Virtual Meeting

A Conversation With Abdullah Abdullah

Tuesday, September 22, 2020
IBRAHEM ALOMARI/Reuters
Speaker

Chairman, High Council for National Reconciliation of Afghanistan

Presider

Partner and Chairman, KKR Global Institute, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.; CFR Member

Abdullah Abdullah discusses the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and the challenges facing Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation.

PETRAEUS: Well, thank you very much, and greetings to you all. It’s a great pleasure to preside over this session virtually and a privilege to have Dr. Abdullah Abdullah with us at such a potentially pivotal moment for Afghanistan and for the U.S.-led coalition that has supported Afghanistan since late 2001.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is known well to many of us, a Kabul University-trained ophthalmologist who originally practiced in western Pakistan during the Soviet occupation before joining Ahmad Shah Massoud and the Panshir resistance. When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 he served with the Northern Alliance, again under Ahmad Shah Massoud. And following liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban in late 2001, Dr. Abdullah served for four years as the minister of foreign affairs. He ran for president in 2009, of course, and then led the opposition in parliament. Following the 2014 election, he served as chief executive in the government of national unity. And in May of this year, following another contested election, he was selected to lead the High Council for National Reconciliation with authority to handle all affairs related to the Afghan peace process, negotiations over which have, of course, begun recently in Doha, Qatar.

Welcome, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. It’s great to see you again.

ABDULLAH: Thank you, General Petraeus. Good to see you. And thank you for presiding over this important virtual get-together. Good to see you.

PETRAEUS: Thank you, and it’s great to do it from this undisclosed lakeside location in Virginia.

Doctor, perhaps we could begin with you giving us a quick update on the state of the talks with the Taliban in Doha, please.

ABDULLAH: Thank you. I shall say that after forty-two years of war, the sort of talks in Doha, I consider it historic. It has started well. It continues now. As we are speaking, the contact groups are meeting one another and there will be a get-together of the two teams, the whole team.

And we started from knowing one another, like our two teams, and then getting along, and how today’s issues, and so on and so forth. The atmosphere, considering the background, I should consider it is healthy. And we sense that there is—there is a willing in the other side, which is the Taliban movement, to take advantage of that situation and contribute.

But a long way ahead of us. Nobody can ignore all the complexities involved. We can—both sides come from two different worldviews—views about the life, about rights of citizens, about the—our vision of our own country, and all of that. And at the same time, we have come together with all those differences to find a way to live in peace with one another and maintain our differences of views and let the people decide about it in the future, but at the same time put an—put an end to the misery of the people which have continued for so long.

And personally, I have been involved in this in the past four decades one way or another. And there is no more urgency for a peaceful settlement than one would see for the people of Afghanistan, and that’s important. And at the same time, the United States also is looking at it with a sense of urgency at this stage, which is—which is a good convergence of views there.

Meanwhile, in the past nineteen years you have supported us, the international community has supported us. The United States, your own service here in our soil—men and women and soldiers, those who paid the ultimate price—this has created a bond of strange friendship between both countries based on the common threat that we faced, because it was—it was after 2001, the tragedies of 9/11, that you started your engagement here.

I see that Mr. Richard Haass is the president of the CFR. I met him in 2001, before September 11. At that time he was—Richard Haass was the director of policy planning at the State Department. And I remember very vividly at that time that what I raised with him was that, yes, as Afghans we are going through very, very difficult times, but there are terrorist groups working in Afghanistan which tomorrow their aim is—of course, at the moment we are in the frontline, but their aim is the United States or Western civilization. That was like a few months before September 11, and then came the tragedies. And we also lost prior to September 11 the leader of the resistance, just two days before that, the late Ahmad Shah Massoud. A few days back was his anniversary.

Since then, we have come a long way. And while a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan is in the interest of everybody, but nobody would like to see the terrorist groups taking root once again in this soil and then creating havoc and misery for the people around the—around the world.

One important part of the agreement signed between the United States and Taliban is that Taliban sever their links with al-Qaida and terrorist groups. That has to be observed very sort of—one has to make sure that that part of the agreement is implemented fully because it’s important for us, it’s important for the rest of the world, and for the sacrifices that you have made, our other partners have made in this country.

