Toward a New Afghanistan

Friday, September 25, 2015
Courtesy: Don Pollard
Abdullah Abdullah

Chief Executive, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan


Co-Chairman, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury

Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive officer of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, joins Robert E. Rubin, co-chairman of CFR's board of directors and a former U.S. secretary of the treasury, to discuss issues facing the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Abdullah reflects on the challenges and opportunities facing the Afghan national unity government, which completed a year in power in September 2015. He reflects on security situation in the country given the threat of a resurgent Taliban insurgency. Abdullah additionally describes how Afghanistan's neighbors, including Pakistan, China, Iran, and India, are contributing to its overall stability.

RUBIN: Well, welcome. And congratulations on getting here, given what’s happening with traffic on the streets of New York. First, let me say welcome to all of you to today’s meeting with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. We are obviously delighted that you were able to join us today. And there’s tremendous interest in your country for all the obvious reasons. And so it is a great honor and a privilege for us to have you with us.

In accordance with the practice of the Council, I will not recite from the chief executive’s resume, but you have it in your materials. And as you can see, he’s had an outstanding and distinguished career in serving his country, including, I might add, as a medical doctor.

ABDULLAH: The one which I have written it myself, that’s more impressive that—(laughter).

RUBIN: No, I think—well, maybe, but I think what you’re doing now—and I think really the remarkable collaboration that you have with President Ghani is also just a—is a great service to your country. And that’s important to your country, and also important the world.

Why don’t we do this, Mr. Executive? I read your administration’s economic program. And what it basically says is that the economic prospects of Afghanistan, the national security, and political stability are all intertwined. So why don’t we begin, if we may, by asking you to give us your views with respect to political stability and national security, and then we’ll turn to the economy and to more specific questions. So let’s start with political stability and economic—and national security.

ABDULLAH: Thank you. And thank you for the opportunity. And good afternoon to all of you. If I was a bit late, at least on this part I think I am not to be blamed. (Laughter.)

RUBIN: Although we don’t want to blame the pope either, so it gets complicated.

ABDULLAH: I may start with the—a little bit of the past two, three years. The political transition in Afghanistan took place—or was about to take place at the same time that the security/military transition was about to take place, 2014, and at the same time elections in Afghanistan. And prior to that, to the tensions between the leadership in Afghanistan, and also the U.S. administration and the issues, that’s very obvious. We went through a period of tension—I mean the leadership in Afghanistan, mainly.

From 2012, when the issue of 2014 came out, economy started slowing down, people started holding back little bit. So what happens in 2014 when the international forces leave Afghanistan or the mission changes? Will Afghanistan be able to sustain its security and stability? What happens? So that was the start of a little bit of downslide. And then we had elections, which was a prolonged one. Political transition, security transition. For economic transition, there was no provision. Nobody had thought about it because these other two transitions were so overwhelming.

So what we see, later on when we talk about the economic situation, today’s it’s not like the product of the past few months. It’s like something which you started a little—a little bit further down the road. And then we are where we are at the moment. Then the formation of unity government, which was a very unique experience in our part of the world. If I may claim that we don’t have examples of it in our part of the world, this will not be an exaggeration.

RUBIN: We’re not doing so well either here. (Laughter.)

ABDULLAH: So we started at such a time that the security transition had taken place. In order to give you a little bit of the sense or the feeling about the security transition, imagine a situation where—or visualize it, which was the real situation at that time—140,000 foreign troops were helping us in support of security and stability in Afghanistan. And today, we are talking about 10,000 to 12,000. So the burden was shifted very quickly. And the pace was such that we were not ready to take it up as such.

But still, the security forces of Afghanistan and the institutions of Afghanistan, which were there and had reached to a certain level, they proved their viability in the past one year. There it takes me to the support that the United States has provided for us in the past 14 years, contributions in blood and treasure, which the people of Afghanistan, all of us, the leadership in Afghanistan, we are grateful to that. There is no way that one can describe such a—such a big contribution, engagement and sacrifices, alongside the sacrifices of our people—of our people.

