Speaking at the Heart of Asia Conference in India this week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani sharply criticized Pakistan’s role in abetting terror in the region, alleging that without Pakistani state support, the Taliban “wouldn’t survive beyond a month”.
Following this speech he had an exclusive interview with the Hindu newspaper, and spoke of his frustration with Pakistan, friendship with India and hopes for the region.
Asked why he singled out Pakistan at the conference, Ghani said: “I engaged Pakistan, I went there and not only visited with the civilian leadership but with the military leadership.
“I even went to their GHQ (military headquarters), because each country has their own distinct place for institutions.
“My message was that there was a window. It could be broadened to a door or a corridor, or it could shut. We did everything to ensure peace with Pakistan.
“2015 and 2016 have been extremely difficult years and the violence that has been inflicted on our people needs to be registered. To be quiet when people are dying is not acceptable. I am an elected political leader, I need to reflect my people’s sentiment. Because the question of terrorism is not just a threat to us but to Pakistan and the Asian region, and hence the need for a public statement,” he said.
Asked whether he thought the “window” of opportunity was indeed closed, he said Pakistan needs to open it. “We opened the window, now it’s closed, so it’s their turn to open it.”
Unbundling his Heart of Asia speech, Ghani said it had been in four “acts”.
“The first was our celebration of our relationship with India. The second, a celebration of the new consensus on Afghanistan from the global community. The third act was the prospect of Asian economic integration. And the fourth was about what we will be deprived of if we don’t do it.
“Terrorism is depriving us of this and we need enduring solutions at the Heart of Asia. It is becoming a meaningful process. Our goal would be to link China on one hand to Iran on the other, and also to India. South Asia is the least integrated area and has immense potential,” he said.
Referring to the SAARC conference, where India and Afghanistan boycotted Pakistan, Ghani said it was not his intention to isolate Pakistan but that “but when we are under attack, we need to remind that it will not be tolerated. Engagement is essential, but only engagement that is meaningful.
“Last year, I went to the Heart of Asia in Islamabad and I was repeatedly assured of a changed policy. Instead we got the worst year of conflict in the last 15 years. An isolated Pakistan is not in the region’s interests, but Pakistan’s leadership must take action beyond its verbal assurances,” he said.
Asked about what his thoughts were on U.S’s president-elect Donald Trump in terms of Afghanistan, he said: “President (Barack) Obama made a historic decision to keep a medium term outlook of four years on security for Afghanistan, and President (elect Donald) Trump will most likely keep that.”
On the issue of peace talks, Ghani said he hopes the Taliban will follow the same process that Hizb-e-Islami did and reach a peace agreement with government.
“Taliban has just made a pronouncement that it won’t attack infrastructure here, that’s because they realize it is very unpopular to do so. The Taliban used to say, the west had watches, but they had the time, and so would win. The Afghan public is turning against such destructiveness. Also there is the emergence of other actors like Daesh/IS who could upstage them. So we hope they will realize the need to come to the table.”
Ghani went on to say that about 66 to 68 percent of the country was controlled by Afghan “forces” and that about 10 percent was under Taliban control. “The rest is contested,” he said.
He said: “There has been a stalemate, but that is now turning in favor of the government. The territory may not have changed, but we are now maintaining our positions instead of the 140,000 foreign troops. The unity of the Afghan Army has been significant in this.”
Ghani said that the “Taliban are a red herring in discussions with Pakistan. Because they need to own up to the threat of terror.
“Pakistan often says as an explanation, that they have housed millions of Afghan refugees, they can’t tell which are Taliban….
“This excuse is old. One of our corps commanders from Helmand went to Quetta and offered to show the commander there the very houses where Taliban leadership lives. There was silence in reply,” he said.