A Conversation With Salahuddin Rabbani

Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Jason lee/Reuters
Salahuddin Rabbani

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Mary McInnis Boies

Counsel, Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP;
Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations 

Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs Salahuddin Rabbani joins CFR Board Member Mary McInnis Boies to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing Afghanistan's national unity government. Rabbani discusses current reforms in the Afghan government, the global war against terrorism, and Afghanistan’s relations with the United States and other countries such as Iran and China. 

BOIES: Good evening, everyone, and welcome. We are very pleased this evening to have with us His Excellency Salahuddin Rabbani, the minister of foreign affairs of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

He was educated at Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. He also received a master’s degree from Kingston University of England. And he received a second post-graduate degree here in New York at Columbia University at SIPA, the School of International and Public Affairs.

He has served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the Republic of Turkey. In 2012, he became the chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council. And following the formation of the Government of National Unity in Afghanistan, in 2015 he was nominated by President Ashraf Ghani to serve as the minister of foreign affairs. He received a vote of confidence by the Afghan parliament. And he has served as foreign minister from Afghanistan ever since.

We welcome Minister Rabbani. (Applause.)

RABBANI: In the name of God, most compassionate, most merciful, thank you very much for a very kind introduction. And let me start by saying how pleased I am to be here at the Council on Foreign Relations and to be speaking to you.

Tonight’s event is a good opportunity to update you on the security, political, social and economic situation in Afghanistan. As we in the National Unity Government work hard to build on our collective achievements of the past 15 years through our strong partnership with our many friends and partners in the international community.

Since the United States’ engagement in Afghanistan following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the United States of America has been a trusted and strategic partner of Afghanistan; therefore, this is a fitting opportunity to extend the gratitude of the people and government of Afghanistan to the United States government and the American people for their continued and unwavering support.

We are grateful to the families and the loved ones of the many brave military and civilian personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice to help stabilize Afghanistan. It goes without saying that these efforts have not been in vain since they have helped us to improve the lives of our people and put us on the path of stability and self-reliance. I have every confidence that our allies will remain by our side to help us see through our shared journey for success.

Ladies and gentlemen, as most of you may know, the National Unity Government was formed in a spirit of partnership, consensus and cooperation to preserve Afghanistan’s national interests and unity. In spite of the challenges that face any coalition government, the National Unity Government represents the absolute majority of the people of Afghanistan who defied violence and cast their vote to consolidate democracy and pluralism in our country. Very soon, the Unity Government will reach its two-years’ mark. Over this period of time, President Ghani and chief executive, Dr. Abdullah, have worked hard to implement a comprehensive reforms agenda in the political, economic and social sectors to overcome the threat of corruption and to reinvent the image of our institutions so that they are deemed more effective and credible in the eyes of our people.

To that end, we have taken the initiative to appoint competent and capable officials who place Afghanistan’s best interests above personal motives. It is only with such measures that we will be able to effectively implement projects and policies to bring real and tangible change in the lives of our people who regrettably have suffered from war, violence and poverty for over three decades. Step by step and initiative by initiative, we are working to embolden our people’s trust and confidence in our state institutions, knowing that the rule of law is a fundamental component for democracy, stability, and prosperity in any society.

As part of a major overhaul of our court system, we have begun the process of appointing capable judges and lawyers in place of individuals who were implicated in corruption and illegal activities. In that effort, more than 600 judges have already been replaced with investigations of many cases now being conducted. In the broader context, our overall goal is to instill a culture of genuine public service in the government.

Aside from judicial reforms, we have also taken a series of measures to manage our public finances more effectively. A lack of transparency in the issuance and approval of government contracts over the past several years exacerbated the problem of administrative corruption. As a measure to change this dangerous trend, the Unity Government established the National Procurement Commission co-chaired by President Ghani and chief executive, Dr. Abdullah, to ensure that the different stages of the process adhere to clear guidelines and regulations to avoid corruption. Thus far, we have approved over a thousand contracts valued at more than $2 billion. In that effort, we have saved more than $200 million and blacklisted 70 companies for malpractice.

The people of Afghanistan along with the many military and civilian personnel from the United States and our other partners have made enormous sacrifice for stability and democracy in Afghanistan.

To that end, the Unity Government is also focused on reforming our electoral law in order to ensure the credibility and transparency of our future elections. We consider our democracy to be a strategic asset for our stability. And we will, therefore, make every effort to consolidate the democratization process.

