originally published on August 26, 2017 ,  Diplomatic Square

In conversation with Afghanistan’s Ambassador, Shaida Mohammad Abdali


When President George Bush sent his troops to Afghanistan to take out Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden and other terrorists and dismantle the Al Qaida, the Taliban network, the United States led coalition rose to nearly 40 countries. President Hamid Karzai was elected the President of Afghanistan and the world’s most vicious terrorist Osama bin Laden and others  slipped into neighbouring Pakistan with their tail between their legs, living in safe houses near Abbotabad cantonment and other places with their many wives and children. All this while, while billions of tax payers’ dollars were being spent, thousands of military men and civilians were dying while Pakistan was counting the dollars it kept on receiving as charity from the United States for being an ally in the fight against terrorism.

In a recent conversation with Arunava Dasgupta, Diplomatic Square, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India, Shaida Mohammad Abdali speaks on the current situation in his country and the aspirations of the Afghan people and most importantly the’ terror’ that had virtually destroyed Afghanistan but not the will of the Afghan people who stood resolutely in this war against humanity.

Ambassador Shaida Mohammad Abdali is also the non-resident ambassador to Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives. Earlier, he served as the Deputy National Security Advisor to the former President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. He graduated from NDU’s College of International Security Affairs in in 2008 and is one of the four new Inductees in NDU’s International Fellows Hall of Fame. On the table in the adjacent waiting room in his office lies his doctoral thesis that would make very good reading on the “Garden of Asia” as Afghanistan was once called.

D.S: It has been a long campaign in Afghanistan. What is the ground reality now?

Ambassador Abdali: The story is too long to describe what happened in Afghanistan, what we did earlier and what we are doing today but I will try to summarize. Unfortunately, Afghanistan has been suffering due to the conflict of interests, within the region and beyond, historically – and there are always some people when they talk in the context of Afghanistan, they perceive it to be an Afghan phenomenon, a home grown situation in which Afghanistan has been at war and suffered destruction for decades. But one thing very important to clarify is that we are actually the victims of the situation around us and it affects our internal peace and stability. From the number of conflicts that have taken place, beginning with the Soviet invasion to the consequent war and conflict of interest and ultimately leading to terrorism that caused 9/11, the subsequent coalition of force under America in Afghanistan – we are still struggling with the situation and we have not been able to bring it to the right place. Even today, Afghanistan continues to suffer because of global and regional powers, their divisions, multiplicity of interests and more so nowadays in the context of terrorism.

However, we are optimistic that we will overcome the situation eventually but the fact of the matter is that in the United States led war against terrorism, comprising many countries including those within the region, the adverse side is that we have not been able to achieve the goal that we had set forth 15 years ago. We did not achieve those goals because we were not able to put in place the right course of action, where countries involved would have a strategy that would ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan, and by extension, in the region and beyond.

But nowadays you can see debates. You can hear questions being asked as to what are the reasons that the global communities which had been engaged in Afghanistan have not achieved their mission, that is, to combat terrorism and restore peace in Afghanistan, thus ensuring that the whole world is peaceful. You can see these questions being asked by the US new administration – it has been the 7th month of the new US administration and you can see President Donald Trump rightfully asking these questions. It is very understandable because these are exactly the question we have been asking too! This is the question we have been asking our international partners that what are the reasons,  despite billions of dollars investment, hundreds of thousands troops used, with even now a sizeable amount of troops there,  we have still not been able to achieve our goals, rather we see setbacks in the war against terrorism.

We hope that from the lessons learnt in the last 15 years, we will find the answers. Clearly, is there a lack in the unity of intent, the unity of interest, the unity of the efforts and sincerity – the political will to fight terrorism? We hope we will be able to find the answers that will transform all of us towards putting forward a kind of strategy that will take us victoriously towards peace and stability in Afghanistan.

DS: President Trump made a remark yesterday also!

Ambassador Abdali: I think President Trump is right in saying that we will have to relook continuing with action that we have been taking and no one is presently happy with it. I am glad he is asking tough questions from his own government, his own officials to see what has gone wrong. I think that the answer to his questions, in my opinion, is that we have not been able to focus on the organizational structure of terrorism and its support network.

I think terrorism has two dimensions. One dimension is to fight terrorism which is to fight individuals and this is relatively easier but the other dimension is more crucial – the system behind, the state or the organization structure behind this terrorism. I hope we will focus on the two dimensions equally. Fight terrorism and more so the source and support network of terrorism, whether they are State or Not-State (actors).

