The U.S. and its NATO allies officially began withdrawing their remaining forces and equipment from Afghanistan on Saturday.
Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, discussed the implications for Afghanistan’s peace process and the future of the country, with VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem.
The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: The U.S. and NATO have started withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan. Do you fear an increase in violence?
Abdullah Abdullah: There is always a possibility of that. Should [the] Taliban choose to increase violence with the hope that they can take advantage of that situation. That’s a possibility and I hope that they are not [don’t] making that mistake.
VOA: How do you think this announcement of a withdrawal will impact your negotiations with the Taliban?
Abdullah: Natural circumstances when these sorts of situations take place and when one side thinks that because of the vacuum that the withdrawal leaves, it may be able to take advantage of that situation, that emboldens the position of the sides. The one which is more on the military term rather than peaceful means. And that’s the concern, that the Taliban position might get further emboldened. Well, as far as their excuses, or the reasons that they were giving, that it is because of the presence of the international forces, it’s ‘jihad’ against foreigners and so on and so forth, so, in three months time, perhaps in less than three months time, there will be no foreign troops on our [Afghanistan’s] soil.
VOA: What’s the status of Doha negotiations?
Abdullah: Recently, with the announcement of the withdrawal, the Taliban position has changed. Their chief negotiator has gone to Pakistan to consult with their leaders, to take directions, to shape up their position. Earlier their position was that they are going to attack the international forces.
So, as far as the Doha process is concerned, it is still important. So are other opportunities like the conference in Turkey [the Istanbul conference]. It has to be a meaningful event, and both sides have to come to an understanding to make it effective [meaningful].
VOA: The Taliban are refusing to come. Will there be an Istanbul conference if they don’t come?
Abdullah: If they don’t come to a meeting, which is supposed to be between both sides, then the conference will not take place. They haven’t said that they are not coming. They haven’t said that they are coming. That has been the problem negotiating with the Taliban all along. They always keep their position vague.
VOA: If the Istanbul conference happens, there are two competing proposals, one is yours, and one is President Ghani’s. Which one will you take to Istanbul?
Abdullah: I wouldn’t call it two competing proposals. The main elements are the same. Peaceful settlement and an end state in which you get one person one vote. There are different ideas about how to get from here to there. We can put all ideas on the table.
VOA: Are you saying you will take both proposals to Turkey?
Abdullah: I am saying the purpose of Turkey is to have some understanding ahead of time with the Taliban.
VOA: Who is doing that negotiation for that understanding?
Abdullah: The conveners. The U.N., the Qataris, the Turkish government, as well as the U.S. and other facilitators like Germany, Norway, Uzbekistan, Indonesia. These countries are also active behind the scenes.
VOA: Are there any contacts at this stage between the two official negotiation teams?
VOA: Are there any indications of what the Taliban want?
Abdullah: They leave their positions vague. They say, “We want the establishment of an Islamic system,” but don’t explain what that means. How will the leaders be elected or selected? They want an Islamic Council. Is it elected? If elected, on what basis? They don’t share.
VOA: What is in the letter the Taliban recently sent to politicians, including you?
Abdullah: Different groups of Taliban make contact. Sometimes they send notes. The messages are mainly the same. Even in the letter, the position is very vague, and you cannot tell whether it is the position of one group or all.
VOA: Do you think the Taliban want peace?
Abdullah: I hope, and I wish. Otherwise, the war will continue.
VOA: And if negotiations fail, do you fear a civil war?
Abdullah: We cannot rule out that scenario, that the situation will get very difficult for the people and the war will continue. At this stage the Taliban have not said that they are not talking. Let’s not lose hope because it will be a worst-case scenario. So, at this stage, the whole focus should be on how to make it work [happen].