A Conversation With National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib of Afghanistan

Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Fabrice Coffrini/Getty Images
Hamdullah Mohib
James Shinn

Chairman, Predata

SHINN: Well, I hope you enjoyed your lunch, and we thank you for joining us at the CFR, not just for lunch, but most importantly, for a conversation with Dr. Hamdullah, who is the national security advisor for Afghanistan, a job that he has pursued with remarkable diplomatic skill, with persistence, and in my view, with considerable courage.

Dr. Mohib—you have his bio in front of you. I find most impressive the fact that he’s got a Ph.D. in computer systems engineering. In fact, I think he’s probably the only national security advisor with a Ph.D. in computer systems engineering, which is remarkably hard stuff.

So the format for today is Dr. Mohib will talk for ten minutes or so. I suspect he may echo some of the themes that he delivered very eloquently yesterday at his speech at the U.N. General Assembly. And then he and I will have twenty-minute conversation where we hope to expand on his views regarding the peace negotiations and its broader regional context. And then we will open it up for Q&A with the members.

I would ask you a couple things: one, this is on the record, but if you have any telephones or recording devices, would you please turn them off. And secondly, when we do come to the Q&A period I would only ask you to state your question concisely and clearly, as well as, if you care to, whatever your institutional affiliation is.

We also have—we’re also sharing this with the CFR members around the country, and we encourage them to submit questions, so through the miracle of modern telephony, when these questions appear we’ll relay them to Dr. Mohib.

So please, Dr. Hamdullah Mohib. (Applause.)

DR. HAMDULLAH MOHIB: Thank you. Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim. It’s a pleasure to be here, back at CFR. I thought I will begin with just giving a brief of where we are, particularly on peace, and where we go from here, and what we think would be the right approach to take, and then answer any questions you might have.

We discussed elections, and I know there are a lot of questions on elections. We had some of that at Asia Society yesterday. I’m happy to answer any questions, but I think we’ll begin with what we think is the way from here on the peace issue, and we think that, while the negotiations is an important aspect of peace, it’s not everything that we need. There is a three-pronged approach to peace that we think would be necessary if we want to see violence come to an end in Afghanistan, and we see stability that would benefit you and us in our investment together.

The first, of course, of this would be the negotiation strategy and the post-peace engagement on what we do after that. There is—the first part that had been the focus of a lot of discussion in the last nine months was the U.S-plus-NATO engagement in Afghanistan and what that comes to. So part one of that negotiation strategy of peace negotiation would be the U.S.’s stay and what we do with counterterrorism if U.S. troops were to withdraw from Afghanistan, and what would remain and how we maintain that military partnership with the Afghanistan and Afghan security forces.

Moving past that first part, we will get to the Taliban, which the negotiations with those Taliban that are seeking peace, that are Afghans and are interested in integrating into the Afghan society, coming back to the political life and have political grievances. With them we will of course be talking about their prisoners, sanctions on their leaders, and their political inclusion in the Afghan government and societies, and then what happens to their rank and file, how do we integrate them from a more security point of view and economics point of view, and finally, the question of what happens to their foreign friends, those terrorists who have been helping them in Afghanistan in combat.

Point three in this would be Pakistan and the assurances that the Afghan society would need—and I would assume the U.S. would also need from Pakistan—in terms of non-interference and respecting that agreement, whatever agreement may be signed with the Taliban, between the Taliban and the Afghan government. And then we will also need to take into account and build the consensus in our neighborhood and with the Islamic countries on what peace means. And if there are other countries—and which there are—who have proxies and are doing their fighting in Afghanistan, on how to we move that away, and of course, their consensus on seeing peace in Afghanistan.

The last would be seeing our current partners, who have been partners with us in development for the last 20 years, continue their partnership with a post-peace Afghanistan and what kind of guarantees they can provide to peace, including to the Taliban for economic reintegration.

A second leg of the two-prong—the three-prong approach would be the national level. It is to strengthen our institution. One of the things that became very prominent in the last nine months as the discussions between the U.S. and Taliban were taking place in Doha is the Afghan public realized what it means to have a constitution and what the republic means for them. Before this the constitution was just a piece of paper. Nobody really give it a serious thought. It existed; we took it for granted. And suddenly the discussion around the republic became very, very prominent. People wanted to preserve the republic, and that became one element of the discussion and the different consultative processes that the Afghan government undertook, including the Loya Jirga, which is the most important decision-making process in Afghanistan—body—and that the maintenance or the preservation of the republic became the main topic.

So what we do to strengthen, using this opportunity to strengthen our republic and the systems within, the institutions within so that we can improve governance and we can improve security. The ANDSF, thanks to the generous support of the United States and our other NATO partners, have been the star of every activity in the last few years.