DS: Afghans have been fiercely independent minded people and fought many a wars but in the ultimately analysis, have lost none. They may have been momentarily overpowered but they have struck back and defeated their enemies – the British fought 3 wars in Afghanistan and won none, the Soviets got into quick sand in Afghanistan and ultimately disintegrated. A senior journalist, now a Union Minister, had coined an expression for his magazine, “Simply unputdownable”. The Afghans appear somewhat similar – unputdownable.

Ambassador Abdali: What pains us very much is that some people think that the Afghans can be subjugated. I suggest they should read history and deal with the Afghan who can be never be subjugated. They should treat the Afghans as an equal partner, as a neighbour with equal rights and full sovereignty. Afghanistan must be given the opportunity to live in peace with all its neighbours. Unfortunately our neighbours think of converting Afghanistan into a client state, a satellite state – whatever.

DS: When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected to power, Diplomatic Square had sought your opinion and you had responded by saying, “Our security and development needs will increase, and we naturally count on India’s leadership and commitment to assist Afghanistan”.  How far have you been satisfied with India’s response?

Ambassador Abdali: Indian and Afghan relations are based on a long term vision, it’s strategic. It is beyond governments, beyond whatever situation that you that may currently observe. Therefore, efforts have been on both sides deepening it further.

Our relations are centuries old. They are comprehensive and all embracing – culture, security, social, economic and political. We have a frame work that specifies our areas of cooperation and it has been worked out through elaborate mechanisms. There are delegations that are exchanged from time to time to discuss and review the different aspects of our relations.

Prime Minister Modi has been kind enough to announce $ 1 billion more assistance in addition to the $ 2 billion committed earlier. Currently, our concentration goes to the additional $ 1 billion, to categorize this amount for projects that we will generate and implement. This is one example of how we are working together but as you all know is the limit of this relationship is as high as the sky and as deep as the ocean. The vision of our two nations is to engage in further deepening the relationship and we are satisfied at the progress. Certainly, our desire is to do more than what we have done before.

D.S: India and Afghanistan, as Nations, have had emotional bonding. From Rabindra Nath Tagore’s Kabuliwallah to Bollywood films, one has never seen an Afghan being depicted as a villain which also reflects the Indian peoples opinion about the Afghans – that they are very trustworthy friends, never a villain or an enemy.

Ambassador Abdali: And this is what we feel about Indians too. All relations are built on reciprocity.

D.S:  People to people exchange is very important in the world today – of course, it is a little too early for tourism but there are other areas like education and healthcare which can bring young people to mingle with each other.

Ambassador Abdali: As I said earlier, we are doing a number of things to widen our relationship. If you think of trade, though it has not been smooth because of the disconnect that we have unfortunately, vis-à-vis Pakistan, where Afghan goods are not given the kind of access that we desire. It hurts our economy and theirs’ too!

But we are not totally depending on transit trading through Pakistan.  We have been trying to find out a consistent and alternative way for trading – Chabahar port is one of them. It is a generational achievement, a milestone that we have signed recently but it certainly needs efforts to build up infrastructure so that we can commence all our business and trading through Chabahar.

We recently launched an air-corridor for doing business. It is in its early stages and we are presently working with a number of other airlines to increase cargo facilities for Afghan traders in addition to our own airlines, the Ariana Afghan and the Kam Air.

In a nutshell as you referred earlier, our relation is very comprehensive. India is a soft power, especially when it comes to ensure that the building up of a strong state is through education, capacity building and training programmes. India is the most important destination for Afghans in its nation building efforts. We send thousands of students to study in India in different courses and presently, there would be between 15,000-16,000 Afghan students  in colleges all over India.

Additionally we are sending our students to short-term training programmes in different fields because Afghanistan is now post-conflict and our country needs reconstruction and skilled people. And part of that $ 1 billion that India has assisted us very kindly is being focused on capacity building. Thousands of skilled Afghan nationals have returned Afghanistan after being adequately trained in India to be engaged in reconstruction activities. We will continue to work on a number of areas with India and we want to buy whatever India can offer.

We have hundreds of Afghan army officers being trained in India and as a matter of fact, two weeks ago when I was at Dehra Dun, I met 40 cadets under training, the largest from any country at the Indian Military Academy which is a very prestigious institute. This is what we are working with India – to find the right ways and means that will enable Afghanistan to stand on its own feet. India has been a steadfast partner in Afghanistan.

D.S: Nowadays, it is a pleasure to see pomegranate, cashew, grapes, melons and other fruits from Afghanistan in Indian markets. This means that there is increased agricultural production and employment generation. What is happening in the country side?