Ladies and gentlemen, from a security standpoint, our Army and police are leading combat operations against a dangerous and sophisticated network of terrorists and extremist group who continue their brutality against our people. Our forces are confronting and degrading enemy combatants on different fronts. Recently, we have foiled their efforts to capture and maintain control of the key districts of Kunduz, Helmand, and Urozgan provinces.

Overall, the Taliban and their affiliates are significantly weakened in terms of morale and operational capability. As a result, they have resorted to asymmetrical attacks focused on soft targets, such as education institutions, aid agencies, and public gatherings.

Early last month, a group of extremists attacked the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul killing seven students and five faculty and university staff. The attack was seen as an attack on our enduring partnership with the United States, our key ally and partner. We don’t expect the violence and terror to subside anytime soon as the Taliban and affiliate groups are sustained with logistical, financial and material support from elements in Pakistan.

As we have stated time and again, terrorism will not be defeated in Afghanistan or elsewhere as long as the distinctions between the good terrorists and bad terrorists continues, coupled with the lingering problem of terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries which remain unaddressed.

Despite their attacks, the enemies of Afghanistan’s peace and stability could never overcome our people’s determination to achieve a peaceful and prosperous country. Afghanistan remains in the front line of the global war against terrorism, and we will continue the fight against our common enemy until its eventual defeat.

In that context, it will be critically important that the international community remains invested in building the operational capacity of our national security forces as we move forward. We welcomed the outcome of the successful NATO Warsaw conference in June where our NATO partners renewed their support for our security forces until the end of 2020. That pledge of assistance resonates strongly with our brave soldiers and officers standing in harm’s way to defeat extremists for the benefit of peace and security in Afghanistan and the world at large.

As our fight against terrorism continues, we have not closed the window of opportunity for peace and reconciliation with the elements of armed opposition ready to give up violence, yet we know that any prospect for the success is strictly contingent on the extent to which the government of Pakistan is willing and ready to clamp down on extremist groups while persuading other groups and individuals ready to renounce violence, to engage in direct peace talks.

In this regard, we still believe the Quadrilateral Coordination Group composed of Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and the United States can be a useful platform if commitments made in the context of QCG’s road map are fulfilled.

We also believe that the United States, among other relevant stakeholders, can play a role in persuading Pakistan to change course and act in good faith. Despite the fact that our peace efforts with the Taliban have not led to desired results, we are optimistic about progress in high peace councils as dialogue and outreach with the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. This is an important development, ladies and gentlemen. And in our overall efforts to end, it’s an important development.

And as one of the significant achievements of the Unity Government over the past two years, we have elevated Afghanistan’s standing as a credible and trusted partner to the international community. In less than two weeks from now, as a follow up to the London and Warsaw conferences, Afghanistan and the international community will come together in Brussels to review the full range of our collaboration in the areas of security, governance, economic development, and regional cooperation.

We will present to the international community the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework which provides a five-year strategic plan to achieve self-reliance. We look to our allies to match their security assistance with new pledges of development aid to help us achieve our self-reliance strategy.

Despite our many challenges, we are confident about the future. The significant achievements over the past 15 years should be a source of pride, not only for the people of Afghanistan, but also for all the international partners. As we look ahead, we fully understand that the future path ahead of us is by no means without challenges. Having said that, we are confident about our success.

The many achievements of the past 15 years in various domains of society have had a profound impact on the lives of our people. In that spirit, we look forward to continuing and deepening our bilateral cooperation and partnership with the United States on the basis of strategic partnership and bilateral security agreements to advance our mutual goals.

Before concluding my remarks, I would like to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for the opportunity to be here with you this evening and most importantly for your continued interest in and support for the stability and prosperity in Afghanistan.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

BOIES: Thank you, Minister, and thank you for being with us here today.

RABBANI: Well, thank you again for inviting me.

BOIES: As we Americans look over nearly 15 years of spilled blood and treasure in Afghanistan, many wonder what it is that we have to show for it. In fact, there have been a number of improvements, as you mentioned, certainly in the fields of education and health and infrastructure and telephones and electricity and dams and roads. Could you give us some specifics on what solid achievements we can point to? And what would you say to help convince the American public that we should continue our presence and our support of Afghanistan based in part on the achievements that you’ve made to date?

RABBANI: Well, thank you. Again, let me thank you for inviting me.

As you know, as we speak now, more than 900 students, both boys and girls, are in education institutions in Afghanistan. This is one of the greatest achievements that we had. Today, we have a much more highly educated younger generation who are ready, willing, resolved, and determined to work for a stable and peaceful and democratic Afghanistan.