We just undertook elections, which were threatened by the Taliban. They literally declared war on elections. They said they will take down anybody that participates, and they will attack polling centers, and the ANDSF was able to preserve and protect almost all of Afghanistan and all polling centers. There were casualties, but they were the security forces that had casualties. No civilians were harmed, and that by itself was one of the biggest achievements.

And I think we owe a huge thank you to you for helping us build a security force that can protect such a huge event. Seventy thousand of our—of our security forces were active on that day, and the management of all of that was with the Afghans. In the past, this would have been not possible without the command-and-control of Resolute Support commanders, but in this elections, this was solely done by the Afghans and coordinated. There were several layers of coordinations established. So we can do—what we need to do is strengthen the ANDSF to be able to provide security to our people and the—improve the essential services. And of course the political inclusion of all of Afghanistan.

One of the biggest grievances we see is that not everybody is included, and those who do not have any other alternatives turn to Taliban at locality. And this is what brings me to the third part of where our three-pronged approach to peace would be is to improve local grievances and address local grievances. We have identified all the districts that are either under a high or a medium threat and looked at what has caused those—insecurity or instability in that district.

You know, what was interesting to find was first there is some sort of economic activity going on in a district. Districts that had no economic relevance are safe. So they are either on the border with custom revenues coming in or they had mining, some kind of a mine that—need to be, that could be exploited or—or even in some places where agricultural growth is good and they use it for opium cultivation. So there is always some kind of an economic relevance to it.

But part two of that is people there have had grievances build over the last twenty years, either ignored by the government, corruption and lack of rule of law, disappointed with government services, or a grudge or a—with some of—a local commander or someone that was considered pro-government who committed crimes and atrocities in those districts. So we’re looking at each one of those districts and try to resolve whatever the issue is before we come to bundle it up with the Taliban negotiation.

Even as the negotiations were ongoing, everybody agreed that it will not end the violence in our country. And if it doesn’t end the violence in our country, to the Afghans that’s not peace. The reason we’re willing to accommodate the Taliban into governance in—is because we want them to end the violence against our people. If they cannot deliver that—you know, it’s not that we are fans of their wonderful ideology and their regime and that we—nostalgia for the great regime that they had once. It’s not—it is to end the violence. And if it was not going to end the violence, it will not be peace. In some of these districts, in the grievances that exist at the local level have nothing to do with the Taliban ideology. They are local, and we must address them separately.

So we think to be able to bring a wholesome approach to peace, we have to take into account all of these different parts, components of a complicated peace process. Led by the Afghans and supported by our international partners, we can deliver the kind of stability that Afghanistan needs.

And before I stop, I do want to take this opportunity to reiterate what I said at the U.N. General Assembly yesterday. Afghanistan of today, twenty years after your support began and your help with our reconstruction from literally the rubbles, is a different place and a different country, including its people and human capacity—a country where when you first came into had no telephone communications. We had to go into our neighborhood to be able to make a phone call abroad. We had no electricity. We had no roads, no infrastructure. We also had no health care facilities and no governance and no facilities.

Today we enjoy all of those services and if the electricity cuts, shuts for an hour, there are protests. (Laughs.) That’s the new Afghanistan, but it’s also a country that has been living with freedoms and connected—and connectivity to the world that is not willing to accept the kind of tyranny that we once did as an isolated country that had been at war for the previous twenty years. It is a different place.

You have invested in our institutions. We were able to deliver the elections and our Security Forces were able to do that, because your investment, not just financial investment, but also your blood went into this. The country that has had the most amount of sacrifices after Afghans has been the United States, with over 2,400 Americans who have laid their lives for—for what we have today. We are thankful to that support and we aim to preserve—preserve that. We—our—our idea or belief in democracy is solid. We want to maintain what we have and build on those achievements to create a safer Afghanistan, a safer region and a strong partnership for Afghanistan and the United States.

Thank you. (Applause.)

SHINN: Thank you for—for those remarks—

MOHIB: Thank you. Oh, OK.

SHINN: —in particular for outlining the sort of three-pronged, deeper peace process which you in your speech to the General Assembly yesterday referred to as an Afghan-owned peace process.

MOHIB: There is only one peace process, and it has to be Afghan-owned.

SHINN: So what I would like to do in our conversation would be to start with your sort of short-term assessment of the peace process and widen it to the regional context, and then perhaps come back to the broader transformation of Afghanistan.

In his UNGA speech, which I would encourage the members to watch—it’s on the U.N. Video Channel—he used a number of phrases that struck me, one of which was “our generation, born and raised in war,” which is—which is a—one way of describing just how many decades of bloodshed the Afghan people have put up with.