Ambassador Abdali: Traditionally, Afghanistan is an agriculture based society. Afghanistan used to send dry and fresh fruits, not only to India and the middle-east but to all parts of the world. We are currently trying to revive that culture by increasing fruit production. Afghan fruits are quite tasty and much sought-after. Recently, when we opened the air corridor, we did not imagine that the demand would be so high, the government was unable to fulfill the demand. This shows the agricultural strength of Afghanistan and how much fruits have come back to occupy centre stage.

Very recently I met an elderly gentleman who was associated with the 50 year old Indo-Afghanistan Chambers of Commerce. He told me the story of fresh fruits, how 100 trucks of grapes would come from Kabul daily to India through Wagah in the early 1970s. We hope that this will happen again and we would be able to send our fruits to India and rest of the world. Afghanistan’s agriculture remains vibrant.

D.S:  There is palpable tension in the high altitudes of the Himalayas. In the eventuality of a localized conflict or a full scale war, there may be players on Afghanistan’s borders to take advantage of the situation. Is Afghanistan in a state to protect itself?

Ambassador Abdali:  Unfortunately, we have in a state of war for decades, earlier with a superpower, then the Taliban and others. All these years, the reality is that there has been no organized army, no state institutions, but inspite of these shortcomings, we have been able to safeguard our borders. We have doing this for a very long time, and as you mentioned, the big powers like the British and later the Soviets and other aggressors.

If we were able to repel those big powers, be assured that we will remain resilient and stand up to any foreign aggression and Afghanistan will continue to exist – a country with 5000 years of history. And those dream that Afghanistan will become a country in their service should just read history. They should desist from pursuing their futile exercise of interfering in Afghanistan, trying to destabilize Afghanistan because that will never happen.

Afghans do not like to be in this perpetual state of war, because we are not born as a war mongering race but should the challenge arise, we become warriors. We have repelled and will repel foreign aggression, whatever be the size of their force. God willing, Afghanistan will so become the Garden of Asia with a vibrant society with a vibrant culture and people.

D.S: Former Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee once said that when he was the foreign minister of India, he had visited Afghanistan. He requested his counterpart that he would like to visit Ghazni because of its historical implications. In Ghazni, he was lodged in a hotel named Hotel Kanishka – Vajpayee was completely surprised and asked his counterpart about the name of the hotel. The Afghan foreign minister replied, “Why, he was our ancestor”. Continuing Vajpayee said, “But Afghanistan today is an Islamic country”. The minister’s replied, “Indeed, we are a muslim country but we cannot deny our ancestors and their greatness”. Thereupon, Vajpayee remarked quite emotionally, “I could understand. The Afghans have over the years changed the way they pray to the Almighty but they have not changed their culture, their heritage. They remain Afghans”. Comments please!

Ambassador Abdali: Yes, religions may change but values do not. Afghanistan historically has been the centre of civilization and shared values. Every corner of Afghanistan spells out a specific history. From the era of Gandhahar and over the centuries to Babur in Kabul, our relation manifests from the past. Fortunately, the relations between Afghanistan and India have always been on a very strong footing.  Afghanistan was so honoured to have played a role in India’s independence – Subhash Chandra Bose escaped from the clutches of the British and had travelled incognito to Kabul to start his campaign for India’s independence march.

D.S: Ravaged by war and brutalized by terrorism, how are the Afghans preparing themselves for the new age, the new technology?

Ambassador Abdali: It is the information age today. The whole world is transforming and so is Afghanistan. It is in no way less in wisdom and talent from anyone else. Afghanistan is embracing this new world of connectivity. It is also enjoying traditional sports like cricket – Afghanistan is the only country which has been given Test Status within a span of ten years.

15 years ago, there were no cell phones in Afghanistan. Today, there are 22 million mobile users out of a population of about 30 million, and most of them are connected through the social media like Twitter, Facebook and others. They know what’s happening in the world and they are abreast with the times. Like India, Afghanistan too enjoys a young population. Nearly 65 percent of the population is less than 25 years of age. And, this younger generation is fully engrossed to be a part of the global journey, to be connected with the changing world and changing times.

It’s the same about media. We have multiple television channels, FM channels, newspapers and magazines.

D.S: And finally, Ambassador Abdali, how did you learn to speak such wonderful Hindi?

Ambassador Abdali: Thanks to Bollywood. It just goes on to show that Afghans find their relation with India so warm that they want to be a part of this culture too – they like to pick up the language! In fact, I joke with many Indian friends that since everything today is on reciprocal basis, I would like a survey to be held to determine how many Afghans know Indian languages and how many Indians know Afghans languages. I must admit that I am so happy that many universities are now teaching Afghan languages.

To conclude, I must say, that for every Afghan, India is a home away from home. And that’s why I can fluently converse in Hindi!

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