I know that the negotiations will be—will have its own complexities. There will be spoilers around. There will be people which may worry about certain things. But as a whole, I can say that the people of Afghanistan are hopeful. At the same time, they have concerns. Do we go back to the old days? What happens to the—to the gains of the people of Afghanistan, which is as a result of too many sacrifices here from us Afghans and our friends and partners? And can we—can we get to a point where, while maintaining our views and way of life, agree to live in peace within a country—a sovereign country without allowing terrorist group, without resorting to violence, and then compete for our ideas peacefully and politically? That’s the—that’s the aim. And the other side of it has been that if we don’t get there, then it will be the continuation of the agony, misery, suffering, migration, and all sorts of other situations that we have been through. That will continue.

So it’s a moment of being hopeful, but at the same time one shouldn’t lose sight of all those risks which are involved. But eventually and ultimately, the absolute majority of our people are for a dignified, durable peace, a country which is unified and does not harbor terrorist groups and respects the rights of its own citizens and contribute to the wellbeing of its own people, but at the same time materialize those petitions, economic and otherwise, which will be beneficiary for the region and beyond.

PETRAEUS: Doctor, when you talk about the rights of Afghans, of course 50 percent of the Afghans, women, had few if any rights under Taliban rule. What is your sense as to whether or not the gains—the enormous gains that women have made since late 2001—will be sustained in this new arrangement that is being developed?

ABDULLAH: I would say that, you know, there are very different views when we are talking two sides—Taliban movement and the Islamic Republic. And at the same time, these changes or gains, as far as the women’s rights is concerned, these are not superficial. This has taken its roots in different parts of the country that’s not limited to the cities, to the urban areas of the country. Some of those things, including the freedom of speech, those are not reversible. That said, that depends on our ability to accept one another’s ideas, but at the same time compete for it, as I mentioned, contest for it politically, without resorting to violence. In that sense, I would say that the absolute majority of the people of Afghanistan are supportive of the women’s rights, including the people would not—would not go back to the days that they will not be able to send their girls to school, or any other situation that was imposed upon the people. But this will be the tough issues in the negotiating table, but those are the things that a majority assemble around and are supportive.

PETRAEUS: I know that the negotiations are still really just in the preliminary stages—agenda and so forth. Is there any sense yet that, again, women’s rights will truly be achievable in these negotiations? Do you have any inclination so far?

ABDULLAH: The point is that we might not be able to convince Taliban or persuade them to accept everything that we say. And at the same time, Taliban will not be able to convince us for their own ideas. The idea to cease for fighting, to not use violence. And at the same time, they should accept that things have changed in the past twenty years, especially. And when one of the leaders which was part of the insurgency but later on joined us, Mr. Hekmatyar, when he joined us, on the first day when he was in Kabul my message to him was that, Mr. Hekmatyar, Afghanistan is a very different Afghanistan since we last met, which was, like, twenty-some years back. And part of that is the youth, the women, the civil society, the free media, the vibrant private sector, and all of this.

For us, to be—to deserve to lead the country, we should—we should accept that things are different, and embrace those changes, which are—which are not reversible. So those same issues will be debated. And there are women in the negotiating team—prominent women, members of the negotiating team on behalf of the Islamic Republic. But those will not be left to those four-member distinguished women representatives, but to all those which are there will be—will be lining up when it comes to the rights of women, including the ulemas which are part of our team as well.

PETRAEUS: You talk about the cessation of hostilities. Of course, it’s not just the Taliban, again, who have been making life difficult for Afghanistan. Sadly, it’s also the Haqqani Network, sometimes the Haqqani Taliban, it’s termed. The Tahrik-i-Taliban, Pakistani, the IMU, of course, al-Qaida, the Islamic State. Can the Taliban speak for more than—first of all, can the Taliban speak for all of its own members in this negotiation? And second, does it speak for any of these other groups? Or will they also have to be dealt with at some point down the line, noting that, again, al-Qaida and the Islamic State will be unacceptable to any?

ABDULLAH: Yes. The Taliban—to be—to be fair to them, did represent—they do represent, as far as their own organization, their own movement is concerned, including Haqqani Group, they do represent. Their representatives are there also in the negotiating team, or around the negotiations over there. So that might not be the main question. The main question will be: What happens to al-Qaida? I mentioned—I referred to this earlier as well, which is this is part of the agreement between the United States and the Taliban, that Taliban will not harbor al-Qaida, will not support them, will not let them operate in their own areas, and so on and so forth. That has to be checked throughout, because that’s part of the agreement between the United States and the Taliban. Of course, the Islamic Republic will never support al-Qaida, or allow it. That part, you’re well aware of.