Then the unity government was formed. In Kabul or elsewhere, it was—I would read commentaries that it will not last for two months or three months. Now it’s in one or two days’ time—a few days’ time we are commemorating the first anniversary of the formation of the unity government. And our experience is unique, there is no doubt. We have—we have—our record in the eyes of the people is seen as mixed. First, the expectations were very high from the unity government. At the same time, the—some of the challenges that we’re face—we were faced at that time still persist, including the threat from terrorism and extremism and security situation, which has its own consequences.

Political stability—the government is functioning. Perhaps the people expect better delivery. The certain promises that we have made to the—to the people of Afghanistan—we have delivered on that. This is including the reform in the areas of governance as well as in the electoral system.

Some of the issues needs more focus from us. Politically, we are—we are on the right path, and that means that the promises that we have made to our people we have to deliver. Elections next year—election is delayed, but for very obvious reasons—security comes at the top of it, and also the time that was passed earlier, before the elections, and the reform which is needed in the electoral system, which takes time.

On some of the agendas we are behind the schedule. Still, the—in terms of security, the prediction was that the Taliban will take over at least major part of the country, and they tried. They tried very hard.

We made efforts in the beginning, knowing the circumstances around it: President Ghani and myself, the unity government. And in regards to improvement of our relations with our neighboring countries, in some areas we are disappointed, again, for very obvious reasons, because the threats against our country emanating from outside Afghanistan continues. That has its own impact on the political situation, on the economic situation and also our performance as a whole.

So to wrap it up, the political situation, political process is on the right track, and perhaps we need to re-energize it for the—and recently there were two conferences in Kabul which was like a sort of stock-taking to see what happens. And all together with our partners in a sort of honest analysis of the situation, the achievements were acknowledged, the shortcomings were also highlighted, and the way forward—self-reliance, which is something which we have committed ourselves during London conference—the path to self-reliance is also more clear today than it was.

RUBIN: Let me ask you a question in that context, if I could, Mr. Chief Executive Officer. The reported death of the head of the Taliban, whenever that death may have occurred—I gather there’s some complexity about that, but in any event—(chuckles)—and the strife that exists in the leadership—how does that affect your ability to negotiate with the Taliban? And as you negotiate with the Taliban, what are your objectives?

ABDULLAH: The—it revealed a few—a few facts. War was conducted in the past two years—two years ago is the time that we believe that—

RUBIN: Yeah.

ABDULLAH: —Mullah Omar had passed away.

RUBIN: Right.

ABDULLAH: On their own intelligence, India’s National Directorate of Security was insistent that from such a date they don’t have any evidence that he is alive, but they couldn’t come up with the sort of concrete evidence that he was dead and he was buried. So that was the belief for quite some times.

Then what happened? The debate, argument within the Taliban ranks, high ranks, senior Taliban officials, got very heated in the past—like prior to the final announcement, which—that became more obvious. And then everybody approved it.

So war was conducted under the name of a dead person against us, and also negotiations were launched some—from time to time, on and off, under the name of those persons. And those who are facilitating the negotiations sometimes I—without mentioning their names, I mention their names.

RUBIN: OK. (Chuckles.)

ABDULLAH: We used to ask those who were facilitating these talks to us that who these people which were going to come to the negotiating table will represent—well, do they represent Mullah Omar? They were saying yes, we are—these people represent Mullah Omar and his views. Sometimes they will say that we don’t know where he is, but we know people who know where Mullah Omar is.

RUBIN: (Chuckles.)

ABDULLAH: And then as far as negotiations in Qatar was concerned, these messages by donkeys—it takes three weeks, according to that explanation—this became a sort of famous expression.

So then suddenly the news was out, and that created a lot of rifts among the Taliban ranks, because in their own sense there was a legitimacy—Amir ul-Momineen, which was elected by ulamas, in Taliban terms. That legitimacy was not there anymore. The Taliban have started questioning that—what is the—who kept the news hidden, why it was kept hidden, and why we didn’t know about this one? And they feel—they feel cheated. And more than anybody else, the outgoing government, previous government and our government felt cheated upon because it was a very obvious situation that at least some people knew about it.

