Dr. Zalmai Rassoul, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan interview with Al Jazeera


Dr. Zalmai Rassoul, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan interview with Al Jazeera

Date: April 3, 2012
Program: Talk to Al Jazeera
Place: Doha, Qatar
Run time: 26 minutes

Afghanistan 2001. Afghanistan 2012. And the long war goes on, despite the presence of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops, the level of violence is still rising in the country. The relationship between Afghanistan`s government and its best ally, the U.S., sorely tested in recent weeks, with mass protests after copies of the Quran were burned and outrage when a U.S. soldier massacred sixteen Afghans.

With the Taliban strong at home and tensions simmering with its neighbor Pakistan, international forces are already starting to withdraw. Most will be gone in 2014 and, adding to the uncertainty for Afghans, that’s the very same year their president, is due to stand down.

Is Afghanistan spinning out of control or has the country still a chance for peace?

Today on Talk to Aljazeera, the Afghan Foreign Minister tells us his country is close to reaching a deal with the U.S. that would build a new long-term partnership. He is also hopeful that peace talks with the Taliban stalled for now can be restarted.

JAMES BAYS: Dr. Zlamai Rassoul, Foreign Minister of Afghanistan you are here in Doha- Qatar for a visit. This is the place where Taliban talks were supposed to take place and yet the Taliban pulled out. Can you give us the latest information on those talks? Can they be restarted?

DR. RASSOUL: Thank you for receiving me. I think before starting to say that, it is imperative that in order for the peace process to succeed, it needs to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. And that is the reason I am here in Qatar to discuss with our colleagues and brothers of government of Qatar on how we can work together to put in place an environment through which the peace process and the talking with the Taliban could start.

BAYS: You are saying that it has to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. Has the government of Afghanistan been bypassed in recent months then?

DR. RASSOUL: Not bypassed, but not directly involved, if you want, at least in the Qatar process. So the reason that we approached  the Qatari government and the reason that I have been invited to come here has two purposes; one is to talk about the peace process and put in place the right contact between our two governments and number two, to work together to upgrade our bilateral relation  and other issues.

BAYS: This process until now has been led by others -- the Germans and particularly the U.S. Are you happy with the way they have led this particular stage of the peace process here in Qatar?

DR. RASSOUL: I think it was led by Afghans. The idea of peace process was an Afghan idea.

BAYS:  But the Qatar element?

DR. RASSOUL: I think the Qatar element, we have discussed it with our American friends and they agreed and it should be an Afghan-led and Afghan owned process in order to succeed. Of course our international friends can help with us, but the process should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. And the Qatari brothers are creating the environment through which we can start that contact.

BAYS: But the Taliban have pulled out of this process and they say because of the Americans. They said the Americans made promises they have not kept?

DR. RASSOUL: That is something between the Taliban and Americans. What we, the Afghans and the Afghan government want is the peace processes the peace negotiations which have been decided through our Peace Jirga. The condition of this negotiation has been cleared by a majority of Afghan people, also including women in Afghanistan because also much they are very much interested in the peace process. So, according to that, we are trying to establish that contact and of course our Qatari friends and brothers are creating this environment.

BAYS: Part of the original deal though was supposedly according to the Taliban for the Americans to release five prominent Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo as a confidence building measure. Does the Afghan government want those people released right now?

DR. RASSOUL: Yes, they are Afghan citizens after all, and we want them to themselves decide if they want to come back to Afghanistan or go back to another country, Qatar for example. A delegation from our government went to Guantanamo and interviewed and discussed with those people. We don’t want them to be as prisoners because as prisoners, they should come back to their own country, but if they are freed and wanted freely to join their family in Qatar, we have no problem with that.

BAYS: So what would you say to members of the American Congress who say there is no way that those men should be released?

DR. RASSOUL: But that is something that the Americans should decide. From our side, we want not only these five prisoners, but we want the twenty or twenty-so other Afghans in Guantanamo, should be given to the government of Afghanistan.

BAYS: What is your understanding right now of the Taliban and their position? Is there one Taliban speaking here or are other Taliban divided on the whole issue of talking or fighting?

DR. RASSOUL: You know, in any major peace process discussion we start somewhere. And after that we see where we go.  I think the first important point is to start this negotiation and discussions. I am confident that sooner than later this contact will be established.

BAYS: Because just a few days ago, I was in Kunar and Aljazeera spoke to a Taliban leader there who said, he did not think there was any way that they want to get what they wanted by negotiation. He said the only way was jihad. What do you make of these sorts of comments?