Today, we have an army that is defending Afghanistan from the enemies of peace and stability in Afghanistan. Today, we have a vibrant civil society. We see women in many walks of life. We see the participation of youth in different walks of life. So all of these are achievements that we have, and all of this is thanks to our partners in the international community and the resolve and determination of the Afghan people that has made this possible.

So I’m sure that no one would like to see this all in vain and they will work to strengthen our democratic process and in the institutionalization of peace and democracy in Afghanistan. And we believe this is something that the international community knows and that will encourage our international friends to help us and continue their support and help us become self-reliant.

BOIES: In 2002, our CIA estimated that a mere 800,000 students in Afghanistan were receiving a primary education; by far, the vast majority of those were boys. And today, the number is estimated at over 8 million students and 40 percent of those as girls. How did this happen? And is this one of your major bulwarks against insurgents and the Taliban?

RABBANI: Well, I think an educated population, and educated and highly aware population will, of course, support the development of Afghanistan, both economic and political development. I think when we see a number of boys and girls in schools and universities, it brings more hope, it encourages more Afghans to send their daughters and their sons to school, and we see a change.

Of course, there has been challenges, there has been incidents where it has discouraged. But overall, it’s something that is encouraging. We see that there is a growing number of families who send their daughters and sons to school, and this is something that we want to see.

BOIES: And yet, one gets the impression that despite the tremendous investment in the training and equipment of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, one does get the impression that at least key parts of Afghanistan are on the verge of being overrun by the Taliban. Are those reports accurate? And how would you assess the security situation today in Afghanistan?

RABBANI: Well, I must say that there are challenges, but to say that most of the state is on the verge of collapse with the Taliban, this is something that I don’t agree with. Last year, the Taliban managed to take one province just for a few days. This year, despite their attacks in many areas throughout Afghanistan, they couldn’t do anything. And it shows that our security and defense forces are now much more ready and a better version than they used to be a few years ago. And I’m confident that they will not be able to do anything.

BOIES: Well, your forces certainly outnumber and out-equip those of the Taliban. As I understand it, you have over 300,000 security forces and police and the Taliban are estimated to have in the neighborhood of 25(,000) to 30,000. And of course, your equipment is vastly superior to that of the Taliban. So why are they so hard to dislodge?

RABBANI: They don’t have bases or they don’t have, you know, captured districts or provincial, you know, capitals. Maybe what they do is they attack and then they leave, so that’s the thing. But overall, if you see the overall picture, it’s very positive. The Afghan forces have been able to defeat them.

Just recently, and as I just mentioned in my statement that in Urozgan and Helmand and in Kunduz, they attacked the security forces, but then our forces attacked and then took all those areas that they took. So they attack and then they leave, they don’t have the support of the people to stay and keep those areas where they have fought.

BOIES: And you say they attack and then they leave. Do they leave and cross the border back into Pakistan? And if that’s so, is Pakistan doing enough to root out the safe havens?

RABBANI: Well, with the, of course, formation of the National Unity Government, the Afghan government started a new chapter of relations with Pakistan with this in mind that they will work with Afghanistan to convince those elements of the Taliban who are willing to come to the peace and negotiation table and take action against those who are willing to commit violence or continue violence and killings in Afghanistan.

The issue of sanctuaries and safe havens is something that, of course, we are concerned, and we hope that the Pakistani government will take this issue seriously and, according to what we agreed on the Quadrilateral Coordination Group’s road map, that they will take action against those elements who are not ready to come to the negotiating table and who continue the path of violence and who insist on killing innocent Afghans.

So this spike in violence in Afghanistan shows that there is a continuous support from somewhere to them, otherwise they would have not been able to fight in several provinces at the same time.

BOIES: Will you tell us more about the Afghan Unity Government? When it came to power nearly two years ago, there was some skepticism that a dual-headed government could be effective, particularly in such a challenging environment. So you have President Ghani and CEO, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah; how does that work? Have they divided up respective responsibilities? Do they work together, and is it working?

RABBANI: It is working. I know that. We have seen improvements, we’ve had achievements. But again, there has been challenges, there has been some problems. On major political issues, on major policy issues, the two leaders have no problems, they are on the same page. They work together. They want to solve these issues.

On some minor issues of implementation of political agreement, there are some differences of views, but that does not mean that they don’t want to work with each other. I’m sure that they have shown this. They know the national interests of Afghanistan and they want to work for Afghanistan for a stable, prosperous, and democratic Afghanistan.