But first, why do you think the U.S.-Taliban negotiations that were handled by Ambassador Khalilzad, why do you believe they fell through?

MOHIB: Well, I think you put your finger on something. We are a generation that were born and raised in a war. We’re obsessed with peace. All we have had and known is misery that the war has imposed on us, so we think about what is possible, what would bring peace to it. We have seen the different iterations of how a moderate force of Afghan nationalists who wanted to preserve Afghan identity, sovereignty, started rebelling against an occupation by the Soviet Union, turned into a more aggressive, ideological and non-tolerant force, and then convert—and that turning into terrorism and what we see today. Even as the negotiations were ongoing we were getting information that many of the Taliban hardliners were joining Daesh, were either directly or discreetly and not—and so we were seeing that the fight was not going to end. This is not—the war would not end at this stage.

And for us, like I said, we are obsessed with peace. We want to see Afghanistan return to normalcy so that we can do the very little things that everybody else takes for granted. And if the war is not going to end and it’s going to continue in another—in another form, shape or form, then to us that is a huge price to pay to include a very backward, aggressive force into governance and share our lives and country with them.

SHINN: So in terms of the reason for the eleventh-hour failure of the talks, at least prior to their much-reported Camp David moment, what do you think the proximate cause was? Is it—was it an appreciation that, even if they negotiated an arrangement, that the Taliban wouldn’t honor it?

MOHIB: Well, Jim, here is the point. You probably know as much as I do, you know, as the national security advisor of Afghanistan. We haven’t had, you know, any more information than you probably do, so it’s all about what you have read, and what we think failed.

But we can make some guesses on what probably happened. What I would say is that President Trump made the right call because the Taliban are not ready to make peace with anybody. They are ready to take Afghanistan over and return their regime. They had been preparing their victory speeches. There were videos circulating and audios—sorry—audios circulating in Afghanistan, and on WhatsApp groups, and social media of the Taliban sending each other instructions—their commander sending instructions on what to do in the instance of victory, on not to harm civilians, and to pardon the Afghan officials.

They were—they were—to the Taliban, this was their imminent victory. The minute a deal was signed, you would have given the keys—or at least from the Taliban’s perspective—to them to rule Afghanistan. And obviously that was not acceptable to the Afghan people; it would have not been acceptable to the American people. I think they made—he made the right call.

Now what happened behind doors that was, you know, the decision making, we’re not privy to that—to that information, so—

SHINN: What are the odds, do you think, that those peace negotiations between the United States and the Taliban will be resurrected?

MOHIB: Look, if there are negotiations that the U.S. would like to conduct with the Taliban, for whatever reasons, they should, you know. They can, and I think as a party to the conflict, the United States is a very important partner and player that needs to be engaged in this process.

We can’t call it peace negotiations. They are not going to be peace negotiations. If there is going to be a peace negotiation, it would be between the Afghan government that has been fighting the Taliban for the last two decades. We have had one hundred and fifty thousand casualties in our security forces alone in the last, you know, two decades fighting the Taliban. They have killed, murdered in cold blood, thousands of Afghans, and the NSC has started publishing—the Afghan NSC just started publishing a series of individuals that we call the thousands of crimes, and the first of this book was published a couple of weeks ago which—it lists all the Afghan intellectuals that have been killed by the Taliban in the last two decades. And we will continue to release that.

There have been numerous casualties to this conflict. If there is going to be peace, it would have to between those who are going to continue to live in that territory and call it home. So a withdrawal for the United States they can negotiate, but I think even for that the best avenue is their legitimate partner whom you have invested so much in, and work out a plan for a responsible withdrawal.

We can keep security of our country. Now we may not be able to do it right away, this minute, but with a reasonable timeline we can make that happen. And I’m happy to go into details if you wish.

SHINN: If you put on your computer science hat just for a second and look at the future, there is a big decision tree here: either there is a U.S. settlement of some kind with the Taliban or there isn’t. And if there is a U.S.-Taliban agreement, then there is a negotiation between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan that either works or it doesn’t.

If you go down the path that there is a negotiated agreement between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, subsequent to a U.S. agreement, what would be the terms of that agreement?

MOHIB: Well, to take a step of that, if I was to put my computer science hat on, it would be what’s the logic behind it. We’re not convinced that negotiations between the United States and the Taliban would result in anything that would be either beneficial to you, to us, or the region.

SHINN: You think this would be more akin to the Soviet negotiations with the Mujaheddin when they withdrew?

MOHIB: This would only result in a civil war in Afghanistan—only a civil war.

SHINN: Which is what happened the last time.