When it comes to certain other groups, from ISIS—Taliban and ISIS at times they are fighting against one another. So Taliban do not command—have control over the ISIS. But once the fighting with Taliban is not there, then the other groups will have little chance—will have little chance to operate within Afghanistan. Of course, they will not go away automatically. They will be around, and one has to focus on finishing them. But at the same time it’s because of instability and the continuation of war in a broad part of the country, in a large part of the country, that those other groups also take advantage of this. IMU and others, some of them, they might join ISIS if Taliban truly join the peace process and then they do not support them anymore. But that does not mean al-Qaida, of course, Taliban have a commitment to deliver as far as al-Qaida and ISIS are concerned.

PETRAEUS: Now, as you know, one of the preconditions for the negotiations was the release of detainees by the Afghan government, some five thousand or so of them. The agreement was that they would not pick up arms again, would certainly not resume fighting against Afghan or coalition forces, or the Afghan people. Do you have an assessment of how many of these five thousand might have actually returned to combat instead of laying down their weapons?

ABDULLAH: To be honest, I don’t have a sort of, talking about percentagewise, something like that. But I do know that some have returned to the battlefield, which is a violation of the agreement that they had made. I do know that this has happened. I have examples in some areas, and these people have started insurgency in those—in those areas once they left. But I would say that the majority have not returned to the battlefield. That might be—that might be the right assessment. But some have.

PETRAEUS: Beyond that, of course, again, the whole focus here is really to get a cessation of hostilities, which have cost the Afghan people and security forces so much, and coalition forces so much, over the years. Do you have any sense that the Taliban are—that they are reducing the level of violence, given reports just in recent days of new renewed assassinations, and violence, and so forth?

ABDULLAH: At the moment, unfortunately, the level of violence is very high. The number of security incidents initiated by the Taliban in different parts of the country has increased, not decreased. And it’s important—and that was part of my message yesterday in the—in the universal day for peace—that while the negotiations continue and we assume that both sides have participated in good faith in those negotiations, it’s critical that we see a reduction in violence in order to be able to maintain the popular support for the peace process on the ground. Otherwise, the people of Afghanistan will not—will not understand.

Yes, of course, one is that nobody is expecting or anticipating that in a few days’ time we have a comprehensive peace deal with the Taliban and that’s—that leads to the durable peace forever in the country. We know that it will take time. But at the same time, since the aim of this is to achieve peace and stability throughout the country, we need to prove it in practice as well that what we can do is reduction—significant reduction in violence. We see government of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic, as committed to that, and that is—that position is very clear.

But unfortunately, so far the level of violence is very high and to a level that is not acceptable for the people. And I repeat my call to the Taliban themselves and also to all partners who have any leverage over the Taliban to press on that point. So the—that will help maintaining the momentum and strengthening it further, which is not the case at the moment.

PETRAEUS: Well, you mentioned some of those who may have some influence with the Taliban. One of the challenges, of course, has always been that the Taliban headquarters is not located in—on Afghan soil, nor are the headquarters of most of the other insurgent and extremist groups, again, that have made life so difficult for Afghanistan. There is a reason why the Quetta Shura is named as it is; it’s outside Quetta in Baluchistan province of Pakistan. The Haqqani, as you know, are in North Waziristan in the tribal areas that you know well. What is your sense as to the contribution, the role that Pakistan is playing at this point in time?

ABDULLAH: We had recently—like some times back we had the visit of General Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief. When he spoke with us, with the leadership in Kabul, including President Ghani, in talking about end state—talking about unified Afghanistan, a democratic Afghanistan, a country which does not harbor terrorist groups, and so on and so forth—I didn’t see any difference of view in that sense. But at the same time, when it—when it comes to the realities on the ground, you yourself referred to part of it. And as far as encouraging Taliban to participate in the negotiations, they may have played a role. That’s what our American colleagues are saying, including Ambassador Khalilzad. And at times that there are issues, they seek their support.