DR. RASSOUL: We have contacts with those other leaders of Taliban who want peace. After all ten years of war has cost a lot for everybody, the Taliban also. And there are people among them who believe that it is time now to reconcile and integrate in the Afghan society.

BAYS: It was interesting in Kunar because there the Taliban control after the Americans pulled back quite large swathes of territory and there the Taliban have brought back the vice and virtue police. Is that something having them back? Is that something you will be prepared to countenance in your negotiations with the Taliban?

DR. RASSOUL: I think our red lines is very clear. You know, respect of Afghan constitution. Within this frame work of the Constitution those who have not committed crimes against the Afghan people, those who are not linked to Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups are welcome to integrate to the Afghan society and through, in the framework of our Constitution, can participate in the political structure of Afghanistan.

BAYS: Are you prepared to compromise on the constitution because you speak to the Taliban they might say that you throne the constitution in Bonn and we have never been invited?

DR. RASSOUL: This Constitution has not created by Afghan government. This Constitution has been approved by Afghan Loya Jirga one month of continuous discussion and bargaining. So, it is not something that the government decided. It is a decision of the people. But the decision of the Peace Jirga is that Afghanistan wants peace, the Afghan people are tired of this war and the same time the condition for this peace to happen is, to respect our constitution. That is the red line.

BAYS: Let me ask you, about what is going to happen in the future after 2014. That is the date most of the international troops supposed to leave Afghanistan. You are now negotiating right now with the Americans on what more role American forces will have in your country after 2014. Tell me how those negotiations are going?

DR. RASSOUL: I think we are now progressing in these negotiations. You know, there were two difficult parts in these negotiations; one was the issue of the prisoners in prisons in Afghanistan that has been sorted out; we have signed MOU a couple of weeks ago. And second issue was about the night raids and Special Force Operations, which are under discussions. A lot progress has been made. And I am confident that very soon we are going to sign the second MOU. When these two difficult issues out, I think, we are ready to sign the framework of a long– term strategic partnership with the United States hopefully very soon.

BAYS: Well, let me ask you about those two issues. I have read your Memorandum of Understanding with the Americans on Bagram prison. But there is one big you left out. What about the non-Afghans who have been held in U.S. custody? What is going to happen to them?

DR. RASSOUL: What is very important, Sir, on the issue of the prisoners is the sovereignty of Afghanistan. An Afghan citizen should be in jail controlled by Afghans. Ten years on now and the fact that 2014 will be the end of military operations of the NATO in Afghanistan, the sovereignty of Afghanistan is the main issue. So, we are responsible for our own citizen. The issue of the foreign citizens which are in Afghanistan can be discussed later.

BAYS: Where are they going to go? We think somewhere between forty or fifty people are there. The Americans are very secret to give us the numbers?

DR. RASSOUL: We are going to discuss that separately, because it is not the Afghan sovereignty issue. It is something between the two governments to be sort it out.

BAYS: But, it is going to be sorted out before the full handed over takes place?

DR. RASSOUL: Of course.

BAYS: On the other issue of night raids, tell me how are you going to reach a compromise on that. What has been suggested is that every single raid would be approved by an Afghan judge. Is that the sort of compromise you are looking at?

DR. RASSOUL: What is important, we have not finalized, because we have not signed it yet. But, I think what is important is that the night raids should be Afghanized according to Afghan Constitution. So what is in the Afghan Constitution should be applied. We have discussed the detail of our discussions are under way. As far as I know we have made lots of progress. Once this MOU will be finalized, we will give you more detail about it.

BAYS: Explain to our viewers, to us, why the issue of night raids is so controversial in Afghanistan?

DR. RASSOUL: It is controversial because our Constitution says that no foreign force or force can enter an Afghan home. And despite some success that night raids had done, and there is no doubt about it, it is starting to become counterproductive because when a house is raided and a civilian has been killed that will become very counterproductive. And I think, if we have decided as you mentioned in the beginning that end of 2014 Afghanistan security will be controlled under control of the Afghan National Security Forces, it is time to start now building that possibility done by Afghan Special Forces that are trained every day and the capacity, according to our allies, is very good now.

BAYS: Less than a month ago on March the eleventh there have been appalling massacre carried out by staff sergeants Robert Bills. After that president Karzai went further, the banning night raids. He said he wanted American forces to pull out of the villages. Is that still the position of the Afghan Government?

DR. RASSOUL: You know, Sir, when, 2014 is not far. You cannot just end of 2014 start everything. We need slowly, slowly to prepare ourselves, both sides for that end date. Now the forces should withdraw from somewhere. They need to start withdraw from somewhere, from villages go to districts and after that go to the town and after that go to their bases and after that will leave. So, that is one point. But also you know very well that the presence of the foreign forces, NATO forces in the small villages will become with time counterproductive.