MOHIB: I think people underestimate—and this is a discussion we had yesterday with Barney as well, is—you know, when we talk about Afghanistan, we should not forget that there are Afghans in that country, that there are people who have, you know, ideas about how they want to live and have had that for centuries. We have—you know, we are in a war and have been in a war of pretty much sovereignty, wanting to live—we could have submitted. If it was about submission to an idea and to a superpower who wanted us to accept a certain way of life, we could have done that with the Soviet Union. They were much better than the Taliban, and they were not destroying wedding halls; at least they were building infrastructure in our country. But the Afghans would not submit to any kind of enforced ideology or rule on our country.

The Taliban are a proxy of Pakistan—of not just Pakistan, Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Afghanistan would never accept to be ruled by Pakistanis. I mean, if we didn’t accept the Soviet rule—superpower—it would be beyond imagination to accept the proxy of a backward country which has a hard time feeding its own people.

SHINN: Well, let me ask just two last questions before we turn to the members, one of which, of course, would be the happy subject of Pakistan cooperation or duplicity, as the case may be, in an Afghanistan outcome.

But to go back to your prior point, I mean, as you know, the tyranny of decision trees is that the probability of all the outcomes has to sum to one. So if you don’t have a peaceful outcome—at least a peace agreement—then by default you have endless war.


MOHIB: Who says that the peace agreement will—

SHINN: What does that look like?

MOHIB: —end in war?

SHINN: What does that look like? What does that look like to you, and how long—or if you say what kind of—given the awful sacrifices made by the Afghan national security forces, what would be the magnitude of support from the outside that would be required to sustain the government of Afghanistan in the next phase of the endless war?

MOHIB: Look, it’s not an end—it may look like that to the outside audience. Afghans live a life. Yes, we have an insurgency that we are fighting with. We’re not the only country that has insurgencies. To term the Taliban beyond that is an over exaggeration, and I think there are a lot of Taliban apologists who would like to make the Taliban look like a government in waiting. It’s not a government in waiting. It is an insurgency that is fighting against its people. It rules by intimidation or wherever they have any control. We just took back five districts from the Taliban this year, and to talk to the people in those districts who would tell you that they have been living in starvation. There are no facilities. It’s literally brute force that the Taliban apply, and force those people—mostly agricultural farmers—to even provide for them. There are no facilities in there, and it is dictatorship.

I don’t think the free world will be able to sit and watch a regime like that return to Afghanistan, first. And second is that it is not—again, it’s not a war; it’s an insurgency. And our security forces each day are more capable at dealing with it.

When I became ambassador to the United States in 2015, Kunduz had just fallen. I couldn’t explain it to people. Journalists wanted to know. Kunduz City had fallen to the Taliban; I had no idea what to say. I had just become ambassador. I had—you know, it was a new world to me at the time, but it was also a new world to understand what just happened and what are we dealing with.

It took us a few months, perhaps even longer, for us to fully understand what really happened there, and that was we had no command and control. That was it. Everybody had done their job. The intelligence agencies knew that an attack would be launched by the Taliban. The military had prepared, the police had prepared, but nobody was coordinating.

We just had the biggest exercise that required coordination at every level at this election. Like I said, the Taliban launched a war against elections throughout the country. There were 273 attacks that they tried—that was averted on the day, and before that, we arrested fourteen suicide bombers in Kabul alone that would had large-scale-impact attacks on the city, and the best coordination that even our RS commander praised for. So the security force that couldn’t coordinate to defend one city to a security force that was able to maintain security throughout the city which—sorry, throughout the country is a big progress.

We, this year, have been facing the Taliban’s most vicious cycle of attacks—four phases of attacks on Afghanistan this year. And at every phase they were defeated. The last one was the defeat on the election day. Taliban are—the backbone of the Taliban is broken. Their ideology has no stance anymore. Their ideology was they were fighting for Islam. Well, this is an Islamic republic. They don’t have any bias. We have had ulemas from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia state that the insurgency that the Taliban are conducting is un-Islamic. They said that they are working for a free Afghanistan, a sovereign Afghanistan because they considered this U.S. involvement in our country as an invasion, and that we are an invaded country. So for that reason, they would have to free, you know, our country, appealing to the Afghans’ sense of sovereignty.

Well, that again is proven wrong. Today, the educated Afghans that you helped us, you know, achieve, are asking questions: Well, what is the Taliban’s relationship with the ISI? The Afghan relationship with the United States has a bilateral security agreement that was ratified by our Loya Jirga, by our parliament, by our senate. What is Pakistan’s relationship to the ISI and all the other intelligence agencies that fund them? What is their relationship to al-Qaida? What is their relationship to the other terrorist groups from the region, including IMU, ATIM, and the likes of them? And Jaish-e-Mohammed—all of the affiliates of the Taliban. They are not able to explain.

