Meeting

Virtual Meeting: A Conversation With Mohammad Ashraf Ghani

Thursday, August 13, 2020
Mohammad Ismail/REUTERS
Speaker

President, Afghanistan

Presider

Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council; former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan

Introductory Remarks

President, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, The World: A Brief Introduction; @RichardHaass

HAASS: Well, thank you and good morning to one and all. This is a special meeting for the Council on Foreign Relations. We are thrilled to have the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani. President Ghani has been central to his country's history for the last two decades and has been a pivotal figure. Just recently, he was reelected as president. He has a long association as well with this country. He was educated in the United States, and was resident here for many years, both as a student but also then subsequently in his work, as I understand, with the UN and, obviously, the World Bank. So it's a real personal and institutional pleasure to welcome the president back to the Council on Foreign Relations. He is in extremely good hands today. Presiding at today's meeting will be Jim Cunningham. Ambassador Cunningham really is one of the most distinguished preeminent diplomats of his generation. It is almost easier to list the countries he was not ambassador to than those he was. He was ambassador to Israel and was U.S. permanent rep at the UN. He was Consul General in Hong Kong and, most relevant for today's purposes, he was the U.S. ambassador in Kabul to Afghanistan. Timing for this meeting could hardly be better with so much going on, in and with Afghanistan. It is, as they say, a delicate moment, politically, diplomatically, strategically, inside the country, and its relationship with its immediate neighbors, and its relationship with the United States. So again, timing is a lot in life. We feel extremely fortunate to have the president so with that, again, welcome, Mr. President. Ambassador Cunningham over to you.

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you very much, Richard. And let me thank President Ghani on behalf of the Council and the members today for giving us his time and the opportunity to talk with us about the important things that are going on in his country and in the world. We have more than 300 people registered for this virtual meeting and we will try to get to as many of the questions as we can in the second half of the discussion. I want to note that the entirety of today's session is on the record, both our discussion now and later on the questions and answers. Mr. President, welcome. It is a pleasure to see you again.

GHANI: It's late on Monday. It's a great pleasure to be with you. First, my deepest sympathies on Coronavirus and I hope the United States recovers rapidly. And my prayers and wishes to the veterans of Afghanistan and, particularly, to the 2,448 Gold Star Families and to all the civilians that served with you, and served your country and mine. It's a great honor to be with you.

CUNNINGHAM: Now, let me say how much I and many other people in this country value our partnership with you and the Afghan people over the past years. As Richard just said, your country now is at a pretty historic threshold, or at least potentially. You and the Afghan people, through the Loya Jirga, have made the decision now to release the final prisoners that the Taliban had been demanding, and then opening the pathway to negotiations, which, reportedly, will start in the next couple of days. That's an extremely important threshold to cross that I know you addressed with great seriousness and conviction, but also with difficulty given the sacrifices that your people have made in this conflict. I know very well that you're a man who likes strategy and planning. How do you see this process now unfolding from this point, assuming that the door is open now to negotiations?

GHANI: Well first, I think a great tribute to the collective wisdom of the Afghan people, through the Loya Jirga, our grand council, resolved what legally could not be resolved. We released 4,600 from the Taliban list, and then an additional 500 people on our own conviction. But 400 posed serious constitutional and legal issues. But the moral basis that the Loya Jirga provided in a consensus of 3,400 Afghan men and women--over 700 of them women-- has given us an opportunity to break the last deadlock. And we hope that during this process, we'll be able to resolve the conflict politically. The key goal for the Afghan people is to bring an end to violence that has haunted us for 40 years. And we are preparing that one team is representing a national perspective. And in addition, the Loya Jirga has provided the framework regarding the values and key parameters, which enable us to talk to the Taliban.

CUNNINGHAM: And how do you see that discussion beginning and developing? For instance, I know it's, as you just said, a very high priority to establish a ceasefire. How do you see that coming to be and how do you see the negotiations themselves proceeding?

