It has been for four decades now that Afghanistan has been in a whirl of unending war. It is believed that the ongoing war has been imposed on Afghans that can be resolved through dialogues. Peace remained top priority for some Afghan influential figures who time and again emphasized for peace to be restored through a comprehensive talk. When insecurity has been worsened with more civilian casualties beside security personnel, the only hope was the US-Talban peace talks that collapsed as Taliban unlashed waves of attacks in capital Kabul and other provinces. One of them were in downtown of Kabul city that 12 innocent Afghans and two foreigners including an American soldier, lost their lives that ignited President Trump’s furious, calling the peace talks with the Taliban dead. Moreover, Afghanistan going to vote on Saturday amid threats by the Taliban. To explore these questions, we have interviewed a prominent political and a Jihadi figure, Mohammad Younus Qanooni.
How was your campaign ticket formed and why did it collapse?
Qanooni: We had a devised plan and a vision focused on the future aimed at being able to draw a line between the 40 years of Afghan tragedy and the future of Afghanistan in order to cross through the ethnic and ideological walls, different backgrounds and ethnic diversity towards a nationhood and to build a new government willing to properly serve the nation. To this end, we formed the Peace and Moderation Team, the most important principle of which was restructuring the power in Afghanistan’s political future. According to our belief, the current structure lacks the capacity of ethnic diversity, political and religious diversity, as well as in providing better services and accountability to the nation. For this reason, a change in administrative structure was the basis of our team’s formation.
Unfortunately, our team faced issues on the way such as financial ones; therefore, at one stage we preferred to postpone the campaign and later on opted out of electioneering. There were two main reasons that had the most impact in this regard. Firstly, the spirit that preceded the failed or suspended peace talks. We thought that the reconciliation process was a priority for both the Afghan people and the international partners and would likely take precedence and delay the election. Secondly, due to the lack of transparency in the election and to avoid repetition of the bitter memory of 2014, we gave up on the election campaign. At the same time, we gave our team members the option to join other tickets or make any choice they want. Some consulted and some others decided themselves to go the other way and join other teams but we continued to work for peace as before and maintain our relations in this regard.
It is said that you and Atta Mohammed Noor disagreed with Haneef Atmar on the Prime Minister post, and that is why the team collapsed. What is your take on this?
Qanuni: Some of these rumors are true but most are not; in the sense that we had agreed to revive the premier post after amending the Constitution through the Loya Jirga mechanism but a sixth-month long period was considered in case of our victory until doing that. The problem was whether we should create a new post or not till the Loya Jirga decides? What should its name be if created? At first, there were a few problems that arose because the restructuring was very important to us and we insisted on it; however, some different perspectives came forth and we couldn’t move forward as a team.
You have been fighting against the Taliban for a long time but you now prefer peace over election; how do you explain this turn of events?
Qanuni: Without a doubt, yesterday war was definitely a priority for us in order to defend the sovereignty of Afghanistan and we would pursue it as an obligation but now that the situation in Afghanistan is different, peace is our priority. Yesterday’s war was always for peace and we were constantly using any smallest opportunity that we saw for peace during the Afghan Resistance. I personally went to Ashgabat at the request of the national hero and we had talks with the Taliban. In Doha, Dushanbe, in Turkey and wherever the sound of peace was raised, we welcomed it with all passion but we expected the other side to be like us and it wasn’t so. I think we need peace more than ever, and since the attention of the international community is also focused on peace now, it is good to avail of this opportunity. That is why we are at the forefront of peace despite our ideological differences of the past (with the Taliban) to discharge our national duty and obligation.
What, in your opinion, is the stance of the Presidential Palace (ARG) regarding peace process?
Qanuni: We think that maintaining power is a priority for the ARG and not peace at all; for this reason, it has been seen that in the opportunities that have come, the preference for the ARG was to maintain power rather than reconcile or prepare for peace in Afghanistan. I do not see any change in the position of the ARG in this area right now and if there is a chance of change after the election, only time will prove it.
What is the role of neighbors, especially of China and Russia, in the peace process?
Qanuni: One country used to publicly support the Taliban in the past, but today the Taliban are divided between different countries with different interests and different strategies. Iran, Russia, Pakistan, China and some Gulf countries have divided the Taliban into cake pieces, so the ‘reconciliation game’ has become more complex. If we were a side against one country yesterday, today we have no other choice but to be the opposing side to various countries with conflicting interests in Afghanistan.