I myself will be traveling to Pakistan in a few days’ time. This will be my first visit to Pakistan since 2008. And we do believe that it is in the interests of all the countries of the region, all the neighboring countries, and they will benefit from this. And this is what they say. And then the way forward is to cooperate, and to put it in deeds, and work together because we have missed a lot of opportunities in the past for more than four decades, especially in the past two decades, which the world was forthcoming with support, the rest of the region was open for cooperation, but because of the continuation of the war and violence we missed a lot of opportunities. And countries of the region also have missed opportunities. There is a lot of mistrust, founded or unfounded. We need to address those things, and in a sort of forward-looking ways. There are lots of grievances on both sides, and Afghans also have a lot of grievances in that regard.

But the way forward is really to realize that these extremist terrorist elements which are taking advantage of the situation, like al-Qaida and ISIS, or any other terrorist organization, they are not serving any country’s interest. They’re only after the opportunities. And when the war ends, these groups will not have a foothold. Otherwise, they will turn against any other—any country that they want, of their choice. They will—they will choose it for themselves. That is—that is what we need to focus on and that will be the focus of our get-together—or my visit to Pakistan, which will be official visit, and I’ll see what—the leadership in Pakistan and the leaders of the institutions there.

PETRAEUS: Very good. Just three more questions from me and then we’ll go to the questions from the audience.

The Hekmatyar agreement—and you may recall I was privileged to host a couple of the very early meetings that got that going before handing off command to General Allen—do you see that as any kind of example for what is going on with the Taliban, or are the dissimilarities greater than the similarities?

ABDULLAH: Yes, there are—there are lots of dissimilarities, as well. But one thing which I always—I’ve been vocal about it and also I’ve gone public about it, appreciate it, is attitude, to talk directly and then eventually find a way to live in peace. Even today he might have grievances because of the fact that that agreement might not have been implemented completely, which is—which is understandable. But he took the right decision, and that’s the main point. That could be the main—the main principle.

And also, we hope—I hope that there isn’t any miscalculation in part of the Taliban in a way that, OK, tomorrow, when the U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, then there might be a chance to overcome otherwise. That would be a big miscalculation, and that’s—that would be a missed opportunity for all of us. I have no doubt in my mind—I mentioned in my statement in the inauguration of the Doha talks—that there are no winners in the war if it continued, but there are no losers in an inclusive peace—peaceful settlement.

But all that happened in Afghanistan, you have seen it firsthand. You have listened to the—to the stories of victims of war in this country yourself. You have seen it elsewhere, as well. And with all those things which has—which has happened we need to—we need to put this to an end, and it cannot be done with one side, and it takes both sides. Any miscalculation in any part in any side will be—will be a big regret and a big missed opportunity.

PETRAEUS: Well, as you know, no one wants an agreement more than those who have seen the sacrifice that results if you don’t have an agreement. But of course, we want an enduring, durable agreement, as I know you agree as well.

You have famously contested at least three presidential elections that, again, were, shall we say, very close at the end. I just wonder the relationship that you enjoy with the current president, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, given that you have again contested two elections in which he emerged as the victor. But of course, you are now the representative of this government, which it seems to me underscores a degree of confidence placed by the president and the government in you.

ABDULLAH: Yes. In fact, it were three rounds of elections. One round was two rounds. Yes, it was—altogether, it became four. (Laughter.) And in 2009, I did compete for the second round, otherwise the first elections.

And today, yes, I’m in charge of the High Council for National Reconciliation as the result of the agreement that we signed with President Ghani. This was a very disputed election and even more disputed than the previous ones. And then, eventually, we both came to an understanding that let’s have an agreement because it was—these elections were taking place at times that the fighting was going on, the United States was about to sign an agreement with the Taliban and give a push for the peace process, and all those complexities. And on top of that, as if we didn’t have enough, then we had COVID-19. So in that sort of an environment, I am happy to be in a situation that I’m in charge of the peace efforts.

And also, what we represent is broader than the government. Of course, it’s the—under the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which President Ghani is the president of the country, but in the high—in the council there will be people which are in the opposition. There are people which are not even in the opposition, but part of the society, very broad representation of the people. I’m leading those efforts. And things will have its own complexities, and without going into further details it—I believe—I do believe that there is a potential opportunity for Afghanistan, and there we need to act in a much, much more unifying—unified manner in order to embrace a dignified peaceful settlement. That’s necessary. That’s critical. That’s a must. And God forbid if the war continues—continue to be imposed upon us, if the other side does not—does not come to terms in something that is acceptable for everybody, that will be a very bad scenario. Again, we need—we need to act in a unified manner. But I can say to ourself, which we consider you as a friend, that you could rest assured that I will do with best of my capacity not to—not to attribute to differences but rather to strengthen the unity within the country, which is—which is mostly needed.

