Dr Abdullah Abdullah in Conversation with Nick Hackworth
Interview conducted in Kabul, winter 2004, whilst Dr Abduallah was Minister of Foreign Affairs, and whilst researching articles for Dazed & Confused: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2005/jan/15/theeditorpressreview
Dr Abdullah Abdullah (b. 1960) is an Afghan politician who leads the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), which is expected to lead the intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban. He served as Chief Executive Officer of the Unity Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from September 2014 until March 2020. From October 2001 to April 2005, he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Prior to that he was a senior member of the Northern Alliance working as an adviser to Ahmad Shah Massoud. He also worked as a medical doctor during the late 1990s.
NH: Now that the elections are largely done and dusted, how significant was the success of those elections, and how successful were they as a democratic exercise?
AA: First of all, the fact that after twenty three years of war and destruction, the people of Afghanistan chose a different path, the path of going to the ballot boxes and voting there, that is in itself a significant, significant success, a success for the people of Afghanistan, and also of course we are grateful for the international community and their support in this process. There were all sorts of anticipations and speculations and analysis about the exercise in Afghanistan, especially about the security situation, and the fact that security was relatively good throughout elections, before and during the day – the 9th October – in itself was a significant thing. And then I think it is the biggest significant message to the terrorists, and Taliban, and extremist elements, whose agenda was to distract the elections, and push their own agenda in Afghanistan. I think the people of Afghanistan, whatever their choice, were in these elections, they went to vote, they voted for the people, rather than the agenda of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
NH: It was the first election that’s ever happened in Afghanistan. What do you think about the idea of—, I mean, some people have said that it’s an imposition of perhaps a different kind of political structure, that isn’t native to this country. Do you think it’s a natural political state of affairs?
AA: I would say that the people of Afghanistan embraced this opportunity very well. The different candidates competed. They contested to the end. The people of Afghanistan voted for the candidate of their choice, and it didn’t seem to be something very strange for the people.
NH: So you don’t see it as a sort of inauthentic political structure for this country?
AA: I should say that we should have—, or the election commission should have,—paid more attention to the educational process, and so on and so forth, but it’s still, to a large extent—, I should say, that the people showed a sort-of natural attitude towards the process, which is, again, important.
NH: President Karzai obviously now has got a very strong popular mandate, with the result. To what extent will that be a practical mandate, without an expansion of the security forces outside Kabul?
AA: Perhaps expansion of security forces outside Kabul will be needed. That’s a judgement for the elected government, which has to be done in due time. When you’re talking about the political mandate, of course it is different from [an] interim president, it is different from a transitional president, when you have a democratic system in place, and especially when we have our parliament. Then, of course, that will complete the process, and that will give a popular mandate to the elected government.
NH: Over the next, say, four years, do you see there being a strong possibility of there being national cohesion around this government, or do you think the regional tensions that exist – and that have existed for a long time in Afghanistan – will be manifest in the democratic process?
AA: I think that will depend on the leadership, political leadership. I’m not talking about just the ruling people, but the political leadership in Afghanistan. If they show maturity, if they show a better sense of responsibility, I think the country should move towards better cohesiveness and a national agenda. Then also there is a likelihood that factional agendas, or other agendas, will be pushed forward. This is another likelihood. But what Afghanistan needs at this stage is a stable period, where the rule of law could be established fully, and the government will be able to function, and the parliament will be another compliment to the political process as a whole, and the people of Afghanistan, they see their interest as a whole in this totality, in the democratic process. It shouldn’t be seen in the interest of one or another group.
NH: In your view, what are the most important things that need to be done to create that kind of cohesion and stability?
AA: I think, first of all, the parliament, and having parliamentary elections on time, that’s very important. That will help the people to further support the process and see themselves as part of the process.
NH: So, that’s engaging the popular—
AA: That’s right. While in the absence of a parliament, or if there are delays in parliamentary elections, then it will give rise to the speculations and some cynicism and suspicion, and so on and so forth, which we don’t need at this time. That’s very essential. Effective and competent government, which from one side is effective, and from the other the people of Afghanistan see their own face in the face of such a body, establishment of such a government is important. Of course, in certain areas, there has to be a lot more focus than what there’s been so far, like in the narcotics issue, which I think is a potential threat to the whole process, and not just to the security part of it. The whole process could be jeopardised because of that problem in the country. So, all these things, and looking into the process and having a review of the whole process, the aim and goals would be the same, of course. We want a drug-free country. We want a country that has only one single national army or national police force. These are the main goals, which I think all the major political groupings will all agree on. But in the mechanism of different aspects of the process, there has to be a review, and drawn from our experience of the past three and a half years, and then based on that the country should move forward.
NH: Would you say that, since it is a multi-ethnic country, it’s important to have a government that reflects that ethnic—
AA: —mosaic of the society,—of course! Without that it would not be possible.
