The Afghan Government Must Lead Peace Talks, Its National Security Adviser Says

Oct 2, 2019
Originally published on October 2, 2019 10:40 am

Any peace in Afghanistan must be negotiated for Afghans by their elected leaders, the country's national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, says.

"We have objected to being part of the negotiations and not being a central part of this discussion," Mohib, 36, tells NPR's Rachel Martin from New York City, where he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Monday.

"And if we want to see peace in Afghanistan, the Afghan government must be at the forefront of any negotiations," he added.

Mohib is back in the U.S. a little over six months after the Trump administration said it was ending contact with him after he criticized its approach to Afghanistan peace talks.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who ran in the country's election over the weekend, did not attend this year's General Assembly. Despite hundreds of attacks by Taliban insurgents during the months before, national elections went ahead on Saturday, though voter turnout was low and there have been allegations of fraud and other irregularities. On Monday, however, both Ghani and his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, claimed they were ahead as the vote count continues.

It is not clear how much sway the Taliban will hold or what possible role they will have in a new government.

In March, Mohib — who also served as Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S. from 2015 to 2018 — accused the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, of "delegitimizing" Ghani's government by excluding it from peace talks with the Taliban. Soon after, the U.S. told Ghani that Washington would end communications with Mohib.

U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, the closest the White House has come to ending a nearly 18-year troop presence in Afghanistan, collapsed in September when President Trump abruptly declared the talks "dead." An agreement was expected to include an initial withdrawal of more than a third of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in exchange for a Taliban promise to not let the country become a base for global terrorist attacks.

The Taliban have said "doors are open" to resume talks with the United States. They have continued to mount frequent, large-scale attacks on Afghan civilians but also lifted bans on activities by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Health Organization.


Interview Highlights

On Trump calling off talks with the Taliban

It was a good decision. The Taliban were becoming considerably more arrogant than they previously were. They were preparing their victory speeches and thought that they were going to take over Afghanistan. So I think it was a blessing. Now is an opportunity for us to take this issue and follow the lead of the Afghan government, a partner that the United States has worked with and invested in, a country where we have made a tremendous amount of sacrifices together to build the democratic institutions that we currently have.

On the Taliban in 2019

The Taliban are a discredited organization now, heavily divided over power sharing and among themselves. Others are engaged in the illegal mining and logging in our country. Some are fighting because other countries are paying them to do so.

Their narrative is no longer valid in Afghanistan. They said that they were fighting a foreign invader. That is not the case. They are fighting the Afghan people now.

On division within the Kabul government

Democracy is not perfect anywhere in the world, and Afghanistan is no exception. I think the American people would sympathize with that, but our competition or disagreements are on ballots, not on bullets. I think the difference here is the Taliban are killing the Afghan people. The disagreements between the Afghan politicians is a political discourse that is on Afghan TVs and in media. They are not fighting each other literally.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

After 18 years of war, peace in Afghanistan still seems a long way off. There are some signs of hope. There was a presidential election over the weekend. But voters were intimidated and attacked, and voter turnout was really low. And last month, talks between the U.S. and the Taliban collapsed. The Afghan central government wasn't even involved in those talks. So Afghanistan's national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, is in the U.S. this week to deliver a message to the international community.

HAMDULLAH MOHIB: It's time to make peace in Afghanistan. And that peace must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.

KING: He talked to Rachel about why the Afghan government supports President Trump's decision to end talks with the Taliban.

MOHIB: What I can say is it was a good decision. The Taliban were becoming considerably more arrogant than they previously were. They were preparing their victory speeches and thought that they were going to take over Afghanistan. So I think it was a blessing. Now is an opportunity for us to take this issue and follow the lead of Afghan government, a partner that the United States has worked with and invested in, a country where we have made a tremendous amount of sacrifices together to build the institutions and the democratic institutions that we currently have.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: How would you describe the Taliban in 2019? Is it the same organization as it was when the U.S. ousted them in 2001?

MOHIB: The Taliban are a discredited organization now, heavily divided over power-sharing in - among themself. Some are fighting for financial gains through the narcotics trades. Others are engaged in the illegal mining and logging in our country. Some are fighting because other countries are paying them to do so. Their narrative is no longer valid in Afghanistan. They said that they were fighting a foreign invader. That is not the case. They are fighting the Afghan people now. The only thing they have now is intimidation. They have been targeting places of worship, weddings, roads, anywhere indiscriminately and killing Afghan civilians.

MARTIN: Do you consider the Taliban a terrorist organization?

MOHIB: Their activities are definitely that of terrorist organizations.

MARTIN: You mentioned that they are a divided organization now. How can you trust that any peace that the Afghan government would be able to negotiate with the Taliban will actually have any legitimacy, that it would actually hold if you're only negotiating with perhaps one faction?

MOHIB: We must negotiate with those Talibans that are inside the country. There has to be a bottom-up approach. The Taliban rank and file are extremely tired of fighting. And they do want to make peace happen, but their leadership sitting in Pakistan want to have their political gains achieved. So I think one of the ways we can achieve peace in our country is by negotiating directly with commanders on the ground and bringing them into the fold of a peace agreement.

MARTIN: You have in the past been very critical of Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan leading the U.S. negotiations with the Taliban. You accused the U.S. of wanting to install a, quote, "caretaker government," that Khalilzad would govern, that he would become a, quote, "viceroy" - that's your word. Do you still believe that to be true?

MOHIB: First of all, my criticism was not personal, but rather of a policy that we thought was not going to result in peace in Afghanistan. And even when I spoke at the time, it was a matter of perception because the Afghan government was not fully briefed at the time - or at least we perceived that we were not fully briefed at the time - that those perceptions were taking shape and replacing the facts. We have improved our relationship since then. Information has become better before the talks failed. Of course, that's - even though we...

MARTIN: You believe Ambassador Khalilzad to be an honest broker?

MOHIB: Look, what we are focused on this point here is peace in Afghanistan. And it's not about individuals. And we know that the American people, from my own experience here, care deeply about what happens in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: You mentioned, when we talked about the divided nature of the Taliban, your own Afghan central government, though, has been divided. Ashraf Ghani didn't win an outright majority in the last election. And there was no outright winner in this weekend's national elections. Considering that ambiguity and the fact that we won't know who comes out on top for, perhaps, several months, that there might need to be a runoff election, does that dilute the power of the Afghan government in potential negotiations with the Taliban?

MOHIB: Democracy is not perfect anywhere in the world, right? And Afghanistan is no exception. I think the American people would sympathize with that. But our competition or disagreements are on ballots, not in bullets. I think the difference here is the Taliban are killing the Afghan people. The disagreements between the Afghan politicians is a political discourse that is on Afghan TVs and in media.

They are not fighting each other literally. And as a result of them, Afghans are not dying. If the elections are messy, I think you could plug any other country that is democratically run, and the situation would be no different. I think it's an unfair comparison to the Taliban, who are violently terrorizing the Afghan people and are not delivering services to our people. The places they control are completely intimidation.

MARTIN: In light of all those differences, though, are you truly optimistic that an Afghan-led peace deal can actually happen?

MOHIB: Absolutely. And for that peace to be achieved, there must be a consensus. If a peace is achieved that integrates one part of the society but alienates another, the war will continue. So what we are working on is an inclusive peace, which will include all of Afghans.

MARTIN: Hamdullah Mohib, national security adviser to Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, speaking to us on the line from New York. Thank you so much for your time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAZER'S "HARLESDEN")

MOHIB: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.