GHANI: This is not a two-way discussion. It has been a three-way discussion because the United States has been engaged. And the agreement between the United States and the Taliban on the 29th of February provided the framework, which simultaneously we had the joint declaration. So, some of the issues pertain to the United States. That's a significant set of questions that I'm sure you will be asking later. There's a second set of questions that relates to the willingness, capability, and desire of the Taliban to truly embrace a political solution. During the negotiations, we are going to find out. Until now, they've held their views to themselves. The main issue since February 29 has been the continuation of conflict, with 12,279 military and civilian casualties and fatalities. So the extent of violence has been very high. The test is to be able to get a comprehensive ceasefire as soon as possible and to be able to talk about a political framework, which would bring the participation of the Taliban within Afghan society and politics.

CUNNINGHAM: And so far the Taliban has taken a pretty firm hardline view in the little bit that they've said publicly about negotiations. Do you expect that when the actual negotiators and you have some great people on your side? I know many of them. Do you think that once the Afghan side and the Taliban side sit together in a room that they will be able to have a serious, productive discussion about these many sensitive issues that you're going to have to work through?

GHANI: Afghan society is a society that has immense skills in conflict resolution. We've had these skills for two millennia. The test is going to be once we encounter and sit with each other. The other is the role of the region and the international community. What we have nationally is a very strong consensus and a political capital that has been generated by the will of the people in the Loya Jirga. We convened the Loya Jirga within four days. The Loya Jirga decided the central question in two days. That shows the Afghan society can assemble and express itself. Second is that we have an agreement with the international community, particularly with the United States, on the end state of the talks -- a sovereign, United Democratic Afghanistan, that would be peace within itself and the world. Until now, there's been a lot of pressure, requests from the Afghan government. Now, the balance shifts because we've taken all the risks because we are a state. We will not party to an agreement to release 5,000 Taliban unless out of the imperative of wanting peace in the conviction. We did it. Now we hope that all the actors will come together in the region again. We've built this consensus. It will show whether the desire for a stable Afghanistan, that would be in everybody's interest, prevails over more short term ideas and views, and whether the Taliban will now show themselves capable of politics, and imaginative and constructive politics, or not. The question is open.

CUNNINGHAM: Yes, it's a very important question. I agree. And it's one of the key factors that needs to be examined as this process goes forward for everybody, for the United States, as well as your country and the region. So let's turn to the region a minute because you mentioned the need for it to have constructive regional support and engagement in this process as well. We collectively, the international community and people in Afghanistan, have been talking about the need to try to create a constructive regional framework for Afghanistan, in many different facets, economic, security, and finally, in the search for peace. I know your government has been consulting very closely with your regional partners and others over the past couple of months. Do you think that there is now the groundwork laid to finally bring some of this hope for regional cooperation into something that's actually concrete and constructive now as you're looking towards the future?

GHANI: I very much hope so. Because, since you left us, I think there have been some fundamental changes. For instance, Afghanistan, when I became president, had a cold relationship with Central Asia. It's the best way to say it. Today, we have now become an organic part of Central Asia. Our trade, cooperation, and a very close coordination with Central Asia Five, is reversed the year that Stalin's Iron Curtain to integrate us. Corridor after corridors opening. The relationships are extremely constructive and I think there's an enormous big potential economic dividend for all of us. With Iran, we have a bilateral relationship. Sanctions have been an important part of it. So we complying with sanctions. But all the issues are on the table. It's a dialogue that is proceeding constructively and, in terms of a stabler constant, I think they're playing, in the diplomatic arena, a constructive role that needs to be seen. China, India, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia are the larger players. 

And of course, the billion dollar question is regarding Pakistan, where again, with constructive discussions, the Army Chief of Staff Javed Bajwa came to Kabul. The key issue is how the region conceives of its importance. We argue that a stabler Afghanistan and we've coined a new term, a multi-aligned Afghanistan.  An unaligned Afghanistan is not possible but a multi-aligned Afghanistan, we're friends. We have the greatest friends, a number of friends, and don't get involved in the disputes among our friends and neighbors and do not allow our territory to be used against any of them, can be an anchor for stability. This possibility has been acknowledged. Equally, the other side is acknowledging that an unstable Afghanistan or, god forbid, an Afghanistan that is plunged into a vicious civil war or internal conflict, could do substantial harm to its neighbors. This balance is what we need, and the heart of the strategy and tactics is to be able to bring this balance. It's not the easiest balance. But I think it's the necessary balance to allow us to move forward.