NH: There are some crucial issues on the ground which will affect the stability of the next four years. How is the disarmament of militias going? And, secondly, how is the anti-narcotics programme going?
AA: About the disarmament, there has been analysis about it, it has been slow but I would say – relatively – that it has worked. In [the] containment of heavy weapons in the big cities, that has been successful. But, at the same time, expressing and putting more emphasis on the ‘R’ part of it, which is reintegration, without that, I think–, I doubt that there could be big headways. There has to be a very clear chance of reintegration of the former combatants.
NH: You have to offer one kind of power for another, don’t you?
AA: Rather than power, it’s an opportunity, an opportunity for the people who have fought for years and years, there has to be an opportunity to get employed somewhere, in a way, and contribute to the reconstruction of the country. For example, different areas, vocational training could be one aspect, and other possibilities and opportunities. So rather than the ‘power’ part of it, it is just just real life, what I’m talking about. On the issue of narcotics, as well, while the eradication programme is continuing, hopefully there are now hopes that the United States will bring more focus and energy in its efforts in that regard, of course, in combination with the United Kingdom and the Afghan authorities, while on the law enforcement parts of it there has to be more efforts on interdictions, destroying labs and so on, finding an alternative means of livelihood for the farmers.
NH: that’s the issue,—economically, it’s going to be very very difficult to find something that offers as much income as poppies.
AA: Something equal might be somewhat idealistic, [thinking that] we can find an alternative crop, because there isn’t one, no. Most of the farmers there are doing [that] as the sole source of survival. If we offer them something just beyond mere survival as human beings, they will embrace it and they will grasp it. I think there are ways and means, and there should be ways and means. There are other countries which have experience in that. All the experiences are hard experiences. It’s not a smooth path ahead, in any case, it will take time. But it is a must for Afghanistan. It is—, there’s no other choice. It is, as I have put before, a single issue that has the potential–, or a potential can develop into it, that could derail the whole process.
NH: With that issue and with other issues, are there things that you think the international community should be doing more, or should apply more resources to, in order to help Afghanistan?
AA: Of course, this is one of the areas where more resources, more energy and more efforts are needed, drugs, narcotics. But at the same time, the continued commitment of the reconstruction support for Afghanistan in itself will have a sort of indirect – or direct – impact. For example, agricultural development in Afghanistan, these are all ways and means of dealing with this issue, either directly or indirectly.
NH: When you mentioned appealing to the farmers, and appealing to them beyond the need for subsistence or survival, did you mean also activating a sense of being part of the community, or contributing to the community? Did you mean appealing to another side of the individual farmers mentalities, apart from merely crops?
AA: All of it. Apart from what I already mentioned in that respect, mobilising the people, the people who the farmers and everybody listens to and has respect for, mobilising them in this, likely religious scholars or individually respected people. It has to be an all-out effort, throughout the country, in order to tackle this problem. And, at the same time, the farmers should understand that the country cannot tolerate the continuation of poppy cultivation. Of course, we cannot—, it’s not possible to use the methods which the Taliban were using. That’s not in our mandate or in our wish. What they were doing was—, of course, to the farmers they were the harshest, but the main dealers were themselves or their associates. So, from time to time, they used to impose eradication, and stop cultivation in some or most parts of the country, in order to raise the price for their own benefit. So this was a different story, and sometimes it comes to the public awareness in a way that—, as if the Taliban had succeeded in the war or combat against narcotics. Well, in this case, it was purely a marketing strategy. But, in our case, it is a big test before the elected government, and if the elected government doesn’t succeed in stopping the further increase in the poppy cultivation, then I think it will be a big problem.
NH: The DDR, is that something which, strategically, in terms of resources, the Afghan government can deal with independently, or does there need to be a more active participation from some of the foreign military powers that are here.
AA: Already there is support from our partners in DDR. But when I emphasise on the ‘R’ part of if, which is reintegration, there I think more support is needed, of course.
NH: Are people like Ishmael Khan, for example, willing to give up arms and their power base, which was previously based on coercive power? Do you see that being a continuing problem in the West of Afghanistan, for example, in the coming years, or do you think that’s something that can be solved quite quickly?
AA: I wouldn’t specifically mention one part of the country, with one name, in that regard. While, as I mentioned earlier, there is no doubt in the mind of the Afghans that Afghanistan needs only one single army, rather than armed forces under different ruler personalities here and there – that’s the meat, that’s the point. But, at the same time, one could achieve it by different ways and means. I think the history of Afghanistan has shown that, by alienation or marginalisation of the people who are capable of bringing popular support behind them, rightly or wrongly, it is a difficult way of achieving goals, while at the same time building trust and national trust, without hesitating for a moment – for a single moment – in implementing those goals which are our national objectives. How can a country survive with too many armies under the control of too many people?
