Afghanistan's Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah was on a five-day visit to India. He engaged with India's top leadership to discuss the Afghan Peace Process and the intra-Afghan talks where he leads the Afghan delegation.
Speaking exclusively to India Today TV's Foreign Affairs Editor Geeta Mohan, Abdullah said any tensions in the region does impact Afghanistan. This was to a question on the ongoing border tensions between India and China, given that both New Delhi and Beijing are development partners of Kabul.
On the issue of terrorism, while the Afghan leader said they assured the Indian leadership that their soil will not be allowed to be used against India, he did not respond directly to questions on terror networks based out of Afghanistan. On terrorists operating out of Pakistan against India, he said India will have to raise that issue bilaterally with Pakistan.
Abdullah was in Pakistan last month and says he returned with "positive" impressions. Islamabad and Rawalpindi (Pakistan Army's headquarters) play an important role in which way the Taliban would go.
On the issue of US President Trump announcing troop withdrawal by Christmas, he said that they will have to see the final details of the announcement, but ultimately, Afghanistan has to "stand on her own".
One of the concerns for India has been the issue of women's rights. Return of the Taliban could threaten such liberties but Abdullah assured that somethings are "irreversible".
These rights are enshrined in the constitution and the Taliban would have to understand that. "Peace will not materialise by discriminating against half of the population, it doesn't mean peace," he said.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q. What was India's take and concerns on the talks?
A. Throughout those meetings, the spirit that was prevailing was the spirit of continued support for the people of Afghanistan and for the decisions made by the people of Afghanistan. Towards whatever solution is acceptable to the people of Afghanistan, that was the spirit of the talks with India. There is no doubt that insecurity and instability in Afghanistan has had its impact in the past as well, on the whole region including India.
It is in that spirit, I shared my views about the current situation, the prospects and hurdles in the way, the impasses, the hopes of the people of Afghanistan. India's position of Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled negotiations is exactly what we want as well. On that basis, we discussed how the countries can contribute and India participated in the inauguration of the negotiations. It will be participating in other forums that will try to support a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.
Q. How can Taliban be mainstreamed when ideologies don't align?
A. I have been a firm believer right from the beginning, even during the resistance against the Taliban. And Late Ahmed Shah Masood who was our leader and was martyred, and others at that time also tried to find a peaceful solution. I negotiated in the late 1990's with the Taliban based on the belief that there is no winner in a war. I do also believe that there are no losers in an inclusive, peaceful settlement. When we look at the suffering of our people which continues and has continued for four decades, that situation should come to an end through peaceful means.
Ideas are part of that. Can we agree to live in the same territory, under the same system while maintaining different ideas and fighting for those ideas peacefully without resorting to violence.
That's the aim. The aim is not to convert one side into another, which might not happen. But hopefully we have learned the basic lesson out of 42 years of war that there is no winning a war.
The second thing is that people have made sacrifices for their rights. Taliban also have fought for their ideas, but there will be no end to this fighting if we do not try to find another solution.
Q. What will happen to women's rights? That is a concern that India has also raised.
A. That's the concern that the people of Afghanistan have also raised. Women's rights are part of our constitution. They are the achievement of many sacrifices. So are certain added liberties like freedom of speech.
Forty years back, I remember what sort of Afghanistan it was when things just started with the coup d'état. The newscaster who announced it, disappeared the next day.
That situation has changed and evolved. Everybody should accept that there are certain changes, especially in the past 20 years that are not reversible.
That's what I mentioned earlier that with different ideas, different opinions, different outlooks of the world, how can we live together in peace? And at the same time, it should be a fair playing ground for everybody to contest for their ideas.
Q. Are these liberties a redline that you would not allow the Taliban to cross?
A. I'm overseeing the negotiations. The redline for us is the never-ending war in continuation of the agony of the people in the nation.
At the same time, the sacrifices that the people of Afghanistan have made, the achievement that they have hadif anybody wants to reverse it, it just will not happen. Peace will not materialise by discriminating against half of the population.
So in our values, our principles are very clear.
Q. Do you see a shift in how India has approached the entire negotiations or engagement with the Afghan side? Are they looking at members of the northern alliance as their traditional partners apart from the Afghan government?
A. India will continue to engage with the government of Afghanistan. The high council for national reconciliation is also part of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and it is the legitimate government of the country. India will continue to engage with the administration and also with politicians outside the government.
I wouldn't call it a new feature in their politics but a new energy in engaging with the broader public in Afghanistan, local people and different constituencies. But, the principle of supporting the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in inclusive, peaceful settlement is something that everybody has appreciated.
Q. Have you looked at India engaging the Taliban as well for more lasting peace in the region? Is there a conversation that took place with the Indian leadership?
A. It was more on the general aspect of engagement. India would be playing a role for us among our other partners in the region.
In terms of advising other governments, I am a bit cautious. I did not raise that.
Q. You travelled to Pakistan in the end of September. You are in Delhi now. What about India's concerns regarding Pakistan and its role in peace in Afghanistan?
A. Well, I heard the same thing in Pakistan - peaceful settlement, inclusive peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. Those were the statements made when I was there in Pakistan. That visit was also very extensive. I met with the political leadership and members of their security defence establishment, Pakistan's civil society, Ulemas, among others.
I know the status of relations between different countries. I am aware of that. I do believe that everybody has a stake in a peaceful, stable Afghanistan.
Q. Do you trust Pakistan?
A. It is the issue that you continue to engage, you interact, you continue to try to work together. For us peace in Afghanistan and a peaceful settlement of the situation in Afghanistan is top most priority.
I left Pakistan with positive impressions. Everybody has a role and then the people of Afghanistan will see, will judge, what happens based on the actions taken.
I will travel to other parts of the region as well. A stable Afghanistan could impact all countries in the region.
Q. Did India raise the issue of terrorism, cross-border terrorism and terrorism emanating from Pakistan?
A. We talked about the terrorist groups using Afghanistan against other countries, including India, in our talks on bilateral relations. We know it's important for every country, especially India, that tomorrow peaceful Afghanistan is not a threat or there is no terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan against India. That is a legitimate concern based on what had happened in the past.
When we negotiate and reach an agreement with the Taliban it does not mean all terrorist groups would be free. Peace means an Afghanistan free from the scourge of terrorism and terrorists.
Q. What about the terror groups in Pakistan?
A. The conversations were based on our bilateral relations. Issues that countries have between themselves, they would raise it with one another.
As a whole, terrorist groups do not serve any country's legitimate interest. If there is one lesson in the past 40 years, on top of what I mentioned earlier, would be this.
Q. What is China's role in Afghanistan and how does Kabul see the ongoing India-China border tensions?
A. India has sent Afghanistan aid and been part of the development and reconstruction of Afghanistan. Nearly three billion dollars of assistances has been received, while India is not one of those conventional donor countries. That is appreciated and so are all other aspects of their support.
China also has played an important, positive role.
We know that different situations between different countries has impact on us as well. But, for example, Iran and the United States have serious issues. Can we say that it will not have any impact on us? It does.
So, any tension, anywhere in this immediate region and the broader region, will have an impact.
But, Afghanistan expects positive contribution from all countries.