PETRAEUS: Well, as someone who has great admiration and, indeed, affection for both Dr. Ashraf Ghani and for you, thank you for that statement, and more importantly thank you for your actions over the years.

One last question from me and then we’ll turn to the questions from the audience, and this has to do with the U.S. and whether the U.S. has offered any guarantees, such as a commitment to keep certain counterterrorism forces, advisors, combat enablers and so forth—aircraft, drones, and so on—and to provide funding for the Afghan security forces and operations and select government institutions. Has there been that kind of commitment as part of this process?

ABDULLAH: We have a joint declaration. The same day that the agreement was signed with the Taliban, between the U.S. and the Taliban, there was a joint declaration between Afghanistan and the United States. I wouldn’t call it guarantees, but I will say that assurances are being given not about every—those details of the military assistances, but continuation of support for the institutions and also for rebuilding of the country post-peace. That’s part of that joint declaration, but I wouldn’t call it guarantees. And so that’s—that has been put into the (sorts of times ?).

PETRAEUS: Well, very good.

Now let’s turn to the audience for the first question, please.

STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We will take our first question from Kimberly Dozier.

Q: Thank you, Dr. Abdullah. This is Kim Dozier from Time.

Just to clarify one of your answers to General Petraeus, is the aim of the Doha talks to bring the Taliban into the existing political structure of the Republic, or are you open to remaking or giving up that structure? And also, do your security services confirm, as the U.N. reports, that the Taliban is maintaining its relationship with al-Qaida and the Haqqani Network, which is believed to be behind the kidnapping of Navy veteran Mark Frerichs this year and possibly behind kidnapping American writer Paul Overby, who was last seen in Khost in 2014? Thank you.

ABDULLAH: Thank you, Kimberly.

As far as the talks in Doha are concerned, both sides have their own views and all those issues should be put on the table, and then the outcome should be something which is acceptable to both sides. Rather than having a precise prescription—of course I would say that certain values, including the one person, one vote; a republic; the rights of women; certain freedoms, freedom of speech; the right of minorities; the right of victims; all of those are the things that the Islamic Republic delegation represent and will debate, and then will—hopefully, will get to an agreement with the Taliban.

When it comes to the next part of the question, Haqqani Network is part of the Taliban movement. Yes, because of being much, much more active throughout many, many years and behind most of the big security incidents throughout those years, it has preserved a name for itself as well, but it’s part of the Taliban movement. But when it comes to al-Qaida, as I mentioned earlier, our security and intelligence institutions, they believe that al-Qaida is still active. So they—that part of the commitment, at least, to say the least, is not completely implemented, the part of the agreement which the Taliban had with the United States not to—not to cooperate with al-Qaida, not to allow them to use the territories under the control of the Taliban, and so on and so forth, not to tolerate them. That part of the agreement is not implemented, at least completely.

PETRAEUS: Doctor, before going to the next question, I had a question since you raised al-Qaida and its continued presence. I have, as, again, you mentioned, spent time, obviously, in Afghanistan in several different capacities. In each of those, I went out into eastern Afghanistan and to the areas where al-Qaida had the sanctuary in which the 9/11 attacks were planned and where the initial training of the attackers was conducted. I must say I have never understood entirely the magnetic attraction or pull of that area for al-Qaida. Obviously, I guess it is mountainous. It’s perhaps easy to hide there, maybe. Maybe there are some caves or some other areas in which they can seek cover. But do you have any sense about what it is about eastern Afghanistan in particular that makes it so attractive for al-Qaida and now also, we should note, the Islamic State as well for its element that is straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan?

ABDULLAH: Apart from the terrain, which is—you can—you can appreciate, which is—which is highly mountainous and very difficult terrain and easy to hide, which would be the main factor. And the other factor will be that crossing the line in those are areas are easy. This side and that side of the line, they have supporters and sympathizers, which they have taken advantage of that situation. That might be one main reason.

PETRAEUS: Well, and let’s go to the next question now. Thanks for that, Doctor.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Bernard Aronson.

Q: Thank you very much, Dr. Abdullah. Thank you for your presence here.

