Originally published on DECEMBER 04, 2016,  The Hindu

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani delivered one of his most scathing speeches about Pakistan’s role in abetting terror in the region at the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar on Sunday, alleging that without Pakistani state support, the Taliban “wouldn’t survive beyond a month”. In an exclusive interview with Suhasini Haidar, he spoke of his frustration with Pakistan, friendship with India and hopes for the region.

Your speech at the Heart of Asia included some strong comments for Pakistan, directly telling Pakistan to use money it had offered for Afghanistan’s development better by fighting terrorism with it in its own countries. What led you to pinpoint Pakistan at this international conference?

I engaged Pakistan, I went there and not only visited with the civilian leadership but with the military leadership. I even went to their GHQ (Military headquarters), because each country has their own distinct place for institutions. My message was that there was a window. It could be broadened to a door or a corridor, or it could shut. We did everything to ensure peace with Pakistan. 2015 and 2016 have been extremely difficult years and the violence that has been inflicted on our people needs to be registered. To be quiet when people are dying is not acceptable. I am an elected political leader, I need to reflect my people’s sentiment. Because the question of terrorism is not just a threat to us but to Pakistan and the Asian region, and hence the need for a public statement.


Has the window of opportunity then closed?

They need to open it. We opened the window, now it’s closed, so it’s their turn to open it.

Both India and Afghanistan expressed their anger over this continued terrorism at the conference, which seemed to overshadow the conference. What are your hopes from the process now?

My speech was in four ‘acts’. The first was our celebration of our relationship with India. The second, a celebration of the new consensus on Afghanistan from the global community. The third act was the prospect of Asian economic integration. And the fourth was about what we will be deprived of if we don’t do it. Terrorism is depriving us of this and we need enduring solutions at the Heart of Asia. It is becoming a meaningful process. Our goal would be to link China on one hand to Iran on the other, and also to India. South Asia is the least integrated area and has immense potential.

The worry here would be that it would also be one step from connecting to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor as well, given the rail line from Yiwu to Mazar now.

One corridor is not against another. The logic of price will prevail. Afghanistan is so much easier to go through. Northern Afghanistan is flat. Eventually railway connectivity is to everyone’s benefit, and we shouldn’t see it as a zero sum game.

To come back to concerns over terror, At the SAARC conference, India and Afghanistan came together to boycott Pakistan so they couldn’t host it. Is this policy of isolating Pakistan working?

We don’t intend to isolate Pakistan, but when we are under attack, we need to remind that it will not be tolerated. Engagement is essential, but only engagement that is meaningful. Last year, I went to the Heart of Asia in Islamabad and I was repeatedly assured of a changed policy. Instead we got the worst year of conflict in the last 15 years. An isolated Pakistan is not in the region’s interests, but Pakistan’s leadership must take action beyond its verbal assurances.

In May 2015, in an interview to The Hindu you had said that if Pakistan continues to block transit trade with India, Afghanistan will block its access to Central Asia…is that still a threat?

We actually went through with it. Trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan has been much reduced. Economically Afghanistan has become part of Central Asia. The opening to the port in Turkmenistan fundamentally changes our dependence on the route through Pakistan. It’s five times cheaper and reliable. This image or idea that we are dependent on the port of Karachi must be removed. Afghanistan is at the Heart of Asia, and a heart has many valves. We are de-blocking those valves at present.

The big change in India-Afghanistan ties in the past year has come from India’s decision to provide military helicopters. To quote Mr. Modi on the hesitations of history with the US, has India overcome hesitations with Afghanistan now?

India is converging with Afghanistan. There is nothing secret. It is a transparent state to state relationship. We are driven by common goals and opportunities.

Yet they weren’t always as good when you began your tenure…

They were, but some commentators only saw a zero sum game. Afghanistan wants to become a centre of cooperation. PM Modi and I have had a meeting of minds from the moment we met, and that has resulted in this convergence.

India and Afghanistan have announced a new air cargo agreement now. How will that change the situation, given that we already have many flights between us?

We are essentially reviving the old caravan route….in the sky, when we look for high value, low volume trade. Instead of seeing our trade over land being blocked, this corridor gives us predictability on goods like medicines. India produces cheaper medicines than anywhere. Having an organized process will do wonders for our trade. Afghanistan has a name brand in India. From Babur who brought fruit to India to Tagore’s Kabuliwala, there runs a straight line.

How viable is the other alternate to the Pakistan land route, Iran’s Chabahar port? Gwadar is already seeing Chinese goods go through from the CPEC, Iran is completing its INSTC to Central Asia, is there room for more than bilateral trade through Chabahar port now?

What we need to look at is not just Chabahar alone. Iran has 11 neighbours that it is connected to, neighbours like Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. The issue is Indian trade to Central Asia through Afghanistan, and that makes a lot of sense.

