By: The Kabul Times
Speaking at a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum at Davos on January 22, 2020, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani stated that five years ago there were over 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan—with 100,000 of them Americans—and there were rumors that the country would collapse once the foreign forces withdrew. However, he said, all the predictions proved false and Afghanistan survived and is making progress today.
The Kabul Times daily has excerpted parts of the conversation which received from the Presidential Press Office and is as follows:
Anchor: Good afternoon everybody and welcome once again. This is a conversation with His Excellency with President of Afghanistan Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, in partnership with World Economic Forum and CNBC News. My name is Hadley Gamble, and I am the senior international anchor and correspondent for CNBC. Welcome to all of you, and welcome Your Excellency. Thank you so much for joining us.
I want to kick off by asking you where we stand today when it comes to the situation of security in Afghanistan at the end of last year that’s a lot of conversation a lot of grumblings about the decision on the part of the Americans to start drawing down troops. Where are we in your opinion?
President Ghani: Well. I think we should put it in perspective not of last year, but of five years. Five years ago there were around 140,000 international troops in Afghanistan, 100,000 of them Americans. Over 100,000 American troops withdrew and also corresponding their number of others. And all the predictionhs were of gloom and doom [that] we will collapse, but we didn’t. The Afghan Security Forces have emerged to a significant force. Our Commandos are second to none in the region. Our Air Force is tripled our commandos and Special Forces have doubled. We have taken eight districts back from the Taliban. Daesh; for the first time in eastern Afghanistan, a thousand of them surrendered. What a twenty-ton bomb couldn’t do, a popular mobilization of 2,400 community members did. Security is a problem; no one can say that it is not, but the direction is the right direction and prior to the election 65% of the Afghan people think that the direction is the positive direction. Withdrawal; the Resolute Support mission is an instrument; the key issue is the Bilateral Security Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan and Status of Forces Agreement between Afghanistan and NATO. The numbers can adjust, increase or decrease. A decrease at this moment will have no material impact on our capacity and our willingness to ensure moving forward.
Anchor: The American President has said on multiple occasions that he wants to bring troops away from the region, not just Afghanistan but Iraq and elsewhere as well that hasn’t necessarily been what happened over the last year. As you know with continuing violence in Persian Gulf, we put more troops back in to the region. When you sit back and think about this within a ten year horizon, do you anticipate we are going to see a time with a full withdrawal of US troops?
President Ghani: Of course I deal with uncertainty. Uncertainty is the norm so the type of leadership that is required of us is to be able to cope with uncertainty that means multiple scenarios, multiple options. A single course of action is just not feasible. To see complete American withdrawal of troops requires the region to get together and agree on the rules of the game. The region is pious to failure. A lot of states simultaneously deal with non-state actors as instrument of destabilization and as long as you have that, the space for wider things opens. The other question is what is the threat of terrorism? Is it a technic that is applied or is it a fundamental challenge the way fascism was? Depending on your answer, then you get very different set of alignments because the question from an American perspective is where Afghanistan fits. And the answer is homeland security. If it is viewed from homeland security, then it is one set of partnerships; if it is in terms of the region, it is another. What is important and I hope the communiqué that I issued has made it clear, we have a commitment from the United States and from NATO that no force stationed in Afghanistan in any way – it is larger non-military because it is advice, train and assist – will be used against any other power in the region. So our hope is for the region to settle and to be able to arrive at security arrangements so the threats to the rest of the world, currently exposed to the region, diminishes or is eliminated.
Anchor: When you think about the United States as a partner regionally, there has been a lot of conversation about and do you think US has turned a new page under US President Donald Trump in some ways with the idea that they would be withdrawing from not just Afghanistan, but elsewhere and that the US is leaving the region behind?