CUNNINGHAM: And, yes, I agree on that need to find that balance. And we Americans have been arguing with your regional neighbors for some time on that very point-- that a stable Afghanistan is of great benefit to the region, rather than one that's an Afghanistan that continues to be in conflict. Do you think that argument I take from your remarks, is gaining traction now? As time has evolved, keying on to that point will be very important as you get through these negotiations about the future because of the temptation of outside parties to try to disrupt, if they wish. So, do you think that realization is something that you can build on as you continue your own diplomacy in the region?

GHANI: Our diplomacy is been constructive and effective. But, the future role of the United States in the region is, again, a conditioning, if not the determining, factor that affects both our relationships and the relationships of the neighbors with each other. On the positive side, there is an immense interest in regional connectivity, the agenda of regional connectivity. And, I'd like to thank Mr. Boehler, and the Development Finance Corporation has been very engaged in this process. There are huge projects for the first time. The Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India pipeline is going to be actually moving and is being constructed in Afghanistan. The energy corridors and the transit corridors are really moving forward. There's also coordination now with Pakistan. They are a corridor with India, and we are now connected with 50 countries.  This is one side of the equation. If you're seeing the great Asian transformation, where Asia is being changed from a notional geographic cultural construct, to a literal economic continent, like the United States in the first three quarters of the 19th Century, then Afghanistan's stability becomes very much a part of a larger agenda.  On the other side are atavistic habits, notions of a lack of consensus on a Westphalian system, state responsibility in interference.

We are, as you said, at that critical moment, we're doing our best. And then the other issue that is both one of unity and one of potential risk is the question of terrorists. We have, with you -- and we are very close, and that's why I pay tribute to the American heroes that have died for your security and our freedom -- been dealing with a phenomenon that has not found a solution. What's the utility of force? What is the limit of force? And how do you bring a policy that can truly eliminate the danger of terrorism? This is not the first wave. This is the fifth wave in a hundred and fifty years. Those questions are interrelated. So on the positive side of the balance there is an immense opportunity for cooperation. On the negative, the threats could bring us together, or may take time to converge again into a regional consensus on security.

CUNNINGHAM: I think many people don't understand, many Americans don't under understand, how important a role Afghanistan has played in a partnership with the United States and the international community in combating terrorism. And that's something that I think we Americans and internationalists need to be very mindful of going forward. As you said, however, as the politics and negotiations proceed, there is still going to be a terrorism issue to deal with. Hopefully, we can all find a way to cooperate on that. Before we move on to another area, I just want to ask you a little bit more about Pakistan given the crucial role that Pakistan plays in the conflict and in the region. I know that you had a long meeting with General Bajwa not too long ago, and that Pakistani rhetoric and some actions I think have been positive in terms of moving the prospects for negotiations forward. I know how you hope Pakistan's role will evolve in this discussion. But do you think it is possible to build a stronger political relationship with Pakistan so that they can play the kind of role that we would all hope they would be playing as negotiations start and proceed?

GHANI: The fundamental question again is interest. A stable Afghanistan and an Afghanistan in peace could bring one to two percent of additional rate of growth first. Javed Bajwa thinks, like me, and Prime Minister Imran Khan, and they are aligned, that regions not countries. And, of course, India's rise and its continued prosperity is something that is extremely important for all of us, as is the rest of the region, the major players. Pakistan needs to ask itself some main questions regarding its influence. One, does a Taliban brand government serve its interest?  Second, under what type of a government in Afghanistan would enable the return of two to four million refugees? That is a priority question. Three, what type of government would be able to undertake the very large projects of connectivity that could be beneficial? And, on the negative side, if events spin out of control in Afghanistan, what would be the cost to Pakistan? Pakistan is the country that would be most adversely affected by, God forbid, a downward trend in Afghanistan internally, given its priorities. And, as Prime Minister Khan and I both are focused on poverty eradication as our central challenge, how would we be able to bring a framework that can deal with this, given Corona, given the economic downturn, and others?