Now there is—there are divisions amongst the Taliban, and, well, they are questioning—they are increasing dissent in their ranks in different parts of the country. Nevertheless, that coincided with the emergence of Daesh, and­—not in Afghanistan but a little bit further away from Afghanistan, and—that idea. And then some of the—some groups from amongst the Taliban, they announced their allegiance to Daesh, not in big numbers, but still, that’s a—that’s a factor.

So in terms of the future of negotiations, it’s a new era. Taliban will not be the same group as in the past because there was one umbrella. All the different groups under different names and labels that announced their allegiance to the Taliban leadership, today that’s not the case—though in terms of terrorism and terrorist organizations, for example, Zawahiri, Ayman al-Zawahiri announced his allegiance to the current—to the person which was named as leader, and then which was—his leadership was challenged by the rest of the Taliban. So he has expressed allegiance to that person. So there are these things which are—which are happening.

The impact of this on the situation, security and stability, yet to be seen, but certainly it will have an impact. A united Taliban, if they—if they are willing to follow the path of peace, I mean, durable, dignified peace with the rights of the citizens are preserved and the constitution of Afghanistan is respected, that’s a different issue. A united Taliban and determined to fight to the—to the end, with support from the terrorist groups, that’s a very different issue. So Taliban are not united anymore, and this will have an impact on the situation.

RUBIN: Let me ask you an economic question, if I—if I may, Mr. Chief Executive. I don’t know if any of you have read—I have read the economic reform program the government just put forward, and it’s very impressive. It talks about the challenges of corruption and political stability and the other issues we’re talking about, but also talks about the tremendous economic prospects that Afghanistan could have, with natural resources, with agriculture, as an—as an energy hub because the Stans have a lot of—or some of them have hydropower, and you could it to Pakistan and India, where it’s needed, and—

When you read this, I think you come—or at least I came away with the feeling that if you could deal with the national—with the security and the political issues, there was real opportunity to Afghanistan. So my question was going to be, if you’re going to develop—well, how—what are the prospects, I guess, for developing agriculturally, the development of natural resources, this idea of Afghanistan as a trade hub and an energy hub for the region? And relatedly, since that’s going to take a vast amount of infrastructure, what are your relationships like with China particularly, since they would have a big stake in your success in this regard, but also Pakistan and other countries in the region in providing capital and expertise and so forth to develop this economic potential?

ABDULLAH: The potentials are there, and—as far as natural resources of Afghanistan is concerned, as far as development—the potential for agribusiness, agriculture, which the people are—the people very much acquainted with for centuries. Trade has increased with all the neighboring countries, though the balance is towards imports rather than—rather than exports, but manyfolds it has increased with all the neighboring countries—and as far as the connectivity which Afghanistan provide, in a smaller scale, country to country, from bilateral way, in bilateral—and also multilateral way. It’s a unique situation and a unique potential.

It depends on quite a few factors. Yourself mentioned the political stability, which is key, then it’s security. When it comes to security, we started from a point where there were no national army and national police or national institutions. And now, with the support of the international community and the United States in lead, we have a national army and national institutions, which are—which are dealing with the threats which are there. Nevertheless, we still need support for some times to come in order to be able to address these challenges.

The fact that in the past 20 year, Taliban, with the support that they received, they didn’t miss any opportunity to hit us hard. And there is all-out—there was at one stage fighting in five, six zones of the country on top of that suicidal attacks and explosions in here and there. So they tested their own ability as well as our forces’ ability.

The fact that—three factors I count as very important, which are—which are changes, positive changes which took place after the formation of the unity government. First, the spirit of partnership between Afghanistan and its partners, it’s changed positively. Prior to that, there were tensions and difficulties, but the spirit of partnership between Afghanistan and our partners today is collegial. It is very much friendly. And that is positive.

Then the—within the country, between our forces and the RS—Resolute Support—mission or NATO leading, ISAF, the nature of working together has changed positively, and it is working very well. And also, the support which our own leadership provides to our security forces, that’s also a positive, positive change today. Coordination between us and our international partners is much better in—than at any other time before.