President Ghani: Well, I have no problems dealing with President Trump. I am one of the few leaders that has an excellent relationship including today’s conversation because I frame my relationship in terms of priorities that he has promised the American people, and he is consistent on that. The question is, how do we find common ground and where is the common ground to be able to move forward? His style is disruptive meaning that when the status quo reaches a point where it does not produce the results that he wants, he engages in disruptive change and this is a type of change that we need to increasingly understand. We have destructive change on the economy which a professor that has made a lifetime is explaining to us. We now have the same sorts of things. So it is either sorts of creative change that we can manage together, destructive change like the waves of Schumpeter or disruptive change. We need to understand that this is not isolated; it is part of a pattern and at times the status quo for certain gets disrupted. What the second, third order or fourth order consequences of that or we need to be able to work together.
Anchor: Is the negotiating with the Taliban the best option or the only option?
President Ghani: Negotiation is a means. The desire of Afghan people – and don’t forget please I run on a peace ticket twice and peace has been my goal – is to see the end of violence. The billion dollar question is, are the Taliban ready to see the end of violence? If they are, Afghan society is willing to reintegrate them, but if they see peace as a Trojan horse to overthrow the government and the society, then the society and the government would mobilize.
And here let me make a simple observation; our security is not the responsibility of United States; it is our own responsibility. We need to be able to secure our future. And beside you know, for thousands of years we have provided for our own security; these 18 years are an exception. Afghan society has seen forty years of violence; we have to see the end of violence. Now it depends very much on the Taliban, and there are certain questions top of it ‘gender’. No Afghan woman as long as I am alive and in the position of responsibility is going to be subjected to gender apartheid. Our ambassadors to the United Nations and United States both are Afghan women. They are second to none to anybody and they thrived. The generation of young Afghan women sees the world as their potential stage. Youth; 70% of the society is under 25; they are not going to be caged. The issue is society has changed. Are the Taliban sufficiently aware to engage in this? Their power is negative meaning it derives from violence, from suicide bombing, from violence against…but it is a negative power that is recognized by our society and therefore we want to see an end to it. For that we have to find a political solution. All wars must end politically. These are not wars particularly the wars of the late 20th century or 21st century that can end in classic way, so we need to engage. The good news is that rank and file of the Taliban are sick and tired of fighting. The people who are sitting in Doha are getting their fifth or fourth wife and are enjoying themselves. They have become investors. The other is this is one of the largest drug running operations in the world; heroin and now amphetamine, so those parts needs to be asked about the entire community. Will they be an asset or would they be a reliability? It is an answer that we have to find together.
Anchor: What kind of timeline are we talking about when it comes to securing Afghan for the Afghans?
President Ghani: I think in the next four years and the last five years, we showed that we can build resilience that abandonment is not in our vocabulary. Speaking on behalf of my fellow citizen which I have the privilege of serving, the United States and the rest of the world does not owe us they came to help us in the moment when our resilience was really finished; five years of drought, gender apartheid, dictatorship, war etc. Now it is really up to us because Afghanistan is not poor; it is rich. And we need to develop that richness for the sake of the people. First, just let’s take the environment. 220,000 Megawatts potential of solar; 80,000 wind; geothermal looks good natural gas is beginning to really look good, second best but nonetheless.
We are connecting our location. For 200 years, as a disadvantage and now it is becoming gold. Every year Central Asia and South Asia cannot coordinate without us; natural gas, electricity fiber optics, etc. In this environment the key becomes the human capital. We need to be able to shape the generation in our discourse to be able to take responsibility. And as part of that, we have to accept that forty years of violence has taken a toll. We need to accept each other in multiple ways. The past, unfortunately, is very much alive in Afghanistan we need to put an end to this past. Step back, our golden age of Islam was unbelievable; the forgotten enlightenment. Avicenna – Ibn Sina – and Abu Rayhan Biruni; a thousand years ago we were talking about high advanced mathematics and astronomy and others. So there is a civilization legacy; there is a way of imagining the future. And particularly our mineral wealth that is really quite considerable should not become a curse for our people. If the curse of the plenty is to be avoided, we have created the rules the regulations the institutional mechanisms that this can now be put at the service of the people. With that I think we can stand on our feet.