NH: That threatens the idea of an Afghan nation-state in any meaningful sense, if there are—
AA: That’s true, that’s true. While that’s an obvious fact, at the same time, from power and polls, we shouldn’t be sort-of obsessed with the hardware of it. I think this nation-building, this state-building, which is a holistic approach, whoever stands against the building of a united Afghanistan, that attitude shouldn’t be tolerated.
NH: To what extent do you need to create or strengthen the idea of Afghanistan as a nation-state in some of the rural areas? Is there a widespread acceptance and identification with Afghanistan as a nation-state in all areas, or is that something you need to create in some areas.
AA: Altogether, the people of Afghanistan, they believe in a united, single Afghanistan. Of course there are – there might be – different views about the centre versus the provinces, and how this balance could be or should be created. There are different theories and different views. In my opinion, it’s not one extreme or another, there is something in the middle, where there is the central government which has to have authority all over the country, while at the same time there has to be provinces which can make decisions on a local [level]. I think that is a sort of compromise between the two extreme theories, to expect the central government to crush every voice everywhere in the country, without listening to the legitimate concerns of the people, I don’t like this idea.
NH: I want to talk to you a little bit about an idea I touched on with the first question, which is an issue that extends beyond Afghanistan, which is about Islamic values and values that are indigenous to different areas, and then values which are associated with the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of government and economics. Obviously one of the major criticisms of the US involvement in Iraq, above the issue of whether it was right or not to invade, was about the idea of imposing democracy as an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or as a Western ideal upon a different kind of culture. Now, would you say that democracy, as it was constituted in the election that happened right here, is something, I mean, you said earlier that it didn’t feel alien, but is that something that is inherent say in either the Islamic tradition or in Afghan tradition, or is it associated with ‘Anglo-Saxon’ ideology?
AA: I think I would say, before we get on to that point, on the issue of elections, there have been claims about irregularities and so on and so forth, which I think there have been some throughout the country, and out of our experience we should learn for the future, we should take corrective measures for the future. That’s my attitude in that regard. But, had it been an imported Western commodity, seven or eight million Afghans wouldn’t have embraced it in the way that they did. It means that there is something indigenous in it, which is in the Islamic values as well as our local culture and tradition. Had it been an invasion, the people would have rejected it. Of course, at the same time, the people believed that Afghanistan should stand on its own feet. If the future Afghanistan does not take Afghanistan towards that, the people will not be happy.
NH: And other political factions would use that kind of nationalism as a tool.
AA: Of course, that’s obvious. That happens. The other values, if they come in terms of invasion, or imposing upon a people, the people will reject it. That applies to any circumstances, including Afghanistan, but I think there are lots of values in which one can find common ground between different civilisations. The humanistic face of Islam, sometimes it is undermined by the activities of a few terrorists, when they carry out their agendas, but there has to be a separation. So, that issue, which is a much wider concept, it has to be looked at with a sense of in-depth responsibility by everybody. Out of two or three scenarios one has to chose, ‘Clash of civilisations,’ which is the end of civilisations, or dialogue and interaction between civilisations, working together for the common aims and goals and human values, which all civilisations in their true aspect—, it is the same in that sense. Working on those grounds will promise us a better future.
NH: It’s a fascinating subject because it’s about the fundamental tenets that underlie different ideologies, and to what extent they are universal. I mean, it’s a general tenet of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ liberalism that the choice of the individual is almost a natural state, it’s almost natural for every individual to choose their economic path, or their political path, or their religious path, or whatever. Based on what you’ve said, you would say that that’s something that you would be sympathetic to, or even accept wholly, the idea of individual choice?
AA: Individual choice, again, according to different cultures, the sort-of colouring of it, you will see it differently, but it is something which God has given, the right to choose. That is one aspect of it. But at the same time, in countries like Afghanistan, which is a post-conflict country, which is a country which is moving from one phase to another, in a transition period, the whole process, the government will not be transitional, but the process is a transition in economics, in political process, in rehabilitation and education, the attitude of the leaders of the country is extremely important. That is [why] there [is] all this emphasis on the sense of responsibility. You can do things today which will get praise and appreciation, perhaps inside the country, perhaps internationally, but at the same time it has to be borne in mind that it has to help Afghanistan in a real sense, moving forward. That is extremely important and that is very crucial. Sometimes rhetorics, we all used it, but it shouldn’t be the whole thing. We can live without rhetorics, as long as we move in the right direction, as long as we present the people with things which are acceptable to them and things which also make the country and the nation part of a larger civilisation or world. Things cannot happen in isolation. This provides the people the right opportunities. That should be the job of the government, then let the people choose. If you have this method, talking about democracy and rights and so on, you will make headlines. Some people will oppose you, some people will praise you, but at the same time, evolution cannot be dealt with using revolutionary methods, it's more a humanistic attitude which is important. Then, at the same time, I think respect might be something that all our civilisations and cultures share. If you respect your citizens, if you deal with them with respect – with real respect – then of course they will respect the values that you are talking about, the ways of life that you’re presenting, as individuals or as a political party, or as a group in the society.