It is pertinent to mention that the strongest country alongside the Taliban is Pakistan. Pakistan is also a major player, with no change in its strategy yet, because in terms of Pakistani tactics there has been some change. While most of the current Pakistani leaders’ remarks are different from thouse of the past, it makes us more optimistic about the future. We always welcome a slightest move that indicates a strategic shift in Pakistan’s activities. We should cautiously considerPakistani’s practical moves and find out whether they are ready for a change in Afghan-Pak relations according to what they say? And if it is so, we welcome it as a positive step.
Why the US-Taliban peace talks went into a stalemate?
Qanuni: In my opinion, there were some mistakes in the negotiation process: Untimely optimism was announced regarding the outcome of the negotiations and on the other hand, we witnessed that the result of the breathtaking negotiations with the Taliban had already been put on the table before actual negotiations. Another mistake, for example, was that the American friends showed greater flexibility at the outset for reasons of their own and for their own domestic expenditure purposes. Meanwhile, the withdrawal of US troops should not have been discussed with the Taliban beforehand. It must have been the outcome of a breathtaking negotiation. Another misunderstanding was that the American friends had made the reconciliation process a part of their exit strategy, which was a wrong start in the first place because it should have been the other way around with leaving being a part of the peace strategy. The American understanding with the countries having influence on the Taliban was weak. It would have been good if the US had beforehand won the support of regional states, which influenced the Taliban, regarding a number of issues in the negotiations. There was so much secrecy and confidentiality within the US team that their effects were revealed when the negotiations became to a halt. For example, the discussion of the Taliban agreeing on the US security bases in Afghanistan was one of the reasons that some countries expressed opposition in this regard. Although initially the Taliban or the Qatar Office had accepted to travel to the United States (Camp David), they refused to do so after these influential countries instructed them and this was one of the reasons that the negotiations arrived at a stalemate.
How can the peace process be restarted?
Qanuni:The initial impetus to resume talks actually began a couple of days ago but we must admit that it is a time-consuming practice; because I understand that both the American friends have realized the mistakes of the negotiating process and the demands of some influential countries were also brought to light, as well as the Taliban realized that some of their expectations and beliefs were unrealistic.
Discussion of reconciliation and negotiation is no joke. I am sure that this deadlock might bring about the conditions for a better deal than before. There may be a change brought in the arrangement of the teams, but the reasons that led the United States to focus on an expedited peace deal still remain as such. If we assume that the US troop reduction in Afghanistan was important to Trump, this issue still exists. If it was about a reduction in casualties and losses, it is still in place. If it was about achieving a tangible breakthrough for America’s longest war for domestic consumption before the 2020 US Presidential Election, it is still true. However, there have been problems in the negotiation process that need to be resolved as soon as possible, but before the election it might not be possible and might accelerate after the democratic exercise.
If President Ghani’s team seizes power yet again, will not the peace process be in trouble again?
Qanuni: Even though I pledge not to support any team in the election – God forbid that no one misinterprets that I am opposing a specific team – we believe that if we base our judgment and our analysis regarding the future on the past functioning of the National Unity Government (NUG), particularly Mr. Ashraf Ghani’s team, I can’t be optimistic after the election; because if the preservation of power was still preferred to reconciliation in case President Ghani won, the reconciliation process would certainly face a greater trouble. The programs of the rest of the candidates, apart from the campaign slogans, are still unclear. Assuming someone else wins the election, will they follow the same path? In this respect, past experiences with one of these esteemed presidential candidates has shown that maintaining power is preferable to the peace process.
How much would the Taliban leaders’ trips to China and Russia help the reconciliation process?