BOIES: You recently visited your counterpart in Iran—


BOIES: —Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who will be here with us on Friday.


BOIES: What did you talk about? (Laughter.)

RABBANI: Well, of course, it’s part of, you know, one of the jobs of the foreign minister is to, of course, visit neighboring countries, friendly countries to deepen and strengthen our relations. Iran is an important country in the region where we have almost 3 million refugees there. Iran has been supportive of the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan. And this visit is a visit to, again, strengthen our relations with Iran and discuss issues of mutual interest.

BOIES: As Iran becomes more active on the world stage, are they providing economic and security assistance to Afghanistan? And did you ask them for something they won’t give you, or did you ask them for something they will give you?

RABBANI: Of course, Iran has supported us. Iran has supported on the reconstruction of Afghanistan and after the collapse of the Taliban regime. And as you know, the railway line from Iran to Afghanistan has been extended and soon it will cross the border and Afghanistan will connected to Iran by railway. And of course, trade and transit, the Chabahar Port is an important thing. This provides another alternative for Afghanistan to export or import goods through that port. So we think that this is a very good development and we work together to achieve our goals.

BOIES: After meeting, Foreign Minister Zarif told the local Iranian press that Iran and Afghanistan are on the same boat with respect to fighting insurgencies and terrorism. Do you agree on who the insurgents and terrorists are?

RABBANI: Of course, they have always said that, you know, we want to have good relations with the central government of Afghanistan and they trust that the terrorists in Afghanistan, of course, pose a threat not only to Iran, but to all the countries in the region, the Central Asian countries, and they are ready and willing to work with us to tackle this issue.

BOIES: You also met with the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. And following your meeting, he was quoted in Iranian press saying that terrorism must not divert the attention of Muslims from the key threats to their community. And I’d like to read a quote. He said, again this is the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, he said, “The important and high-priority issues of Islamic states, such as the threat posed by the Zionist regime and the military and colonial presence of the U.S. in the region under pretext of fighting terrorism, are among the matters that should not be neglected and overshadowed by the growth of Takfiri groups.” Do you agree with this statement?

RABBANI: I met Ali Shamkhani, the national security adviser, not the secretary of the leadership. Of course, for them, again, security is an important matter, terrorism is an important matter, and they are concerned about the border security. They want to work with our security institutions and, of course, as security is not my field, they have to, of course, speak to our security officials in order to plan or work out on how to cooperate to tackle this threat. So this is what we discussed. And basically, these were the issues that were discussed, no more.

BOIES: So are you agreeing with him or not agreeing with him about the Zionist threat and the significance of U.S. presence in Afghanistan under the pretext of fighting terrorism?

RABBANI: Well, I can say that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is important for Afghanistan’s peace and stability. We have a bilateral agreement, security agreement with the United States. And for us in Afghanistan as a sovereign state, this is up to Afghanistan to decide with whom they should have friendship or with whom we should not. So this is purely an Afghan issue. And we will not be consulting anyone on with whom we should make friendship or with whom we should not.

BOIES: You have worked very hard on the four-party peace talks trying to get the Taliban to the table. And the four parties are Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the United States. Tell us about China’s role in these peace talks. Has it been constructive? Has it been active? And what is your relationship?

RABBANI: China is a country that has good relations both with Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s important, of course, in the QCG. We still believe, as I said earlier, that QCG is a good mechanism. China’s presence and the United States’ presence in this is important. And China has been supporting us in other areas, as you know. Until recently, Chinese were interested in economic projects in Afghanistan, but since last two years they have also been supporting and assisting us in the peace and reconciliation efforts. So their involvement is something that Afghanistan has welcomed, not only to Chinese, we welcome the support of all our neighbors, regional countries and international partners who can help us bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

BOIES: So what would it take to get the Taliban to the peace table?

RABBANI: Afghanistan’s government has opened doors of peace and negotiation to those elements of the Taliban who want to come to the negotiating table. I think our neighbors have to be, you know, sincere. In this case, of course, those members of QCG, and in particular in Pakistan, they have to work closely with Afghanistan to bring those elements of the Taliban to the negotiating table who want to join the peace and reconciliation process.

And what we see is there is a readiness on the part of, you know, other countries to work to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, but we need more activities, more commitment of Pakistan on this issue.

BOIES: So what motivates Pakistan in its treatment of insurgent groups in what appears to be their lack of will to help bring Taliban and other groups to the table?

