Kabul, Asharq Al-Awsat- Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is one of the most prominent opposition political figures in Afghanistan, he ran against President Hamid Karzai in the 2009 Afghan elections as an independent candidate, winning 30 percent of the vote before pulling out of the elections prior to the presidential electoral run-off, citing his lack of faith in the government’s ability to hold a “fair and transparent election process.” He is a former Afghanistan Minister of Foreign Affairs, holding this possession in successive governments from 2001 – 06, and is fluent in both English and French. Dr. Abdullah is also the Secretary-General of the non-profit Massoud Foundation.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Dr. Abdullah about the most recent political developments in Afghanistan following the parliamentary elections, reaction to the news that the US is set to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, and his view following his unsuccessful presidential bid.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What kind of work are you doing these days?
[Dr. Abdullah] There are two main issues that I am busy with. In politics, there are the parliamentary elections and all of that happening; we are busy with parliamentary issues and we hope to have a good number of the opposition in parliament; and hopefully this will be the foundation of the future, both inside the parliament and outside of the parliament as well. The [second issue] is charity and that is the Massoud Foundation which is a large project involving the library, museum and everything; which is directly under my supervision. The other part of the Massoud Foundation is sometimes educational and health programs, humanitarian assistance and so on. We also have a school here where orphans are being taught…there are courses for computers and language and so on and so forth. It’s not for free but it’s much less than the market [rate] so people can afford it. So that’s the humanitarian and social part, but I should also say that we are also seriously engaged with regards to the political aspects [of the country].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does the Afghani constitution allow for a president to serve two terms in office?
[Dr. Abdullah] Yes, if somebody abides by the constitution, he is allowed to serve twice. But if he manipulates the parliamentary elections and has a majority in parliament then he can amend the constitution. He [Afghan President Karzai] is intending to do that, I know this for a fact. It is his intentions to go for a third term. Unfortunately he doesn’t see himself in any role other than president, so that is an issue. But he is not going to have the majority in parliament unless he ignores the constitution and everything else, so there is no chance for him to be president for a third time; he will nevertheless try his best [to achieve this].
We will stay in the opposition throughout this period; and then…hopefully we will be able to mobilize the public; so for the people of Afghanistan the choice is not between a corrupt government and the Taliban; or a combination of the two which is even worse. The people of Afghanistan have a choice.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the reason behind the weakness of the Afghanistan political opposition?
[Dr. Abdullah] This is a good point. First of all the democratic process here started just a few years ago, and when you are in the first phases of nation building, what the leader of the country does sets the trend. Unfortunately Afghanistan was harmed in the very first stages of nation building of a democratic state by having a leader that does not believe in the principles of democracy. Mr. Karzai has become the main obstacle to our process of building a democracy. This affects every activity including the activities of the opposition. But even if you take a country like Afghanistan, the opposition is not really weak when you consider that at the last elections we had more than 30 percent of the vote. If they had continued to count it would have been maybe only a little less than him [Karzai]; but when it got to 50 percent they stopped the counting. That shows that the opposition is not weak; that the potential is there. But the problem is that our system is very centralized; one person [the president] decides. This is an obstacle now, but we will not let this be the future of the country. In the parliamentary election we have done very well, that is why the government is now interfering; in order to manipulate the results of the parliamentary election. I will not talk about the numbers because we still don’t have the final results, but according to the current figures, and in spite of the problems in the parliamentary elections, the result will see a very solid group of the opposition in parliament. This shows that the opposition is not weak. The question that must be asked is; how can we impact the situation? Now there are important factors like international factors [such as] the presence of 140,000 troops…that in itself is a huge factor. Domestically, when the leader of a country does not believe in democratic principles and values, than that makes it difficult for the rest of the country to succeed. Nevertheless, these are just part of the challenges [that we are facing], but the opportunity is that the people of Afghanistan want change we must work on that.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there different political parties in Afghanistan?
[Dr. Abdullah] There are parties, but the parties are weak. There are too many parties to say. Our alliance is the most serious one, and this is a movement rather than a party; an alliance of parties as well as personalities. There are [also] some of the old Jihadist parties…or the newly formed political parties which are smaller.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How successful have your efforts to change the system from a presidential one to a parliamentary one been?