Nevertheless, it’s not 2010, it’s not time of surge, political, military, civilian, economical. It’s not that—those times. So the—while the potentials are there, the achievements are there, in order to consolidate those achievements, support is also needed.

RUBIN: Well, let me—let me turn to three countries that are—we’re going to turn shortly, by the way, to questions from everyone who is here with us. But let me—in that context, let me ask about three countries and the role that they’re playing. What role is China playing, both in terms of security and economic development, infrastructure, investment, if any? Iran, and what role does Iran play, which I gather is fairly complicated? And then the most complicated of all, I suppose: What role is Pakistan playing?

ABDULLAH: Should I start from the most complicated?

RUBIN: You can take—I was going to say, you take them in any order you like. I thought I did it from simpler to more complicated, I think, but I don’t know—you do what you—

ABDULLAH: So if I take any order, then I interpret it as less complicated.

RUBIN: OK. (Chuckles.)

ABDULLAH: So China is—has been helping Afghanistan in the past 14 years—support for the reconstruction of the country, capacity-building. At the same—at the same time showed some interest in investing in Afghanistan, investment in Afghanistan. And recently, they also were facilitating or supporting the initiatives which were there for reconciliation by engaging with Pakistan—China and Pakistan, their relations, of course, pretty obvious. Our expectation was and is from China to use its influence, positive influence over Pakistan, in order to—for Pakistan to be more helpful in terms of security cooperation.

RUBIN: Or less unhelpful, I suppose?

ABDULLAH: And tomorrow, we are—there is—there is an important event, co-chaired by Afghanistan, the United States, and China, where friends of Afghanistan are invited. And this is a forum to, once again, to—first, to project the partnership between Afghanistan and the international community—which is a broad partnership; the fact that China is also co-chairing, that in itself is very telling—and at the same time to re-energize the partnership between Afghanistan and the international community: When I mentioned earlier that while the achievements are there, but in order to consolidate those achievements, we need your support—perhaps not in the same scale, absolutely not, but support is needed in all—in all trends,

So the—that is—that is China.

In regards to Pakistan, we made efforts, and President Ghani visited Pakistan, and this was one of his first visits in the region. And we have extended hands of friendship to all our neighboring countries. And based on shared challenges, common challenges and shared opportunities which are ahead of us, the common challenges, the threat of terrorism and Taliban and Haqqani and other terrorist groups, which are based in Pakistan, which have sanctuaries in Pakistan, and for many years they have threatened security and the stability in Afghanistan—and our innocent citizens or your countrymen who have helped us are being targeted by these groups. And this is—these are not claims by Afghan government, or let’s say previous government led by former President Karzai or by our officials; these are facts of life. And our argument throughout has been that terrorism will not serve any country as an instrument for achieving foreign or military objective. And that is—that is—and from the other side, there are many opportunities that we can gain in normal, friendly relations.

Our experience has been a mixed experience, mixed—more leaning towards (delicate ?). And today this is also our message, that the—at the end of the day, these radical terrorist groups, they have their own agenda. Regardless of the fact who supports them, who doesn’t support them, who allows them chance, who give them opportunities, who don't, at the end of the day they are—they are after their own agenda rather than serving any state or nation-state agenda. A few days ago, one of the airports in Pakistan was attacked by suicidal attackers, and Afghanistan was accused of harboring those people. Afghanistan will be—this will be the last thing that Afghanistan will exercise, to harbor terrorist groups. But it is—it is over two decades that we know for a fact that those groups which are attacking Afghanistan are coming from—(inaudible)—sanctuaries.

And we think—and the Afghans think, it’s not just the Afghan politicians, the elites of the country—all our people think that our expectation is legitimate, very legitimate—and not based on just self-interest, but based on a human experience. These groups, which are—claim to have attacked Pakistan, those were not created in Afghanistan. Those were created for other purposes. And now they are—they are following another agenda.

So this is a part of the complication of our relations with Pakistan. Then we—if you see other areas—trade, peoples-to-peoples relations, and all the other areas where we have made progress. But on this subject, we are not where we ought to be.

