Pranab Dhal Samanta: What are the major achievements in Afghanistan that inspire confidence for its future?
Shaida M. Abdali: Afghanistan’s story is very long. We have achieved a lot in the last 10-11 years. I remember days in Kabul when life was almost nil in the city—no traffic, none of the signs of a normal life. Today, you will have traffic similar to that in Delhi. That means progress, more economic development, more people living in Kabul. It’s very different from the life we had in 2001. What have we achieved? On the political front, Afghanistan has a very progressive constitution. We have held elections over the last 11 years—presidential and parliamentary. We are now preparing for the next presidential elections. We have government institutions full of young talent coming back from India and around the world. We are spending thousands of US dollars on international experts in our ministries so that they can advise government officials on dealing with day-to-day business. So, we are gradually moving to our own human resources. Our healthcare services are now available throughout the country. Today, over nine million children go to school, 34 per cent of them are girls. On economic development, billions of dollars of investment is coming in from all parts of the world. Fortunately, Afghanistan is full of treasure. One reason why it has always been attacked is its economic potential: Afghanistan is full of minerals, 400 kinds of minerals, unexploited, untapped. We are so happy that we have Indian investors, major Indian companies coming in. Our natural resources will be exploited by countries around the world but preference will go to countries in the region, especially to India. The survival of Afghanistan is the survival of the region.2014 is looming ahead of us. The framework that ensures a transition came through lengthy negotiations. We now have 75 per cent of the transition complete. The places where we have Afghan control are doing much better than they were doing before, under foreign troops. That is because we have Afghans facing Afghans instead of Afghans facing foreign troops. Newspapers, think-tanks portray a grim scenario of the country and its future. That’s not true. The criticism is politically motivated. We are focusing on our problems to be solved within the region. We are glad India and Pakistan are taking some steps towards normalcy. The visit of our President to India was very successful. We are expecting a major Indian delegation of the business community led by high-ranking government representatives to come to Afghanistan. Things are normal. We have pockets of violence. But there is a good environment for investment.
PRANAB Dhal Samanta: You put a lot of emphasis on the economy and on investments, specifically from India. But one big deterrent to investment is the unpredictability in the security environment.
Shaida M. Abdali: As I said earlier, the transition process is based strictly on Afghanistan’s capacity. We are doing much better than we were under foreign troops. Second, we have partnership commitments from all over the world that Afghanistan is not going to be abandoned in 2014. We already have a transformation decade, from 2014 up to 2024. We already have $16 billion dollars committed at the Tokyo Conference. We have a 10-year annual commitment to our security forces—NATO has committed $4.1 billion—that will be spent on training. All of these measures have been agreed upon. Based on our present benchmarks and those to be achieved in the year and a half left, we are full of confidence. Up to 2024, we have commitments—political, economic and on the security front.
SHUBHAJIT Roy: You have been with President Karzai for 10 years. Not many people in the Afghan government know him as well as you do. How has he evolved as a leader and where does he see his role in the future?
Shaida M. Abdali: He is a man of the people. He relies on the common person. That is one of his best qualities. He is a man of consultation. Whatever position he has on international issues and national issues, comes from the people. He always consults the people and then takes a decision. So that is how he has evolved into understanding Afghanistan, what Afghanistan needs and how Afghanistan should go ahead. His role in the future is to leave a great legacy—a legacy of nationhood, of strength and of a strong democracy. I have no reason to doubt that we will have a successful transition. He is consulting the people on how he can ensure another good round of elections.
MUZAMIL Jaleel: The most important aspect of post-2014 Afghanistan is your engagement with Taliban. There was a recent meeting in Paris between moderate Taliban groups and your government. What are your expectations of the Taliban?
Shaida M. Abdali: As you know, this process (of talks) has been going on since 2003, based on a principle that you should always talk of peace, not war. But the reason we have not succeeded is because we have not been helped to reach the goal of reconciliation and peace. The problems in Afghanistan mostly come from outside. Of course, we have our own problems based on elements inside being exploited. The problem that was created against Afghanistan is now turning the other way against those very people. The monster they created against others, especially Afghanistan and India, is damaging them.
Muzamil Jaleel: You’re referring to ISI, Pakistan?
Shaida M. Abdali: We have those actors in the region, unfortunately, but we are hoping they will realise that they are not only damaging a country or two but they’re damaging themselves. We see signs that there is a realisation of that nature. In Pakistan, they suffer more than us. You see suicide bombings, terrorist networks still active, damaging the common people. The Paris Conference was a good start, it was an informal talk but I am glad that at least there was a discussion. We can be cautiously optimistic. Afghanistan will not succeed unless our neighbours help Afghanistan. Prosperity for Afghanistan will mean prosperity for everyone. I believe that some Taliban leaders were released. We have already started working with other countries, our neighbours and especially Pakistan to give a safe passage to those Taliban leaders who are willing to talk to us.
Muzamil Jaleel: Taliban and the present government in Afghanistan are two competing ideologies. Taliban is talking about changing the constitution. So where is the meeting ground?