So the Taliban are finished ideologically, they are finished politically, they are finished on the war front. It is not an endless war. We see an end to it both militarily and an end to it politically. Now the Taliban can choose which they want to see. We are committed to protecting our country. If we have to do it, and we have to contend with an insurgency, we have to provisions for it, you know. The force is prepared to deal with it—our CRU units and the police that deal with—and I think Pete, sitting here, has had a recent interaction with them—are some of the best CRUs across the world. They are able to avert attacks that would take days for other countries to deal with, for other forces to deal with. We do it within hours.

The amounts of attacks that happen, and within hours they are defected, they—five ISIS attackers entered one of the tallest buildings in Kabul, our ministry of communications. One of them blew himself up and four entered. Now any other place that building would have been able to take—they could take twenty-five hundred people hostage. We cleared all of them. Over twenty-five hundred people were taken out of that building. No hostages were taken. We didn’t allow them to take the building hostage and attack—including target the presidential palace and anywhere else they would want, they would have been the highest point.

Now that shows the proficiency of our units that are ready to deal with insurgency, and we are building more and more of that across the country. We have them in Kabul. We also have them in the neighboring provinces, in Logar. Now we are building one—almost complete with one in Kandahar, one in Jalalabad. There is one in Mazar-e Sharif. So with each zone, we’ll be able to repel any attacks like that within hours if there were. And our regular forces are able to clear areas.

This year, like I said, has been a very good example of us pushing back against the Taliban in their areas that they previously controlled, some for a year and others for even—for five years, the last five years, where we hadn’t been. And nothing has changed. We have—we have had the same force. It has just become better and better.

So we can defeat the Taliban militarily. It will just take longer. If they choose to have peace we would save some time, and we are happy to do that any day they are ready.

SHINN: Well, as a segue to Q&A with the members, I would only add that last week Imran Khan sat in that chair and managed to say that not only are the Taliban confident and on a roll—while disavowing any support, of course, for the Taliban by the government of Pakistan or the ISI. So if we could turn to the members both here and the country at large, if you would, as I said before, kindly raise your hand and state an affiliation. And for those not here, please email your address to [email protected] and Mackenzie (sp) will bring them up here on an iPad.


Q: Excellency, my name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer. I’ve been in the U.S. government a couple of times.

In your remarks you referred to districts which had a high degree of threat from the Taliban and another class had a medium threat from the Taliban. I would welcome, if you would, tell us how many districts are in each category. And also, if you wanted to throw in how many girls are in school today.

MOHIB: OK. Well, first of all, the districts that are at high threat or at medium threat continue to receive government services. We still run schools there. We still run hospitals and other healthcare facilities in there. We still are engaged in development facilities to agriculture. So we have development shuras in most of those districts, with the exception of a very small number—I think it’s less than ten—where we are not able to—for security reasons or for the safety of our staff able to provide services. But most of those places have services to it.

Overall, out of the four hundred districts, we think in these categories sixty are at a high threat. And they’re not of a high threat of collapse; these districts still have government presence. The Taliban are just easy—can launch attacks or threaten road services and other fields. And then about ninety that are of medium to low threat that we are looking at right now.

But when we look at threat, we look at all sort of. We want to ensure that, you know, people are able to walk in the middle of the night and not be attacked. Now I’m sure that you know it’s an impossible mission to achieve. Even in New York you could get attacked in the middle of the night. But for us as a government, the goal is to achieve the highest level of security we can provide in the most rural areas of our country.

SHINN: Yes, sir.

Q: Thank you, Jim. Jeff Laurenti.

Dr. Mohib, your remarks just before the start of the Q&A suggested a very optimistic picture about military success, and U.S. commanders have over the past half-dozen years described the situation militarily in Afghanistan as a stalemate. And you rightly pointed to the many casualties that the Afghan security forces have taken, and presumably the Taliban have been battered pretty hard. Could you tell us how the Taliban succeed in recruiting replacements for those they have lost, how they finance their recruitment and forces, and if you project out—as Jim was, I think, trying to press you to do—for a long-term continuation of war how the Afghan government is faring in terms of recruiting to replace guys who have been lost in this long and grinding war? And can it do it without American dollars to cover the salary costs?

MOHIB: Thank you. Well, first of all, let me begin with the last one of them, because I did refer to it in my remarks as going to local governance, improving local governance in this regard. Most of our districts have national forces protecting. But we have had places—for example, one of our provinces, Nuristan, it’s a very difficult terrain, both in terms of the—it being mountainous and also thick jungles. Yet, we don’t have a single military personnel presence there. We only have police and local police. It’s because of the agreements or the way the governance is done in that province. We work with the community. And they provide their own policing, in a way. If we need to, we say we have a certain amount of budget for security in your district, and that may only be able to employ ten people. But should they need twenty, they can split that among twenty people. And the people are hired from locality. They have national police, but that is where they hire from.

