Despite Pullout, US ‘Not Leaving’ Afghanistan: VP Saleh

Despite the US’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan–to be completed within a year according to the US-Taliban agreement–First Vice President Amrullah Saleh in an interview with TOLOnews on Sunday night said the US will not “leave the country,” because it has “geostrategic interests”  in the area. He also said that the two countries “need each other.”  

Based on the US-Taliban agreement signed in late February, the United States will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan within 14 months if conditions in the plan are met by the Taliban.

At least 4,000 of the troops will remain until the US election in November, according to a statement made by US President Donald Trump during an interview last month.

Speaking with TOLOnews director Lotfullah Najafizada on Sunday, Saleh said that the Afghanistan-US relationship is based on mutual interests. He stated that “nothing will happen” if the US leaves the country, referencing the security in Nangarhar province as an example.

“The 4,000 American troops are not guardians in the sense that if they leave, we will be broken. They withdrew from Jalalabad, and what happened there? Americans have not fired a single bullet against the Taliban in Jalalabad for the last two years. That is the nation’s security, and it is defending its soil.”

“It (US) is not leaving Afghanistan. Its presence is about strategic and geostrategic interests, economic interests, big regional issues. It is not leaving. Why should it leave? They are not paying a high price here (in Afghanistan)… Their expenses have been significantly reduced. Americans are spending one billion dollars to repair the national army’s vehicles; we are ready to do it by paying $100 million.”

“We need the US, and the US needs us. Our location is highly important,” Saleh said.

Saleh said the US national security adviser Robert O’Brien, in a recent phone conversation with President Ashraf Ghani, said the US supports a united and democratic Afghanistan that is “at peace with itself” and “at peace with others.”

He also offered an assessment of the US president: “In the political world, Trump is a new phenomenon in terms of behavior,” Saleh said. “The behavior of Mr. Trump in the political world is not normal.”

The Peace Process and the Prisoner Release  

Saleh said the Afghan government was not in favor of the way the US conducted talks with the Taliban, adding: “We have not hidden our objections.”

He defended the government’s decision to delay the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for six months.

By delaying the release, Saleh said, the government revealed the identity of the prisoners and showed “the world and the nation” the identity and crimes of those who were released.

For example, Saleh mentioned the suspected mastermind behind the truck bombing in downtown Kabul in May 2017, who was among those released. At least 150 people were killed and over 400 others were wounded in the Taliban bombing, which was near the German embassy. Saleh said such prisoners on the Taliban list would not have been brought to the attention of the international community if the release had happened six months earlier.

About the peace process, Saleh said the recent delay in the negotiation team’s trip to Doha was due to the still ongoing formation of the Taliban’s negotiating team and issues around the government’s release of six controversial Taliban prisoners.

Saleh said some countries, including France and Australia, objected to the freeing of six Taliban prisoners whose release had been approved by Afghan delegates at the Loya Jirga and President Ghani.

“The six (prisoners) will be transferred to Qatar for a period of time after the Afghan government reaches an agreement with its allies,” Saleh said. “They will not be allowed to travel to other countries.”

Other obstacles delaying the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations, according to Saleh, were basic but sensitive logistical issues, such as flag positioning, table arrangements, and the time allotments for speakers from both sides.

Saleh said the intra-Afghan negotiations will focus on a ceasefire by the Taliban, and he stated that the issue of an interim government in exchange for a ceasefire will “never be accepted.”

 “An interim government is not in the discussion the president and I are having,” Saleh said. The other main goal in the talks will be to preserve the republic, he said: “The price of peace should not be the government.”

The first vice president said Afghanistan’s negotiating team is ready for the Doha trip, and “we are waiting for the Taliban to get ready.”

Pakistan’s Role in the Afghan Peace Process   

Saleh said that after 11 years he met recently with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence Chief Faiz Hameed at the Presidential Palace in Kabul.

“He (Bajwa) told me that all of your criticisms are right. We (Pakistan) are with the Taliban but now we have come for peace. We want peace for two reasons: We are afraid that if the US is disgraced (in the Afghanistan war), it will take revenge on Pakistan because they know we are with the Taliban,” said Saleh.

According to Saleh, the Pakistani officials clearly accepted that the Taliban has safe havens on “their soil.”

Pakistan “wants the Taliban to join the government and society,” and “support the democratic government in Afghanistan,” Saleh said.

Asked if this means Pakistan won’t be a problem anymore, Saleh said: “No I did not say that. Pakistan is still a problem but now we have moved from a denial stage to a confession stage.”

Asked about his position on the Durand Line, Saleh said, “The Durand Line was a boundary imposed on a weak government,” and “its term is over, it needs to be negotiated.”

Saleh rejected reports that he is leading an effort to form a pro-government militia by arming different groups in various parts of the country.

He said “there is no plan to distribute arms” in any part of the country and if there were any, he would not keep it a secret.

On the attempts to arrest the former president of Afghanistan’s football federation, Keramuddin Karim, Saleh said that Karim needs to appear before the court to defend himself against the allegations.

Despite Pullout, US ‘Not Leaving’ Afghanistan: VP Saleh