Shaida M. Abdali: The constitution has been made by the Afghan people. It’s not a government decision. If the Afghan people want their Constitution changed, it’s possible, but it cannot be changed on the demand of some individuals. They talk about political rights, they talk about Islamic values to be preserved—all of this is already in the Constitution. This is where I see the link-up point. The differences are not that big—they also talk about human rights, about education, about political rights, but why ask for a new Constitution when the current Constitution has all those elements?
Priyadarshi Siddhanta: The quantum of Afghanistan’s mineral reserves is based on an assessment done in the Soviet era. How accurate are they? The Indian consortium which intends to invest around $10 billion in exploring the Hajigak mine in Bamiyan province needs to build a railroad evacuation infrastructure to the Iranian ports of either Bandar Abbas or Chabahar. Will the Americans agree? Do Afghan mining laws need more clarity?
Shaida M. Abdali: We have new figures, not from the Soviet times. We conducted a survey recently with the help of our US friends and the trillion dollars that we are talking about is based on the new figure. About the connectivity, I have already said that Afghanistan’s survival is the survival of the region—we’re all in the same boat, we will sink together, we will swim together. I think there is realisation in Pakistan as well that we can no longer say no to the use of Pakistan for regional connectivity, for their own sake, if not for others. The connectivity from Bamiyan to Chabahar is a connectivity not only for our minerals, but you have to make the region connected for the businesses to come later. The Iranians are happy about Chabahar because they know this will help them. The region will not be connected unless we change our attitudes to each other. Why do we see some progress economically between India and Pakistan? Because there is a change now. The mining laws had some problems but we have resolved them. This has already gone to the Cabinet, the Cabinet has approved it, and it will now go to Parliament.
Coomi Kapoor: What do you think has been the impact of Taliban diktats and the years of this continued conflict on the lives of Afghan women?
Shaida M. Abdali: It has been dramatic. The major impact was their being left in the shadows, deprived of education, deprived of equal rights. We are fortunate that we now have a very progressive Constitution. As I said, of the 9 million children going to school, 34 per cent are girls. We did not have that before. Today, a major part of our institutions have women working in them. Which country in the world today has 27 per cent representation of women in Parliament?
Rakesh Sinha: Ethnic divisions run very deep in your country and we have seen how warlords and militias have taken control of respective areas. There is a fear that it may slide back, specially after the Americans leave.
Shaida M. Abdali: That is not true. Ethnic divides exist everywhere. Which country in the region is immune to separatist movements? But we have had no separatist movement ever in our history. Even if we had warlords, they spoke for Afghanistan, they never spoke for their regions. Yes, we have issues but they do not reach the level of talk about divisions. There have been efforts to instigate one ethnic group against the other for the purpose of dividing Afghanistan but that has never been realised and will never be realised because the geography, the population placement is such that it will never take Afghanistan towards divisions.
Ravish Tiwari: Can you name two to three leaders, after Karzai, who will inspire confidence that democracy has truly taken root in the country?
Shaida M. Abdali: Afghanistan will have a leader. There are leaders in Afghanistan who have fought for this country, who have rescued this country. You will see normalcy, you will see a transition. President Karzai will make sure that he leaves a legacy that will move the country forward. We have a phrase for our post-2014 cooperation and the relationship with certain countries, like the USA: TAA—Train, Advise and Assist. We have already agreed on the framework of a strategic partnership, now we are working on a bilateral security agreement. There’s talk of some number of US forces remaining in Afghanistan, to continue training our forces and fight terrorism if it be there.
Muzamil Jaleel: You spoke of the importance of Indo-Pakistan cooperation to help build Afghanistan. Would you explain how Indo-Pak hostilities have played out inside Afghanistan?
Shaida M. Abdali: In the region, the greatest ally of Afghanistan is India. We have a policy of cooperating with everyone on an equal footing, but the fact is that India has stood by Afghanistan all along, through difficult times and good times. India has been a great friend of Afghanistan. Within the western world, our greatest strategic partner is USA. We have clarity on who is a strategic partner and who is a great friend of Afghanistan. We are looking forward to expanding our relationship with those countries that are helping Afghanistan the most. India has paved the way to being a strategic friend of Afghanistan because of its constructive role all these years. We can have a similar relationship with anyone else, including Pakistan, provided they paved the way as India did. The role that India played should be played by others as well—to send help, not send bombs. That is the difference. Unfortunately, there is a problem of tension between Pakistan and India. We hope it will be minimised, will be resolved.
Coomi Kapoor: What do you think of Pakistan’s allegation that India’s RAW is very active in Afghanistan and that some of our consulates are used as bases for RAW activity?
Shaida M. Abdali: We’re pushing for a greater Indian presence in Afghanistan. We hope we will have more consulates in other cities from India, and we will encourage Pakistan as well to have more consulates in Afghanistan. But it is not worth wasting time on baseless allegations about the consulates.
Shubhajit Roy: When Pervez Musharraf was in town late last year, he said Pakistan would like to have a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan.
I don’t think the Pakistani government is talking any longer of a pro-Pakistan government. The Pakistan government is now talking about a stable Afghanistan, a prosperous Afghanistan.
Transcribed by Aneesha Mathur & Shalini Narayan