Like I said, with not even a single military personnel in, it’s one of the—it’s one of the most secure provinces, you know, most remote area, most secure province. And we want to adapt that model throughout these sixty districts that we have high threat to have territorial armies. Now, the territorial armies are part of our national army. They have leadership from the national army, but the recruitments are done from the locality. So we’re actually hiring people from within the district that they are working in. And the Taliban do exactly—

SHINN: Is that the Arbikai concept?

MOHIB: No. No, no, no. In the past—

SHINN: This has been tried before.

MOHIB: —there were militias that were adopted. And the militias were all local and not into a national. So people were paid. So a strongman was paid, and he hired people, and they had no rules of engagement or trainings of how to conduct. Whereas, these forces are trained. They’re trained military. The only issue is that in our national army we—when we recruit them, they can be send anywhere, right, anywhere in the country. And people—in some areas we have a hard time recruiting because they do not want to go outside of their own, you know, district.

For the police, we have an easier time. Police we can recruit anywhere, because the police are—remain in the area that they are recruited. So we are adapting that to the army and putting them in the districts. So we are reducing the costs of putting a national army in there and putting them in the barracks in a district that they don’t know and do not have an understanding, with heavy artillery and equipment. This ways we reduce the costs, first of all, and we’re also securing the area and taking away recruits from the Taliban.

So coming to the first question you had, I recently met two hundred Taliban who surrendered to the Afghan government in Badakhshan when we were clearing three of the districts there. And I talked to them. I talked to young boys and men who had been recruited. Some boys as young as fourteen. Said, why? They said, well, the Taliban took over our district. There was nothing to do. They gave us—in some instances they didn’t even give them a gun. People—the people used their own weapons that they used for their own protection. And the Taliban just provided in many cases only protection, nothing else. Not even salaries. They were forced. I said, do you believe in Taliban ideology? No. I mean, what else—what other options do we have?

They didn’t believe. They were happy. The minute they realized that the government is taking over and the government forces are on their way, they called the governor and said we want to surrender. What should we do? And we are seeing that throughout the country. We’re talking to the Taliban in almost all districts. We did it for the elections to be able to secure. And in places we didn’t have to force them, and they cooperated, we agreed. And we can extend that. And in some ways we also piloted it during the elections. There were commanders that we wanted to work with, but we couldn’t prove whether they could cooperate or not. They proved themselves during the elections. And we’ll be working with them to find a way to integrate them.

SHINN: That’s really interesting. We’ll turn to another question, but of those local commanders in the Taliban with whom you arrived at some agreement, call it a ceasefire, during the election day, how many honored it?

MOHIB: Almost all of them. There were a few commanders that we had—the agreement we had was not even a single bullet must be fired. Now some of them came back—not even their central command. I mean, in the past there used to be agreements with the Taliban, Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network, to preserve or at least not to attack polling centers. They couldn’t guarantee it this time. They said, look, our demand was we don’t want to hear a single bullet fired. And they said: We can’t do it. We don’t have control over everything. There are competing—there are competing forces who would do it just to spite us. Goes to show the lack of Taliban control and the disintegration among them.

SHINN: Yes, back there. There’s a gentleman near the pillar there.

Q: Nick Turse. I’m a freelance reporter.

I want to thank you for being here today. And I wanted to ask you, recently and for the second time President Trump had referenced a quick way to win the war in Afghanistan, but at a cost of a tremendous number of Afghan lives. The last time he referenced this plan he said tens of millions, which would be more than 50 percent of your country’s population. I wanted to know if you would comment on this. Has any plan of this type ever been shared with your government? And would your government ever agree to such a plan being carried out?

MOHIB: One thing you will not hear me talk about is the number of Taliban casualties. Never do. Because we don’t believe that we can get or we can win our way through killing people. And it’s not—that is not a sustainable plan. And I don’t think it would work. It only creates more grievances. And some of the districts that are currently insecure is because pro-government forces have committed crimes against the people, and they went to the Taliban and joined forces with them, not believing in the—(inaudible). I think there is a way to win this war. And that way is something that we are working, and that includes this improving the local governance or the government being able to include people in decision making and making them feel part of this process, you know, the way the Afghans are, both culturally and how they have been historically.

There isn’t a need for operations all through. Like I said, in the elections we could have use brute force. We did where we needed to. But we first tried to use the other influences, social influences that we could. And that is a part we will continue to use to bring stability and peace to our country.

SHINN: Yes, ma’am. Right there.

Q: Eileen O’Connor.

You see—

SHINN: Could you state your name, please, and your affiliation?