RUBIN: Let me ask you, in that context, a sensitive—maybe a sensitive question, may not be—but where do the security services Pakistan stand in this complex relationship?

ABDULLAH: For example, when you—when we—when we talk about sanctuaries, they say that—give us the coordinates for those sanctuaries. (Chuckles.) It is—the relations between agencies and these groups are very, very obvious. Nobody denies it. And yes, there were times that they were saying that we do know where are they—and then today the narrative as changed, very much so. These are—these are—these are facts. Peaceful Afghanistan is in the interest of Pakistan and the whole region. Peaceful Afghanistan is first and foremost in the interests of our people. I don’t think that there are—there are—there is any desire in Afghan leadership to pursue anything but achieving peace and—dignified peace. At the same time, there are these obstacles that we see—

RUBIN: May I ask you one more question, if I may, and then we’ll open this up to everybody—let me add—I should have said this from the beginning—this is also being teleconferenced to Washington office of the Council and then to national members.

ABDULLAH: Oh, I thought that it was off the record, so.

RUBIN: No, you didn’t. (Laughter.) It is on the record. Or you can retract everything you said if you want to, but—(chuckles)—you left out one country, Iran.

ABDULLAH: We have good relations with Iran, with the Islamic Republic of Iran as a neighboring country. And the fact that Tehran did not put its relations with Afghanistan under the impact of its international relations with other countries or with partners of Afghanistan, that was—that was very helpful. It means that they understood our situation and the need for helping stability in Afghanistan. And we also had positive attitude right from the beginning because that’s our attitude towards all our neighboring countries, and that has been like that throughout.

And in between, when there are issues, then we engage, we interact, we discuss, we agree. And this is what we expect from the neighboring countries. And the fact that the nuclear deal was progress, a significant progress in that regard between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, that was welcomed throughout Afghanistan as a—as a good sign for stability in our—in our part of the world. We have good relations, and they’ve been helping us in reconstruction of the country in certain areas. And that’s—so we don’t have those complications.

RUBIN: Good. OK. (Chuckles.) Now, why don’t we take questions from anybody who would like? Yes, ma’am. Say who you are, and then state your question briefly so that we can get as many questions as possible. I think there are—there are microphones.

Q: Thank you very much. Thank you. Pleasure to see you. My name’s Barbara Slavin. I’m with the Atlantic Council, and I focus on Iran, and I wanted to follow up on that question a little bit more.

Do you anticipate a lot of traffic coming from Central Asia through Iran to Chabahar, the development of that port by India, the infrastructure and so on, especially with relief of sanctions? What are your expectations for the use of Chabahar?

ABDULLAH: Yes, this is—Chabahar can provide much-needed connectivity for Afghanistan. In fact, Afghanistan is working on different directions, towards Central Asia, towards Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, and Europe. That’s one corridor that Afghanistan is focused and there is connectivity there. Through Caspian Sea there is another way. Chabahar is another valuable potential. Especially when the issue of sanctions are over, that will serve connectivity between South Asia, Central Asia, through Afghanistan, and other ways.

RUBIN: Thank you. Yes, sir.

Q: Hi. My name’s Donald Moore. I’m a lawyer and a partner of a law firm called Reed Smith and I’ve been doing legal work in Afghanistan for maybe seven, eight years now, but for Afghan companies, not for international companies, so like Insurance Corporation of Afghanistan, TOLO TV, and AIB, the bank.

So my question is, now that Khalil Sediq is the governor of the central bank, what can the unity—is the unity government going to be very active in banking reform in supporting probably what Kahlil Sediq wants to do in banking reform? And also, maybe a comment on Kabul Bank. What can the unity government do about finalizing the issues surrounding Kabul Bank?

ABDULLAH: On the issue of reform in the banking sector, Mr. Sediq that yourself mentioned, which was the governor of the AIB, which was one of the—one of the best rated banks in Afghanistan by—certified as such; now he is the governor of the Afghanistan Central Bank—he will have the support—full support of the unity government. He has started bringing about those reforms.

