Interview: A talk about Talibanisation, ISI involvement in terror and evolving India-Afghanistan relations

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The interview was conducted by Dr. Mmrittunjoy Gua Majumdar and was first published on OpIndia.com on July 26, 2020.

Khushnood Nabizada served as the chief of staff to the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, Government of Afghanistan from May 29, 2016, to June 02, 2019. Khushnood is known for his fearless and straightforward views on a number of topics relating to modern-day Afghanistan, be it Talibanisation, inefficiencies and corruption in the Afghan government, the involvement of Pakistan in Afghan politics or evolving India-Afganistan relations.  

This is an exclusive interview with a rising star of Afghanistan – Khushnood Nabizada, political expert, journalist and owner as well as founding editor of The Khaama Press News Agency, the largest online news service of Afghanistan.

The questions asked by the interviewer are in italics, followed by the answers by Khushnood Nabizada.

Yours has been a story of living under the scourge of the Taliban from a very young age. You were only in class 5th when Taliban occupied your home province of Baghlan and you had to immigrate to Pakistan, only to return to your country in 2003. Today you occupy a pre-eminent position in journalistic and political circles in the country. How do you see your own personal journey vis-a-vis that of your country over these past two decades?

My life story and journey have been quite different than many of my family members, friends, and colleagues. My family fled to Pakistan as refugees when the Taliban took power …I was only 16 when I returned back to the country after the fall of the Taliban and as the eldest son of a poor and homeless family, I had to work beside my father in order to feed a large family with 10 members. In addition to attending school, I used to teach English language and computer programs in a local institute and was earning only USD 40.00 per month. I had only night times to study, prepare for classes and do my assignments. I was very grateful to the almighty God who had given me excessive energy and passion to work hard.

Parallel with studies, and work, I was working on my personal capacity building in the areas of calligraphy, graphics, design, web development and leadership. In 2009, I established a web development firm together with one of my university friends and started to make some money for life. I loved journalism and had a dream in my mind to establish my own news agency through which I can serve my country and provide awareness to the society which needed to learn about democracy, globalization, pluralism and diversity. I managed to establish Khaama Press in October 2010 with the help of one of my colleagues, named Ahmadshah Ghanizada, who is now living in Canada. Ahmadshah is a founding member of Khaama Press and he is truly one of the reasons that KP succeeded to become a well-known and popular newswire service in the country. In 2015, I joint the government as an advisor to the Minister of Urban Development and Housing of Afghanistan and in 2016 I was promoted as the ‘Chief of Staff’ for the ministry which is a very key position in the Afghanistan governmental system.

During the time I was at the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, I played an important role in fighting against corruption, reforming the organization and capacity building of the employees. I have travelled to many countries including Canada, UK, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, China, Russia and India. The more I travelled, the better I understood how I could work to be of help to my home country which burns in terror, poverty and extremism.

I have been a close observer of the evolving geopolitics of Afghanistan and have been interested in its history as well. The country has dramatically changed over the past century, from the days of the Great Game between Russia and the UK, the creation of the Republic of Afghanistan in 1973, the Saur Revolution, the Soviet war efforts in Afghanistan against Mujahideen insurgents, the collapse of the Najibullah government in 1992, the Taliban years, the NATO invasion of Afghanistan and the country today. All these ties into various competing forces and players in the country.

Thomas J. Barfield wrote an interesting piece, published in Iranian Studies in 2004, on the question of the legitimacy of authority and government in a multi-ethnic country such as Afghanistan, with its tribal heritage, and how that has led to difficulties in establishing national order. What are your thoughts on this?

Afghanistan’s conflict has historical roots and therefore it has always been a battleground for the different super-power countries.