Today's Pakistan was an inherent part of a larger economic region with Central Asia and West Asia. Can it acquire that type of dynamism? And lastly, a stable Afghanistan, hopefully, will open the way for resolution of fundamental issues with India that would enable all of us in the region to benefit from what is clearly unintelligible that, because of political differences in perceptions, we are unable to utilize and put to the service of our people.

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you. Let's go back and take another look at the at the future. I would be interested in your views about where you realistically hope to see Afghanistan arrive at, as a result of these negotiations that we all hope are about to begin. Obviously, a ceasefire is a top priority because there's been too much violence and too much needless killing, especially now that you have an agreement that you're going to begin what will be a search for peace. So, what do you think realistic expectation is for the outcome of that discussion? Afghanistan has its own record of achievement. You have your own personal record of achievement. Over the past decades, a constitutional system, elections, protection of media, progress on women's issues.  All the important things that most of the Afghan people welcome. How do you see reconciling that Afghanistan with the views that the Taliban might hold about the future of the country? How does that happen? As you said, Afghans have a long history of conflict resolution and mediation. How do you reconcile those two very different views of an Afghanistan today that's quite different from Afghanistan of 20 years ago?

GHANI: By facing each other and discovering each other. That's fundamental. We have not sat together. We faced each other in battle. But, except for the ceasefire of 2018, that truly was a mass experience because that one was completely Afghan driven. I initiated it and the Taliban responded. It was a national celebration. During that incident, not a single Talib was insulted, shot, humiliated, or attacked. It shows me that our society has an immense tolerance and that they are a fact of Afghan society. Acknowledging that fact has been fundamental to moving towards peace.

Now, the question is, will the Taliban acknowledge the Afghanistan that has been created during the last two decades and, particularly, during the last six years? Will they look at the Loya Jirga and see the free will of the people?  The Loya Jirga cannot be censored, cannot be controlled. It is one of the most deliberative and, since you're in New England, it's come closest to your town hall meetings in terms of its range of expression and freedoms. During these discussions, the Afghan society will need to decide. Is a solution that enables us to have a common future possible or not? We have shown every desire, including the last difficult unintelligible, to say that we want peace. The Taliban cannot look for dominance. If they look for dominance, you know, of Afghan society, it will not accept dominance. It has to embrace it. They need, unlike their relations with the United States where they said they had the time and you the clocks, the rest of the Afghans have time. This time has to be either used productively, which all of us are praying for, or it can turn into destruction. The burden of history and the initiative now lies with the Taliban. How they talk, how they deal, how they frame the issues, and do they search for common ground. Intransigence where there is unintelligible doesn't work. Your envoy may have had a deadline.  Afghan society doesn't have a deadline. And that changes the nature of negotiations.

CUNNINGHAM: Well said, and I want to congratulate you and your compatriots for getting to this very important point. I know it's been a very difficult journey. At this point, I think we want to ask our members to join the conversation with their questions. I want to remind everybody again that this meeting is on the record. And the operator will remind our members about how to join the question queue.

STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.) To view the roster of CFR members registered to attend this meeting, please click on the link in your zoom chat box. We will take our first question from Peter Galbraith.

Q: Mr. President, good to see you again, albeit virtually. I want to ask you about the negotiation process and whether it will constitute significant constitutional change in Afghanistan. As you know, your lead negotiator, Abdullah Abdullah, has spoken at various times about a more parliamentary system. And the other way in which one might think about it as a more decentralized or federal system in which the Taliban might have the opportunity, through elections, to govern part of the country. Do you see either of those things, or perhaps both, as being a possible outcome of the negotiations, a more parliamentary system or a more decentralized or federal system?