Anchor: What do you think of the challenges ahead and now that there are many? It is not the security that you are concerned with as the idea as we are discussing on camera and the environment and what is happening with the climate change, could really be the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s growth potential?
President Ghani: Not just Afghanistan it is globally but particularly it is South Asia. On World Bank estimate, we are talking by 2050 of 40 million refugees; environmental refugees. With UN, the figure goes as much as a 100 million. Look at what one degree of warming can do to India or Pakistan. We should not be in denial. I think that for South Asia and Central Asia, environmental cooperation is what could become as important platform as community of steel and coal was for Europe. The environment doesn’t recognize boundaries. The Himalayas; you know it is our common heritage. How are we managing this? We are not! The cycles of floods and droughts; the cycles of droughts in Afghanistan used to be 30 years and 100 years of major drought, now it has been reduced to as few as five. In this environment, we fortunately control most of the fresh water. We provide fresh water to every single one of our neighbors. That is more important in ten years than there is oil. How do we coordinate? There is a lot here and particularly with renewables. Given our immense potential in renewables, this could be a game changer for the region.
Anchor: What do you think about what happens next with regards to the investment case for Afghanistan; ‘One Belt, One Road’ seemingly left Afghanistan off their [indiscernible]. What is coming next?
President Ghani: Well. First, we have created what is called the Lapis Lazuli Corridor. Now we are connected through Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and Georgia. Baku is replacing Karachi for us and Batumi or Patumi are going to be major ports of transit. Iran; if it’s still exempted from sanctions, the Chabahar port, it cuts the distance by 1000 Km westward. India; we connected by air. Equally Kazakhstan. Opening of Uzbekistan has been an immense blessing, so I really thank my brother, the President of Uzbekistan. It used to take us three month to get a train to China, now it takes one week. The cost is coming down very radically.
We had a product that sieves the imagination of the Afghan people, pine nuts. Three years ago, we didn’t know we are one of the largest producers of pine nut. Now we signed the deal for 2 billion dollars with China on pine nuts. It used to be smuggled. There is an agricultural revolution underway focused on value chains that is really changing. Women’s engagement in this, youths.
The region is connecting. Asia; the only parallel to me is 1869 when the Pacific and Atlantic railways joined to create the continental economy and the Suez Canal was opened. Asia is transforming from a concept to a continental economy. In this, we are finding our place because without us, South Asia and Central Asia will not connect. You know, going through the mountains is not going to create that Pakistan and China. The key, the easiest way is Afghanistan and Central Asia is connecting all of Asia. This is a global phenomenon. How we simultaneously bring the atavistic thinking of being bound by my national interest, right or wrong, is the challenge. We need to think regionally and we have to think globally.
Anchor: What do you think to happen next with regards to the United States as a potential investment partner further in the region, and that kind of economic diplomacy, part of them raised … in Washington at the growing relationship between Russia and Afghanistan, and the idea that they will continue their economic diplomacy like we have seen in Saudi Arabia for example and elsewhere in the region, and Iran, with regards to your government? What is your message to the United States about your growing relationship with Russia? Because it has made some
President Ghani: We don’t have a growing relationship with Russia. That is a misperception. Russia has made no investment. We wished devil.
Anchor: But you are very much open to it…
President Ghani: No, what I am saying is the source of the investment doesn’t matter to me. It is quality of the investment. I want to avoid the curse of natural resources. That is my top priority; so it has to be bound by rule of law; it has to be transparent; it has to be accountable; and it has to give…Russians have not made an investment in Afghanistan so that is a misperception.
Afghanistan in terms of the future of the electric car could play a very significant role. We have one of the largest unexplored lithium deposits of the world. We are described as Saudi Arabia of Lithium. And then 14 out of the 17 rare earth materials exist in Afghanistan both in quality and quantity that makes it very important. This is the new economy. How we connect to the new economy and what type of partnerships we put? Then there is the old sector; gas is beginning to really look good. For first time, from one well we are talking of trillions of cubic meters, not billions. Iron; it is the largest and developed mine in the world. Copper again; we are good on the commodity cycle because five years ago, copper was down, they were not interested.
