Afghanistan faces a unique set of challenges. From overcoming the failed legacy of Karzai to defeating or trying to defeat a still problematic Taliban, Afghanistan will have to figure out a way forward. On top of the immediate challenges that the government faces, it will have to survive without the assistance of U.S. troops once they eventually leave. One of the few Afghan government officials to have witnessed these challenges first hand is Amrullah Saleh, the former Director of National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s national intelligence agency. He served from 2004 until his resignation in 2010. Below is an interview that Fahim Masoud conducted with Saleh.
Afghanistan continues to be very unsafe. In fact, under President Ghani’s leadership, the country has become much more chaotic. Why do you think there’s so much insecurity and incoherence in the country right now?
I am asked this question almost on a daily basis. Two things.
1) Pakistan has increased its support for the Taliban. Given the timetable for foreign troops’ withdrawal, and the caveats under which they operate, Pakistanis believe that the finish line is near; therefore, they feel like they shouldn’t restrain from increasing their destabilization efforts in Afghanistan. They, the Pakistani intelligence and army personnel, are now staging their attacks with unprecedented boldness. So the dramatic decline in the number of foreign troops has resulted in the dramatic decline in the number and nature of operations conducted by foreign troops.
2) The political turbulence that the country experienced due to bad and prolonged presidential elections and the subsequent emergence of National Unity Government, which was a unique experience in Afghanistan, are among some other reasons for why more incidents take place. But don’t forget that the Taliban insurgency has the backing of a nervous nuclear state that bases its whole raison d’etre on hegemony, militancy and extremism in the region and that is of course Pakistan.
Is there a way out of this current political crisis in Afghanistan?
I am not sure the country is in a political crisis. There is a broad acceptance of the National Unity Government. The issue is not its legitimacy, but its competence and delivery. The Afghan government has failed to deliver so far; but its failure does not mean it is mired in a political crisis. The current Afghan government leadership is in a crisis of leadership and management.
You have always been a vociferous opponent of peace talks with the Taliban. Why do you think peace is not possible with the Taliban?
I have never been opposed to peace talks. Never. I have been opposed to the way these talks are conducted and the issues they revolve around. They are not necessarily peace talks; they are talks to cater to the interests of the Taliban. This is appeasement and I have been against it. I have been against giving the Taliban a new identity in so far as to de-couple them from terrorists. Telling ourselves that these destructive forces are no longer espousing Talibani ideas and beliefs does not make them so.
Pakistan has always supported the Taliban. It has also always been involved in destabilizing Afghanistan. Why do you think Pakistan wants an unstable Afghanistan? What is it about an unstable Afghanistan that benefits Pakistan?
Pakistan is a politically insecure, psychologically nervous, and strategically narrow-minded state. It wants parity with India. In the belief of the Pakistani strategists, subordination of Afghanistan to the wishes and demands of Pakistan will give them a depth in the region and will in some way put pressure on India. They also hate seeing Afghanistan have a democratic system. Pakistan sees democracy as an existential threat. A real, robust democracy will transform Pakistan into a cultural and economic satellite state of India. Something that the Pakistani leaders want to avoid at any cost. While on the surface Pakistan seems to have a democracy, it is an army-run country. Democracy in its truest sense does not exist in Pakistan. On critical foreign policy issues — issues that have the potential to change the national fate of Pakistan — it’s not the country’s parliament that has decision making powers, but its army’s.
There are rumors that Pakistan and a few other foreign governments have asked the present Afghan leadership not to give you a political role in the government. You are a capable public servant. Why does Pakistan and its allies fear you so much?
I have also heard such rumors, but I don’t have solid evidence to back them.
According to an article from the BBC, only under twenty percent of Afghans approve of this current government. And Tolo TV reports that corruption has gone up under the present leadership. Given these realities, will the Unity Government survive?
I wouldn’t place too much confidence on opinion polls. A few months ago, they said that Ghani’s popularity was above eighty percent. They should explain the nose dive his fame has taken. That I don’t see these polls do.