RABBANI: Well, I think—we believe, we think that there are three things that Pakistan is concerned—there are—we see the change in behavior of Pakistan or the way that Pakistan behaves is because I think they have India phobia. There is a military and civilian tensions. And I think there is, you know, a trust deficit between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think out of these three we can work on the third one, which the Afghan government has already done. We have, after the formation of National Unity Government, did our best to go and work with Pakistan on many issues, and we tried to open a new chapter of relations.

But of course, on the first and the second, the India phobia and the military and civilian tensions of Pakistani leaders, this is something that they have to sort out.

BOIES: Thank you, Minister.

And now I would like to invite members to join the conversation. Reminder, this meeting is on the record. Please wait for the microphone, speak directly into it, and state your name and affiliation. Please limit yourself to one question, and try to be as concise as possible.

And a reminder, please turn off any cell phone, not just on silent, but turn it off so as not to interfere with the sound system.

So, do I have a question?

Yes, sir?

Q: Thank you. Barney Rubin, New York University. Hi. Thank you, welcome.

You mentioned the train that recently arrived in Afghanistan from Iran. Now, one of the reasons that Pakistan can put so much pressure on Afghanistan is that Afghanistan is landlocked and has relied on transit through Pakistan for its international trade and also for international assistance. You now have the joint India-Iran-Afghan project connecting Afghanistan to blue waters through the Port of Chabahar.

Also recently, a train arrived in northern Afghanistan from Nantong and Jiangsu province of China bearing commercial goods as well. And that is part of the Chinese belt and road initiative.

I wonder if you could say something about how these nascent initiatives might change the strategic situation of Afghanistan and how the United States could contribute to making them work together rather than against each other.

RABBANI: I think these are very positive developments for Afghanistan. As you said, the Chabahar Port gives another alternative route for Afghan transit and trade. And the train that just arrived just a few days ago from China, these are all the things that the Unity Government wanted.

What we need is regional connectivity. What we need is that Afghanistan should be seen as a crossroad, not as a landlocked country. What we want to see is the growing, you know, positive dependency on each other. And Afghanistan should be seen as an economic opportunity rather than as a security risk. So these are very positive things.

Of course, not only the United States, all our other international partners should encourage and should support these initiatives because this is good for Afghan economy, this is good for the regional economy. And this will, as the economy grows, as the economy develops, I think we will see less security incidents and we will see most of these unemployed youth in Afghanistan joining these economic projects.

As you know, we’re working on CASA-1000 which transfers electricity from Central Asia to South Asia, the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, so these are good programs and they have started. They are now almost in the implementation phase, which is very good news for the region and in particular for Afghanistan.

BOIES: And India has been helpful in that regard. President Ghani recently met with Prime Minister Modi in India and came back with a billion-dollar pledge for development assistance. How is Afghanistan going to spend that money?

RABBANI: They have announced this. And of course, India, again, has been a good friend of Afghanistan. India has helped in many major projects in Afghanistan. They recently inaugurated Afghan-India Friendship Dam as a clear example of India’s support to Afghanistan on developing economic fields.

The $1 billion assistance that they have announced that they will give Afghanistan will mainly go toward agricultural, on development and other areas on building capacity. So I hope that like other Indian projects in Afghanistan, this will be a very positive contribution for the Afghan economy.

BOISE: Miss, yes?

Q: Masuda Sultan, Insight Group. I had the honor of working with your father when he was head of the High Peace Council.

I wanted to ask you about the deal that is about to be signed with Hezb-e Islami and I wanted to understand a little bit more about it, what you thought the effect would be of that deal. I know that there was a big issue of the condition of the cancellation of pacts with the U.S.—

RABBANI: The cancellation of what?

Q: The cancellation of certain pacts with the U.S. and its timetable for withdrawal. And they’ve come back around on that. I just wanted to get some insight into that deal and how it happened and how you think it’ll turn out.

RABBANI: OK. Well, first of all, of course, I think it should be seen a positive development in Afghanistan. This agreement with Hezb-e Islami will encourage other elements to join the peace process in Afghanistan. And it is good for the broader reconciliation process. On this issue, of course, all of the Afghan political parties, they have supported it and we hope that this will be something good.

On the issue of the certain articles in the agreement, it’s clear, Afghanistan’s government position is clear and it has not put any restrictions on anything that are of major concern. So we see this as a positive development and we see this as a good step for the broader reconciliation process.

BOIES: Mr. Paul?

