Afghanistan’s president: ‘People don’t want the Taliban’

President Ashraf Ghani and onetime rival Abdullah Abdullah on the U.S. withdrawal

Afghanistan faces a challenging future, as President Biden has ordered the small number of U.S. troops remaining to leave the country by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks that initially provoked the American presence there. Most Afghan experts were surprised by Biden’s decision to withdraw. One who has followed the conflict for years glumly predicted that the outcome will be either the collapse of the government led by President Ashraf Ghani or civil war as the Taliban attempts to retake power. The major question is whether Afghan security forces will be able to stave off the Taliban without U.S. troops. This past week, both Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, described to The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth their hopes and fears for their country’s future. Edited excerpts follow:

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Ashraf Ghani

Q: People are anxious to know your views about the U.S. decision to withdraw its troops from your country.

Q: Has the U.S. turned its back on you?

A: No. The U.S. has not turned its back on us because we’re having an extremely productive dialogue. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken. Moreover, President Biden spoke to me.

Q: Do you believe the Taliban will take control of your country? Can there be real progress in peace talks with the Taliban?

A: Our priority is to make peace. If the Taliban insists on a violent takeover, they will face not just the Afghan security and defense forces, but also the Afghan people. People don’t want the Taliban. Ask people who have experienced their rule.

Q: Hasn’t the Taliban been waging targeted assassination attempts in Kabul on women journalists and civil-society organizations?

A: The Taliban is increasing violence everywhere. They are assassinating and targeting civilian actors. They’ve grown up outside normal families in madrassas in the absence of women, so women have been construed as a threat to them.

Q: Do you think that Afghan security forces can hold Kabul without American and NATO troops?

A: Yes, they can. What we need is financial support that the U.S. has acknowledged it will continue for our defense and security forces, as well as for training outside Afghanistan.

Q: What about Pakistan, which has been supporting the Taliban all along?

A: Pakistan is important. The United States has an important role in persuading Pakistan to get the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Q: How are the peace talks going?

A: The question we are asking the Taliban is: Do you intend to make peace?

Q: I understand that the Taliban isn’t giving anything at the negotiating table.

A: They weren’t giving anything — but the context has changed. The ball is in the court of the Taliban because the Afghan government and people are ready for a just and enduring peace.

Q: The Taliban’s key goal was withdrawal of U.S. troops. Why did the U.S. make such a major concession without getting anything in return?

A: That’s your job as an American to decide.

Q: What leverage do you still have with the Taliban?

A: If the Taliban wants peace, there will be no greater welcome. If they refuse and intend to impose their will, we will oppose them the way we have opposed every person who attempted to conquer us.

Q: Reportedly, the Taliban has not separated itself from al-Qaeda.

A: The United Nations has documented that they have not separated themselves from al-Qaeda.

Q: Some say Afghanistan could become a breeding ground for terrorism again in just 18 months.

A: Terrorism is a threat. We have the capacity and will to deal with it, but we need regional and international support, whether it’s air power or technology, because this is a global threat.

Q: Could the situation become a threat to the U.S. homeland if it gets out of hand?

A: Of course.

Q: Do you feel that you can work with Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, to make progress in the ongoing peace talks?

A: The leaders of the country are united in the face of threats.

Q: Is the Taliban attempting to break the will of the Afghan government?

A: They’re not going to break our will.

Q: You think that Afghanistan can remain a free country, not a hotbed of terrorism?

A: Absolutely. Because there was no Afghan in the 9/11 attack.

Q: But the terrorists did operate from Afghanistan.

A: The Taliban gave them protection and sanctuary. They had a choice. They chose al-Qaeda over the national interest of Afghanistan. If they want to be part of the solution in Afghanistan today, they have to put Afghanistan first.

A: Because if the society realizes that the Taliban has chosen a path of destruction over a path of construction, they will be rejected and isolated. This country is yearning for peace and for the ability to live together.

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Abdullah Abdullah

Q: Were you disappointed by the U.S. decision to withdraw all its troops and by the speed of the withdrawal?

A: That the U.S. would withdraw sooner or later, we had no doubt. But as to the speed, yes.