NH: Do you have time to talk a little bit about Massoud? One story we’re going to do is about the legacy of Massoud, and also some of the stories that have built up around him in the Panjshir Valley and in the whole culture, and his sort-of mergence as a folk-hero, almost, to certain parts of Afghan society. I wondered if I could ask you about some of your personal stories, and how you first met him, and what he was like as an individual. Let’s start with how you first met him.
AA: I learned about it in the early years of war against the communists, and later on against the Soviets. In fact, we used to live in the same district in Kabul. When I first met him he remembered me in the family, that was what he mentioned. Out of all the leaders, which I have – to most of them I have – respect, because they have played an important role, and to some of them I have other feelings [Laughs], but he was the one who was presenting the idea of a peaceful person being caught in the middle of the war, and fighting being forced [upon him]. That was from ordinary people who used to visit him when I was here studying at Kabul University. I used to meet people from Panjshir who had met him, and I was trying to learn more about–, rather than his military accomplishments, which were important, historic, in its dimensions, I was trying to find out more about his humanistic character, which more and more this personality absorbed. He was a hero in my mind, right from the beginning. Not in a fantasy sort of thing, but in real terms I was thinking that this might be the kind of leader that Afghanistan needs, because Afghanistan is at war today, he’s a good military commander, Afghanistan needs peace, then he had the capability of working in peace-time as well. His attitude towards ordinary people, his efforts during the war, how to provide services for ordinary people, who have nothing to do with the fighting.
NH: What kind of things did he do for civilians?
AA: For example, encouraging Médecins Sans Frontières to come in to work as doctors for the people. Of course, they used to treat war injuries, but at the same time they were treating ordinary people. So, to get the news out for getting support for civilians for the country. In 1985, when I first joined him, I joined him as a medical doctor, I was in charge of a clinic supported by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, which is an NGO in Afghanistan, and I went to Panjshir. When I first met him, I realised that first of all I was not wrong in my judgement of this man. I encountered a man of charm, of a great sense of strength, but at the same time an amazing sense of humour, right from the beginning, at first glance, very clean, well-dressed, in the middle of the war! He was very neatly dressed and very simple, and at the same time a person who is dealing with the challenge of a lifetime, a challenge of a lifetime for a nation. The Soviet Union Army, imagine what I am talking about! Being in the middle of the valley, part of it was under the control of the Soviets, the Soviets had occupied parts of the valley at that time, and the communist regime as well, but a part of it was liberated. If he was not able to solve a problem, he would have taken his time to talk to a larger body of people about it, and everybody would have left his meeting convinced or satisfied one way or another. And caring about little children as well as an elderly person, which wouldn’t have brought him anything, and that was not something that he was acting. So, I experienced it with him. It was very natural. He couldn’t have lived otherwise, he would have been a very sad person if he were not behaving like that. So, it was very natural, everything was natural in him. Then, a vision of the country. He was talking about, in those years, the future of Afghanistan. He was talking about the economics of the country. He was, for example, saying that one thing about the south-eastern countries and third-world countries is initiative, initiating things, this sense, this mentality, dies down at times, and then they watch and they look for the outside world, and what is brought to them, they will accept it. He was referring to some examples of how to do things in the future. At the same time, a man of calibre, a man of that experience and those sorts of efforts and dedication for the country, wasn’t asking anything for himself. Really, as a friend, when we used to talk between ourselves, he was saying, ‘Look, if Afghanistan is free, there is no war in the country, I might continue my studies.’ He was very interested in architecture, and he was talented as well, I should say. He had great respect for men and women in this country, all the time, never losing that human value. In the middle of the harsh circumstances, still he remained a great human being.
NH: Is this what inspired many of his followers?
NH: He stood out amongst the other leaders of the mujahideen, or that factionalism?
AA: Yeah, of course. There were times that he was the only leader who had stayed behind in the country, among the people, and the people were advising him. Some of the leaders were saying, during the resistance against the Taliban, ‘Now the military phase is over, we should focus on the political part of it, and you can play a part in the political sense.’ He would say, ‘Look, today the people have defended me until now, I have to defend the people if I can. How can I leave the people behind?’ So, this real and sincere love of the people. That was—
NH: And beyond ethnic or religious—, just,—people are people wherever they come from.
AA: Of course, of course. I think the fact that he was not understood, or misunderstood, during his lifetime is something which is a bit—
NH: How was he misunderstood?