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

As you know, two of the biggest factors supporting the Taliban as an insurgent group are sanctuary and supply. Does the supply only come from the Pakistanis or are there other suppliers to them? And could you mention any near-term, feasible steps that may weaken their sanctuary role in Pakistan, their ability to maintain sanctuaries there?

RABBANI: In terms of where do they get supplies or assistance, of course, the spike in violence shows that they are getting supplies or support from somewhere. There are signs because we saw where Mansour, their leader, got killed. So their sanctuaries, their bases are somewhere in certain areas in Pakistan. I think this is something that the Pakistani leadership should take seriously and should make sure that these don’t operate in those areas or from those areas.

Where are they getting their supplies from? Of course, they are getting from probably many sources. One is that, of course, some of them are engaged in illicit drug trafficking, the criminal activities that they make, plus the support of certain countries.

BOIES: Yes, ma’am?

Q: K.T. McFarland, Fox News.

When Mrs. Boies opened the question, she kind of referred to American frustration that after 15 years of blood and treasure, you know, what do we have to show for it. From your perspective after 15 years of your efforts, and you alluded to it in your opening remarks of decades of war, what are your frustrations with us? I mean, how do you look at the relationship with the United States over the last 15 years, the frustrations, the disappointments, the good news? And then how do you look at the future?

RABBANI: Of course, we are profoundly grateful for the U.S.’s support. As I said, those achievements could have not been possible without the support of international partners and, in particular, of the United States.

We, of course, want to continue this relation, to deepen and strengthen the relationship. What we want is, of course, is that the U.S. should help us in certain areas to become self-reliant. One thing that Afghans don’t want is to be dependent on the aid of the international community forever. That’s why we are, in the upcoming Brussels conference, we are going to be presenting a framework, as I said, the Afghan Peace and Development Framework, which lays out a vision of how we get self-reliance and the goals to achieve self-reliance. So we want to have good relations with the United States. And of course, that will continue. And we want to strengthen this relationship.

BOIES: So do you believe that the current size of the military presence from the United States in Afghanistan is adequate given the enormous training and equipment of your security forces?

RABBANI: I think this is an internal U.S. issue on how much troops they want to keep in Afghanistan. But what we say is that the decision that was made was based on reality and Afghanistan has welcomed it. Now, it’s up to, again, to the U.S. government the number, how much troops they want to keep in Afghanistan. What we have been saying is that the troop withdrawal should not be based on the calendar, it should be based on the realities on the ground.

BOIES: And do you think that the two missions that we are implementing are the right ones, that what our military is doing there, given its size, are the right missions for it to be doing?

RABBANI: Of course, they are doing great, they are supporting Afghan forces and the recent NATO Warsaw conference. They have committed to support the Afghan forces. And we welcomed it.

BOIES: Yes, miss in the white?

Q: Mr. Minister, Maria Elena Torano from Miami.

You referred to two groups individually of your society and the advancement that they have had in the last 10, 15, 20 years. You referred to youth, how a great number of children are getting educated, and you referred to women. I’d like some examples of how Afghani women are exercising their leadership. We have several heads of governments in Europe, hopefully we’ll have one two months from now. And I’d like some examples of where are your women in positions of responsibility and power.

RABBANI: Sure. Well, the role of women in Afghanistan is growing. In the National Unity Government, there are more than, I believe, seven deputy women ministers. We have in our ministry, ministry of foreign affairs, we have four ambassadors, we have 25 percent of members of national assembly are women. So we see, you know, their growing role. And the government, the National Unity Government is working very hard to ensure that women are represented in every walk of life and that they are active.

Going back to the Brussels conference, we have two side events in Brussels conference, one on the regional economic cooperation and another one is particularly on women empowerment side event. So this is important. We believe that women make 50 percent of the population of our country and their role is important. They have to be part of our, you know, society and they have to be an active part and contributing part of our society.

Q: Thank you, good to hear.

BOIES: Now, that’s quite an extraordinary development. Are you speaking for the leadership or do you think you speak for every man in Afghanistan? How do the people in Afghanistan feel about women having 25 percent of the positions in the national assembly and the deputy minister jobs that you name?

RABBANI: When the national constitution was approved in Afghanistan, there were people from all over our country and they all agreed on this. So this is not coming just from leadership of Afghanistan, but from everywhere.

And the example that I gave, the growing number of girls going to school, shows that, of course, Afghan families, Afghan fathers and mothers both encourage their daughters to go to school, so this is a very good development. I think this is not just my words, but most of the words of Afghanistan.

