Shaida Mohammad Abdali is the Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to India since 2012 and the non-resident Afghan Ambassador to Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal. He has steered bilateral relationship between Kabul and New Delhi through challenging times as the two nations have worked to forge ties for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and fight against terrorism. During his stint in India, he has authored a book ‘Afghanistan Pakistan India: A Paradigm Shift’ which calls for the need to end conflicts in the region and focus energies on defeating terrorism and for socio-economic development.
Ambassador Abdali spoke to Rashmi Saksena of IRA on a wide range of issues in his characteristic candid style: Excerpts
Q: Religious extremism is on the rise across the world despite the Global War on Terrorism. Why?
A: We as a region, as a world must acknowledge that we have failed in our struggle to fight terrorism and extremism. If we don't, we will simply be throwing sand in the eyes of those who ask for change. Politicians have been just playing with words and terminology that have been used as a norm of diplomacy and state relations. The present strategy is not successful because it is not based on ground realities. It was crafted and implemented without including opinions of all stakeholders. Countries which call themselves warriors in GWOT have not listened to countries like Afghanistan. We asked for a fight against terrorism prior to 9/11, when the Taliban backed by foreign actors, ruled Afghanistan. We were not heard. We were glad that attention came our way after 9/11 and the world intervened. Later, the double play of those who called themselves allies in GWOT affected international efforts to fight terror.
Q: What is the way ahead in 2017?
A: There has to be a review of GWOT efforts of the last fifteen years. There has to be global consensus on GWOT. Opinions should be taken from everyone. Based on the failures we should rethink our strategy and recognize who is sincere in fighting terror.
Q: There is a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Other groups have come into play too. How do you see this impacting Afghanistan in 2017?
A: Not only the Taliban, but dozens of other terror groups under various labels are fighting us in the region and beyond. Taliban Afghanistan, Pakistan Taliban, LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba). When you talk about terrorism and extremism in Afghanistan you must understand its spillover effect. Afghanistan is now a bridge for those elements to cross-over into other countries. When we fight terrorism it should always be in the regional context as well as the global context because these groups have links within this region and beyond.
Q: Is the Daesh also fanning out in Afghanistan?
A: Absolutely. Now you see a new brand, a harsher ideology than Taliban’s, of distorted mentality of those who claim they are fighting for Islam which undoubtedly they are not representing
Q: What is the penetration of Daesh, or the Islamic State, in Afghanistan?
A: The Daesh in Afghanistan have allegiance to the same ideology, but their training, activity and recruitment is different. In Afghanistan Daesh elements are Pakistani nationals from the Orakzai tribe. They are active in Afghanistan and are being combated. Some of them may have been recruited from the Taliban. You just see the replacement of the white flag with the black. For Daesh, Afghanistan is a bridge for it to cross-over to the rest of the Region.
Q: What is the way to tackle this regionally?
A: Afghanistan together with countries in the region and partners in the international community have to sit down and discuss this problem and sincerely and think why we have not been able to deal with this effectively. We, including China, have to look at this as a common problem. The first step in 2017 should be to first deal with it at the regional level. Then we can discuss this issue at the global level. Afghanistan has always insisted that we have to go to the breeding grounds of terrorism, where their support network exists, where terrorism is used as an instrument of foreign policy. Those are the real roots that we have to dry. There is no doubt about cross border terrorism from Pakistan. Terrorists have safe havens there. The existence of the Taliban leadership there and of course the Pakistani government's offer to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table testifies to this fact.
Q: The Afghanistan leadership has been trying to get Pakistan on board in fight against terror.
A: We hope this New Year will begin with positive changes. The success of the peace process is very dependent on the Pakistan's Army. Pakistan’s new Army chief has phoned the Afghanistan leadership and expressed his willingness to deal with terrorism as we both have been victims of terrorism. He has been invited to Afghanistan based on his offer of assistance and to open a new chapter when it comes to fighting terrorism in the Region. We hope that he comes to Afghanistan with a new road map. Pakistan must end cross-border terrorism. Taliban resides there and their foot soldiers are from there too.
Q: What is the difference between “good” and “bad” Taliban as categorized by the US and the 'irreconcilable' and 'reconcilable' Taliban as categorized by the Afghan leadership?
A: There is considerable difference. The ideologically motivated Taliban is irreconcilable because they have become terrorists because of ideology based on certain doctrines. These are less in number. They are the core element.
The reconcilable ones are those who have been forced into terrorism by terrorist groups or are fighting for money. The core elements have to be de-radicalized by making them sit with the clerics who can teach them real Islam.
Bad and good are used by states which slot them for their own purpose. For instance, in South and North Waziristan – Taliban in the South is being fought while those in the North were not. There is no good or bad Taliban as there is no good terrorist. We make a mistake when some choose one terrorist for use against another and name them good and bad. We have to seriously address the fact that some countries use terrorism as a tool against one another. We have to find the right definition of a terrorist or a terrorist group. I don't think we have agreed on the definition that is why some call some terrorists freedom fighters. This has to be addressed at the at the core level.
Q: What can India and Afghanistan do together in 2017 to combat terrorism?
A: We both have seen the use of terrorism as a state policy by others. Emerging linkages between terrorist groups is worrisome for Afghanistan and should be for India too. The year 2017 should be a year of being proactive and not reactive when it comes to effort and engagement to stop the use and spread of terrorism. India and Afghanistan want to know which country is a genuine partner in the fight against terrorism. But the same time we have to be vigilant not to allow the repetition of war and conflict. We must not allow actors in the region to outsource their conflicts to terrorists just to compete or fight the other or to facilitate what we might call Cold War II.
Q: How do you see the bilateral relationship reaching a higher level in 2017?
A: India has been very supportive and very generous in its assistance in various fields of reconstruction of Afghanistan. We now want expansion of assistance on the basis of our changing priorities. We have requested the Indian government for military equipments. In 2017 we should create a Regional consensus on terrorism, economic initiatives and connectivity. 2017 should see the implementation of strategic, economic and political initiatives of 2016 like the Chabahar Port and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. I hope there will be an early agreement on the air corridor between India and Afghanistan and rail networks. The people of Afghanistan have great affection for India. In a poll 64% Afghans named India as their most favorite country.
Q: How do you see the relationship between US and Afghanistan under President Donald Trump?
A: We hope that the new U.S. administration under Trump will review the situation critically and work with Afghanistan and others in the Region and adopt an approach that will have the support of everyone towards a common goal.
Q: What about India do you like most?
A: Its democracy.