AA: I think he was projected as someone else, in most cases deliberately, by the sub-forces which were against him. Even today, after his death, they want to project him as a different person, as somebody, a Tajik leader. There is no doubt that he was from a Tajik town in this country, but [with a] minimum sense of micro-nationalism, or whatever you call it. This was not a question for him. Of course there were times that the country was polarised, and so on. The Taliban were projected as the representatives of Pashtuns, even today it is talked about that they are representing Pashtuns in the country, which they’re not! They are representing an ideology, or an agenda, which is rejected by all the people of Afghanistan. Again, I give you the example of our elections. So, he was not understood during his lifetime. I have a commitment with myself that whenever I have [a chance] I will portray him in the way that I saw him, in the way he was. He had a great sense of will and determination. Once, I remember, I travelled abroad, I used to go outside the country and talk about the resistance and try to get support for the resistance, rather unsuccessfully. I returned back from a journey in which I visited every important capital, and I told him that I—, I was very open with him, and he was very open, and openness was another characteristic of his. I returned from the trip, and I told him that I have come back empty-handed, and he smiled, he said, ‘I knew that.’ [Laughs] ‘The Taliban and Al-Qaeda have been able to cover their face today. They are being portrayed differently by some forces, and the world is not interested in it. The fact that you have gone there and you have made your case, that’s the right thing to do, and you should continue to do so. There will be one day that the whole world will realise the danger of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in this country, and then they will rush to support us. That day will come.’
NH: Why was he killed when he was killed? What is your understanding of the timing of his death?
AA: First of all, of course Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were looking towards him as the main obstacle towards their agenda. They had agendas beyond Afghanistan. In central-Asian republics they had already trained thousands of people. They were fighting against us from Uzbekistan, and then their aim was to take the agenda to Uzbekistan, to Tajikistan, to other central-Asian republics and to the Caucasus. He was the main obstacle. Of course, the assassins might not have known what was behind it, but the people behind the programme, when they had the idea of September 11th, Osama Bin Laden, Mullah Omar perhaps, when they had the idea of September 11th, they wanted to get rid of him, and as a consequence get rid of resistance inside the country. The main figurehead, and the collapse of the resistance without him soon afterwards. The fact that it didn’t happen that way, the gap between the two was too close. But these two assassins could have carried out their programme twenty days before 9th September 2001. They had asked for an interview, but because he was too busy he couldn’t give them the time. Had the gap been that wide, the resistance would have collapsed. So, the idea was that perhaps without resistance inside the country, the Taliban would have survived, Al-Qaeda would have survived. Not only that, the impact of the collapse of the resistance inside the country, as well as infiltration of those terrorist forces from central-Asian republics would have taken the agenda wide enough to make it a mission impossible for the outside world.
NH: Where were you when you heard that Massoud had been killed?
AA: I was in New Delhi. I was in South Africa for a conference on racism, that was the main racism summit in South Africa, and then went to New Delhi to see the family and stayed there. I was there, and I was planning to go to Pakistan the same evening when I received the call from Afghanistan.
NH: What was your main reaction, I imagine it was immense grief?
AA: I cannot explain it. Even today it has not lessened, it has not gone. When you ask me about that I’m—
[UNKNOWN]: Does it anger you that, when Massoud went to France, and to other countries, it took something like September 11th for people to listen to him?
AA: I would say that rather than being angry, I was sad that this was—. He knew. Talking in France, he said that—, a journalist asked him what would be your message to President Bush, and he said that, ‘If peace is not returned to Afghanistan, the same fire will catch the skirt of everyone on the face of the earth.’
NH: He believed that Al-Qaeda would be a permanent international threat?
AA: Yes, of course. He was saying that this is the main threat. Out of a sense of that belief, he was saying that one day the world will support us.
NH: Yourself and Massoud were actively telling the west since—, when? Since the early-90s, or—?
AA: Since ‘94-’95, when the Taliban emerged.
AA: […] As a whole, there has been a trend, [where] the positive developments get neglected. But I think as far as the coverage of elections is concerned it was balanced coverage. The positive aspect of it, the fact that millions of people turned out during that date and voted, and voted for different candidates, and the fact that this was the end of an era, and the beginning of a new era in Afghanistan, making decisions by exercising the right [to vote], I think that was reflected, to a large extent. So I wouldn’t say that the reporting focused on negative issues. But from the other side, negative points are the news. That’s also a fact.
NH: Do you personally find that quite troubling or quite wearying, sometimes?
AA: Sometimes, yes. The whole picture gets blurred in the eyes of the public, [and] especially international community public opinion outside Afghanistan, whose support we need throughout. They have to deal with different issues in different parts of the world. They become aware of different news from different parts of the world. But one part where they are contributing to stabilisation and to the democratic process is Afghanistan, and I think that is one of the main priorities of the international community. If the news gets blurred by one or two incidents here or there, and all the positive developments are not seen, that’s of course a shame.