In terms of the Kabul Bank, it’s a process. The aim on Kabul Bank is not retribution or anything, but recovering the public money and state money, which is that which in the past few months we are getting the—those which were responsible are paying back. So the case is of course not closed, but it is to get that—the money which was—which was invested somewhere not in accordance to the laws of the country, how it could be recovered.

And you know that everywhere, once there is this sort of situation, that banks—it’s not easy to get it back overnight. So that’s also a work in progress. The decision was made regardless of political aspects of it or even consequences of this (project, and ?) for the sake of the name of Afghanistan, and also encouraging those who are abiding by the law and it is paying back.

RUBIN: Yes, sir.

Q: My name is Ron Tiersky from Amherst College.

Mr. Chief Executive, this is a question about the Taliban. And it might be perceived as a kind of simple question. I hope your answer can explain it to us.

It’s always good to know when you’re negotiating with somebody what the other side wants. So my question is, what do the Taliban want? I assume it’s complex. Maybe in the extreme they want to take over the country again, but what do the Taliban want really?

ABDULLAH: After a certain stage they were pretty sure that what they wanted was the country as a whole and placing the system in Afghanistan into Islamic Emirate in terms of their own interpretation of Islamic Emirate. That is what they were—they were—what they wanted. And they were pretty sure that they will get it, especially with the withdrawal of the international forces from Afghanistan.

The experience of the past one year, which has been—which had its toll on our people as well, and our forces who are defending the country have paid a big price for that, but at the same time holding the areas and preventing Taliban from achieving their goals. This is from—this from one side. And from the other side, the fact that now there are those divisions amongst the Taliban, that has changed the equation.

But what do we want in a scenario that we are talking to those groups? The fact that for quite some time they believe that they will take over militarily, that also has proven to them that it’s not possible. If they change their military security agenda into a political agenda and also give up links with the terrorist groups, because that is—that is—sometimes it is convenient to say that don’t put conditions, but this is not a condition. It doesn’t work. We will not achieve peace if they maintain their links with the terrorist groups and continue to support those groups or receive support from those groups. That will not get them anywhere in terms of achieving peace.

Severing links with those groups and giving up violence and then fighting for their cause politically, they believe that they have the support of the majority of the people of the country for their cause. Let’s test that. But that’s quite a few years down the road. I am not saying that in one or two rounds of negotiations, assuming that negotiations takes place, we will be there. So our expectation from them will be to give up violence and sever links with the terrorist groups and then fight for their cause politically.

Then they will realize—they are going to realize that the environment has changed. Millions of people which were deprived from education—men and women, boys and girls—now they are—they are studying. And the younger generation in Afghanistan is forward-looking rather than hoping that Taliban will come and save them, which was the case in some areas of the country a few years ago, I mean when Taliban first emerged. Because of the internal situation in some areas, some people thought that Taliban might be the solution.

In the eyes of the people, they are not the solution anymore. And I’m increasingly of the opinion that more and more people in the Taliban thinks—they realize that that’s not the case. And once they are disappointed from the military achievement, their thinking might be prevailing, (things amended ?). But the key is, if they do not receive support, if they do not have sanctuaries, then that make(s) a sort of sea change in the whole situation.

RUBIN: Mr. Chief Executive Officer, the sanctuaries presumably are predominantly in Pakistan?


RUBIN: So that goes back to your relationship with Pakistan.

Other questions? There are a whole bunch of them. Way, way in the back.

Q: Thank you. This is Loksav Afrem (ph), TOLO TV, a private TV channel in Afghanistan.

I would like to ask—(inaudible)—that there are lots of ups and downs in the relation between Kabul and the international community in the past five, six years. How do you view it now in the form of the unity—national unity government?

ABDULLAH: I will not judge the past few years. I just briefly—too briefly went over the situation and mentioned that there was contentious relations without getting into the details of it. But in the past one year since the formation of the unity government, as I mentioned earlier, the nature of relations has changed towards positive. And it is—it is a working partnership.

Now the international community is faced with a partner which is a willing partner. And also we proved that we deliver. At the same time, that fact of life that we need support for some time to come, that’s also there. But that’s not the sort of endless proposition considered in the potentials which are there for Afghanistan’s self-reliance.