Q: Oh, sorry. Eileen O’Connor. I’m a consultant, O’Connor, Balada (sp) and Associates.

SHINN: Excuse me?

Q: O’Connor—I’m a member of O’Connor, Balada (sp) and Associates. (Laughs.) So—

MOHIB: Eileen has worked in Afghanistan with communications and recently had a visit. So we know here well. (Laughter.)

Q: So I just—no, I just wanted to—

SHINN: This is going to be an easy question, I assume.

MOHIB: I hope so. (Laughter.)

Q: Yeah. So you’ve been talking about the fact that there needs to be a political solution, but you’ve also been talking about the fact—the need to fight an insurgency. So my question is, is the way to peace through a political solution? And what would—and I think this goes to, I think, what you were trying to ask—what would the conditions for a political solution with the Taliban look like? Would it be that they have positions in the government? What would be the negotiating stance for the government, you know, obviously a ceasefire, but what would be the other conditions upon which you could make a peaceful political agreement with the Taliban?

MOHIB: Well, you know, when we say there has to be a political path to peace it doesn’t mean surrender or begging. The Taliban would not, you know, be kind enough to address or renounce violence if we begged them, and they wouldn’t do it if we surrendered. So the political agreement goes hand in hand with a strong security presence. And that is what our strategy is. Strengthen the ANDSF. We have made significant improvements in just the last year, first of all, starting with the leadership, coming down to the people in the operations, and the coordination between these security forces. Strengthening their—strengthening them and our—and then, at the same time, offer political solution to those who are fighting. And that can be done at the local level, beginning with the bottom-up approach, and also entice the political leadership through different means—again, through different carrots and sticks—to join the peace process.

Now, you know, the Taliban, I wouldn’t be, you know, putting them in a simplistic manner. They are not a unitary organization that only has political agendas. They have, you know, as James mentioned, someone else who confidently tells you that the Taliban will win and are not defeatable, obviously the don’t speak for themselves. The Taliban have others speaking for them. Those need to be taken into account. And what we want to take away from them is what Jeffrey asked earlier, is the sources of recruitment. We don’t—we want to take away their ability to recruit or intimidate local population to join their rank and file. That we can, through both providing strong security and strong governance.

SHINN: Could I interject a question from one of the members, in this case, in Washington, D.C.? A Mr. Mansoor Shams, who says—or, asks: How is the considerable amount of anti-Muslim rhetoric coming from the West shaping the views and perspectives of Afghan leadership towards United States, or affecting Afghan society more generally? It’s a hard—this is a hard question.

MOHIB: It is. It is a hard question. And I would say also easy at the same time. The Afghan government is providing for its people. I mean, people will judge us on what we do, and how we do it. In the general public sense, of course, sentiments that are non-friendly would only reciprocate in unfriendly attitudes toward. What the Afghan people have seen of the Americans have been generosity in the last two and a half—two decades. Those Americans who have served in our country, and in various roles, have engaged with Afghans. So I think there is a very good understanding of what this is.

And lucky for us we also have a very difficult political environment, so we understand the complexities of—(laughs)—of what democracy produces. We wouldn’t—we wouldn’t be judging what—you know, what’s coming out of a few people as the rhetoric of the entire country. We have also seen the kindness of the Americans. So I think that the perceptions made in Afghanistan are at least going to have some level of balance.

SHINN: Question? Back there.

Q: Hello. My name is Fiona Shukri. I’m a freelance journalist.

I spent eight years in Afghanistan, two of them in the Ministry of Interior. And I wonder if you could expand a little bit about the idea of local security and local police in the grievance resolution.

MOHIB: Well, the police—we’ve had different layers of local forces, pro-government forces. We had—the police were hired at the provincial level. And they’re local in that sense. Then there are the local police that are largely forces—pro-government forces in districts under the—they’re called local police because the Ministry of Interior manages them, but they’re really militias, in a sense. And then we also have other forces that are, you know, created by the intelligence agencies, you know, partisan groups that also can fight at the local level. But what we have always had missing is uniformity among them, and also the—you know, what comes with a national force that actually is subjected to the rules of engagements.

And some of these groups never had rules of engagements attached to it. They—I must say, there is one other group that I forgot to mention, and those are people who—the uprising forces, people who have just had enough with the Taliban and wanted to fight them and asked the government to support them. We still have that in many places. And again Daesh the government support—you know, we support locals to get rid of. But they’re usually temporary. They’re very temporary. Once the fight is over, people are supposed to go back to their lives, farming, whatever they do.

What the plan we have now for the territorial force is to get rid of all the others and have one force that is subjected military training and also military supervision and have leadership that come from the military and not from the locality. So the only people they hire from the locals is the soldiers, the foot soldiers. Everything else is managed by the national force, at the national level.