To come to the security situation in Afghanistan, you spoke with U.S. President Elect Trump recently, how do you assess the U.S.’s role in Afghanistan under him? Will it shrink?

President Obama made a historic decision to keep a medium term outlook of 4-years on security for Afghanistan, and President Trump will most likely keep that. 2015 was our year of survival, 2016 was the year of our organized defence, 2017 and on will be years of success and consolidation. Look, in 2014 there were 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, now there are 10,000 and mostly in supporting roles. Afghan security forces have really come a long way. And now we have an airforce.

What is the role for India then? Has the problem of spare parts, delivery, now been resolved, and will there be a trilateral arrangement with Russia?

We welcomed the helicopters India sent. Our fleet of helicopters were mostly Russian, and India’s help has been invaluable in helping us maintain them. We will now purchase U.S. equipment. India’s delivery has been a life saver.

Where are talks with the Taliban now?

We signed a peace agreement with the Hizb-e-Islami this year, so its important to know that an intra-Afghanistan dialogue can work. We can only hope the Taliban will follow the same process. Taliban has just made a pronouncement that it won't attack infrastructure here, that’s because they realize it is very unpopular to do so. The Taliban used to say, the west had watches, but they had the time, and so would win. The Afghan public is turning against such destructiveness. Also there is the emergence of other actors like Daesh/IS who could upstage them. So we hope they will realize the need to come to the table.

You sound confident, but Taliban appears to control large areas now. We saw a public hanging this week of an engineer. How much does the government really control?

Around 66-68 per cent is controlled by our forces, about 10 per cent with the Taliban and the rest is contested. There has been a stalemate, but that is now turning in favour of the government. The territory may not have changed, but we are now maintaining our positions instead of the 140,000 foreign troops. The unity of the Afghan Army has been significant in this.

So will talks with the Taliban now be intra-Afghan, is Pakistan out of the process, given that we saw them host talks in the past ?

Taliban are a red herring in discussions with Pakistan. Because they need to own up to the threat of terror.

Pakistan often says as an explanation, that they have housed millions of Afghan refugees, they can’t tell which are Taliban….

This excuse is old. One of our corps commanders from Helmand went to Quetta and offered to show the commander there the very houses where Taliban leadership lives. There was silence in reply. The Afghan refugees believe their future is in Afghanistan….if they want to send them back we will take them, even if we have only one loaf of bread to share. I don’t need foreign aid, I need peace to build our country. The world has been reconvinced that Afghanistan is an investment that will yield.

Amritstar, India

4 December 2016


In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Prime Minister Modi, distinguished foreign ministers and other ministers, heads of delegations, ladies and gentlemen!

Heart of Asia is meeting at a time of great opportunity and significant threats for Afghanistan, with Asia-wide and global implications.   Taking stock of the emerging patterns and trends of the year since our meeting in Islamabad last year will help us prepare for 2017 and beyond.   But, let me first begin by thanking you and the Indian people for hosting us today in the historic and beautiful city of Amritsar-a city that used to be the center of bills of exchange and commerce connecting India to Central Asia, Russia, Middle East and beyond. And thank you for the visit to the Golden Temple. It was an exceptional and moving event.                       

Mr. Prime Minister:

You honored us by visiting Afghanistan twice this year to inaugurate two important iconic projects.   The Afghan parliament will stand as an enduring testament of the enduring relationship between the world’s largest democracy and a people and government committed to the realization of democratic rights and obligations of a free citizenry enshrined in our constitution.    The Afghan-India Friendship Dam at Salma, generating 42 megawatts of power and storing 650 million cubic meters of water and finished after 40 years of waiting, will bring light and improved lives to the people of Herat.   No wonder, that your visit was greeted with spontaneous celebrations across Afghanistan.   Equally significant, the trilateral agreement signed in Tehran between India, Iran and Afghanistan on the port of Chabahar is a major step in transforming Afghanistan from a landlocked country to a land bridge. 

Your words, assuring the Afghan people of the support of 1.25 billion strong Indian people, have been quickly matched by deeds, as demonstrated by your pledge of $1 billion of new development assistance.   As we have welcomed nearly a million of our refugees, the new portfolio of programs and projects made possible by your assistance will reproduce, expand and consolidate the billions of historic bonds between the two nations dedicated to empowerment of their people and peace and prosperity through cooperation.   The agreed cargo air corridor to be soon launched will give Indian and Afghan consumers and producers unimpeded access to each other’s products and services.  Afghan students, over 20,000 of whom are currently enrolled in India, are marked for playing a significant role in leading and managing Afghanistan’s transition to prosperity and stability.  