GHANI: Mr. Galbraith, it's a great pleasure to see you virtually. I have with me, First Vice President Saleh, National Security Advisor Mohib, Minister of Education Hamidi, Minister of Women's Affairs Sima Samar, the Minister of State for Peace Salam Rahini, and our lead negotiator, Mr. Stanekzai. The Afghan constitution lays a clear mechanism for amendment. Should we need to amend the constitution, there is a constitutional mechanism. The Taliban has historically been centralized, not decentralized. So that needs to be taken into account. Whether the country is today ready for a parliamentary system, without major parties that have actually implemented the law on parties -- having regular elections, being cross national, having offices, or questions that we need to face. This is up to the will of the Afghan people because any agreement that is negotiated by our negotiating team will need national approval, again, to evaluate your process and approval by parliament. So, we need to understand that this is not an elite game. It must have a base of approval by the people. Because of this, we should avoid the scenario of Colombia where the peace deal was rejected. So, socialization of what is possible and getting input and communication from the people, the citizens of Afghanistan, both woman and men, will be extremely important.

CUNNINGHAM: Next question, please.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Kim Dozier.

Q: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. President for doing this. I wanted to ask if you felt pressured in any way by the Trump administration to release that last tranche of 400 prisoners who your security officials have said include Taliban members convicted of terrorist attacks. And also, if you feel that you can trust the White House to fairly negotiate on your behalf as well? And finally, that the Australian Prime Minister has asked for a former Afghan soldier that killed three Australian troops not to be released. What will you do about that?

GHANI: Well, thank you for important questions. The request for release came from the United States. Without that, we would not have convened the Loya Jirga. But the decision on the release is made by the people of Afghanistan. And it shows a very strong national consensus for moving. Until this issue, there was a consensus on the desirability of peace, but not on the cost of it. We've now paid the major installment costs and that means this will have consequence. The list is likely to pose a danger, both to us and to you, and to the world, because it has drug dealers and hardened criminals. That has been shared with all our allies and friends. But again, this is a step that we've considered a necessity. And after the consensus of the Loya Jirga, I've signed the relevant documents. We are focused on the request of the Australians. My heart goes to the family. I've spoken to the family years before. It's a heinous crime and we'll see how we can resolve.

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you. Next question, please.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Barbara Slavin.

Q: Thank you very much. Hi, Ambassador and President Ghani. It's a pleasure. Barbara Slavin with the Atlantic Council. My question is about the nature of Iran's relationship with the Taliban. Are there specific groups that it has been assisting? How do you regard that assistance, and also the impact of the US maximum pressure campaign, so called, on Iran? How has that affected Afghanistan's economic prosperity and potential?  Thank you.

GHANI: Of course, great to see you virtually and please, my best regards to the Atlantic Council. My affiliation was always a pleasure. When the regime for removal of sanctions was negotiated, the Port of Chabahar became an extremely important issue for us, particularly in terms of our connection with India. Because our strategy is based on diversification and connecting. We want to be a connector for every one of our neighbors. After the sanctions, financial transactions, legal financial transactions, have become impossible. So we've had to adjust to that. But also, I would like to thank the U.S. administration for giving us exemption, one of the few countries that enabled us to continue.

So, the illustration was, at the time of Corona, when the market was extremely unsettled. India made a great gesture, committing 75,000 tons a wheat. 45,000 of that arrived to the port of Chabahar. Afghanistan and Iran can have a very substantial economic relationship, legal economic relationship. The regime of sanctions usually results in driving economic relations underground, substantially increasing the informal economy, and the criminal economy. And the narcotics issue is an issue that haunts Indian society, and us alike because now we have over 3 million addicts, in that regard. We have a very detailed list of issues that we are discussing with Iran. The key goal is to have a state-to-state relationship. Iran has acknowledged that they had relations with Taliban, but equally, it has been, in the recent months, a very strong advocate of continuation of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, an impractical constant, and hoping to see a political solution. It's a complex society with multiple regional agendas and relationships. And of course, one set of relationship affects the others. And our relation with the United States is something that is a factor in that other relationship.

CUNNINGHAM: Next question, please.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Nicholas Schifrin.

Q: Thank you very much. President Ghani, thank you very much for doing this. Good to see you again even though you can't see me. I wanted to ask about the logistics for the next week and how you see this happening. One question on the prisoners’ release. The Taliban, as you know, are concerned that some of them will be attacked by either Afghan forces or U.S. forces after their release. Will that happen? And, if talks do end up starting early next week, how do you actually see that beginning in terms of what your side will lay out and how the Taliban will respond to that? Thanks.