RUBIN: In a word, Mr. Chief Executive, you had mentioned several times the importance of American support. What would you most like us to do and what would you most like us not to do? (Laughter.)

ABDULLAH: Part of the list is—

RUBIN: Just briefly. I’m sure there’s a long list. You know, very briefly, what would you like us to do most and what would you like us not to do?

ABDULLAH: In terms of the different aspects of cooperation, security, which is a priority, which also it—a lot of our own resources are also—goes to that part, which prevents us from focusing on other aspects of development. Today I was addressing the Sustainable Development Summit, and that was my point, that the security has prevented us in some areas to focus on our—on our own priorities.

So in terms of security, we need support for our security forces in order to be able to stand on their own feet. And that, to listen to the generals which are on the ground, which are—which are doing a heroic job on behalf of your citizens and they see the situation for themselves, might be advisable. That is one.

Not to do—there is a—in the back of the minds of the Afghans there is one concern: When the Cold War ended, you left Afghan. Afghanistan was a partner in the Cold War as well towards the—in the years of the Cold War. And when the Soviets were defeated and dissipated, then you left Afghanistan. That is something that we don’t expect of our friends.

And then in terms of the more you engage, the more you listen to the indigenous voices, the better you can shape up your policies, and your policies will have to give the sense of coherence and consistency to the friends and foes.

RUBIN: That’s a useful objective, which we don’t always achieve, in my impression.

Yes, sir.

Q: Allen Hyman, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.

You as a physician know very well that opium production in Afghanistan has been a longstanding challenge to the people. Can you report any progress in reducing the dependence on opium production in the country?

ABDULLAH: The picture is a mixed one. In the areas which are—which we have insecurity we also have the increase in the—in the opium production, unfortunately. In the areas that security is good, then we have zero production. There are many provinces of Afghanistan which has achieved that goal of zero production. But it is a—it is a fluid sort of challenge which finds its place in those areas which security is not good. That also—economic development and development as a whole has an impact on it in the fact that the demand is also ever-growing demand. And that is also—it finds its way out and the markets are always there.

So it’s a complex situation, and hopefully—and in the past two to three years, I should say—except toward the past few months of the unity government, because of the other challenges—that was not an area of focus as such or a priority in which we consider it a priority, because in the same way it has negative impact on the economic development, on the issues of governance, rule of law, security as a whole. So it is a vicious circle that we want to break it, but the challenges are—

RUBIN: Let me add a follow-up question to that, if I may. There was a U.N. report, if I remember correctly, that said that something like 90 percent of the world’s opium was being produced in Afghanistan. That may be dated now. But their other point, whatever the number might be, is that that was creating—was protected by corrupt official. And it was very often sort of a vicious circle between the production of opium, the proceeds therefore, the use of those proceeds for corruption, and then the protection by the corrupt officials of the production of opium. And in your reform program you said that corruption was your—perhaps one of your—

ABDULLAH: Corruption is a—is an issue, and a serious issue. And there are many of those big traffickers which are in jail today. There was one or two which were released at one stage—or escaped, I should say—due to corruption. So it is—it is a challenge that we have taken voluntarily for the sake of our own stability and rule of law at the same time. You, being in the vicinity of countries which suffered because of those problems and challenges, you can judge it, how much it takes to deal and address this issue.

RUBIN: Peter Galbraith was the former deputy special representative to the secretary-general of the U.N.—you may know him—to Afghanistan.


RUBIN: He has the following question—

ABDULLAH: Where is he at the moment?

RUBIN: Oh, he’s someplace because he sent this question. I don’t know where he is. (Laughter.) Maybe he’s hovering overhead. I don’t know.


RUBIN: Anyway, he must be on teleconference someplace. And the question was, reflecting back on the 2009-2014 elections, as you look forward, what steps are you and President Ghani taking to make sure that—do all that is possible to do at least to have honest elections when next they occur?

ABDULLAH: The reform as a whole, but reform of the electoral system has been a top priority for the unity government. And bad elections has a potential to take the country towards instability and to downslide—for the downslide. And that is recognized by the people as well as the leadership.