Any informed political person from around the world knows that ISI is funding, training, and mobilizing the Taliban to send suicide bombers to Afghanistan. Suicide attacks have killed hundreds of innocent Afghans in recent weeks. The current government seems toothless and is obviously not able to get Pakistan to stop these attacks. Is there anything that can be done to make ISI stop its criminal and terrorist activities in Afghanistan?
Pakistan is a weak country. It has inherent and default weaknesses. Pakistan is not going to stop terror in my country anytime soon. Therefore, it is up to the Afghan government to strategize ways of getting Pakistan to refrain from interfering in Afghanistan diplomatically. Creating trouble in a neighboring country is not rocket science.
What will happen to Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves the country given that the majority of the Afghan government budget comes from the U.S.?
Afghanistan is not a concept. It is a country with a thousand years of history and culture. Without the presence of foreign troops, it will have more problems, but it won’t cease to exist nor will it experience a downward spiral. It won’t. We will survive as we always have. We may not have some of the comforts of today but we will be around.
You were extremely effective as the Intelligence Chief of Afghanistan. What did make you so effective as the man in charge of this entity?
It was not just a job for me. It was a passion. It was an obsession. I was devoted to the cause. I had forgotten about myself. It was all about how to bring about change, how to do things differently. It felt like I had found myself sitting in the cockpit of our history. It was an excitement. It was an honor and pride, too. Most of the people working with me were like brothers to me; I was like a brother to them. There was no atmosphere of stiffness. None. There was no hierarchy when it came to ideas, initiatives and motivation. There was no hierarchy when it came to demonstration of will and passion for accomplishing a big task at hand. The hierarchy mattered only when it came to resources, legal issues, and making decisions. So I was running the organization like an entity with a flat structure and no walls. I could see everyone and everyone could see me. That way of leading had created a sense of ownership amongst all. It was a collective leadership. No arrogance. No grand standing. We were all doing something. We all believed in the cause. We were in it together.
What do you think of President Ghani as a leader? What are some of the major differences between President Ghani and President Karzai?
I don’t want to comment on former President Karzai. In my view President Ghani needs to create a space in which consensus and a sense of we-ness can emerge. To do that he would need to sacrifice some parts of his intellectual and professional capacities. He is smart and knows things for sure. However, he doesn’t want to recognize those around him who are also smart, and from whose knowledge and expertise he can learn. It frustrates him to see officials who don’t share his world view. He tries to download his knowledge into his cabinet’s head — a Herculean task. To borrow his analogy, he is Mircrosoft 10 and a number of his cabinet members are the ancient Word Perfect. There is a mismatch. Will he change and reverse his own default system or upgrade his cabinet members? I don’t know.
How will the death of Mullah Omar affect the Taliban?
Mullah Omar was never behind making strategies and planning operations. He was a myth kept in a mythical space. It was the ISI that planned and organized everything then and now. Though with the mythical figure gone the new leadership has to establish its legitimacy and prove its effectiveness on the ground. Not easy. Certainly, Omar’s death has weakened the Taliban and will continue to do so. Inshallah.
Will the struggle for power within the Taliban group make ISIS stronger in Afghanistan?
There is no ISIS in Afghanistan.
Please tell us a little about the movement you have founded? What kind of activities is your movement engaged in?
Afghanistan Green Trend (AGT) stands for three distinct objectives. A) de-radicalization and anti extremism; b) Youth empowerment; c) Fight against corruption, elitism, and injustice. We have around eighty thousand members and volunteers. We are known for our street power, advocacy, efficiency, and pan-Afghan stand and vision.
If you had to choose between freedom and democracy and order and security, which one would you choose and why?
All of them are essential for a happy, just existence, so I would like to have all of them. We, the Afghans, should have all of them. We are entitled to all. I have been fighting for these rights all of my life and will continue to remain in the fight until we are in possession of these rights.
What are you reading these days?
I am reading a couple of history and geopolitics books at the moment.