GHANI: Thank you. I see your picture with a great bunch of fish in front. Years ago, I spent a good time on the coast of Maine and, of course, in California and other places, so I'm jealous. There is no fear of attack by Afghan forces on the prisoners to be released. Afghan security forces, I'm proud to say, take their civilian leadership extremely seriously and have been a very disciplined force. We are not a militia. We don't attack those that we decide to release, particularly unintelligible. Daesh plays a factor. They wanted to attack the Loya Jirga. Our forces managed to contain them and, of course, the success of the Afghan national security and defense forces against Daesh is unprecedented. Because Afghan society, particularly in the province of Nangarhar, has mobilized men and women to contain them, and over 1,000 of them surrendered because of community pressure. We need to make sure on the logistics. Let me turn to Minister Stanekzai, our lead negotiator for the peace talks. Minister Stanekzai, if you if you could say something because now that I've made the major decisions, it's up to the team. They are not connecting? The agenda that we pursue is the agenda that the Loya Jirga of Afghanistan laid down. Ceasefire, discussion of political framework for ending the war, Taliban's participation, dealing with the key issues.

You know, I could just give you one illustration of the scale that is involved. If Taliban fighters, as the UN report indicates, are between 60,000 and 120,000, multiply that by seven family members. This the immediate scale. We have to bring back two to four million refugees from Pakistan alone. The part of the discussion really has to focus on uplifting the people. In the most significant set of issues, we are going to be going back 1,000 years to when we were the center of Islamic tolerance, and give and take, in our system. Our subnational culture in almost all of our linguistic groups, in provincial basis is extremely strong in local reconciliation. But we'll also have to provide employment, meaningful employment, to all these fighters. Attend to them. I hope that it gets from pure ideological issues to substantive issues that unite us. If it comes to that, then I think we'll be able to make substantial headway and acknowledge each other as being necessary to a stable and, hopefully, prosperous Afghanistan. Equally, there are two issues: One, narcotics. There isn't a word about narcotics in the agreement between the United States and the Taliban. Second, it’s not just al Qaeda, but also the ecosystem of terrorism. And how will that be tackled jointly by us and by our partners, both in the region and nationally?  We have a rich agenda, but the key approach that our team will adopt is to arrive with a list of key issues and then arrive at the manner regarding discussing them, either sequentially, simultaneously, or a combination of the two.

CUNNINGHAM: I think Vice President Saleh has raised his hand to make a comment.

GHANI: They couldn’t connect. Vice President Saleh.

CUNNINGHAM: Okay, well, looks like that connection isn't happening.

GHANI: Okay, so we will reserve the right.

CUNNINGHAM: Okay, anytime that he's available, just let him know. Right now, we'll go to another question.

STAFF: Our next question from Jim (no last name).

Q: Yes, thank you, President Ghani, for this conversation. You've talked about tolerance. And just a moment ago, you raised Afghanistan's history as a historic center of Islamic tolerance and local experience and reconciliation. But can we dig down into that just a bit more and ask you what your vision of how Afghanistan successfully blends the secular developments that have gone on in building your government, and the traditional communities that, at least a part of which, are represented by the Taliban? What's your vision of how those things could blend into the future?

GHANI: Well, thank you. First of all, I'd like to bring to your attention. We have a program called Citizen Charter that is engaged with communities. One third of Afghanistan is covered. Two thirds will be covered in the next two years. You know, 50% of the elected councils are led by women. So my submission to you is that the image of the traditional Afghan needs revision. My feminism is not a product of studying at Columbia, teaching at Johns Hopkins or at Berkeley. It derives from my grandmother, who no man dare confront. War, it marginalizes the role of our woman. Our women in 18th century, all the leading houses that were engaged with trade or land or state had educated women. The mothers of two of our founding fathers, unintelligible, both were poets. 