BAYS: You said that 2014 is not far away. Well, 2013 is much closer. It is only a year away and it appears that some governments particularly the American government is now keen to speed this up to possibly leave much earlier. What does the Afghan government make of that? Are you worried by their cutting and running here?

DR. RASSOUL: I don’t think this issue of cutting and running.  The time of end of 2014 is agreed upon in Lisbon and everybody is agreed upon. As I mentioned to you, to reach end of 2014, we need gradually taking this responsibility. So, gradually means, if you want to take the full responsibility in the end of 2014, we need to start to take this responsibility slowly, slowly starting by 2013. Actually, you know today by transition, half of the Afghanistan is now under control of our Afghan National Security Forces and we are starting now to prepare ourselves for the final third phase, which will take into consideration of the most difficult areas bordering Pakistan.

BAYS: 2014, is when the combat troops, the foreign troops will be pulling back, but you will still be needing substantial assistance after that time won’t you? You need their air power, you need their intelligence and you need their spying satellites?

DR. RASSOUL: You see, there are two things; one is the civilian part of the Afghanistan post 2014.  And second is the security part. On the civilian part, the Bonn Conference in December was very successful. The majority, the quasi-totality of the international community, came to that meeting and committed themselves to be with Afghanistan after 2014 for the next decade. So that was a major success despite economic difficulty in Europe and the United States and elsewhere, there has been a firm commitment to be with Afghanistan and not abandon Afghanistan after 2014, at least for ten years.

On the security side, we need a presence to train and equip and support Afghan National Security Forces. That is the reason that we are discussing the strategic partnership with the United States. I think the result of that would be that the remaining forces of the United States in Afghanistan will be just for what you said, train and continue to equip the Afghan National Security Forces. But as you know, we have also signed long-term partnership in military, security, civilian and economic with the United Kingdom, with France, with Italy and very soon we are going to sign with Germany. There is one we are going to sign it in Chicago with Australia. And we are in discussion with the European Union to have the same kind of long-term partnership with Afghanistan. So, we want that after withdrawal, while we are taking the full responsibility, the continuation of the support of our allies of today.

BAYS: So, how long will you need the air power of these NATO countries?

DR. RASSOUL: We want also the more and more the Afghan have air power. One thing we are discussing with our American friends that Afghan Air Force should be a good air force, not only transport, but other. Also we are discussing about having radar capability to have to control the sky of Afghanistan, etc, etc. So one of the major part of the strategic partnership with the United States is a continued help to capabilize the Afghan National Security Forces in the decade to come.

BAYS: Will there be restrictions on what could be done on these bases? Will America after 2014 be allowed to continue drone attacks on Pakistan in the future if Israel goes to war with Iran? Will America be allowed to support using air bases in Afghanistan?

DR. RASSOUL: We have in principle the presence of the remaining forces of the United States in Afghanistan is for training, equipping and securing Afghanistan security. It is has been mentioned, it is going to be mentioned as a main point that this force is not for use against any neighbors in the region.

BAYS: So no more drone attacks after 2014 on Pakistan territory?

DR. RASSOUL: The Afghan soil will not be used against any country in the region.

BAYS: Including Pakistan? And I want to ask you about your relationship with Pakistan. When I listen and I have heard so many speeches by President Karzai. Sometimes he talks of Pakistan as this great friend, and I think he once used the phrase conjoined twins about the two countries. And then other times he says that they are meddling, they are causing all the problems in Afghanistan. Which one is it?

DR. RASSOUL: One thing is very important to know that without the full co-operation of Pakistan, a long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan to achieve is going to be very difficult. Our goal is to convince Pakistan that the peaceful and stable Afghanistan will be in the strategic interest of Pakistan because Pakistan also is suffering sometimes more than Afghanistan on the security issues and other issues. So we are engaged with Pakistan to convince them to help us, and help themselves first, to fight together against terrorism and Islamic extremism together so the peace and stability will be beneficial for both countries.

BAYS: You used the phrase full co-operation. Do you believe you are currently getting full co-operation from all elements in Pakistan or are there some elements possibly rogue elements still working against you?

DR. RASSOUL: If there was a full co-operations there will be no fighting. So we are in the way of coming to an agreement that will be full co-operation. And I am optimistic to say that the trend is going to be in that side, but future will tell us how much we can do for that.