India’s support is impressive, both in its scale and its system of delivery.  India’s assistance is state-to-state, aimed at improving people’s lives and wellbeing.   It is transparent and without strings attached.  There are no hidden agreements and secret conditions.   It is convergence of interests and values of two states inspired by the belief in cooperative advantage. Thank you!

Ladies and Gentlemen!

The renewal of international commitment to the people of Afghanistan during 2016 has been impressive.   President Obama’s historic decision in committing US forces will be respected and remembered by us as a decision for securing our future.   We thank the President and his national security team for respecting the sacrifice of our defense and security forces and for trusting our resolve to fight corruption and putting our house in order.   Commitment of $15 billion to fund the 354,000 strong ANDSF, the renewal of the Resolute Support Mission, and commitments by the assembled countries to have their sons and daughters serve in the Resolute Support Mission during the NATO summit in Warsaw provided us with a medium-term horizon to strengthen the capacity and capabilities of our forces.  We thank President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, Prime Ministers Cameron and Renzi, President Erdoğan and other leaders for forging the summit’s consensus on Afghanistan.   

The $15.2 billion commitment at Brussels in support of our Peace and Development Framework was even more impressive, for it took place against the backdrop of arguments regarding aid fatigue and competing global priorities.   Our intense focus on reforms and our productive dialogues with our development partners, however, resulted in a resounding success.   We take the pledges, as I said in the concluding press conference, as a line of credit to be translated into commitments and disbursements against substantial and sequential reforms.   We thank all of you for your participation and pledges, particularly the efforts by vice president Mogherini and her staff at the European Union and US’s advocacy efforts on our behalf.

Believing that deepening and broadening of partnerships requires constant work and investment and relation building, we neither took the Warsaw nor the Brussels pledges for granted.   Instead, we focused on making our case by deeds in the arenas of the battlefield and in reform of governance, ranging from revenue collection to the overhauling of rule of law institutions. We thank you for the opportunity for engagement and your appreciation of the complexity of the challenges facing us.   With the medium-term horizons made possible by Warsaw and Brussels, we are now embarking on an earnest effort to ensure the stability and security of our country and the wellbeing of our people.   Momentum towards this objective, however, requires a framework and an action plan for addressing the distinctively Asian – or more accurately the Euro-Asian – dimensions of our potential, as Russia is a significant stakeholder and interlocutor, so that our potential and our problems can be faced. Hence, the relevance of today’s deliberations and the Heart of Asia-Istanbul process and the relevance to Afghanistan’s and Asia’s linked destiny. Let me thank the government of Turkey for having formulated the Istanbul Process, a dialogue that successively is becoming more productive and encompassing, and equally the Republic of Kazakhstan, the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan for previously hosting this conference, and let me extend our thanks to Azerbaijan for agreeing to co-host next year’s meeting.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Asia’s transformation from a concept into a continental economy, on the one hand, and the terrible price wrought by the fifth wave of political violence and terrorism on our societies and polities on the other, define the stage for the realization of our potential and the setting for our problems.  

Connectivity, as the experience of North America and the first global surge in investment in transportation in the 19th century shows, is the key to weaving a landmass into an integrated economic system.   Independent states of Central Asia and the Caucuses have demonstrated the transformative impacts of investing in connectivity.  Turkmenistan articulated the concept of connectivity corridors in September 2014 and sustainable transportation last week.   Afghanistan is a major beneficiary of this approach, as our people are celebrating the inauguration of the dry port of Aqina on October 28 across our land.   Aqina’s impact is in its network effect, for it enables access to the enormous transportation network that links Turkmenistan to the system of its neighbors and their neighbors.  Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia on the one side, and of course Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Russia and beyond in Europe.   Equally the arrival of the first consignment of goods from China through Uzbekistan to the port of Hairatan is a demonstration of the flows to come.  We are very pleased with our intense dialogue with the leadership of Uzbekistan and China, and look forward to increasing the scale of our interactions.   Equally significant is the tripartite agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan on the port of Chahbahar and the project under implementation to link the city of Herat to the Iranian railway and port system.  The reduction in cost of transport and in predictability will enable us to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of our developmental efforts, thereby bringing visible changes to the lives of our people. 

When network and cluster effects combine, the scale of change becomes irreversible.  Each new connection produces a network effect but when these points are connected to each other, it produces a combined developmental impact that can lift our people from poverty to prosperity.  TAPI is an illustration of cluster effect.   Initially conceived as a pipeline, the concept is now being broadened to a cluster of a pipeline, transmission line, fiber optic network, a railway, roads, and airports, creating an integrated system of connectivity between Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.  