But again, one thing we have to accept, Afghanistan is a, you know, conservative society, but that does not mean that they prevent their girls from going to school. In certain areas, they might be, but overall the situation is good. We see a growing number of girls in the universities and in schools.

BOIES: Yes, miss, in the black?

Q: Hi, Amy Davidson, The New Yorker.

As you may know, next Monday is the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. What question do you think each of them should be asked about Afghanistan if you could write it? What would illuminate the most for you their policies, their characters from an Afghan perspective?

RABBANI: I will leave the question for the moderator to ask. (Laughter.) But what I believe—

BOIES: I’m sorry, we’re not going to allow that answer. (Laughter.) And you can ask the same question to both candidates. Ms. Davidson is not asking you to take sides.

RABBANI: So I think, you know, it’s up to them. I think what we want in Afghanistan and what we are seeking is close and strategic relations with the United States. It’s up to the, you know, U.S. population, U.S. public whom they want to be their next leader. And whoever is their next leader, we welcome and we would like to have good relations with them.

BOIES: Following on Ms. Davidson’s question, there is a noted absence of discussion in this campaign about Afghanistan and how the last 15 years have gone and what needs to be done over the next five to 10 years. How do you interpret that? Is that a sign of Afghanistan fatigue, if you will? Or to what do you attribute this?

RABBANI: I think when they—I’m sure that they have—Afghanistan is a country that they have sent their sons and daughters, as we know, that you have sacrificed your sons and daughters in Afghanistan. And it’s not something that—and you will definitely this as a success because you don’t want to see those sacrifices go in vain. And I’m sure that at one point it will be taken seriously by both leaders and they will definitely want to see a stable, prosperous, and democratic Afghanistan. And it’s something that the U.S. started and I’m sure that the U.S. wants to see success in Afghanistan and wants to see a democratic Afghanistan.

BOIES: Yes, sir?

Q: Thank you. Hi, sir. My name is Kalpen Modi with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Thank you for joining us and thank you for sharing some of the success stories with regard to young people. My question is related.

Recently, The New York Times and The Guardian have run a number of articles on child soldiers on the Afghani side, as well as the practice of bacha bazi, or sexual abuse of children on military bases. And I guess the question that I have is, why does this happen? What is Afghanistan doing to counter it? And how can international partners, like the U.S., be helpful in that regard? Thank you.

RABBANI: On the two issues that you mentioned, the child soldiers and the other issue of bacha bazi, I think the second one is in some very isolated incidents. There may have been some, but it’s not something that is very much, you know, too much widespread.

On the child soldiers, Afghan government’s position is very clear. Of course, we will never allow children to be in the army. And this is clear that we have taken steps to prevent that from happening. Again, there might be a few here and there, but they are not, you know, employed by the Afghan security institutions. So, you know, some isolated incidents doesn’t mean that this is something that’s happening or that’s very common.

BOIES: Yes, sir?

Q: Herbert Levin, Council member.

Without your getting in trouble at home, could you give us some understanding for the differences in different parts of the country? The people in Helmand are not the same as the people in the Wakhan. Which parts of the country do you see as progressing faster? Which parts of the country do you see as having more problems?

And then you referred to two of your neighbors, Pakistan and Iran. You have four other land borders. What roles do they play? Thank you.

RABBANI: First of all, on Afghans, whether they are from Pamir or from south from other areas, they are all Afghans. They are proud people. There are no differences amongst them. Some areas have seen more violence, some areas have seen less. But overall, of course, when it comes to Afghanistan, we see them as a nation, there is no differences between them.

On the issue of the borders with other countries, if I’ve taken your point correctly, our relations are good. We are working with them. We have a very constructive dialogue with all the Central Asian states. And as I said, the examples of TARPI (ph) and CASA-1000 shows that we want to develop and improve and strengthen our relations with them.

BOIES: Many years ago, indeed at the beginning of the 2002, there was at the Bonn conference a lot of emphasis on eradicating the poppy trade out of Afghanistan. What is the status there? And have we just simply given up on that as an objective?

RABBANI: Well, poppy eradication is not only, you know, a responsibility of Afghans. Of course, it’s a demand-driven trade. If there is a demand, there will always be supply. But before going to that, we see, you know, if poppy is refined, where are the precursors coming from? Where are they refined? Who gets the most out of it? So in order to fight the drug eradication program successfully and poppy eradication, there has to be joint effort by all, by those consuming states and also by the producing. So we have taken action on our part and we encourage and support and invite other countries to make sure that those precursors who are used to refine and to refine opium and from opium to heroin should be stopped. And this is something that that’s not in the control of Afghanistan. So the countries, there should be joint effort to prevent this.

