems with the other 5. We have a problem with Pakistan or to put it the other way they have a perceived problem with us. What formula is a good formula to get out of this vicious circle. In the last 14 years we enjoyed good support from western countries and India but there was a void in the strategy of the Americans and other as to how to deal with the root of extremism in the region. It will be wrong to call it Afghanistan's problems with Pakistan.

We need to isolate Pakistan. We should recognise that they are part of the problem

We may be a battleground for Pakistan based extremism today but it is a global problem. We were saying the same things in the 1990s and people did not listen to us until 9/11 happened. The rhetoric from a lot of countries with regard to Afghanistan is a repeat of the 1990s where they try to portray it as an Afghanistan-Pakistan problem. The real nature of the problem is that we are the victim and Pakistan is the perpetrator. Pakistan uses extremist groups to fight in Afghanistan, to pursue its foreign policy. The right mechanism to overcome this problem will be for us and our allies to be on one side and Pakistan on the other side.

Is that happening?

It should be 5 neighbours of Afghanistan and Afghanistan on one side and Pakistan on the other side. Look at how Iran's nuclear deal was reached. It was five plus one. UNSC plus Germany on one side and Iran on the other side. We need a solution like that. We need to isolate Pakistan. We should recognise that they are part of the problem. A few days back, not to my surprise, because I knew it already, Sartaj Aziz said they have influence over Taliban because their leaders live in Pakistan.

You have been saying it for long...

Yes, I have been saying it for so long. Now what is left for us to provide what they call hard evidence, smoking gun, to implicate Pakistan in terror. The question has now narrowed down or widened depending on how you interpret it to geopolitics. Our western allies should not look at this as an undefinable problem. It is defined, it is terrorism.

Taliban, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Jaish-e-Mohammad are terrorists. These are parties who do not contest elections. These are parties who do not do grassroots work. They have very little or no political activism. They brainwash select number of youth, give them military training, preach them about afterlife, identify everyone else as enemies and then they use them as human bombs. These are not parties but groups of people used by a state for specific geo-political purposes. We are the primary victim of such industrial scale terrorism, unfortunately at the hands of our biggest neighbour.

Does President Ashraf Ghani still believe that reaching out to Pakistan will yield something good for Afghanistan, or has the strategy changed now? He had repeatedly called for closer co-operation so much so that there was the possibility of a deal between the intelligence agencies of both countries...

It didn't work at this point of time. Maybe it will change next week. When it comes to Pakistan, I feel the policies of the Government of Afghanistan are in a hibernation mode. President Ghani went to Pakistan. He breached protocol and reached out to the Pakistan army. He broke his silence and criticised Pakistan for sponsoring urban bombings in Afghanistan. Now the question is reciprocation.

Pakistanis have reciprocated only in one area. They have paid several visits. The army chief has visited 5 times. Prime Minister of Pakistan has also visited Afghanistan. But in substance which means stopping the Taliban from doing terror acts, stopping explosive material to Taliban, denying the wounded Taliban hospitality and treatment in Pakistan, pushing them either for negotiations or capturing them and handing them over to Afghans, these are set of measurable actions which was expected and none has taken place.

Do you think that it was under pressure from Pakistan that the last chief of the NDS, Rahmatullah Nabil had to resign?

In a note which led to his resignation, he leaves an impression that's the case. I don't know what was the truth behind it. If Pakistan treats Afghanistan with respect and not try other things which they have been doing for the past so many years, they will achieve what they have not been able to all these years. For a lot of us, one unsellable commodity we have is our pride. And what Pakistan is doing is trying to shatter that pride.

Mullah Omar's death may have been announced last year. His relevance died in 2001 itself

The set of people they are supporting as a set of Afghan leaders, and projecting them as real Afghans are uneducated, backward, tribal group completely dependent on Pakistan's madrasa system.We take that as a direct assault on the Afghan pride, on our societal sophistication. Like any other nation our society is diverse. To impose a few illiterate, uneducated Mullahs upon us is not going to work regardless of the lethality of these Mullahs. A nuclear power of 200 million people, which should be soft, humble, sometimes behaves like a bully teenager in the neighbourhood.

Since the Chinese are very worried about their investments, do you think the China Pakistan Economic Corridor will bring any stability?

We have not seen any map to show how relevant Afghanistan is in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). To this date, for Afghanistan and for a lot of Pakistan, the CPEC is a slogan, a motto. There is no solid work towards it in Afghanistan and it bypasses Khyber Pakhtunwa. I don't know its strategic value for Afghanistan. Afghanistan has always shown enormous respect to China. The hope in Afghanistan is that China as a real, deep ally of Pakistan, should influence their policy towards Afghanistan and make it softer.

China has been lately playing an important role in trying to bring the Taliban to talk. What do you make of that? And who are these groups which are coming for the talks? How relevant are they in the larger scheme of things?

I have not come across any measurable progress on that. There were a couple of initiatives, one in China, one in Islamabad, then the one in Qatar where some of Taliban came for talks. But it lacks a framework. It lacks terms of reference. These were lose and vague consultations initiated by government of Pakistan in the case of Murree, which a few weeks later faltered completely because it was revealed that Mullah Omar was not alive.

Do you think he is dead?

I think his relevance had died in 2001 and his body died in 2013. Between 2001 and 2015 when his death was announced,his myth was used by the ISI to fight the Afghans. For us he was not a factor for all those years.

Coming back to talks with the Taliban, we were discussing progress on that front...

There is no progress.

Who are these people who are involved in talks? And what kind of importance do they exercise in the Taliban structure?

Regardless of how many groups which came up after the death of Mullah Omar, at the end of the day what matters in situations like this are the resources and the foreign sanctuary. Pakistan's sanctuary is intact for Mullah Mansour, and they are providing him with the core resources. Therefore, other groups are largely irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. They don't get funding, training and weapons supplies from ISI. At the strategic level, things have not changed. Twenty years ago it was ISI, 15 years ago it was ISI, today it is ISI. So, when journalists and analysts try to show that there is a part of Taliban which has its own character, in my opinion it is wrong. I say so because minus the assistance of Pakistan they will hardly survive a year.

There were reports, days before Nabil resigned that he mentioned how there were serious internal problems after Mansour took over. And there was an incident where Mansour was attacked and suffered injuries. What sort of influence does Mansour exercise as the Chief of Taliban now...

I don't buy the reports that he was wounded. The intent of those reports was to show that he can operate outside the ISI. The entire effort was to again solidify his "myth" and say he can move, fight, organise and speak. It was part of a psychological operation to create a cult, a persona for Mullah Mansour on the lines of Mullah Omar.

In reality, Mansour never attended any rally, never ventured out from the ISI safe house, never travelled to Dubai or Iran. This was all orchestrated for one purpose to create some kind of an alibi for Pakistan that look yes we may know this guy but he also has a degree of independence. So it was deceptive. I do not echo the notion that Mansour went out to calm down his fighters and he got wounded. No! He was in Karachi and maybe he travels to Quetta sometimes, he does go to Peshawar under heavy ISI protection.

Islamic State has emerged as a threat in Afghanistan...

They don't exist in Afghanistan. But that's a topic for another conversation.

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Sadiq Naqvi