The survey recently carried out by two respectable diplomats who are not in government, Mr. Luti and his colleague, have shown that only 44% of the people in the areas under direct influence of the  Taliban support an emirate. The society needs to be listened to. Two of my colleagues, ministers, are woman, and please listen to them. It is a changed society. My vision first of all, is to turn Afghanistan again into a roundabout. A roundabout requires openness. If we want pipelines, transmission lines, fiber optics, railways, highways to go through this land, and enable us to develop our immense national will, that turns into trillions of dollars, our water resources, then we need to have consensus. Second, the government is in the process of changing from being perceived as a master to being a servant. We need to have an inclusive understanding. And this is one of the youngest societies on earth. Over 70% of our population is under thirty-five. The image, unfortunately, people including me, the generation of 1960s, is still playing a very significant role. We have to gracefully give way and bring this transition.

And in terms of cultural values, it's always, whether it's all these great religions, particularly the three monotheistic religions. They've taken the same text against each other. We need to find common ground. So one of the most significant things Minister Hamidi, our minister of education, will be doing is to bring the Madrassahs and the schools, and the Madrassahs and the universities, together.  This is a 99.9% Islamic country. How do we regain back a tolerance, a sense of acceptance, and particularly, not having an inferiority complex with other civilizations? At the height of [unintelligible] will open 100 years of translation. We need to go back to that. And I think where I see the greatest hope is in our children. Our children are thinking long term. I hope that, with these, all of our society will be able to think medium and long term. Has my friend Saleh come on board? They cannot connect, unfortunately. It's the CFR connector. So please Ambassador Cunningham.

CUNNINGHAM: Okay, so take another question.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Janet Ketchum.

Q:  Okay, thank you. It's an honor to hear you. Yes, I know Afghanistan because of the former ambassador, Ted Elliott, who was my husband's cousin, and his wife.  And our foundation built a school in Mazar Sharif and 3,000 girls attend. It's a very successful school. And so my real question is, are we at risk in Mazar?  We're building another school now. Are we at risk or do we just cross our fingers? Thank you.

GHANI: Well, of course, it's wonderful to see you. I had the honor of meeting you. And my deepest prayers for both Ted and Pat, two of my closest friends. And both of them were our mentors. We're building 6,000 schools. And, the largest dam, one of the largest dams in Afghanistan after 700 years, in the province of Nimruz, is going to be inaugurated in three months. We have not stopped building. The day we give up our will to build, to educate girls, to build schools for them, that would be the day that we will lose Afghanistan. You know, what is delightful about Afghan girls, prior to Corona, they would come there regularly, the young ones, seven to 12, how many of them want to become president. They are thinking big. And I'm delighted to have created it that possibility and I'd like to thank you very much for supporting these 3,000 Afghan girls.  Rabia Balkhi was one of our iconic figures, again 1,000 years ago, as a poet. I think these Afghan girls will not have a tragic end of being put to death because she's a poet, inspired by her. Some of our great Sufi poet woman have come from there. And the message of Rumi, who we call Mowlānā Balkhi, is still very resonant in our culture.

CUNNINGHAM: Okay, next question, please.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Mohammed Ahmadi.

Q: Hello, Mr. President.  Thank you so much for taking my questions. So I would like to ask if you saw any red lines for the Afghan government to enter the intra-Afghan talks. And the second question, is there any guarantee that the 400 Taliban prisoners that will be released would not hurt any Afghan security or American forces?

GHANI: Well, thank you, Mr. Ahmadi for two great questions. You saw the Loya Jirga's display of unity. I'm delighted to have Vice President Saleh, also Vice President Danish, my colleagues, the security sector, and all other sectors. And, I'm also very grateful to Dr. Abdullah for having very successfully and ably managed the Loya Jirga. No, there are no rifts that are public in the values represented that bring us together. We have enormous amount of work to do to move forward.  No, there are no guarantees. Who can provide you with a guarantee? The issue has been raised. It's not been answered. As I indicated earlier, unfortunately, there are risks. But, all these processes globally, Ambassador Cunningham has been involved in a lot of them, involve risks. To ask for the type of guarantees that would ensure that is not possible. The Afghan society, the Loya Jirga, is extremely concerned about this issue. So we will try our best to make sure. But then again, of course, this would be a key indicator of whether the Taliban are truly embracing peace and have the internal coherence and discipline to ensure that, the people that they promised will not engage in violence are not going to engage in violence. The other issue that pertains to the national community and the United States is up to the able intelligence services and security sectors of these countries. We have coordinated with them.  They've requested it, so I'm sure they have risk management plans to deal with, God forbid, any negative consequences.