Afghanistan has been the battleground for many decades due to its strategic geographical location and as well as being a multi-ethnic country failed to become a ‘one nation’ and end its internal conflicts. There are different mentalities and serious disagreements between major ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Afghans have zero-tolerance against each other when it comes to tribal and ethnic issues. The reason behind this is the historical injustice and inequality that exists in the country from over 200 years back. An illustrative example is the anger and disappointment of many Pashtuns including President Ghani about Abdul Rashid Dostum promotion to Marshal. In addition to large gatherings that opposed this promotion neither the palace officially announced Dostum’s new rank and nor President Ghani participated in his ceremony. Afghans cannot end the war and stand on their own feet until they do not become ‘one-nation’ or use a different model of governance such as India to distribute power based on different states/provinces.

Speaking of multiple stakeholders and players in the region, geopolitically several international entities have a lot to gain or lose from the developments in Afghanistan, be it Pakistan, Iran, India, USA, Russia and other countries. How do you see this complex interplay of forces affecting Afghanistan today?

A weak administration paves the way for the interference of foreign countries in the internal affairs of a country. The Afghanistan government failed to manage the game well in order to gain maximum advantages for the country. The nearly 2 decades presence of the international community in Afghanistan could be counted as a great opportunity for a war-torn country like Afghanistan, but unfortunately, the programs and aids were not managed the way Afghanistan could receive the utmost benefits. Now, Afghanistan has been used as a battlefield by the regional countries for their proxy wars. Iran, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia and U.S.A fight their wars in Afghanistan territory with almost zero harm to their own states.

You have commented on the continued involvement of the ISI in the internal workings of the politics of Afghanistan. What are the ways in which this continues to happen, how is it adversely affecting the country and how can this be minimised?

Pakistan is one of the key players in the region that sees a war-torn and destroyed Afghanistan in its favour. Pakistan has been supporting the insurgency for long years. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have had their safe havens in Pakistan for years. They were supported financially and politically both by Pakistan and its close alley Saudi Arabia. ISI, of course, has been behind the game as the main player. If the Afghanistan intelligence service is supported for further capacity building and is equipped with all the necessary and new technology and devices, in addition the key ISI-backed individuals who are within the system structure must be identified and sidelined in order to limit ISI’s access to secrets and critical information.

You have been a critic of the inefficiencies and corruption of the government in Afghanistan in the past. You spoke of how democracy failed in 2014 due to the ‘mismanagement of the government, corruption and systematic election frauds’. The question of the legitimacy of the government with an extremely low turnout (with 1.8 million Afghans have gone out to vote) remains. You have also in the past commented on how international funds and finances meant for the development of Afghanistan have been mismanaged. How do you think this broader question of corruption, misrule and inefficiency can be handled?

During the past 19 years, over 100 billion US dollars were raised for Afghanistan development and rehabilitation, but unfortunately, you can see no tangible projects that have been implemented to represent this large amount of funds that were allocated for Afghanistan. Parts of these funds are said to be taken back as administration costs and hiring foreign TAs. Other large portions were spent in non-infrastructural projects that were not very beneficial for the national economy and some were spent by President Karzai to keep tribal elders and the opposition pleased. As a result of administration incompetencies and corruption, Afghanistan lost a critical opportunity that cannot be undone. Since 2014, the international community has reduced its aid to Afghanistan which has negatively affected the country’s economy. Economical activities and development projects have become very limited as a result of increasing violence and flee of investors.

Being an Indian, I am most interested in the position of, and prospects for, Indo-Afghanistan ties. Afghanistan and India were both part of the Non-Aligned Movement. They have both been close to the Soviet Union in the past. Today, they face an increasingly aggressive China and an intrusive Pakistani intelligence. In the face of the looming US pullout, how do you think the Indo-Afghanistan ties stand and can be developed so as to present political leverage in the region against hostile forces? How important a role can and must Russia play to facilitate this?

India and Afghanistan have a relationship based on mutual interests and respect which is a two-state relation. Also, we have common values that strengthen our relationship. India’s diversity can be a good example of inspiration for Afghanistan to build our future on the values and differences that are parts of the history and identity of each ethnic and minority community. India is a multi-ethnic state, its model of governance and administration is more likely very suitable for Afghanistan.

In the new era, India has been a great ally and friend to Afghanistan, contributing around 3 billion USD to Afghanistan’s development funds, mainly invested in the community development and infrastructural projects.