I worry about the signals my government has been sending for the last several years, and how that undermines potentially the leverage you bring to the negotiating table. You know, the preliminary talks to set up the talks were with the administration and the Taliban, without your government in the room. They’ve been withdrawing troops as they go through this process. General Petraeus noted that the prisoner release did not have any apparent sanctions for violations, that you say is ongoing.

And in my experience in conflict resolution in Salvador, and Central America, Colombia, one precondition is that the insurgents have to believe the future is going to be worse than the present, militarily and otherwise. But I wonder if the Taliban looked at these signals, and they hear the president talking about withdrawal of all our troops at some point, and it just gives them incentive to bide their times and hope the Americans, you know, get on their helicopters and go home. And I wonder if there are any signals that you think the U.S. could send that would be more supportive of your efforts and send some signals to the Taliban that might convince them that this is not simply a matter of waiting out the United States.

ABDULLAH: The point is that we have, after nineteen years of engagement, the United States, the partners, altogether in too many sacrifices. Yes, if you are talking about the factors and circumstances and conditions around. Personally, myself being part of the resistance against al-Qaida and Taliban in the late ’90s, and part of the resistance against the old Soviet Union in ’80s, we would have liked it to be different, because sometimes those messages which are part of the realities of our time, might have been misinterpreted in a way, like a message which is from a position of weakness or not having any other choice, or something like that. And then the friends and foes may get different impressions.

But that might have been the case in one or two occasions. But at the same time, the United States also has been very clear about his resolve not to let Afghanistan turn into a base for those terrorist groups. That message also has been very loud and clear. And the louder it is—it is voiced, the better it will be received by everybody. And also, that part of the commitment is very obvious that nobody wanted all those sacrifices to be in vain after so many years of contribution in blood and treasure. So messages of support for the stable Afghanistan, democratic Afghanistan, and not harboring terrorist groups, at the same time a country which respects the rights of its own citizens and living in peace within and without, those messages should be reinforced all the time.

Just two days ago I received a letter from Senator Graham, Lindsey Graham, which, like, 150 world leaders had signed a letter in support of the preservation of the right of women in Afghanistan. Those were very prominent leaders from around—from the United States, as well as from around the world. These sorts of efforts, and also being very clear about not tolerating harboring terrorism in Afghanistan anymore, those will be helpful.

PETRAEUS: Thanks for a great question. And, Bernie, especially given your background and experience with El Salvador and Colombia and the great work you did there. The next question, please.

STAFF: We’ll take our next question from Zayla Nori (ph).

Q: Hello. Good day to you, Dr. Abdullah. And also, General Petraeus, good to talk to you and hear you well.

PETRAEUS: Hi, Zayla (ph).

Q: Thank you so much.

My question to Dr. Abdullah: Recently, a lot of members—many member of Taliban delegation has spoken to media, and they emphasize on bringing type of Islamic emirates in Afghanistan. But there is Islamic republic in Afghanistan. What is the fine line in argument here? And what do we expect? Because people don’t want to even think about that Islamic emirates, once was in Afghanistan, will be brought back, and they’re insisting on this.

ABDULLAH: Yes, they will be insisting on their points of views, but those issues will be debated between both sides. And we’re already an Islamic republic. And if they have certain views about the constitution of the country, they should raise it. And they should—they should prove it that those are—those are something that will be in dangers of the people. Those issues will be debated in a—in a very sort of serious manner by both sides. What I mentioned earlier in regards to the—to General Petraeus’ question at the beginning, we are worlds apart as far as our vision for the future is concerned. And it’s our ability to understand that there is no putting an end to the war through fighting and violence. And let’s stop fighting and find ways that we can live together in this country without trying to impose our own views over the rest of the population.

They can put those ideas once we reach an inclusive settlement to test through getting the votes of the people for it. And I’m absolutely sure that the absolute majority of the people of Afghanistan will be for preservation of the rights of citizens, including 50 percent of our citizens—or, over 50 percent, which are women. There is no doubt that there will be tough negotiations and points of disagreements. But the agreement has to be on finding a system that we can live in peace while maintaining our differences and fighting for those differences politically, rather than through violence.

 PETRAEUS: Thanks Zayla (ph).

Next question, please.

STAFF: We’ll take our next question from Peter Galbraith.

Q: Dr. Abdullah, very good to see you again. And of course, all of us who have served in Afghanistan wish you well in this process.