BOIES: But for many people, the poppy production puts food on the table to feed their families. And what steps is your government taking to provide alternative opportunities for those people?

RABBANI: There are certain steps that have been taken and we are working on it. The introduction of saffron, the cultivation of saffron is a very good alternative, this is something, and encouraging farmers to grow wheat so that the state could buy from them is another step to reduce, you know, to discourage them from growing opium poppies.

BOIES: You are a country rich in minerals and you referred in your opening remarks to the new mining law. What does that law provide and how is it working?

RABBANI: Afghanistan, of course, is, as you said, is rich in many, you know, minerals. We have taken steps to regularize, to make sure that the mining takes place in a professional way and government is serious about it because we believe that Afghanistan has a future in mining. It will provide lots of jobs for the people in Afghanistan. And we are working and encouraging investments to come to Afghanistan because I’m sure that the mining sector requires lots of investment from abroad. So once these investments come, once we see some, you know, productivity, we will see economic growth and we see that with the economic growth will come stability.

BOIES: And what countries are most active in developing your mineral resources?

RABBANI: We have signed a contract with the Chinese. As you know, there is a huge copper mine in Logar province. The Chinese are also working in northern Afghanistan. And the Indian companies are interested in iron ore, to sign an agreement on that, and they have already done that. So we are encouraging other countries also to take part in these initiatives.

BOIES: Yes, miss?

Q: Good evening, Minister. My name is Dipali Mukhopadhyay. I am an assistant professor at SIPA at Columbia.

You mentioned that there are, I think, as you described them, minor issues of implementation between the president and Mr. Abdullah. Could you give us a little more detail on how those challenges are being managed? And also, for those leaders and individuals who are outside of the National Unity Government, what kind of engagement is being done between the government and those individuals, including, for example, President Karzai?

RABBANI: The implementation issues, as I said, in the political agreement, of course, certain steps had to be taken. For example, the electoral reform, the issuance of electronic ID cards, the holding of constitutional loya jirga, so these are the issues that they have to work out. And although now recently the president has signed the electoral law, which is good news, which is a good step towards electoral reform, and we hope that the issuance of electronic IDs will take place, so these are the things that should have taken place earlier, but at least now it has taken place. And we hope that as we progress, as we move forward, we will see the positive results of these steps.

On what the other leaders are doing, of course one thing I’m sure that everyone in the Afghan political, you know, elites, they agree that we should continue, that this government should fulfill its term, should be given the chance to work and to deliver to the people what they have promised. So the politicians may have their own ideas, but overall what is important for them is the national interests of Afghanistan, the unity of Afghanistan, on which they all agree that they should work to preserve that.

BOIES: Minister, your—oh, sorry, Mr. Rubin, back to you.

Q: I thought you were looking for a question, so I did have another one. (Laughter.)

Hi, Barney Rubin. This is about your relations with India and Pakistan. This current administration in Afghanistan began when President Ghani made very far-reaching offers to Pakistan, which really was a political risk for him and he was criticized very heavily for it, including by President Karzai. And I think the idea was, what Mr. Brahimi used to say, Afghanistan cannot be stable unless Pakistan wants it to be stable. But he didn’t get the response from Pakistan that he hoped for.

Now he is criticizing Pakistan extremely harshly, even to the point of holding up Christine Fair’s book at press conferences, you know, her book on the Pakistan military. And now Afghanistan looks like it is moving very sharply into close relations with India, which you have always had, but you try to keep them, in some ways, not to provoke Pakistan. Now, certainly I can understand why that’s the case.

Do you have a vision of how you are going to manage these two relationships? Where are you trying to get to? What is your road map for doing that?

BOIES: Mr. Rubin asked the last question and you will have the last word.

RABBANI: First of all, to answer Mr. Rubin’s question, we have always said that our relations with one country is not at the expense of our relations with any other country. If we are close with one country, it doesn’t mean that we are moving away from other countries. We want to have good relations with all the countries in the region and that includes, of course, Pakistan and India, and this is what the government has been doing and this is what, you know, we are all doing.

Now, of course, there are, from time to time, there are, you know, ups and downs in the relations, but in the long term we want to have good relations with all our neighbors.

BOIES: Minister, we wish you and your country well, and we thank you for your presence here tonight.

RABBANI: Well, thank you very much. Thank you.

BOIES: We thank all of you for coming. (Applause.)

RABBANI: Thank you.


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