BAYS: 2014 as we have discussed is such a vital date because of the foreign troops, because of the end of the transition to Afghan control. But is it also the date on which President Karzai steps down? Afghans will have a new leader for the first time in thirteen years. Do you think this coincidence is unfortunate?

DR. RASSOUL: Unfortunate no, because that is the Constitution of Afghanistan and I think it is a good news that Afghanistan now has this democratic system which peaceful transfer of power can be done through an election.

BAYS: But it creates so much uncertainty with the two things happening at the same time, doesn’t it?

DR. RASSOUL: That is correct. It is a very important time and our hope is that the election should be clear, that the condition for this election should be well prepared. But in any country the election brings the change. In some uncertitude, in Afghanistan more than other places, because as you mentioned 2014 is going to be a crucial time.

BAYS: Last time there was an election it was marched by the fraud, there was deep controversy, even involving the election date, the opposition disagreed with the government when the election should take place. When is your next election going to take place, do you have any exact date?

DR. RASSOUL: I do not have an exact date now, but it will take place sometimes in 2014. There is no doubt about it. You know, Afghanistan…

BAYS: … Do you do not need to settle the date pretty soon to avoid any further uncertainty?

DR. RASSOUL: It is up to the constitutional and election commission to do that, and it is not up to me. But certainly the election will happen in 2014. I think Afghanistan is a young democracy after thirty years of war and if you take into consideration the example of other young democracies in the world, we have done well. There have been problems, there have been election problems in other countries too, not only in Afghanistan. But we are learning and I am hopeful that next election will be much better than the previous one.

BAYS: Do you think after 2014, after this election, Afghanistan will hold together as one unified country, because senior diplomats, Western diplomats have told me that they think it is likely that parts will become less engaged with the center and will become fiefdoms of warlords?

DR. RASSOUL: Sir, Afghanistan has been through thirty years of war with no real government. The people took this country together. If there was any possibility of implosion of Afghanistan it would have happened before.

BAYS: Isn’t it the foreign forces that are keeping you together in some ways?

DR. RASSOUL: No, no, the foreign forces helped as a lot, to liberate us from Taliban and Co., but the cohesion of Afghanistan people is the cornerstone of this country. You know that there was the Soviet invasion, the proxy wars in Afghanistan and other issues, but the Afghan people kept to each other and I am confident that the Afghan people will stay together in the future.

BAYS: You say that and it is only a straw poll, I have spent the last couple of weeks in Afghanistan, and I sense a real feeling of uncertainty among the Afghans I have spoken to, particularity if you look at the economy you look a property prices, they are plunging in Kabul. The well-known western banks Standard Chartered pulling out of your capital city, because it is concerned about the future, how do you reassure Afghans?

DR. RASSOUL: It’s all the things that I mentioned to you -- the Bonn Conference, the partnership with the United States and NATO which we are going to discuss it with NATO also. The upcoming Chicago Conference which will be the commitment of the NATO countries for the sustainability of the Afghan National Security Forces, the upcoming conference in Tokyo in July which is the translation of commitment to a long-term economic for Afghanistan. All these efforts are to give this assurance to the Afghan people that, number one, the international community and our friends will not leave us after 2014. And number two, I think, the election, the consolidation of our Constitution, the peace process are other issues that we are working on, so the Afghan people will be assured that they are not going to be left alone like in the past.

BAYS: You say that not in yet, it’s only my observation, but I have been going to Afghanistan over that last eleven years very regularly and Afghan friends of mine, bright young Afghan friends, some of whom said they will never leave Afghanistan, now come up and ask me, how do I get a foreign passport? Does that worry you?

DR. RASSOUL: That does not worry me. I think those Afghans who want this country, who are giving their life every day for this country, they will stay. Those who want passport to leave, that is their business. These are not those people whom Afghanistan can count on them in the future.

BAYS: Some of those Afghans told me that the good days have passed; we won’t make any money in the future. Those days have passed. All the foreign contracts, the foreigners are leaving, we are going to abandon and there would be no money for us in the future.

DR. RASSOUL: There is no doubt that we will have a difficult economic times because a large part of our GDP is because of the presence of the foreign forces in Afghanistan and that is in any country you know. We need, these forces will not stay forever and should not stay forever. The day is coming that Afghanistan should take its own responsibility and live according to their own economic level. But Afghanistan as you know has tremendous economic potential in minerals, gas, oil, etc, etc. What we want that in coming decade the support of international community for Afghanistan will be in investment in our mines and infrastructure. So by 2024 Afghanistan will become a self - sustained country and not a country in need of donors.

BAYS: Dr. Zalmai Rassoul, thank you for talking to Al Jazeera.

DR. RASSOUL: Thank you.