Amrullah Saleh, former chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s domestic intelligence agency, is an outspoken critic of the recent MoU between the NDS and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Having headed the agency from 2004 until 2010, Saleh commands a great deal of insight into the working of the Taliban and the ISI, which, he says, has been working to destabilise Afghanistan through the Taliban. Excerpts from an interview:
By Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
How do you perceive the MoU between the NDS and the ISI?
We need peace in Afghanistan. It is not just the need of Afghanistan but the need of the region and Pakistan in particular. Pakistan is a proven source of agitation, militancy, extremism and terror in the region and in particular in Afghanistan. An MoU should have been the last thing to be signed with them. Reduction of violence, new literature promoting trade, culture, harmony and commonality should have come first. The Taliban should have been marginalised and pushed into irrelevance first. Signing a deal on intelligence cooperation with a country which recognises two systems in Afghanistan is sinful. They recognise Kabul and also the Quetta Shura as the Emirate in exile for Afghanistan.
Do you think President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani will be able to achieve a consensus for such an MoU?
President Ghani tried to sign it secretly. He should have tried to create consensus in advance. It might have been a painstaking effort but it could have rallied the country behind him. Now it is too late. The society as a whole sees the MoU as a sin, a sell-out, an unnecessary compromise and a one-way deal which doesn’t guarantee bringing anything solid to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a victim and has been a victim for decades. By signing this MoU the Afghan president has actually portrayed us as half-culprit and half-perpetuator. This is an irreparable mistake.
In a recent interview you spoke of Ghani’s proximity to the British. Can you elaborate on that?
Dr Ghani enjoys an unprecedented, close relationship with the British. His National Security Adviser’s office is, at strategic level, receiving assistance and guidance from British officers from various departments.
This isn’t the first time an Afghan leader is trying to reach out to Pakistan. Earlier, even Hamid Karzai made several attempts to placate the Generals in Rawalpindi. How is Ghani different from Karzai when it comes to dealing with Pakistan?
Well, reaching out is always good. Afghans say, if you can untie a knot with your hand don’t try it with your teeth. The problem with Ghani’s approach is that it lacks domestic consensus, support and a large chunk of Afghan society who have the identity of being anti-Taliban and have suffered for decades are feeling left out. They think their fate has been put out on sale.
Do you think trying to get the Taliban to share power in Kabul will ensure stability?
The central issue is the definition of peace. For Pakistanis and the Taliban, peace would eventually mean ceasefire. For us, peace means politics without guns and violence. If the Taliban lay down their arms they become like any other bunch of loud clerics without influence in society. So violence is their identity. They won’t give it up easily. Pakistan has come a long way. Pakistan has gone through three stages, strategically. Stage one (2001 to 2004) was deceptive cooperation with the Americans and Afghanistan. Stage two (2004 to 2009) was massive support for the Taliban to help them de-hibernate and re-emerge. I call this a strategic denial stage. Stage three (2009 to 2014) was a gradual strategic confession of ‘Yes, we are with the Taliban’. Now it is the last stage and I call it strategic pricing and marketing. Now they say, ‘We are with the Taliban and here is the price if you want us to bring them to the table’. It is a hefty price.
For the past several years, the Afghans held Pakistan responsible for a lot of things going wrong domestically – especially the violence and their support to the Taliban. This view was endorsed by India as well. How does this square with these renewed attempts to reach out to Pakistan?
I don’t know the deep Indian thinking but I suspect and reckon India may share some of our concern. But India is a massive regional power. India has crossed critical mass and can’t be bullied by Pakistan. We are still prey to the bullying tactics of Pakistan.
What is the current organisational structure of the Taliban? What kind of capabilities do they really have in terms of militants and weapons? What is the extent of foreign fighters and funding? What are their channels for funds?
The Taliban are broadly structured into three layers. The outer circle are the expendables who get killed en masse. The middle circle are the field commanders who communicate with Peshawar, Quetta, Karachi and FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]. They are being killed in large numbers in Afghanistan too. Then the inner circle are the top leadership which the ISI protects and harbours in Pakistan. These are the ones who have a price tag that Islamabad has put on them. Foreign fighters are not a strategic threat. They are a component of the problem. The strategic threat is the ISI and the Pakistan Army who are effectively using the Taliban and other groups as cheap and expendable proxies to ensure what they perceive as a ‘safe Pakistan’.
What do you make of the recent acts of the Chinese, especially the meeting with representatives of the Taliban?
China is a great neighbour of Afghanistan. Given the size of its economy, its regional interests and its quest for influence, its security concerns and so on, China has never been generous with Afghanistan in any sector so far. They are doing something but nothing to create a breakthrough either in economy, peace or strategic opening. We expect them to do more but, unfortunately, they are into little things like believing in good Taliban. Good Taliban is an illusion. It is an invention. It is best for China to envision a strong Afghan government. By hosting enemies of the Afghan government, China, perhaps unknowingly, is weakening the Afghan government.
How big is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threat to Afghanistan? Does the country, especially the Afghan National Army, have the capability to deal with militants affiliated to the ISIL?
ISIL doesn’t exist in Afghanistan. It is more of a myth. ISIL is Arab in ethnicity, Wahabi and Salafi in ideology, Middle Eastern in geography, Arabic in language and ‘mysterious’ in finance. They won’t gain roots here. ISI has not entered into an alliance with them yet.
NDS, it is widely believed, has a lot of officers who trained viewing the ISI as their adversary. After this MoU, will they cooperate with the ISI?
Pakistan has alienated the Afghan people. To overcome the problem, they need to mend fences with Afghan society. They need to create a new literature, distance themselves from the Taliban and recognise Kabul by heart and by deed. That is not the case right now. If they want to befriend Afghanistan then they have to convince the Afghan people that they have changed. Not just one institution. It should not be yet another ISI operation. It must be a process and an overt and transparent one. Stable friendship and peace with Pakistan won’t come through yet another ‘intelligence infiltration’. It can only come if we see the Taliban dismantled, the Quetta Shura put under house arrest, militants infiltration stopped and honesty prevailing.