'Peace is the highest desire,’ says Afghan ambassador to US

The World
The Afghan ambassador to the US, Roya Rahmani, sitting in front of an Afghan flag.

Afghan Ambassador to the United States Roya Rahmani.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

There has been no let-up in violence in Afghanistan even though the Taliban and the United States appear close to a pact for US troops to withdraw in exchange for a Taliban promise that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for international terrorism.

This week, US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad wrapped up the latest round of meetings with the Taliban in Doha in the Gulf state of Qatar. Khalilzad was optimistic about the talks and tweeted that they have "made excellent progress."

Despite this, violence perpetrated by the Taliban continues. A Taliban suicide bomber killed 14 people and wounded 145 in the Afghan capital Kabul on Wednesday and the UN reported that July was the deadliest month in the country in more than two years. 

The Afghan government has largely been left out of the recent negotiations due to the Taliban's refusal to sit down with Afghan officials. The negotiations aim to end almost two decades of war in Afghanistan, where more than 16,000 civilians have been killed in the past 10 years, according to UN numbers.

The World's Shirin Jaafari sat down with Afghan ambassador to the US Roya Rahmani in the US Embassy in Washington, DC. Rahmani, who is the first woman ambassador to the US from Afghanistan, discussed the Afghan government's approach to the Taliban and how the country is working to create lasting peace.

Shirin Jaafari: Let's start off with the peace talks. US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has held eight rounds of talks with the Taliban so far. What's your assessment of these negotiations??

Roya Rahmani: The fact that peace is the highest desire of all Afghan people here is no doubt. It is something that we have wanted and we are in complete support of it. We want and appreciate all the efforts made towards the peace process. For us, what's important is that these negotiations will result in a durable, sustainable and acceptable peace for all.

Do you think that the Taliban is negotiating in good faith or is it just that they want the US to leave the country?

That's a good question because peace negotiations are always very complicated and also very delicate. What we need to continue to remember as we are moving forward with these negotiations is what each side's objectives are and why. If the Taliban are insisting on the withdrawal of the foreign troops, what is it that they are really after?

Related: What's next in Afghanistan? The Taliban answer.

Do you have an answer to that question?

Well, I do not because as you know, up to now, there hasn't been direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. I believe that that is absolutely essential for this deal to succeed. If there should be a deal, it has to be based on the talks between the elected representative or legitimate representative of the Afghan people and the other side and that hasn't taken place yet.

From what you can tell, what is what does the Taliban want from these negotiations?

Well, based on their reports and their public statements, they say that they want a full withdrawal of the foreign troops. Now, not necessarily as an official but as a citizen, when I am looking back at Afghanistan, I think about how the presence of foreign troops are basically there to assist and support our security forces and fight against terrorism. That is an issue that is not only coming from Taliban but also from many other groups. I do not still know how they are going to manage that terror, that threat that is emanating from international terrorism not only towards Afghanistan but towards the world, should there be no presence of the foreign troops in support of the Afghan security forces.

President Trump has said recently that he wants to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 2020. Does that concern you given what you just said, that there are other extremist groups besides the Taliban, for example, the Islamic State in Afghanistan? Do you think the Afghan army and the Afghan security forces are capable of securing the country?

Of course, President Trump has been very vocal about his desire not wanting American troops to continue the fight in Afghanistan. He has always been saying that However, he has always also said that he recognizes the necessity that the troops should remain. Whether I am concerned about the trend of terrorism and Afghanistan becoming a breeding ground for terrorist activities or extremist ideologies should not only be my concern. It should be the concern that everybody should have. Of course, we are again at the forefront. We would be the first people who would continue to suffer but if we are talking about international terrorism, everybody should be concerned about that.

What is your government doing in terms of getting the Taliban on board and also securing the country for the future? What is the Afghan government actively doing right now?

The Afghan government for the first time really opened the door for talks. We offer them conditional talks. We have been very open in terms of what we would need to do to provide an avenue for the negotiations. What is most important is the part that the government does and should do, which is representing the people of Afghanistan. This is what they do. How are doing it? We organized a peace jirga (tribal council) last April. It was because we wanted to bring people on board for a peace process. We wanted to ensure that we will have a roadmap or a framework for how to move forward with the talks. We wanted to bring people on board and get their collective vision for peace. Other than that, you can not write a prescription for peace and hand it out to Afghans. That will not help. That's very simple, unfortunately. It's not that we are advocating for that. The problem is that reality has proven that that will not work. In the past 40 years, you look at how many of these deals and prescriptions we have had. It's not once or twice that they have not only failed, but have cost everybody so much money and effort to bring it back. Because of that, the government wants to ensure that whatever deal we are moving forward is backed by the collective vision of the Afghan people.

Related: A #MeToo moment for Afghanistan's women's soccer: 'It happened so many times' 

Ambassador, what's your own experience with the Taliban? Did you live in Afghanistan when the Taliban was in power?

When the Taliban were in power, we were living in exile in Pakistan because we were forced out prior to that due to the infighting in 1993. However, I did visit. I was a young woman then and, to be honest, that was one of the worst experiences in my life. I found my city, Kabul, where I was born, a ghost city. There was no hope. Women were not able to go to school, work or travel. Nothing.

If the US troops and the foreign troops pull out, do you think there is a guarantee that the Taliban does not go back to the way it governed Afghanistan in the 1990s, in terms of women's rights and the harsh Islamic rules that they imposed on Afghanistan? Is there a guarantee that once the US leaves, the Taliban doesn't go back to the way it used to rule Afghanistan?

The guarantee is the political system that we have established. The republic system is the system that the Afghan people have demonstrated their unbeatable resolve to. The Afghan people are those that, under the harshest circumstances, have gone out to the polls to vote and to elect their representatives. This is the guarantee. There is one important point not to forget — and we are hoping that this point is also shared by the Taliban — that is, let's find a way to live together. To respect one another. To have a dignified life as a united Afghanistan. We are the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and we would like to remain the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Do you think President Trump understands all the concerns that Afghans, such as yourself, have about these negotiations on the future of Afghanistan?

I cannot speak for President Trump, but based on the assurances that I have always received from the White House, is that President Trump wants a good deal and a good deal is a deal one that Afghanistan will not fall back on. The gains of the past 15 years will not roll back. Afghanistan will not be a threat to United States and the rest of our allies. Afghanistan will not be a threat to the rest of the world because Afghanistan is not going to go back under an oppressive regime that provides a breeding ground for extremist ideology.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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