India has also been very generous in contributing to Afghanistan’s education sector. It has so far provided around 40,000 scholarships for the Afghan students to study in the Indian universities.

The USA and Taliban recently signed a peace treaty. However, hours later hostility was seen on the ground and the supposed cessation of hostility was not quite ubiquitous. How do you see this moving forward, especially considering the power vacuum that may be developed once the USA leaves? How important is the element of decentralisation and of empowerment of local governments in this?

The peace process has to be understood as a process, not as a project, and it should be built on the concepts of peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. All these three aspects of the peace process are equally important.

At the same time, we have to know that the Afghanistan peace process is multidimensional and there are many players and factors that have influential powers on the process. I want to make it clear that from an Afghan point of view there is a difference between the US-Taliban deal and reaching a sustainable peace in Afghanistan. The country is still suffering from the deadlock of the last presidential election. Yet the members and structure of the high peace reconciliation council are not officially formed and any disagreement between the president and the chairman of the high peace reconciliation council over their share in the government will highly affect the peace process. And we have the experience of a National Unity Government (NUG) in which both sides could not agree on a single agenda over the last six years and of course, the concerns for their future collaboration is always there. 

Leading sustainable peace is very challenging. Some factors and elements need to be taken into consideration. There are both regional and international influences, and the partners’ corporations are essential. Afghanistan needs a more active foreign policy to get engaged at all levels because Afghanistan’s insecurity is also a threat to the world. The peace process needs the support of both national and international players. 

We must also not forget that the peace deal with Taliban does not mean the end of extremism in Afghanistan. There are several terrorist groups that are actively operating and have created a safe haven in the country.  Also, Taliban is not only one group, there are different divisions and levels that operate under the name of the Taliban.  Therefore when talking in reference to the peace in Afghanistan, we need to be very careful and analyze all these facts and aspects. There are many questions and concerns that still need to be addressed. The civil society, media and local institutions should be included and have their voice in the peace process. 

At the same time, the country needs a national dialogue to create a platform where every group, including minorities, women and youth can share their concerns and views. It is essential that all the Afghans come together and hold a dialogue on their differences and shared values.  The majority and minority concept is no longer appropriate, and everyone deserves to be treated the same in front of the law and see their images and identities reflected as citizens of the country in the power structure.

We cannot end the four decades of war and conflicts without creating an inclusive narrative of peace by all its meanings and aspects. What happens with religious communities and minority rights and freedom, and what about the women’s rights or freedom of speech? Personally, for me, as a journalist, freedom of expression, and the values of freedom of speech must become strengthened day by day. The young generation has their views and ideas that have to be included in decisions that are going to be made for the future of the country. Our today’s democracy is a significant achievement, even if it is weak and fragile. We must seek possibilities and ways forward to a better tomorrow!

Afghanistan has historically been a culturally diverse nation, with Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh and Buddhist elements. There have been myriad communities and tribes, cultures and sects that have lived together. However, today we have seen unsettling developments in the last two decades, with the Talibanisation of Afghanistan, be it with the infamous explosion of the Bamian Buddha or the persecution of minorities such as Hindus and Sikhs. What are strategic and decisive steps, according to you, that can be taken to correct this worrying trend?

I would like to highlight our rich history and culture are results of the contributions made by all  Afghans and every ethnic group has played their roles in building the country and our civilization is built on the values and contribution of all community divisions. Denying this fact is our weakness, and the major problems and conflicts we have today are because some groups such as religious minorities are excluded from the political structure. Indeed, Afghanistan is a country of minorities, there is no majority, but certain ethnic groups claim to be the sole owners of the land, which is not a true mentality and that is a real cause of these deep and long-run conflicts.

Unfortunately, the religious minorities have suffered throughout the history, but there is no other way than to accept and respect the religious diversity for a peaceful country.

