Abdullah Abdullah: peace requires all Afghans to come together

Afghanistan's chief executive talks to 'The National' about ending the war in his country

Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan speaking during the Session "Radicalization: Lessons from the Past" at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Centre before World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2019. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Jakob Polacsek
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There is no “mistrust” between Washington and Kabul as the US negotiates for a peace deal with the Taliban, one of Afghanistan’s most senior leaders said on Sunday.

Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive of Afghanistan, gave his views on the prospects for peace in his country in an exclusive interview with The National at the World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy working to secure a peace deal with the Taliban, was in Afghanistan and Pakistan last week to meet officials including Dr Abdullah.

His trip came amid reports of tension between Washington and President Ashraf Ghani's administration after public criticism of Mr Khalilzad by the president's national security adviser.

“We are in contact with our US colleagues and there is no mistrust as such, as it has been perceived outside," Dr Abdullah said. "There are differing views, perhaps

"As far as I am concerned, they have kept us apprised about what they have talked about with the Taliban. They spent more time with the Taliban with some progress but not the expected [amount].

"That shows the stubbornness of the Taliban. That is where the problem lies."

The Taliban have until now refused to sit down with any government representatives and say they do not recognise its legitimacy. Another round of talks with the US is set to begin this month in Doha.

It is very clear that the Taliban have been told that there will be no agreement if they don't sit together with the Afghan side and talk about the future of the country

“About the future of these contacts, it is very clear that the Taliban have been told that there will be no agreement if they don’t sit together with the Afghan side and talk about the future of the country," Dr Abdullah said.

"Some of these things are about the present as well as its impact on the future. Part of it, which is the stability of the nation, is something that will be talked about among the Afghans themselves.”

Russia is also holding peace talks between the Taliban and non-government Afghan leaders.

Washington can do more to find the right pressure points to apply in its talks with the Taliban, Dr Abdullah said.

“The United States should use its leverage over Pakistan, other countries," he said. "There has to be regional interactions."

There is a somewhat cool relationship of late between the neighbouring countries over how much Islamabad is doing to rein in the Taliban in areas it controls. Pakistan has said it backs an Afghan-led peace process.

But Dr Abdullah said Pakistan needed to get “much closer than where they are” on pressuring the Taliban to make progress.

“Only saying that, 'We have delivered the Taliban, we are talking to America, more of them are talking to the Afghans', that will not suffice," he said.

"We need to see that the Taliban feel that pressure and also don’t receive support. That is what is expected.”

The Taliban have made the removal of foreign troops, including those from Nato and the US, the main thrust of their justification for a campaign of terrorism and violence across Afghanistan.

Dr Abdullah, who has said that foreign troops should continue to have a role in the country, remains sceptical.

“The point is that foreign troops is only an excuse for them. They were fighting before the presence of foreign troops as well," he said.

"The main thing is that you sit and talk about the future of the country. OK there will be different things. There needs to be a ceasefire, there needs to be issues of power sharing [resolved], but at the end of it we have elections as a means of deciding the destiny or not.

"When the negotiations start, this might be the main sticking point because the Taliban believe in a different concept which is all ummas getting together, an Islamic emirate, so on and so forth, and we believe in Islamic republic, which is one person, one vote. That has to be the future.”

Presidential elections have already been delayed to September from April for reasons including logistics and security.

“Am I that optimistic that we can clear all of these issues before the elections?" Dr Abdullah said.

"That’s why we say we should progress on both tracks. Follow the peace talks with the Taliban and at the same time prepare for the elections. The peace talks may take much longer.

"If it happened just before the elections and you see that everything is now agreed upon and satisfactory to the people of Afghanistan, then it is a different situation.

"I don’t want to judge it at this stage. At this stage, the initial step that is required immediately is for the Taliban to sit around the negotiating table with the Afghans [government]. That has not taken place.”

Dr Abdullah, a former foreign minister, was appointed chief executive under a power-sharing agreement reached in 2014, after presidential elections in which Mr Ghani was declared the winner.

As he sees it now, achieving peace is likely to take much longer than anyone hopes or expects.

“My preference would have been to have peace before anything else," he said. "It is not a satisfactory situation where the people continue to suffer and give casualties days in and out.

"At the same time, I have no doubt that the people of Afghanistan have expressed that they want peace, but they want a just, durable peace. Talibanisation is not something the people will agree with.”

Dr Abdullah said there was a push to create a more representative forum to unify the position of a broader group of leaders before any  peace talks with the Taliban in the future.

“My view was it was not just the government, all leaders of the country should get together," he said.

"Those who share in the broad concept of peace, broad values and principles and should present a unified voice, on behalf of the whole people of Afghanistan.”

There have been suggestions that a caretaker government could provide a more inclusive platform from which to find a peaceful resolution in the country.

Dr Abdullah acknowledged that this government could not claim it speaks for everybody in the country.

“There are other candidates, opposition, there are people who are not in the government," he said. "For the first time that meeting has taken place today in Kabul.

"They sat together to bring their views closer. Which is close. No one wants Talibanisation, everybody wants peace. In between, of course, how to move forward, where to send a delegation, where to hold the Loya Jirga, general assembly. Is it necessary or not?

"All these things will be discussed in that forum rather than us, the government, talking about peace and the others outside the government talking about it in a different way in too many places.”

This forum will allow for the development of a unified position from which a joint delegation can be chosen to represent it when required.

But there is no guarantee that the Taliban will agree to sit down with this broader group.

“At the moment, since we have not formed an inclusive platform, even their propaganda would seem valid,” Dr Abdullah said.

He was suggesting that a more unified position among all of those interested in peace must first be found, then they could worry about the Taliban’s response.