And the steps taken recently—formation of the Electoral Reform Commission and also the recommendations that they made, which was approved by the unity government, and unity government committed itself in support of implementing those reforms—these are the steps that we have taken in that line. And hopefully elections in later years will be much better than what we had in the past.

RUBIN: What you and President Ghani did—and you had a difficult election—to come together as collaborative heads of state seems to me a remarkable accomplishment—I guess you mentioned at the beginning of your remarks, actually—a remarkable accomplishment, which obviously serves your country extremely well.

We can take one more question. And since I don’t know how to choose somebody, we’ll ask right in the middle there. Yep, the lady right here. There she is.

Q: Thanks. Rachel Robbins. I’m on the board of a global microfinance company that operates in Afghanistan.

And we see lots of potential for growth, which is impeded by the political instability. So could you talk a little bit more about what economic and development reforms you see as realistically able to accomplish in the next year or two?

ABDULLAH: Rather than talking in terms of the next year or two, a long-term focus on long-term reform is needed in the country. In the past we had an experience that—for achieving short-term goals. We carried out programs and then we learned that those programs were designed for other sort of circumstances rather than being tailored for the circumstances of Afghanistan.

For quite a while, for example, agriculture was not—as a priority it was not mentioned as a priority in the priority list of economic development in Afghanistan. It’s only recently in the past few years that there has been renewed focus.

While having this long-term economic development vision in mind in pursuing those programs, which in it comes reform of the legal system, issues of rule of law, creating an enabling environment for the private sector, and for the—for the investment—foreign investment in Afghanistan, connectivity, using the local—the regional—the potential of Afghanistan for regional connectivity, and beyond that connectivity in terms of transport and transit. And for example, railways are passing by Afghanistan, a few kilometers from our borders. We need—we need those connectivities.

While the focus has to be—has to be on this long-term economic development of Afghanistan, the small things—you mentioned the microfinance. First, alleviating poverty. That has to be—that has to be our focus. We are not—we have not achieved those goals, but other various, child and maternal and child mortality rate, has been reduced. That in itself has an impact on the—on the—on the economic situation. The investment in human capital, education as well as health, that has—that has an economic impact as well.

And also there are things that—programs that has been carried out, which we need to duplicate it and review it and also take the—in failures in those—the negative experience out of it. For example, the national solidarity program, which is mainly—the focus is mainly—was mainly on the—on the religious of Afghanistan. Apart from that, energy and infrastructure are the two areas that we need to focus in order to—for the energy, also Afghanistan has big potentials for renewable energy, as well as, again, using Afghanistan’s location for the transit of energy. So when you focus on the small-scale economic projects, or just focus on the long-term economic development by ignoring the day-to-day lives of the people will not do the job. So we need to do both at the same time.

RUBIN: That was a very good last question. If any of you have not read that economic reform proposal, it really is very interesting and you do come away, on the one hand, with a recognition of the enormous challenges you face, but also the tremendous opportunities that Afghanistan could have. And the country’s most fortunate to have you in your leadership position. And we thank you for being with us. Your success is obviously tremendous important to your country, but it’s very important to our country too. And I that we do do what we need to do to enable you to do what you’re trying to do.

ABDULLAH: Thank you for your support.

RUBIN: We thank you enormously for being with us.

ABDULLAH: Thank you. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

RUBIN: Thank you.

ABDULLAH: Thank you.


This is an uncorrected transcript.

Top Stories on CFR


Myanmar's military has recently suffered a string of defeats—but the U.S. government seems unprepared to face the country's potential state collapse.


The authors, including a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, UN Undersecretary-General for Legal Affairs, Founding Chief Prosecutor of the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, and the inaugural U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, urge the imperative of prosecuting alleged Russian crimes of aggression in Ukraine, and present two practical options for doing so.


The passing of America’s preeminent foreign-policy thinker and practitioner marks the end of an era. Throughout his long and extraordinarily influential career, Henry Kissinger built a legacy that Americans would be wise to heed in this new era of great-power politics and global disarray.