In a wide-ranging interview, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani discusses issues as varied as trade and terror with Suhasini Haidar. 

After your meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there were no agreements signed, no announcements on strategic cooperation… how did the meetings go?

The meetings went extremely well, there are a series of agreements that will be signed within the next three months. So the framework is in place, and we are proceeding.

One of the subjects both you and PM Modi mentioned was the possibility of India being included in, or be a beneficiary of the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement (APTTA). How is that realistic, given that Pakistan has opposed the trade from Afghanistan to India directly, i.e. to Attari since the agreement was signed in 2011?

Regional cooperation requires a legal free-flow of goods and people. We are not asking Pakistan for any exceptional treatment. We are asking Pakistan for “national treatment”. Pakistani trucks come all the way to Attari. Why should Afghan trucks stop at Wagah? It’s a major cost for that distance, to load, unload and re-load. It is an incredible imposition on the cost of business. Sovereign states deal with sovereign equality. If we are not given equal transit access, then we will not provide equal transit access to Central Asia.

Is that something you have taken up with the Pakistani leadership?

Yes. We are clear. In our talks with the Commerce Minister of Pakistan (Khurram Dastgir) we have made it clear that it needs to be reciprocal. Relations between countries, especially when it comes to business, if there were significant reasons, if we had not accorded national treatment to Pakistani trucks, then we could have understood.

The national treatment clause is in the APTTA. So what you are saying is that if Pakistan continues to deny Afghan trucks access to bring their wares all the way to India, Afghanistan will cut off their trucks access directly to the countries in Central Asia?

We don’t want to reach that level, but equality in all principles is a must. That is what I am saying.

Is there a timeline on these? Because similarly, the motor vehicles agreement will need access through Pakistan…

Not on the APTTA, but yes, we (India and Afghanistan) will sign the motor vehicles agreement within three months.

In your conversation with Mr. Modi did you also discuss what your predecessor, President Karzai, used to call his “wishlist”: military equipment and hardware that Afghanistan needs?

No. Our focus is multi-dimensional. At this moment, we are doing okay on this regard (military hardware). That list you referred to had not been acted upon before. Now, three helicopters have been provided, and we have expressed our thanks and appreciation to India for those.

Were you disappointed that India had not acted upon the list?

I am never disappointed (Laughs).

Let’s turn to Afghanistan’s big security challenges. During your visit here you have spoken often about Da’esh or IS (Islamic State). The sense is that you no longer see the Taliban, the TTP , the Lashkar e Taiba as much of a threat as Afghanistan did before….

No, that’s not accurate. The expression I have used is ecology of terror. The questions I have been asked are about Da’esh, and I answered them. But the other groupings you refer to are equally significant. They all form part of one ecology, which can be symbiotic, or competitive. There’s a Darwinian struggle amongst terror groups for hegemony. Da’esh has broken out of the pack because Al-Qaeda and the rest rendered allegiance to Mullah Omar. Da’esh doesn’t, so it is a very distinct ideological gauntlet that has been thrown. There are four drivers of this instability. The first is international groups like IS and Al Qaeda, the second are criminal groups, politico-military movements, and the irresponsible armed groups.

During the height of international force presence, their focus was on the Taliban, because the other terror groups were in Pakistan, across the Durand lines, where drone attacks were used. More than 120,000 international troops pulled out under a schedule that I had the honour of drawing up. Everyone was banking on our collapse after they withdrew. We are not collapsing. We do have a difficult security environment. But the drivers have changed. The international terror networks target every one of our neighbours from India to Russia. There is no space for dealing with them, as their quarrels are not with us. They want to overthrow the Uzbek regime, or fight the Chinese or the Russian government. The previous framework was to deal with counter-insurgency. But then the prize was the state. Now the prize is not the state, it is destruction. Our territory is being made the battleground. Our people are being killed brutally to show a spectacle. We all need to mobilise as a region, we need to mobilize as one country, and the Taliban will have to make a choice if they want to work with these groups, or do they want a political process? Taliban issues should be put on the table so they can be solved politically.

I do want to come back to the talks with the Taliban, but to go back to the picture you drew, none of what you said relates to State-sponsored terror. Very specifically, to groups that belong to Pakistan and have been backed by the state. This was something the government of Afghanistan told us about repeatedly.

Well, the issue is we are asking for a two-fold peace. One is a Pakistan-Afghanistan peace. The other is between the government of Afghanistan and other groups in our country that have differences. In the current environment, primacy of peace between the States is a must, because the Pakistani state is being challenged by groups there. Their National Action Plan, the Peshawar massacre should be a warning to everybody that we are all in the same boat. You cannot have good terrorists and bad terrorists.

Many wonder when they hear you speak of Da’esh as the primary threat, that that is a way to buy peace with Pakistan, of not mentioning groups backed by Pakistan…

No, that’s not true. As a result of the operations in North and South Waziristan, this year, there is war in Pakistan. It isn’t just a spring offensive in Afghanistan, there is a spring offensive in Pakistan. This threat has been discussed in great detail with our Pakistani counterparts, and hence there is a realisation that there is a common threat attacking our states.

The media is funny that way. They ask you one question, and then they criticise you for not answering another question. Nobody asked me about the other groups. Did I ever say there isn’t a threat from them?

Well specifically in India, we worry about the Lashkar-e-Taiba that carried out attacks in India as well as in Afghanistan… is that still a threat?

Of course, there is a threat. They are part of the ecology. And when I say that all our neighbours are threatened by these groups, that should be sufficient.

To come to talks with the Taliban, we heard from your office that the talks could start in March, that there was a deadline set by you. Tell us where that process is?

We are preparing. Peace is our priority. I have always said that talks will begin when they begin. You cannot dictate a time schedule. We need sustainability. In an article in 2007, I have reviewed more than 100 peace agreements, and I found that 50% of peace agreements break down within 5 years because they are not properly prepared. We are not after an event, but a fundamental change.

What else has changed? Have you shifted from the previous red-lines that giving up violence is a pre-condition to talks, and the process must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. You haven’t spoken of pre-conditions, and now Pakistan and China seem to have a role in the process.

The second one is absolutely the case. The process is Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. I, as the leader of the country, am leading it. I designed the process.

No one else is leading it. The primacy is of a state agreement, so any attempt to destabilise Afghanistan will not be allowed. We are not a battlefield and we will not allow anyone to use our territory against any of our neighbour, but we will not allow our neighbours to use our territory this way either. This is a fundamental change and a hard line. We may consult others on the parameters, but I will not be pushed into any process, any deadlines. Because, all deadlines are artificial.

Finally, you made a statement resembling former PM Manmohan Singh’s statement on breakfast in Delhi, lunch in Peshawar, dinner in Kabul. Is that at all likely, given the current levels of mistrust? Did you discuss it with PM Modi?

Yes. And of course, South Asia is the least economically integrated region. That is an insult to our intelligence and our imagination and our past. We must focus on our biggest enemy, poverty. There is no single-state solution to it, and that is a noble goal. Afghanistan will take decades to develop on its own. And that is why we need South Asian cooperation. We see ourselves as a platform for this development.

Do you also see yourselves as a mediating platform between India and Pakistan?

(Laughs) That’s too ambitious!

President Ghani, thank you for speaking to The Hindu. Thank you.