Qanuni: I would like to refer to two points in this regard: From the point of view of the Taliban who were once blacklisted but can now travel to different countries today, I consider this an achievement for them because they were able to decrease the obscenity associated with them. The flip side of the coin is that the Taliban cannot decide independently. So they have to travel to the countries they depend on so that they can, in consultations with them, bring their wishes at the negotiating table. For this reason, countries that have so far accepted the Taliban have pledged allegiance to the peace but how would that peace be complicates the matter – just as the famous saying goes that the devil is in the detail and there are no problems in general. Complexities occur when we go into detail. One of the issues that complicated the peace process was ignoring and underestimating Afghanistan. The mere fact that the US first sought to solve the problem with the Taliban was not the right approach. I have repeatedly raised this issue with Khalilzad and insisted that reconciliation should be promoted as a package, including the Taliban, the Afghan government and people. The Americans’ biggest mistake was that they wanted to solve their problems with the Taliban first. This made the Taliban far more psychologically strong, which is why the Taliban thought themselves winners of the talks. Meanwhile, they achieved the results at the outset which they were supposed to achieve at the end of the negotiations; therefore, they didn’t give heed to the demands of the Afghan government and people. I hope that these technical problems would not be repeated next time.
You issued a statement alongside Hamid Karzai saying that peace is a priority over election; what does that mean?
Qanuni:We aren’t opposed to election but we also see election as a principle and a symbol of democracy and the Constitution and we strongly support it. The only thing we mentioned in the statement was that our priority is peace and we are concerned about the election. We expressed our serious concerns about the security challenges of the election, the ethnic approach taken in the election, and regarding the election results being unsatisfactory. That is why our analysis is that – God forbid that our analysis is correct – the election would give rise to crisis. We, a group of Afghan politicians, have decided not to be a part of that crisis and act as a third party outside of those electoral teams in order to oversee the situation. And if, God forbid, the election went into crisis, we would be there play a positive role in rescuing Afghanistan from such disorder.
We are not doing this to gain power and we are now being invited by many teams to join them, but we have consistently refused. Our impartial position has been to support peace and to worry about a potential election crisis.
If the election goes into crisis, what is the next option?
Qanuni: God forbid that no crisis happens but what worries us is the bitter memories of 2014; because if one team somehow wins and the other one opposes, it will lead Afghanistan to an upheaval. What deepens our concern compared to 2014 is unfortunately the ethnic formation of the electoral teams. The presence of influential and regional countries in Afghanistan complicates the matter because if one team declares itself a winner and some countries support it and a number of other countries back a second team, every citizen of Afghanistan will be worried. The worry is that, God forbid, Afghanistan doesn’t become a second Syria. We have learned from the past five years that NUG was a definite failure because it was established as there was no other option; as we later saw that this kind of government made matters worse in Afghanistan. The coalition created a problem. The system was divided into two. Failure to adhere to the agreement became the main problem of all that the Afghan people witnessed for five years. I have many times told the heads of teams, the majority of international partners and the countries involved that they should not think they could solve the pre-election problems after the election because the crisis must be prevented – which is something related to before the election. This means that the transparency of the election had to be worked out first, the committees and election bodies had to be worked upon, and the leadership of election teams had to be comprised of comprehensive Afghan makeup. My understanding is that both the leading teams have their own shortcomings, which is why unilaterally accepting the teams will be challenging for the people. Hopefully no challenges arise, but we need to see what will the challenge be and then work for finding a solution? And then the solutions would be presented based on the challenge at hand.
Will you vote on Saturday (the Election Day)?
Qanuni: No. And if I vote, I won’t give it to these two leading teams.
Developing countries have always had such problems as the ones you referred to but they have gone through them anyway; now if Afghanistan does not go through this path and achieving peace brings about a disruption, don’t you think it will be against the Constitution and all those 19 years of achievements?
Qanuni: I did not, and do not, agree to a cessation in this path (the path that started from the Bonn Conference). Especially we, who have played a key role in founding the new Afghanistan, are not in favor of discontinuity at all, but we want continuity. However, for the continuation of the Constitution – which is the most oppressed law in Afghanistan – the continuousness of the process that is on track and the maintenance of the past positive gains necessitated that this transition phase should have been fundamentally mulled over before the conduct of election. Unfortunately, in the third world countries, serious issues are raised and decided upon at the last and ninety minute. In order to have able to avoid these challenges, we should have worked since a year ago. Both leaders of NUG in the past four years have had the opportunity to bring about favorable conditions for election in compliance with Constitution. The election was suspended three times. It was a government responsibility which didn’t not perform its duties well. Now, we are forced to get into the challenges that election brings with itself and entering this complex dark process is challenging for the people. If there is a discussion of a disruption, it is related to the underperformance and the workings NUG. They should have facilitated transparent election and if there is a burden of responsibility, it refers to the people who did not do their homework correctly.