But key is now generational power and the infrastructure that would underwrite this, but more than the physical infrastructure, the human infrastructure. So we connect to the world, but in terms that secure mutual interest. The Export of Capital from Britain, Alan, 19th century to be avoided. There are lessons from that. Ask Argentina and other countries.
Anchor: What do you think about the relationship with the United States in particular, obviously you have a good relationship as you said with President Trump; you are one of the few leaders who has said that. You have no problems with that relationship. There was a recent report in Washington Post, the troubled documents that were released, and they were talking about how for years the United States was a sort of putting over the American public that the progress was made. Do you think it rushes back the question less about fulfilling the mission, more about having a realistic goal of what success should look like?
President Ghani: Well. When I was finance minister, I warned about that. And I offered the alternatives. Foreign aid is broken. It is not just in Afghanistan. I wrote a book on it, “fixing failed states” so I have warned about this and again we have a global expert … I was not part of the system. I have worked for [indiscernible] since 2001, when I returned. I have never consulted for an American company or for a contractor or others. We warned very clearly as finance minister of a country, I stood at international conferences and said, one possible future is a narco-mafia state, then pay attention.
The curse of Afghanistan was Iraq. The minute Iraq invasion took place, the standard disappeared from Afghanistan because everybody then was saying – you know compare to Iraq – is doing well but that is not good enough. The other part is nobody was prepared for a phenomenon like Afghanistan or phenomenon like Iraq. The skills that made the marshal plan possible do not exist within the government structures. And the capability to think through outside the box did not. So money has never been a cure, systems are a cure, processes and particularly empowerment. 40 percent of the Afghan population still lives below poverty, not one dam was finished. I have done more with less continuously because of prioritizing. And also lazy habits were brought and an Afghan elite who was spunt that it was interested in rent-seeking and when you have rent-seekers you are not going to get development or democracy.
Anchor: Are you finding it challenging at this point given the fact that you in a bit of a run-off that let’s say with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, we have to call it a lame duck scenario in the United States. Does this make your job more difficult?
President Ashraf Ghani: I have never had a feeling of lame duck. Any job I have held, I have performed to the last minute. So what did I do last week? I saw all the citizens of Kabul, district by district, we have 22 districts to prioritize the city’s development. I am legally the president of Afghanistan and have the responsibility to serve the people of Afghanistan. The day I am not, I will be the private citizen, I will be delighted to go and finish my six books from manuscripts. Those who have a feeling of lame duck, I think do not have feeling of proper responsibility. The responsibility of a president doesn’t end with an election; it
ends with transfer of authority. And to the day that you are responsible, you must.
I have seen all 34 provincial governors, I have re-hauled a number of sectors in this period and I have engaged from President Trump to other leaders to be able to secure our interests. I have gone in the last five years, 89 times to the provinces because the allegation was that the president of Afghanistan is mayor of Kabul. We go everywhere. You have to take a certain risk. And the election results are taking long because I want to make sure that every stone is turned and the transparency is there so we can move forward.
Anchor: Your predecessor as well as Dr. Abdullah Abdullah have been very critical of your feelings when it comes to negotiation with the Taliban in forcing a ceasefire agreement. What is your response to them?
President Ghani: Sour grapes. Did President Karzai achieve a ceasefire? I did. Did President Karzai offer an unconditional offer to the Taliban? I did. Who is approving in the public opinion polls that they would trust the peace process to? Me. I am engaged with my people. I run on a platform and I have a program. What is the program of President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah? Please show me one piece of paper that either of the gentlemen has produced regarding the future of Afghanistan.