In order to put an end to the internal ongoing- conflicts in Afghanistan, a strong and fair administration is required to first accept equal rights for all the ethnicities, respect diversity and proceed based on the values of pluralism to accept every ethnic and religious group. It will help the country for nation building-  ‘one nation’ ideology.

Soft power has a major role to play in today’s political scene, be it through sports, science, movies, literature and fine arts or market entities. India recently signed 5 pacts to help develop educational infrastructure in Afghan provinces, the Afghan cricket team has been in the limelight lately, and Bollywood has had a rosy relationship with the Afghan masses. How do you see the Indo-Afghanistan ties being strengthened going forward, using the element of soft power?

Very crucial, as you have mentioned soft power like literature and art, which I believe should be used as a social objective to foster peace and democratic values.

Afghanistan is a country of diversity, and the values of differences should be accepted and respected as the country’s rich culture and history. Also, the country needs an active and inclusive cultural policy that cultural activity fosters peace and dialogues between the nations.

Cultural programs will further strengthen the friendly relationship between both countries. India and Afghanistan can enter into a bilateral agreement wherein India assists Afghans in the areas of cinema, music, movies, sports and fine arts.

Afghan women make up just around 36% of the national workforce. Women’s empowerment is crucial for the transformational economic growth of the country. We may have come to some distance from the dark days of Taliban rule but women’s empowerment has been an area where Afghanistan needs more work, particularly in terms of providing economic opportunities, education and skills. What are your thoughts on this?

Compared to the Taliban and Mujahideen’s time, the women’s role and representation have dramatically changed and they are now at the front-end. Afghan women now have access to health and education as their basic rights, which they did not have in the past. However, the presence of women in the system has been more symbolic just to indicate their presence for the donor community and they were not in the decision-making levels. Women who make 50% of the community population can play key roles in the developments, health, education, peace and prosperity of their countries.

Afghan women must be given further opportunities to make ways in the decision making levels and are given executive positions in the government, so the changes they cause must be felt and seen. Their leadership skills and potential capabilities should be seen as an asset for the development of the country.

Coronavirus has presented a unique challenge for Afghanistan, as it has for the world. Covid-19 is spreading rapidly in Afghanistan, and with no vaccine and scant medical resources, people are turning to remedies such as using opium in the hopes of beating the pandemic. Afghanistan has recorded more than 34,000 confirmed cases and over 1,000 deaths in a population of nearly 39 million, though, with only 7 testing facilities in the entire nation, the real figures may be much higher. The tragedy is the effect of conflict on the preparedness of the Afghan government. People in conflict zones have precarious housing and work situations, with destroyed infrastructure like roads and hospitals and heightened demands on the health-care system. How do you see the way forward for Afghanistan during this period of crisis?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a disaster for all the nations, but it affected Afghanistan more economically. Afghanistan is a landlocked state with no direct route to the water. During the pandemic time, Afghanistan neighbours closed borders for a while and mainly the shortage of food items in the Afghan market caused the rapidly increasing of the prices that overall resulted in the poverty increase. The municipalities, however, arranged a program to distribute bread for the poor families, but unfortunately, this move was not successful and did not help the people in need.

The Afghanistan government has confirmed over 34,000 cases with over 1,000 deaths, however the actual figure can be way higher than what is announced. The number of testing facilities are very limited and the awareness about the C19 is very low in the rural areas. However, the mortality arising out of Covid-19 is said to be much lower than any other country, which is apparently because of the lifestyle and the foods used.

The Covid-19 has affected the Afghanistan education sector to a larger scale. Other countries in the world managed to set up online classes in order to minimise its impact and the students could still pursue their education, however this option did not work for Afghanistan due to the absence of internet services in most parts of the country and also lack of the required technological devices including smartphones, tablets and computers. Only a small portion of the population in the capital Kabul could have access to online classes during the pandemic time.

A large portion of the Afghan population have lost their jobs during the pandemic as a result of which crimes have increased to a large scale. Dozens of Afghan citizens are killed everyday and every week by the robbers.

If this pandemic doesn’t end sometime soon, Afghanistan’s security situation will get worse, the health and education sectors will suffer too much.