NH: Overall do you find the involvement to be a positive or a negative thing?
AA: Overall I would consider it positive. Some of the issues have been, or are being, reported out of proportion. For example, this issue of warlords. There is a problem. There is a challenge for Afghanistan to overcome, but whatever happens it is attributed, one way or another, to this problem, which is not the case. While the issue of warlord-ism in Afghanistan has to be tackled, and is a challenge for Afghanistan, there has been progress in that field as well in the past three years. There are real issues of concern in this country, and there is real progress at the same time. The amount of progress in the past three years, just over three years ago, in this very building, people were ruling who had connections – close association – with Al-Qaeda, and pursuing the same agenda. Ninety percent of this country was under their control. Not only that, they had established links outside Afghanistan, in central-Asian republics, South Asia, throughout the country, global links, and they had reached a capacity like the one they exercised during September 11th. So this was Afghanistan at that time. Today, a few days from now, the final results of the elections will be announced. A few days ago the people of Afghanistan voted in their millions, and millions of refugees have returned back. Education was banned for girls, but also for boys it was limited to certain subjects. [And there are] too many other things [to mention that have changed].
NH: So you think the kind of coverage that is missing is an overall reflection of all of the positive aspects?
AA: Yes, all the positive aspects.
NH: Realistically, how important is the Western media’s response in affecting the response of Western governments to Afghanistan? Is there a link, or do you think that actually the media isn’t—, how powerful do you think the media actually is in affecting Western policies?
AA: To underestimate the power of the media would be a mistake. To a large extent, it shapes public opinion in the Western democracies. Certainly there will be consequences, there will be impacts of the media in every parliament when an issue of such magnitude, like the engagement of the international community in Afghanistan, is discussed. There will be differences, there will be references to the media, so by no means can one understate that impact. But of course the partners of Afghanistan in the international community, when they shape or pursue a policy, there are major concerns or factors involved,—not just how things are reposted in the media.
NH: We talked to Mr Massoud’s brother yesterday, and we were talking a little more about his trip abroad to France and Belgium in April 2001. To what extent do you think his predictions about Al-Qaeda’s activities, and what the Taliban would do, and the consequences for the world, were specific and accurate predictions about what would happen?
AA: One of the characteristics of Commander Massoud, or capabilities of him, was to see things very clearly, with foresight. That was very much true when it came to Al-Qaeda as well. While the tactical or intelligence information could have been limited on the intentions or programmes or the acts of Al-Qaeda here and there, about the overall strategy of Al-Qaeda he was very clear. He talked about it during that visit. In fact, when he was there, when he was asked ‘What would be your message to President Bush?’ he said that if peace is not restored in Afghanistan, the same fire which is burning Afghanistan will get everywhere. That was a general reference. As a whole he was of the opinion that Al-Qaeda will do things, because he knew their intentions and he knew their agenda, he was aware of them, and while their programme in the region was very much evident, and we had the evidence—. For example, there were Uzbeks from Uzbekistan, linked to Al-Qaeda, fighting against us, with the aim to finish the things in Afghanistan and then move to Uzbekistan. There were actors from Tajikistan. There were others from all central-Asian republics. In fact there was a sort-of multinational presence of people from all over the world – England, the United States – and these people were being trained in Afghanistan, and we had information about it. Those people were not trained here just to do things in Afghanistan! Of course they were going to—. So these reports were coming to him on a daily basis on their overall intentions. He was very clear, and he knew that they would do whatever against Western interests.
NH: And why do you think he was ignored in that specific suggestion.
AA: [Laughs] The world was a different place at that time, post-Cold War. There were other engagements, and their were developments in Europe and elsewhere, and the focus was not to the extent that it was needed on the issue of Al-Qaeda and terrorism in Afghanistan. In fact, most of the Western countries didn’t have any policy towards Afghanistan.
NH: Do you think there was a sense of stability? A sense of—
AA: Yeah, the threat was not perceived. The perception of the threat was not in proportion to the dimension of the threat. Everybody would have liked to see Osama Bin Laden captured or killed but, then, overall, while Bin Laden was the main and very important figure in Al-Qaeda, terrorism was developing and making progress in establishing their global networks, establishing cells in different parts of the world, while the parts of Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban were serving as a breeding ground, as a place for the training of the people, and so on and so forth.
NH: Part of that was—, obviously foreign influence was something that was helping aid that kind of breeding ground. I understand that on that trip one of the main requests or aims was to get international pressure to reduce outside interference from neighbouring states in Afghanistan. Is that correct?