The Taliban went to their homes in 2001. For three years, there was security. What actions did the president take with his entourage and appointments to produce an insurgency? He has to answer the people of Afghanistan. I did not produce this war. I served for two years as minister of Finance. I didn’t agree on reforms, I went to do the most honorable job which was the chancellorship of Kabul University and I loved it. It is the best job I have ever had. Then, you know, I ran for…I helped—look at my conduct. I ran against President Karzai in 2009; I offered him help with the security transition. That is patriotism. When your country needs you, you have to offer and strengthen the system. Criticism for the sake of criticism doesn’t do well and we need to engage. There is a place for him. He has been the first…
Anchor: Don’t you think it is enabling the Taliban at this point?
President Ghani: No. I don’t want to accuse. Look. I have not said one negative word about either Dr. Abdullah or President Karzai during the entire election or the last five years. The conduct is—politics to me is in the Weberian sense of occasion. It is a Collin’s. Let the people judge. And if the people of Afghanistan don’t elect me, fine. I will go and become a citizen again. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; therefore, checks and balances and citizen accountability is a must. Without an engaged citizen, you don’t have a state. And Afghanistan—the citizens of Afghanistan are all PhDs in politics. The last forty years have immuned us to slogans. They don’t want slogans, we want service.
And you know, everybody who comes to the Presidential Compound, I shake hands with them. A lot of them, I embraced them in because I am their servant and they understand that there is a sense of service. That is the dynamic that has to change, not a sense that we are born. We aren’t born to anything. We are born to serve. If we take a colleague. If not, and the feeling of superiority and this claim that power must be theirs because in some moments of history they played a minor role. That has to go.
Anchor: We are getting short on time. But I just want to ask you before I let you go. When it comes to maximum pressure campaign on Iran and what we have seen over the last several months, you mentioned commodities and prices going up, we have been following oil story, of course and worked on in CNBS. What do you think about what is going to happen next, how challenging is it for you to encourage international investors to get involved in Afghanistan and developing its resources when you have a region that continues to be in turmoil as a result of the policies of the United States.
President Ghani: Well it is both policies of the United States and policies of Iran. Iranian revolution got a second renewal after the invasion of Iraq. Iran, before that, was the equivalent of “building socialism in one country” what Stalin was forced to. So it opened up; a second wave of revolution was renewed. It is in the region. Now, there is diametrically two opposed sets. One is the high-ranking Iranian officials repeatedly have said that the US must leave the region. The second is that the United States Government is saying that wave has to be rolled back.
So within this, now the possibility of a new cold war looms quite large whether it becomes hot in certain spots, of course, like the cold war. In the region, we had this in the 1960s with Yemen when Gamal Abdel Nasser engaged against Saudi Arabia and other interlocutors, Iran, etc. It is important to think through again the fundamental organizational principles of the region. The region has been unstable in terms of rules since world war II, and what diplomacy has required, an imagination has required to put it in that vicious circle and in this episode there might be that opportunity as some people who are very thoughtful, think that the set of relationships to allow for predictability rather than constant disruption is there and I hope that that would be the case.
Anchor: do you believe that the death of Qasim Soleimani made the region safer?
President Ghani: No one can give you an answer to that. No, all I am saying is a disruptive set of actions took place that disrupted the status quo. The status quo was not one of predictability, but within the cold war, in terms of the cold war between powers had had levels of predictability. The parameters have changed. I don’t judge the consequences now because that is a moral judgment one… Afghanistan wants to be a platform for cooperation. It is not our business to get engaged in further conflicts, or further destabilization. But the environment within which you operate changes and you have to take account of that change. And there are two ways of responding, one is you put your hand in the sand and say change is not placed, the context has not changed. The other is to very quickly assess and say and you might get it wrong but at least you are trying to adjust to this. And as the president of Afghanistan it is my responsibility to navigate our interests and those cannot be done without thinking through the region.
Anchor: Do you like the president style than disruption?
President Ghani: I am not a judge. I am not into likes and dislikes. I am into partnership. And United States is foundational partner to us. Iran is a very important neighbor to us. How do we make sure that we navigate this relationship is the critical challenge of leadership.
Anchor: Your Excellency. Thank you so much for joining us.