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'Al Qaeda is not interested in Afghanistan'

Last updated on: February 13, 2008 15:20 IST
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Afghan politician Ali A Jalali is a visiting fellow for Institute of National Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. He was better known as an interior minister in President's Hamid Karzai government struggling with internal security and menace of drug traffickers.

He proved to be a tough administrator. His resignation from the Karzai government in 2005 made the headlines because it irreparably weakened the government. He served as interior minister from 2003 to 2005 when he supervised the creation, training and deployment of a 50,000-strong Afghan national police and a 12,000-strong border police He was entrusted with counter-narcotic, counter-terrorism and criminal investigation operations.

Born in 1940 in a Pashtun family, Jalali wears many hats. He is one of the most quoted academicians and teaches in prestigious institutions in the West. He was director of Afghanistan National Radio Network Initiative and chief of the Pashto service at the Voice of America. He has published his thoughts in three languages; English, Pashto, Dari/Farsi. He was also a top military planner with the Afghan resistance following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He attended staff colleges in Afghanistan, the United States, Britain, and Russia, and has lectured widely.

Since 1987, he has become a US citizen and is an important man in the West's plans for Afghanistan. Jalali has written several books, including a three-volume military history of Afghanistan. His book, The Other Side of the Mountain (2002), co-authored with Lester Grau, is an analytical review of the Mujahedin war against the Soviet army in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Although, Jalali is strongly in favour of US role in Afghanistan, he has been critical of some of the US' moves in his country. In 2002, he criticised the way the US used local chieftains in the war on terrorism that "enhanced the power of the warlords and encouraged them to defy the central authorities."

He was in New Delhi recently to attend a seminar on Asian Security. He spoke to's Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt.

What are the factors behind the re-emergence of Taliban?

There are many factors. You should look at the nature of intervention in Afghanistan. They didn't come to rebuild or help the country. They came to Afghanistan only in order to punish and destroy the terrorists' network that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks in the US. They wanted to remove the Taliban network. After that reconstruction and restoration of stability was very slow and not enough. Therefore it created a vacuum, which was gradually filled up by Taliban and criminal networks in the country. The Taliban was removed from power but was not defeated. Unfortunately, their potential to come back from their safe heavens across the borders was not addressed. So when the Taliban saw that stabilisation is not going well they came back.

During the past six years national institutions of Afghanistan, particularly security institutions, developed slowly. And the international community didn't deploy sufficient forces in Afghanistan. That gave an opportunity for the Taliban to come back.

How come they are getting support from the same people who were victims of the Taliban before 9/11?

Yes but they still don't like the Taliban. They don't see the Taliban as the alternative to the current political transition. However, when people see that government is not present or when they see that the government cannot protect them they sit on the fence. All the surveys indicate that only a few people actively support Taliban. Most surveys claim that only 10 percent of the people are fighting for Taliban and 20 percent are fighting for the government, while 70 percent are sitting on the fence. While they don't want the Taliban to come back they don't want to risk their life on behalf of the government that can neither protect them nor provide services to them.

How do you see India's role in Afghanistan?

India was very helpful in reconstruction of Afghanistan. It is helping build highways, hydro projects, schools and clinics. India has spent around $800 million. On the strategic front the issue is the differences between India and Pakistan. It also affects Afghanistan. The misconception and suspicion between two countries hurts Afghanistan. Sometimes one hopes that two countries will not make Afghanistan the battlefield of their disputes.

After serving in the government as the interior minister you resigned. Now you have turned a critic of the government. Why the change of mind?

I am not critical of the government. I am critical of the process. I think Afghanistan is the least funded post-conflict project since World War II. If you look at the troops in Afghanistan, there are 1.5 soldiers per 1,000 population. There were 20.5 soldiers per 1,000 in Kosovo, 19 in Bosnia, it was 10 soldiers in Sierra Leone. Afghanistan is facing many challenges because it is facing war for the past 30-35 years. The infrastructure is destroyed.

The limited interest of international community and lack of investment and reconstruction didn't help the government develop institutions. That is why the government is weak. It doesn't mean that government is purposely weak. On other hand the Taliban is across the border in safe heavens in Pakistan. Gradually, Pakistan's tribal areas have become a hot-bed of extremism and terrorism. Al Qaeda is entrenched in the tribal areas. That is the worry of the establishment. It is the source of troublemakers.

What is the difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda?

Only 20 percent of insurgents who form the core of Taliban are fighting the ideological war. The rest are aggrieved tribes who have been mistreated by some government officials or drug trafficker or some foreign intelligence operators or by the transnational Al Qaeda terrorists. It also consists of unemployed youth and criminal groups. All these are alliance of convenience. They are fighting for different reasons.

Al Qaeda is a transnational organisation. They are not even interested in Afghanistan or Pakistan. They are waging a global war. Taliban is in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Al Qaeda is also based in the tribal areas of Pakistan. There are elements in the Taliban that are not ideologically motivated. They are not that dangerous. There are ways to bring them back. They can be motivated to return. Those who will not settle for less than overthrowing of the regime, I don't think there will be any way for them to reconcile.

You live in the US. You have heard and understood the views of the East and West. Where is West making an error in understanding what we call Jihadi terrorism?

Jiahdi terrorism is not a deliberate ideological design. It grew out of the environment.

In 1980s when Afghanistan was fighting the Soviet Union there was rush to support anybody who could give the Soviets a bloody nose. This created an environment where the extremist elements came in. Later on these elements turn their guns against the West. They thought the West is creating problems for them in Islamic countries. The global war on terrorism is working in some way but it will be a long way. It's not going to be quick and cheap. It will take decades.