AA: Some of the countries which were helping the Taliban, they also played a role in distorting the situation in Afghanistan, and portraying it otherwise. Afghanistan’s case was portrayed as a civil war. The Taliban were portrayed as nice people, indigenous, of course, not accustomed to the outside world, not acquainted to the outside world. There were suggestions that with positive engagement with the Taliban you can make them a part of the civilisation. This was also a factor that played a major role, and had its impact on the situation in Afghanistan. The threat of terrorism was not perceived in proportion to what it was.
NH: Do you think that kind of outside interference has now, for the moment, ceased? Apart from the obvious outside interference of Western states.
AA: That’s the engagement and contribution from the international community. We still have to deal with people crossing the borders and creating problems, but I think in an overall sense, in policy terms, the policy of our neighbouring countries has changed, and that will play a positive role in the development of Afghanistan.
NH: So some of those neighbouring states are no longer the interfering or destabilising influence they once were?
AA: That’s true.
[UNKNOWN]: Did Massoud feel let down by the West? Did he feel he was used when it was convenient for them, and not when it wasn’t?
AA: In the beginning, in ‘92 when we came to Kabul, and Kabul was liberated from the Communists. After that, when he used to reflect on what had happened, he would say that he had miscalculated quite a few things. First, the interest of the international community, or the West, in Afghanistan. He was saying that he didn't think it would fade away automatically, post-Cold War or post-withdrawal of the Soviets. He was saying, ‘There I was wrong. I was thinking they would play a role in the construction of the country, and that would help peace and stability in Afghanistan.’ Otherwise, of course, a country with—, after ten or twelve years of war, fractured, with hundreds of thousands of people armed on both sides of the conflict, left to their own destiny—, this was one of the issues. Then he was saying that ‘I had not anticipated that the neighbouring countries would interfere with such a bold manner. I didn’t have the sense that it could happen.’ He was admitting that he didn’t. He was also saying, about some of the leaders of the mujahideen or the resistance against the Soviets, the irresponsible manner that they acted in, he was saying this was also not in his calculation. So, coming back to your question, he was thinking, even at that time, that Afghanistan was neglected, and it would have consequences. He kept reminding the visitors from the West that it will have consequences. In the early Nineties he kept mentioning the threat of terrorism. The threat of narcotics and foreign interference in Afghanistan and vested interests, he kept reminding the visitors, diplomatic missions to Afghanistan, but of course it didn't work. Later on, the Taliban captured Kabul, and we were in the resistance, and I was in charge of foreign affairs for the resistance, and was travelling abroad. In fact, half the time I used to be travelling to different Western capitals to explain, and to a large extent it was a situation that—, ‘Yes, there is civil war in Afghanistan. Yes we should get information about Osama bin Laden, and we should capture him,’ and so on, but no clear sense of policy.
NH: Did you ever give specific information about, for example, where Osama bin Laden might actually physically be, did you give critical information that someone could have acted on and therefore captured him, or taken him out?
AA: Our intelligence was in contact with some intelligence services from the Western world in the last few years before September 11th, and there were exchanges of information. I don’t think that they had reached that point [of acting]. There might have been one or two [occasions] where then, due to technical issues, it wasn’t possible to, the line of communication might not have been to the extent that people could have acted upon that. I think at least in one case they might have been relatively close to that, what you said. That was intelligence to intelligence information. My role was mainly explaining the picture in an overall sense – do we have a map of Afghanistan? – to explain the political and military strategy of the resistance against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and to also explain what their strategy was in return, in an overall sense, in Afghanistan as well as beyond Afghanistan. So, being in a very critical region of the world, and being threatened by Al-Qaeda, we used to cry loud about what was happening here, but it was falling on deaf ears. There was sympathy from the people, I should say, referring to the journalism, some media reports were very good accounts of what was happening here, some serious warnings about the situation. Women’s organisations in some countries were very active, like the United States and in Europe, and the human rights organisation and political activists of different backgrounds were helping. When Commander Massoud visited Europe, the European Parliament, he was given a good standing ovation and reception, and he met with almost all European parliamentary groups. Everywhere there was sympathy, at that level. But when it came to the level of policy, and policies of the Western world, they didn’t like Osama Bin Laden, they were not happy about the abuses of human rights by the Taliban in Afghanistan. There were criticisms of the Taliban destroying The Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, but when it came to policy, the policy was in fact inaction.
[UNKNOWN]: Can I ask two things? First of all, what are your own fondest memories of when you were working with Massoud? And, secondly, you spoke a bit about what Massoud’s disappointments were with events around him. Did he have disappointments with himself, did he ever admit his own mistakes?
AA: His own mistakes, yes. He was the sort of person who would say that, ‘Yes, I did wrong in this, I did wrong in that,’ and talking to the people, it wasn’t just talking among friends.