CUNNINGHAM: Very good. Next question, please.

STAFF:  57:54

We will take our next question from Gustaf Beisel. (Pause) Next question please.

Q: Mr. President, Jim Silkin from the world Justice Project. I'm interested in domestic justice system issues now in Afghanistan. One of the most pressing issues now facing courts and the legal system in Afghanistan, particularly relating to the independence of the judiciary. Thank you.

GHANI: Well, it's great to see you, Mr. Secretary. Again, very happy memories and please, my best regards to your colleagues at the World Justice Project. You've done so much. The first issue, I pride myself of not having once interfered in a judicial decision. Our Supreme Court now really has gained an immense stature. There are able jurists leading it and other colleagues, and they have no backlog. Tens of thousands of cases were there when Ambassador Cunningham was ambassador. The Attorney General's office, again, has passed judgment, particularly the area of corruption and abuse of law, on a very significant number of cases.

What are the challenges? The chain of justice, the value chain of justice that begins with police, then the attorney general's office, moving to the courts, the chain of discovery, and then back again, to the enforcement. There are challenges in enforcement, because there are certain people who are protected. Regarding enforcement and result, the problem is between justice and peace. The reason it took five months to look at each of the cases of the 4,600 was because of our respect for justice. But peace? We are facing a very similar situation as the United Nations. The United Nations, it's not been its key task to promulgate justice. It underwrites peace.  For peace, the release of these 400 people has been a very significant price to pay for rule of law. A lot of attorneys are going to think twice. A lot of judges are going to think twice, and members of the security sector. But that's the reason we needed to go and have a moral basis for a decision that legally was not possible.

The president of Afghanistan does not have the right, because of our criminal code, to pardon people who are condemned to death sentences, except for commuting. 117 people were in that category; large drug dealers, people who've committed homicide or kidnappings, or cases of violence against women. This will be remembered. If we get peace, I think the decision would be justified. If, God forbid, peace that is envisaged and yearned for by the Afghan people, is not realized, then this will be marked as a day where exigencies, domestic and international exigencies, brought a decision that weakened rather than strengthened the rule of law.

CUNNINGHAM: Mr. President, I'm afraid we've come to the end of our session here. My apologies to the members who are still waiting to ask questions, but we've run out of time. I want to thank you very much for being so gracious with your time and with your answers. And to say how good it has been for me to see you again. And if you'll permit me a second, I'd like to send my best wishes to my many old friends who are gathered there with you virtually or together. You've got a great team. And I'm sure we all wish you the best of luck in the challenging days ahead. I'd like to note also that the audio and transcript of today's meeting will be posted on the Council's website for the public to make use of. So thanks again, Mr. President, and very good luck to you.

GHANI: Well, thank you. It's great to see you. And many of your friends send their regards. I'd like to just conclude with saying the decision regarding engagement of the United States is totally a U.S. sovereign decision. Two years ago, I wrote to President Trump that any decision that you'd make on the scale and scope of American presidents is a purely internal American decision. Afghan society will always be grateful for the engagement of these decades, now nearly two decades. But war is about terrorism. It's not about Afghanistan. Afghans now have gathered sufficient momentum, capacity, and will to be able to deal with our future.  This is a critical moment for defining our interests. Again, that interest does not depend on the scale of troop presence. It's the quality of the relationship. And we're hoping for the best. And, let me again thank the veterans, both on the civilian side, from yourself to others, the diplomats, and the soldiers, officers, and people in uniform, who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Thank you for this opportunity. And my great thanks to the Council and to President Haass and all colleagues. Thank you, sir.

STAFF: Ladies and gentlemen, at this time you are welcome to disconnect from this virtual meeting.

(END)

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