New Delhi: "Taliban fights in the name of Afghanistan, but fights for Pakistan.” Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s candidate for vice president, minces no words as he talks about Taliban’s alliance with Pakistan.
As Afghanistan’s candidate for the position of vice president, Saleh has Pakistan and Taliban on the top of his priority list, especially because Taliban is currently engaged in peace talks.
In an interview with News18, Saleh, who is also the former chief of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security and was one of the youngest intel chiefs when he took charge in 2004, asserts that the Taliban fights for a vague ideology. “Our quest is for stability,” he says.
This is not the first time that 47-year-old Saleh has accused the Taliban and Pakistan of being partners. Saleh recalls how he was certain that Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who was being shielded by the Taliban, was in Pakistan. He also recalls the ISI telling the then George W Bush administration in the United States that the tribes that were said to be protecting Osama were autonomous and their terrain was rugged and that they needed money to clear these areas which have remained quasi-independent for centuries.
After multiple rounds of intelligence collection in FATA (Federally Administred Tribal Areas), Saleh says, he did not find Osama. “Instead, what we found was a wide network and small cells of terrorists operating out of the area covertly, and in some cases, with overt support from Pakistan army. We had to develop our sources and go elsewhere. Eventually, in 2006, we located Al-Qaeda related safe houses in Mansera. We saw traces of Bin Laden there too,” he tells News18.
The Afghan dossier on the findings which was given to President Pervez Musharraf sent the latter into “panic.”
“He (Musharraf) went on saying that the Afghan government was all in collusion with India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), and finally he said the dossier was nothing but some false information and that if there was any truth in it he would personally act on it. He said Pakistan isn’t a banana republic and there was no Mullah Omar in the soil of Pakistan. He also said that if Pakistan did hide Mullah Omar it was like shooting in its own foot. You can imagine when a general is caught lying red-handed, what his reaction will be,” says the vice presidential candidate.
In the end, years later in 2011, Saleh did have the last laugh as the US stormed into a house in Abbottabad in Pakistan and took down Laden.
Eight years have passed since Saleh’s accuracy and prediction came true when it came to Laden. Why the US, which was reportedly privy to the conversation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, decided to ignore his intel years ago is still not clear. Ask him now about what he thinks about Taliban’s peace process in his country and he says right now the US is leading the semblance of peace process, but it will only find true Afghan meaning and substance “as and when the Afghan government will take its ownership and enter into direct negotiations with the Taliban.”
“Our aim is to ensure the strengthening of constitutional order,” he declares, adding that Taliban’s vague ideology will die within months without the support from Pakistan army and intelligence infrastructure.
But what about the report by the United Nations that cited a record number of civilian deaths last year? “Taliban terror attacks,” Saleh responds, adding, “They receive their training in Pakistan where they are solely taught how to kill.” He adds that most of the Taliban recruits at command level are graduates from Pakistani madrassas and that it was important for the UN and the international community to look at the broader picture and put Pressure on Pakistan to end this adventure.
The former spy chief understands the label that comes with this argument—the accusation that he is obsessed with the idea of Taliban and Pakistan as one entity. “But I am raising it calculatedly. The UN should adopt a preemptive strategy and force the Pakistani army to stop support for terror outfits,” he says.
Saleh, who was Afghanistan’s interior minister until he resigned to join President Ashraf Ghani’s election team in 2019, also wants India on board when it comes to the idea of talks with the Taliban. Calling the faction a temporary bitter factor, he says Afghans saw India as an all-time friend. “It is better to remain on the side of the Afghan people and stay away from dialogue with terrorists.”
Notably, there have been voices in India that have advocated a dialogue with the Taliban. Earlier this year, Army chief Bipin Rawat had said that India must reach out to Taliban in Afghanistan but talks should be held without any precondition. India, in November last year, participated in the meeting hosted by Russia on Afghanistan at a “non-official level” in Moscow where representatives of the Taliban were also present.
“India, in my opinion, must retain and strengthen its brand and its reputation as the largest democracy in the world not bowing to terror,” he says. He also skeptical about the Taliban talks happening without the Afghan government being party to it.
He further admits that he had been part of the meeting between US representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the Afghan president. he said Khalilzad had discussed with Taliban matters that related to US national interest and security. “The matters which relate to our security and our national interest are yet to be discussed. Those issues can’t be discussed in absence of the Afghan government in direct talks with Pakistan and their proxy the Taliban,” Saleh adds.
Ask him about the probability of the US withdrawing from the country, Saleh is certain that it won’t happen. In December 2018, US President Donald Trump announced plans of withdrawing 7,000 troops over the next couple of months. “The US presence in Afghanistan will evolve.”
He also sees no change in Pakistan’s policy with regards to Afghans even now. Talking about Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statement on Afghanistan’s need for an interim government whilst it prepares for the elections, Saleh calls out Pakistan for remaining oblivious to the new realities in Afghanistan.
“I think they were frozen in 1991 when they were the authors of guidelines on how to deal with Afghanistan,” says Saleh, adding that he agrees with US Ambassador in Kabul John Bass’s satirical comment on Khan’s statement—‘Afghanistan is not a cricket ball to tamper with’. “I couldn’t agree more,” he says.
That said, he wishes Pakistan would understand how much it would benefit from a friendly Afghanistan than a dominated one which, he says, “won’t happen anyway.”
“If we look at it just on the basis of civilisation, there is no such thing as Pakistan. It is part of the greater India and greater Afghanistan. What separates us from Pakistan is not culture or religion or geography or history. What separates us from Pakistan is the ISI and the Pakistan Army, who are losers in the long run anyway,” Saleh says.
While understanding the factor of anti-incumbency (as President Ghani fights for a second term) that comes with his team this coming election, Saleh still has big plans. The opposition leaders in Afghanistan have accused President Ghani of trying to ruin the peace process. Saleh, however, is hopeful. “Ashraf Ghani and I believe we must manifest our national power by remaining loyal and attached to our roots. We want to restore Afghanistan’s place and stature and give it its identity. Afghanistan for Afghanistan and not attached to any caveat which runs contrary to our national interests,” he says.
His plans also include development work with the Chinese. “We look at China as a great neighbour of Afghanistan and very much look forward to seeing China start work on Aiank copper mines which they bought years back,” he says.
Saleh is also confident that there is simply no way for India and Afghanistan to have divergence of interest and insists that “there is simply no way for India and Afghanistan to have divergence of interest. It won’t happen.”