Q: You’re in charge of the peace talks. Are you making any headway?

A: So far, the Taliban has not been serious in their negotiations.

Q: The Taliban wanted the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Didn’t a lot of your leverage get taken away when the full withdrawal was announced and the Taliban was required to give nothing in return?

A: Yes. That was their main demand. It should have led to a situation where the Taliban’s main excuse for the continuation of the war was over. Perhaps there are groups among the Taliban that think a military takeover may be possible. They haven’t said it explicitly, but that’s their attitude. They have not fulfilled their commitment about reducing violence nor de-linking with al-Qaeda.

Q: Is the Taliban closely linked to al-Qaeda today?

A: The Taliban and al-Qaeda work closely together.

Q: Could the Taliban cooperation with al-Qaeda be a threat to the U.S. homeland?

A: Right from the beginning, the U.S. was here because of the threat to the homeland, which was real.

Q: What does the Taliban want? Do they want to be part of the government? Do they want to impose their views on the country?

A: They talk about an Islamic system without giving any details. When it comes to principles like liberty, women’s rights, human rights — they say that as long as they are in accordance with Islamic law, okay, but they refrain from giving their definition of Islamic law. If they want to impose a military solution, the history of Afghanistan has shown that that will only lead to the continuation of the war.

A: I’m sure the Afghan forces will be able to hold, but the support needs to continue. That’s the commitment of the United States and some members of NATO. Humanitarian and economic assistance should also continue. What is needed at this stage is maximum unity among the political leadership. That will have an impact on the morale of our forces, which day in and day out are on the front lines.

Q: Are you critical of President Ashraf Ghani? Do you feel he has been a good leader?

A: We have been in the opposition. We have fought contested elections, one against another. But he is the president of the country, and we are ready to help him now.

Q: Do you think there will be a Taliban takeover or a civil war in the next two years?

A: A Taliban takeover will not happen.

Q: Reportedly, they may take over parts of the south of your country.

A: They may try to invade if they opt for a military solution, which would be a big miscalculation. But that will lead to the continuation of war, not to a Taliban takeover. Hopefully that will not be the scenario. We shouldn’t give up on the talks. The whole international community, including the U.S. and other countries, are trying to find ways to support the talks.

Q: Aren’t the Americans leaving you in a difficult situation?

A: Of course, I would have wished to do it differently. But the point is they have been here for almost 20 years and have spent hundreds of billions of dollars. The U.S. says they still want to help Afghanistan, but from now on, we will not be able to rely on the presence of U.S. and international troops.

Q: But aren’t you frustrated by the U.S. behavior?

A: Will frustration help anybody? We need to work together. We need one another in spite of the decisions which have been made.

Q: In the past 20 years or so, the U.S. has said, “Trust us, we’re partners.”

A: The conversation between Blinken and the president a few days back was on the continuation of the U.S. commitment to play a part in supporting Afghanistan — to provide support for the security forces, economic support and humanitarian support. So that’s not abandoning Afghanistan.

Q: You know perfectly well that it didn’t cost the U.S. very much to keep a small force on the ground in Afghanistan, since Afghan forces have been doing most of the fighting in the past few years.

A: Yes, increasingly, it has been our forces which have been doing the fighting. But this is a choice the U.S. has made, and we have to respect it.

Q: Are you willing to say that the rights of the women of Afghanistan are a red line and that you and your government will not trade them to the Taliban for anything?

A: The Taliban has completely different ideas about women’s rights, human rights and liberties. The content of a peace settlement will be that people with very different ideas can live in one country peacefully — not compromising the rights of 50 percent of the population. Call that a red line or not. Let’s put it to the people and contest it. I’m sure the majority will not be for Talibanization of the country.

Q: Are you optimistic that there can be a political settlement that includes the Taliban?

A: If I lose my optimism, I don’t have any reason to stay in politics. But everything is not in our hands. It takes the Taliban as well as us to make peace. Today the absolute majority of Afghans want an inclusive, peaceful settlement. If one group wants to impose a military solution, it will be impossible.

Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor for The Washington Post.
Afghanistan’s president: ‘People don’t want the Taliban’