SHINN: Yes, sir.

Q: Negar Kongary (ph) with Bora (ph) Associates. Thank you, Mr. Mohib.

Prime Minister Khan was in your seat last week and was pretty effusive about the Pakistan-Chinese relationship. So my question to you is, what role do you see your neighbors—whether it’s the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Iranians, or the Chinese—playing in the peace process? And it’s interesting that the districts next to the Tajiks and the Uzbeks seem to have stabilized much more than other parts of the country.

MOHIB: Well, in the last five years, and particularly the last two, the focus of the Taliban has been on the north and the northeast. The economy shifted to the area. Our transit routes were largely with Pakistan in the east and the south. President Ghani wanted to diversify, so he moved—opened new transit routes with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and also through the Iranian Port of Chabahar. And so the focus of the Taliban had also been on the north to destabilize it, because that way they can pressure the central government and cut off our supply routes.

We have had insecurities in places like Takhar and Kunduz, and Sar-e Pol and others that had been on the route to that. And for that exact purpose. But also some regional terrorists, ATIM, IMU also have interests. The IMU are new, but Uzbeks who operate because that’s the territory where they feel most comfortable and also closest to their original target, that is the countries of their interest not Afghanistan. And IMU in Badakhshan, again, because of—I’m sorry—ATIM in Badakhshan because of its proximity to China.

And so these countries are naturally fearful of the growth of instability in these provinces and wish to play a role in bringing stability to Afghanistan. But I’m not sure if they’re very vested in the form of governance that happens in Afghanistan and how what they would like to see is threat eliminated from those territories that could potentially become lethal in their country.

We have very good cooperation with the Uzbeks. They’re, we think, a very natural partner for us—a neutral and natural partner for us in stability, because of the historical role that Uzbekistan played in the growth of Islam and what—the cities from where we have had a lot of good Islamic literature. So we have that. And they’re also politically very neutral and wish to play a positive role. The Chinese, again, have been very constructive in this process. We—but, again, I don’t think they care what kind of government comes into play. What they would like to see is no threat to them. Their relationship with the Pakistanis is much larger than they were. But they’re starting to understand Afghanistan better. They have had more engagement with us in the last five years. And we can see that their interest keeps growing.

SHINN: I think we have—I think we have time for maybe one more question. I see a gentleman with a tartan striped tie there.

Q: Yeah. (Inaudible.)

SHINN: Well, this appears to be the Afghan expertise table here. (Laughter.) Including Scott Smith, and Barney, and others.

So if you could—your affiliation, sir?

Q: Yes. I’m Matthieu Aikins. I’m the press fellow at CFR this year.

 So my question is, given that right now there seems to be vast gulf between the two sides’ views on the potential outcome of intra-Afghan negotiations. The Taliban seems to want a power-sharing agreement. The Afghan government would like to see them accept the constitution and integrate. Given that negotiation is the art of compromise, what concessions do you see the Afghan government as being, you know, willing and able to make on its position, if any? Thank you.

MOHIB: Well, I mean, when we sit down at the negotiating table we’ll see how far we need to go. What we have offered is unconditional, you know, negotiation. We can sit. You know, we can come to the table without any conditions. But once we get there, of course, we have our red lines, our people have our red lines. And there is—there is actually a movement in Afghanistan now—you may have seen it—that a lot of people record their own videos and say what is a red line for them, the public stating what red lines are. And as a government that is democratically elected we’ll have to take into account what the public’s red lines are, and that would happen when we sit at the negotiation.

We did, however, add a condition recently as a result of the spikes of civilian casualties and attacks by Taliban, indiscriminate attacks by Taliban in pubic spaces, that there be a ceasefire before we sit down to negotiate. That would be a precondition. We haven’t had this condition up until now. But as a necessity, you know, the demand by our people and the Loya Jirga, that was recently introduced.

SHINN: Whose assurances about a ceasefire would you accept from the Taliban?

MOHIB: Well, again, we have our own information. The Taliban leadership we know cannot provide a ceasefire—like I said, they couldn’t even do it at the elections shows they’re not in control. If that is the case, who are we negotiating and what are—it would impact the compromises we make. As Matthew said, you know, it would—it would depend on what kind of a share they have. If they can’t even deliver a ceasefire, then that means they don’t have control over violence. And hence, again, no need to negotiate with. They would have to prove themselves.

SHINN: Yeah. I think on behalf of the Council and the members we thank you for not just the courage and skill of your service, but also your frankness and your willingness to share time with us today. So thank you very much.

MOHIB: That has cost me before, so you thank you. (Laughter.) Thank you. (Applause.)


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