Look at how critical this region is. First of all, there are a few nuclear states around us, you can imagine. We were in this part of the country, with some resistance bases in some parts, here and here. Commander Massoud’s strategy—, first, at one stage it was only Panjshir, and a part of Badakhshan that was liberated, the rest was under Taliban control. What he did, he established the cells of resistance in some parts of the country, but later on he expanded these cells and liberated more areas. His strategy was to connect these bases first. It was very clear to him that it would take time, and in between there might be problems, meaning he would not be able to achieve it, but to connect these resistance bases first, and then move towards the south. In much later stages, after September 11th, President Karzai was sent to these areas, escorted – it was under different circumstances. Already the United States was involved. So, that was his strategy. [He was] also working with the Afghans’ political parties outside the country for a political program, the Rome programme, and with the international community, to explain the situation in Afghanistan, not only for Afghanistan, but also for the international community. From all these republics, there were people in the training camps, and then they were coming to the frontlines, they were fighting against us. We could listen to their radios, and it was very obvious that their number was in the hundreds or perhaps in the thousands, in some cases. Not only that, from all over the world there were people who were coming, and they were spending time—, they were getting trained. Those are the people who established the cells of Al-Qaeda. Today, they are active in East Asia and the Far East, and so on.
NH: And they were coming in from every border?
AA: Yeah, they were coming in openly! Mainly from the borders of Pakistan, of course, but not solely, it was open borders. In Kabul, they had quite a few cells,—this Al-Qaeda outfit. Their strategy was to get rid of resistance in Afghanistan. That would have given them automatic access to Central-Asian republics, these highly mountainous areas, so a very strategic area. There were already cells of Al-Qaeda, local, and some foreign, and then further down, as far as the Caucasus and Chechnya. So the ideal was to get rid of resistance by attacking, there were several offences against us, some progress they made, some land they captured. That stratagem was going on. At the same time, they were planning on the assassination of Commander Massoud, because they knew that then the resistance would collapse, because of his role in the resistance—, one thing that he was regretting, he was saying, ‘What will happen to the resistance after him?’ There was nobody who had reached that level, to be able to control, though he tried with all of us, the colleagues around him,— He tried to create a situation where he could be succeeded in the resistance, but that was not possible because most of the things were gifts particular to him. It was beyond the capacity of us as his friends. So Al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s programme was to capture these areas, to get rid of resistance one way or another, then these people would have started creating instability in other areas. With the instability in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and perhaps in other countries, Pakistan would have become unstable.
NH: Some areas of Pakistan have less central government control than others.
AA: Yeah, and the whole of Pakistan could have become unstable because the networks of Al-Qaeda were not just based in these areas. You find them in Lahore, you find them in Karachi – everywhere. The whole of Pakistan could have become unstable. So, let’s say the whole thing went according to their plan, the Taliban were able to get rid of Commander Massoud here, the resistance would have collapsed automatically in a matter of one or two days, signs of instability in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and signs of instability in Pakistan. At that time, a reaction by the international community in Afghanistan wouldn’t have produced the same results as it did, because the whole country would have been under Al-Qaeda, there would be no strategic targets.
NH: When Mr Massoud was assassinated, if September 11th hadn’t happened, and there’d been no American response—
AA: Yeah, the resistance would have collapsed. Today, some of the resistance leaders would tell you differently. I know all of it, I’ve been in the middle of the whole situation throughout the whole resistance. Impossible! The two assassins could have assassinated Commander Massoud twenty days before that date. It didn’t happen because commander Massoud didn’t have time to give them interviews. So it happened on the night of September 9th. Had it happened in mid-August, of course the date of September 11th was fixed, that couldn’t have changed, but what would have changed in between would have been the things inside Afghanistan, because the policy of the West still would have been the same thing. It would have been perceived as internal things. With that perspective in mind, the worst case scenario would have happened. We are lucky, all of us, I think, but you don’t hear about it in many conversations, that scenario could have taken place very easily, with the Taliban capturing the whole of Afghanistan, then Al-Qaeda moving outside Afghanistan. With destabilising these border areas, for example Termez, Termez wouldn’t have been a base for the American coalition forces. It would not have been possible, it would have been virtually impossible. Except for the air-bombardment—, but then even with the air-bombardment, without people on the ground, where do you bomb? There are no divisions of Al-Qaeda, here and there, to go and fight. There are people scattered all over, not only in Afghanistan, but in these highly mountainous areas there, with open borders. So, that scenario didn’t happen, fortunately.
NH: The Taliban now, how damaged are they?
AA: It’s a totally different situation. They had ninety percent of the country under their control, a country that was supporting them fully, opening lines of communication and supply, the whole income of the country under their control, with the financial support from outside. Another dangerous thing which had happened at that time was the connection between the drug mafia and Al-Qaeda, they were moving hand-in-hand, because they were both benefiting. That had made it even more dangerous, because there was ideology and there was profit as well.