You may recall that in 2009 we had some conversations about the merits of a parliamentary system and a more decentralized system. I won’t use—I shouldn’t use the word “federal,” but with some of those aspects. And my question is—and that, of course, was not—would not be just in the interests of the Taliban, but possibly of different communities in Afghanistan. And I wondered whether you saw that as a possible outcome, more decentralized, and a more parliamentary system, than the kind of system where so much power rests in the single president.

ABDULLAH: Peter, good to hear from you. I remember very vividly those days, because you were also on the election team—U.N. election team. And that is—those are very vivid in my memories. And there are two things in that regard. One is my own view in terms of parliamentary system. Throughout those elections that I have fought, I have—that has been part of our agenda, and political agenda, which I do believe that that is—that will better serve the interests of the people. But let me make it clear, but now I’m in a different position. I’m not competing in election. I’m in charge of the reconciliation.

Any system that works better in the country, one thing which I am sure is that very centralized decision-making system has not proved itself successfully. The evolution of power and authority will strengthen the country, but there are some groups that fear that it might undermine their power or authority, and that’s the mentality that exists. And that’s also part of the reality of our politics in the country. Those are—there are different views. So like my personal view and the view that I have fought for is the one that you yourself referred to. And even to the extent that the current constitution allows it—for example, the elected mayors. We have not implemented that part of our own constitution. And there’s no doubt that has led to a creation of distance between the people, the public, and the central government.

But what it’s said that we can agree around the table with the other side, that’s something that will—that will shape the future of the country. But still, I will maintain my views in that regard, knowing the country, being in the country, and having seen the challenges of the country. it will provide opportunities rather than challenges for the central government. But anyway, these are different views around.

PETRAEUS: Thank you, Peter.

Next question.

STAFF: We’ll take our next question from Rina Amiri.

Q: Hello, Dr. Abdullah, General Petraeus. It’s a pleasure to see both of you.

I had a question regarding the process. As I understand it, both sides have agreed that at this stage direct negotiations between the two sides without an outside facilitator and mediator is desired. And there aren’t any structures like group of friends or the type of mechanisms one traditionally sees in a peace process. Are there scenarios in which you would imagine that you would—that the teams would find having an outside mediator and other such structures desirable, as the process goes forward? Thank you.

ABDULLAH: Thank you, Rina. Another colleague, another friend being involved in the elections in the past and knowing all those nitty-gritties of the past elections. Good to hear from you as well.

And currently, of course, we have, both sides, agreed that there will be no facilitators in the room or mediators. But there are support group which we refer to from time to time. The host countries are also helpful. Our U.S. colleagues are involved. But at one stage, if there is a need for a mediator—which will be, I should say—but that depends on the agreement between both sides. We’re open to that. We are open to that. But at the moment, that’s the arrangement.

PETRAEUS: Great question, Rina. Thanks.

And next question, please.

STAFF: We’ll take our next question from Hani Findakly.

Q: Thank you very much. And thanks for this session. Thanks, David, for hosting it.

My question relates to the last question that David asked before returning it to the audience. And that is, as you know, we are embarked on an election here in the United States in the next five or six weeks. I’m just wondering, to the extent that the U.S. is a party to the discussion, or involved in the future of Afghanistan, what difference would it make as to who becomes president or which administration would take over, and what that difference will be?

ABDULLAH: Yes. I think, knowing it from abroad and being—having followed it, how much difference it will make as far as the presence of troops on the ground is concerned, I’m not sure. I’m not sure, but at the same time both sides—both current administration and future administration, depending on the elections, will be wary of the presence of any threat, terrorist threat, from Afghanistan. That part is very clear. And also, cognizant of the sacrifices made in the past twenty years, in the past nineteen years in Afghanistan. Will it have an immediate impact one way or another? I should say that we are not sure here. The policy—the broader aspects of the policy may continue in the same way. But you’re in a much better position to judge it there, rather than us being here.

PETRAEUS: Thanks, Hani.

And next question, please.

STAFF: We’ll take our next question from Manik Mehta.

PETRAEUS: Go ahead, Manik.

STAFF: We’ll go ahead and move on and take our next question from Bob Tuttle.

Q: Dr. Abdullah, I’d like to expand on Peter Galbraith’s question. Do you think that there’s any chance out of this negotiation that there could be two separate entities—really almost two separate states—one ruled by the current government and one controlled by the Taliban? I guess really almost two separate countries.