Will the rejection of senior British diplomat Paddy Ashdown's proposed nomination as United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan by President Karzai affect the efforts of international community in the region?

I don't think so. There is a demand for finding an envoy who can co-ordinate efforts of different countries who have come to Afghanistan with a different level of commitments and resources. Well there was a reason for the rejection. Afghanistan is a sovereign country. We have the choice to make a decision. However that doesn't mean that demand for the special envoy is gone. Afghanistan does believe that there is a need to co-ordinate efforts. Why did the government take the decision? May be media played it in a way that it sounded like interference in the affairs of Afghanistan.

President Karzai himself made it a big issue by talking to the BBC about it.

Yes, there were reasons behind it. The media actually played it up and showed his (Ashdown's) position as that of a super envoy who will have a mandate to interfere in Afghanistan's affairs. Second, Afghans were comparing his role in Bosnia. That role was different. Bosnia was a state within a state. Afghanistan is one state. Afghanistan has an elected government and an elected Parliament. There was also misunderstanding on the role of a super envoy or whatever you call it about the possibility of undermining the sovereignty of the Afghan president.

In retrospect don't you think it was a mistake to neutralise and disarm the Northern Alliance as it happened in case of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party?

Yes, a vacuum was created but not because the Northern Alliance was disarmed. The NA didn't have an army and was composed of malicious people. In 2002 -03 they were fighting with each other. I had to go to the northern areas to bring peace because they were fighting with artillery and tanks. The victims were civilians. They were destabilising the country. They were disarmed in order to create a new institution -- the army and national police. The slow process created a vacuum.

But they were fighting the Taliban.

Not now. When the Taliban was removed they were fighting each other. The pace of rebuilding national institutions was slow. In the post-conflict situation, you have to break and make. If you don't break war machines of the past you cannot make new institutions. Reintegration of the Northern Alliance didn't work. After they were demobilised some of them joined the drug traffickers, criminal gangs and some even joined the Taliban.

How will Iran issue affect the Afghanistan process?

Well, Iran is a neighbour. Whatever happens there it will affect us. Iran has been helpful in the stabilisation and reconstruction of Afghanistan. At the same time they have another track in Afghanistan. They are trying to maintain the offensive in Afghanistan. If trouble brought to them they will be able to bring trouble to the US in Afghanistan.

The volatile situation in Pakistan also holds no good news for you.

Pakistan faces many challenges. Holding of peaceful elections is one of them. Also the perception that elections were free and fair. If that perception emerges, there is a hope. If the perception is built that it was not fair, then the new government will not be considered legitimate. That will create problems. In the tribal areas, if elections are not free and fair it will have a negative impact. The extremism of tribal areas directly affects us. This is a regional issue and should be sorted out with help of regional co-operation.

Do you agree with the perception that NATO's operation in Afghanistan is failing?

Some things are positive but some problems persist. The positive thing is that Afghans support the presence of NATO. We are worried that NATO will leave before the Afghans are able to fend for themselves. The problem is that within NATO different countries have different mandates, different instructions for their operations. Some countries are willing to fight militarily and some are not. Some countries think that their mandate is for peace-keeping and stabilisation, some think that stabilisation and peace will not come without defeating insurgencies and establishing security in those areas. It is not that NATO cannot work. The insurgencies cannot be defeated militarily but it should not lose militarily either.

So do you think NATO is a success in Afghanistan?

There are many NATO countries fighting gallantly in Afghanistan. Generally speaking, without NATO Afghanistan will slide back into chaos. Because Afghanistan has first hand experience that when it is weak it has many neighbours who take advantage of it.

Do you think the change of government in the US will affect you?

There is bipartisan support for the US involvement in Afghanistan. Both leading parties have the same policy. Even the US public supports it. They had given less support for the involvement in Iraq but they support the continued commitment of the US in Afghanistan.

What are your hopes for your country?

I think Afghanistan can still rise. The longer it takes the longer we suffer. Yes, government doesn't have influence outside the major urban areas in the south. However, one cannot say government does not have influence. The Afghan government appoints governors and police chiefs in all provinces and nobody defies it. Army and police function in all parts of the country. Yes in some parts the influence is weak because government is not in position to provide services.

What are the gains for women and children after 2003?

Well there is a lot of progress in Afghanistan. Six years ago television was banned. Today we have 12 private channels 24/7. Then women could not go to work. Today 27 percent of the workforce consists of women. In 2002, only 900 boys were studying in madrassas today five million children, including 1.5 million girls, are studying in school. Women are influencing all aspects of life including social and political. Afghanistan has the most enlightened constitution among Islamic countries. In 2002, only 6 percent of the population has access to basic health facilities now, 65 percent have access. However, these achievements are not matched by other issues like security and stability.

Do you think if the proposal which recommends that Taliban becomes part of the Afghan process, stability may come?

Forget about the Taliban, whoever is fighting the government if they come and renounce violence and accept the constitution I think there is a place for all of them.

Are they looking for political Islam?

Political Islam or no political Islam as long as they are non-violent there is a place for them. Once they adopt violence to overthrow the government Taliban or no Taliban they are not acceptable to Afghanistan.

What should be the top agenda of the Afghan process now?

I think two things to begin with. Re-establishment of the domestic political consensus that we had in 2002. That internal consensus is declining. For the international community I would say that we need a unified strategy for different troops.

What about the Taliban?

If you have good governance and security those who actually see the presence of government will join the government. Those who will not settle for less than overthrowing of the government I think they need to be defeated militarily.

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