[Dr. Abdullah] That will depend on the outcome of the parliamentary election, and it will not happen easily because the processes are complicated by which I mean the process of amending the [Afghanistan] Constitution. We believe that this is the only solution, and we are working on this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you happy with the results of the parliamentary elections?
[Dr. Abdullah] I wouldn’t say that I am happy with the results as there have been no [final] results until now, and we should know these results by now. It is an unfortunate event now that the [Afghan] Attorney-General has stepped in. When the government starts counting the votes then that is the end of the process; what remains to be seen is how we can put an end to this now that the Attorney-General’s office has started to interfere. With all that has happened a good number of out representatives have gone through according to the current [initial] results; but we don’t know the final results. According to what the elections commission officially announced, the final results should be revealed in a few days time but following the new developments with regards to the Attorney-Generals office interfering, we don’t know. The issue is very uncertain.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view the government’s talks with the Taliban, and the role being played by Saudi Arabia?
[Dr. Abdullah] There are many issues with the negotiations and talks with the Taliban. The first is that the Taliban’s view and what they are calling for in the negotiations today with regards to a return to an Islamic Republic or Islamic State does not go together. They think that Afghanistan should go back to the days of the Taliban, and that is not acceptable. A nation cannot survive under those circumstances.
The next issue is their links with terrorist organizations whilst the third point is the presence of [terrorist] seeking sanctuary outside of Afghanistan; mainly in Pakistan. These are the three main obstacles.
In terms of opportunity I would say that the people of Afghanistan are united in a few principles. They want a moderate Islamic country, they want people participation in terms of electing the government, they want a united Afghanistan; they want the rule of law and equal rights. As for the developmental process, they want this to be fair for everybody and for everybody to benefit from this. In theory, the leader or the leadership of the country should unite the people around this common vision, and isolate those who want to fight to the end or destroy everything that has been built in this country in terms of values, whether this is principles of physical things like schools, hospitals, roads, bridges.
This way you will unite the people and isolate those who will fight for international terrorist organizations; and then welcome those who give up violence…unfortunately what Mr. Karzai is doing is implementing policies that divisive rather than unifying [the country]. The people of Afghanistan are confused, for everyday on the television they hear that “50 Taliban have been killed” or that “20 Taliban have been killed” and every day they hear that people have been killed in explosions, and then Mr. Karzai says that the Taliban are our brothers and we must talk with them. This is very confusing. My idea is that the door has to be open for negotiations, but certain issues have to [first] be addressed like what will happen to the terrorist organizations that are linked to the Taliban? What about the violent operations that they resort to? What about the Constitution of Afghanistan that is based upon Islam but also incorporates the ideals of our civilization?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about your opinion on the Saudi role?
[Dr. Abdullah] I think they can play a constructive role, but at the same time I agree with their condition that the Taliban must denounce terrorism, which I think is the right condition for the interests of Afghanistan. It is not just in the Saudi Arabian interest that we stick to this condition, because without this Afghanistan will be a source of trouble for everybody; for its own people as well as the rest of the world.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion of the American announcement that they will withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014?
[Dr. Abdullah] In theory I am in favour of transition. I am in favour of Afghans taking responsibility for themselves; we are all in favour of that. At the same time the goals of stabilizing Afghanistan and building a place where people can live in peace with one another as well as with the rest of the world shouldn’t be compromised. In theory I am in favour of this [withdrawal]. Whether 2014 is the right time to withdraw and for a full transition, we don’t know. One negative factor is the failing government that is being led by Mr. Karzai, which is not making things easy. I think were there a government that had the support of the people this [stabilization] would have materialized. This Afghanistan would have been achieved today. So my concern is that this government’s failure in providing for the people will make withdrawal even more difficult.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have anything to say to the people of Afghanistan who voted for you and expected you to become president at the last elections?
My point is that the struggle for freedom and the struggle for dignity, and the struggle for what is right will not be achieved in one shot. It is continuous. They may see the presidential election as a setback, but I would say that in that the people of Afghanistan have learned very valuable lessons and experiences from this. The people of Afghanistan participated, they gave their verdict, and of course the conditions were not fair and we will continue to pursue those ideals and principles and values. In that sense I think it was an experience. One would not volunteer for such a thing but it happened, but the way forward is a long one and we have a responsibility to our own people and hopefully with the help of God and the commitment of out people we can pursue those ideals.