Our location at the heart of Asia and the recent momentum gives us the confidence that investment in connectivity in Afghanistan can have Asia-wide impacts and implications.   A cluster approach to infrastructure development to integrate our dispersed spaces into an integrated system and open up the arteries of Heart of Asia is, therefore, our top development priority.   Imagine a railway system, reinforced by the rest of the cluster, linking China to Iran, Pakistan and India.  Our initial assessment shows that up to 15,000 megawatts of power from Central Asia can be transferred to South Asia and that within 5 years Afghanistan can be transformed from an importer of power to a transmission center and exporter of power.   Our ability to attract $900 million of private sector investment in the power sector in the last five months– of which $700 million is from Afghan entrepreneurs- demonstrates that we are beginning to gain the trust of the private sector.  We invite firms from all of your countries to make a difference while making a legitimate profit.   Making the railway happen, however, requires a combined effort of partner countries and development organizations and we hope to convince you of the wisdom of the investment.

Afghanistan must come out of dependency on aid and we can.   Our hydrocarbon and mineral wealth is estimated at trillions of dollars and we have the potential to harness around 26 billion cubic meters of water.   Timely, efficient, and effective support through global and Asian coordination to support our infrastructure system will enable us to achieve self-reliance rapidly, thereby enabling our people to lift themselves from poverty to prosperity.   Use of existing and development of new financing and risk guarantee instruments will be critical to the achievement of our common objective.   Even more significantly, we must confront the specter in the room: the fifth wave of political violence and terrorism.  

Distinguished leaders, ladies and gentlemen!

A poor developing country in a normal regional and international context has the luxury to articulate a vision and develop an action plan for its sequential realization.   We, unfortunately, do not have this luxury.  The challenges that we confront are chain-linked, complex, and highly interdependent, requiring alignment of actions at the Asian, global, Islamic, national and regional levels.   As the weak link in the chain defines the speed of movement, we have no choice but to focus on crisis management and change management simultaneously while paying close attention to building and deepening of our partnerships.  

At the heart of the problem are the nature, scale and scope of the fifth wave of political violence and terrorism.   As the frontline society and polity confronting the wave, we have paid and are paying a huge price in lost lives and denied opportunities.   Last year we suffered the highest number of civilian casualties and military related deaths in the world. This is unacceptable. It can be avoided. It is not unavoidable.

Judging by the previous four waves of violence, covering the period from the 1860s to 1990s, confronting this wave requires a strategy of 10-20 years, as acknowledged by the Australian Defense Policy.

The fifth wave builds upon, incorporates, and amplifies the techniques of violence and destructiveness of the previous four waves, starting with anarchism.   Its network effect is, however, intensified as it exploits the huge potential of face to Facebook rather than face-to-face relationships of the past.   As disrupting the social contract between the citizen and the state through an all-out attack on freedoms embodied in the creation of the nation state and the international system is the core objective of the Fifth Wave, mobilization of the state system at all levels is crucial to defeating and destroying this wave of violence against citizens and states.  

We see five interrelated phenomena.   First, criminal economic networks, centered on drugs, smuggling, human trafficking and other illicit activities provide the platform for criminal politics.   Like the drug wars of Latin America, narcotics are a major driver of violence.   Second, close to 30 groups classified as terrorists by the United Nations are attempting to establish a base in our country in order to destabilize their countries of the origin, the region and the world.   Third, the military operations in Pakistan have brought a major but selective displacement of the Pakistani extremist networks and their allies on to Afghanistan.    Fourth, despite our intense engagement with Pakistan on bilateral and multilateral basis, the undeclared war – the name that I gave to the phenomenon in the winter 2014 – not only has not abated but also intensified during 2016, with special intensity right after the Brussels Conference.

Our highest rate of use of force and organized defense of our country took place between October 4th and November 20th. Fifth, the response of the states has been fragmented and some still provide sanctuary and support or tolerate these networks. As Mr. Kakazada, one of the key figures in the Taliban movement recently said, if they did not have sanctuary in Pakistan, they would not last a month. We need intense dialogue and engagement; I, therefore, conclude with proposing the following:

First, to tackle criminal economics, we need to convene at the Asian and regional way and document who benefits from producing, processing, trafficking and consuming; this requires an international effort without blame game to be able to uproot the basis of this phenomenon.

Second, we propose an Asian and international regime. Whatever is accepted, particularly, to our neighbor Pakistan to verify cross-frontier activities and terrorist operations. We do not want blame game. We want verification.

Thirdly, there is need for a fund to combat extremism. Pakistan has generously pledged 500 million dollars for reconstruction of Afghanistan. This fund, Mr. Aziz, could very well be used for containing extremism because without peace any amount of assistance will not meet the needs of our people. We have been balancing the opportunities and the threats. I am confident that focused, deliberate and systematic efforts can enable us to win a world and to make Afghanistan and Asia secure. Once again, thank you for your attention.