ABDULLAH: No, absolutely not. That would be the last thing that Afghans would accept. That will not be in the interests of the country. And also the demographics of the country, the terrain, the territories, the economic dependence, and all sorts of socioeconomic situation as such. And also the people of Afghanistan, in spite of all those upheavals that they have gone through in the past decades, they have not—they have not asked for it, and they will not ask for it, and they will not accept it.

PETRAEUS: Thanks, Ambassador Tuttle. And next question, please.

STAFF: We’ll take our next question from Arvin Ball (ph).

Q: Hi. Can you hear me?

PETRAEUS: We can, Arvin (ph).

ABDULLAH: I do.

Q: Hi. Thank you very much for taking my question. I wanted to ask you, just in terms of incentives, right, if I’m looking at this process from a Taliban perspective, you know, it makes sense for them to agree—you know, to say they want to have peace. And when the U.S. troops leave, you know, they can kind of—then they’ll do what they want, right? Because once U.S. troops are gone, it’s hard to muster the political will in the U.S. to send them back.

Also, from perspective of Pakistan, I know they’ve been helpful in the peace process, but given that the ISI and the military have long seen strategic depth as the cornerstone of their Afghan policy, like, you know, from their thinking if they get the U.S. to leave it becomes a lot easier for them to support the Taliban or other sort of, you know, fundamentalist Sunni groups loyal to Islamabad. So I’m just—I’m just trying to think, you know, from their perspective it’s probably, you know, good to have this agreement. The U.S. troops are gone. And once they’re gone, they may not come back. And then they have more ability to do kind of what they want, and increasing the power of the Taliban, and a lot of these, you know, groups that they’ve been—they’ve been supporting for a very, very long time.

ABDULLAH: There might be some calculations and thinking. You might see some Taliban leaders. But should this be the case, it would be a miscalculation. I hope that’s not the case. And that will be only a recipe for the prolongation of the war and agony of the people, rather than one side prevailing over the other. That will not happen, and unfortunately should this be the thinking then the war will be prolonged. I don’t want to be pessimistic. I hope that they have learned a lesson from the recent history of the country. At times they were in control of nearly 85 percent of the country, of the territory at least, or the population, more or less. But that does not—did not lead to them prevailing over Afghanistan. And then they lost control, and things happened afterwards. There are a lot of lessons for us. The Islamic Republic and people on this side of the line, the Taliban, the countries of the region, and hopefully that miscalculation is not—is not part of the—part of the game.

PETRAEUS: Thanks for that question, and what you did back in the day, Arvin (ph).

That’ll have to be the last one, I’m afraid. I think that everyone who has participated in this session now knows once again why it has been a privilege to work with and to know Dr. Abdullah Abdullah over the years, why Afghanistan is so fortunate to have had him serving in various capacities and, indeed, in this capacity right now, and really a privilege to have this session with you, Doctor. And perhaps we both should thank the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting what is almost a reunion of all those who have been engaged in your great country over the years.

Thank you again very much.

ABDULLAH: Thank you, General, for presiding this important get-together. Of course, I want to thank Council on Foreign Relations for providing the opportunity, and for those who participated. And nevertheless those questions were also tricky, serious, important. And I tried my best ability to maintain honestly, to be diplomatic at times, but I know that there is a lot of—a lot at stake, not just for Afghans but for too many people, including hundreds of thousands of people who have served in this country, which we consider them as a few troops, as our ambassadors there. And their memories sometimes very tough, hard memories. And what we achieved will serve the sacrifice that all those peoples, Afghans and international partners, have made.

Thank you, David. Good to see you. And good spirit. It’s very wise of you not to be seriously involved in internal politics, but what you are doing is serving the interests of your people and ours. And I’m grateful for that. All the best.

PETRAEUS: Thank you, Doctor. And we share hopes for what may come out of this effort that you’re engaged in. Thank you again very much. And thank you all.

ABDULLAH: You’re welcome. Thanks.

(END)

Top Stories on CFR

Sudan

Bolivia

Exit polls indicate socialist candidate Luis Arce will become Bolivia’s next president. The peaceful vote signaled an end to a year of electoral uncertainty, but the victor will now confront social upheaval and economic hardship intensified by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Conflict Prevention

Peace negotiators often overlook a proven strategy to reduce conflict and advance stability: include women.