Ambassador Mahmoud Saikal is the permanent representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations in New York City. In an interview with Radio Mashaal, he sketches a positive portrait of his country, which has secured and mobilized international support for restoring peace and stability.
RFE/RL: A recent meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), which includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the United States, ended without a breakthrough. Why is this diplomatic forum not succeeding?
Mahmud Saikal: The QCG made progress at the beginning of last year, producing a roadmap. All of us worked hard. A key element was that those Taliban who join the peace process will be welcomed and those who don’t will be confronted. That didn’t happen [the roadmap was not carried out] by at least one member of the QCG. Instead, in April 2016, the Taliban launched their spring offensive across Afghanistan.
We have to revive the spirit of the QCG and do some confidence building. We hope we will make progress during future meetings.
RFE/RL: Do you think Pakistan is responsible for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and can it help bring peace there?
Saikal: The world knows safe havens of terrorist groups are in Pakistan. The latest U.S. strategy [announced by President Donald Trump in August] has two strong elements: One, [support for] Afghanistan will continue until conditions change on the ground in favor of the people of Afghanistan and stability in the region. This has been a key wish of the people and the government of Afghanistan.
The second element was to address safe havens in Pakistan. For any discussion on a bilateral, trilateral, regional, or global level, this must be addressed.
RFE/RL: Have you or the Afghan government ever talked with Iranian and Russian officials in the Taliban context?
Saikal: At the UN level, we meet every now and then. We have regular contact with countries of the region. I have been meeting with ambassadors of the Russian Federation, Iran, China, India, and Pakistan. Our appeal to them has been to make sure we all work together to have a healthy dialogue and move together to strengthen the regional and international consensus on countering terrorism, with a special focus on engaging Pakistan in a way that it could become a genuine partner far from duplicity and plausible deniability.
Our second point is to strengthen the security and defensive capabilities of Afghanistan so that we could defend our people in the face of ferocious attacks by the Taliban and other terrorist groups. We are making progress. The air force of Afghanistan is coming together; lately, our forces have carried out a large number of air operations. We have our own pilots; we are receiving better aircrafts and helicopters. We recently received the first batch of Blackhawk helicopters [from the United States]. We are also doubling up our commando forces.
RFE/RL: Despite all these steps, civilian and military casualties have been on the rise in Afghanistan, and attacks are increasing daily. What could be the reason?
Saikal: Since the announcement of the latest U.S. strategy, the level of casualties has gone slightly down. The Taliban have failed to push their offensive. In some areas, the Taliban are very much on the run. We still have one or two months of the so-called fighting season. During the past three years, our security forces have been in charge. Despite the casualties, they have kept Afghanistan united and have denied the Taliban access to populated areas. The Taliban and other terrorists are not able to hold ground for a long time.
RFE/RL: Commenting on the latest U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, some analysts think Afghan peace needs a regional solution or consensus. What is your assessment?
Saikal: The success of the recent U.S. strategy depends on better coordination in the region. As far as we are aware, the U.S. strategy does include diplomatic initiatives to make sure we bring better coordination among key stakeholders in the region. It also depends on the internal development of Afghanistan how best we perform and how best we address the corruption issue, governance, and delivery of services.
Afghanistan has a sensitive geostrategic location. It sits between South and Central Asia, the Far East and the Middle East. It would be naive of us to deny the fact that we need better regional cooperation and coordination.
RFE/RL: Following the announcement of the U.S. strategy, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khwaja Muhammad Asif visited China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey to gain regional support. On the other hand, Trump invited India to play a proactive role in Afghan development. Some people think the region could be divided into blocks. Do you think so?
Saikal: Our ultimate aim in Afghanistan is to turn the country into an asset for all, a platform of cordiality, a place where regional and global stakeholders could come and complement each other. Given the sensitive geostrategic location, this is what we need. Afghanistan is an independent country. It enjoys good relationships with many countries. Just a few days ago, you saw our success in becoming a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is a sign that Afghanistan is engaged with the international community and our regional and global partners.
We view Afghanistan as a country [interested in being] friends with all its neighbors and global partners. We want to live in peace with our neighbors and particularly with Pakistan. Pakistan is a big country and an atomic power. The stability of Pakistan is good for its own people and important for us, too.
We feel the time has come that Pakistan could see the problem itself. Leading terrorist figures have been in Pakistan, lived in Pakistan, died in Pakistan, and some have been buried in Pakistan. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of suicide bombers are being trained at Pakistani madrasahs. We simply want Pakistan to see this reality, and let’s talk about it.
RFE/RL: But Pakistan claims the same: that the Pakistani Taliban have a presence on the other side of the Durand Line in Afghanistan. What is your response?
Saikal: That is not true. We have been talking about it since 1994, when the Taliban entered the political and security landscape of Afghanistan. Since then, they have had connections with Pakistan. The names of the Quetta Shura, the Peshawar Shura, say it all. We all know Mullah Muhammad Omar died in a hospital in Karachi. We all know Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur was found and killed in Balochistan. We all know Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Abbottabad, close to the capital city of Pakistan.
These are the facts which cannot be denied. Anybody wanting to change the narrative and turn the tables and assuming that we [Afghans] are to blame is making a mistake.
RFE/RL: The international community has supported and assisted Afghanistan for a long time. Do you expect that will continue?
Saikal: As long as we face a global threat, it is the responsibility of the world to assist Afghanistan. Terrorism is not of Afghanistan’s making. It is something imposed on us. These terrorist groups have links with Pakistan. I don’t think anybody could name a terrorist who comes from elsewhere. Whether they are of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Al-Qaeda, or Daesh [Islamic State], they have all been in Pakistan, trained there, and then went to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has a culture of peace. When we resisted the Soviet invasion [in the 1980s], there wasn’t a single terrorist in Afghanistan. We defended our country bravely. Radicalization, violent extremism, and terrorism have been imposed on Afghanistan. They have regional and regional dimensions; therefore, it is the responsibility of the international community to remain engaged in Afghanistan and support Afghanistan because right now we are fighting on behalf of the international community. Our casualties are high.
RFE/RL: In October, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan until peace is restored. When do you expect an end to the war in Afghanistan?
Saikal: The sooner we address the safe havens the better. The core of the problems we have is the external support to terrorist groups, and that has a lot to do with the policy of using violence and violent proxies in pursuit of political objectives in Pakistan. That is why we welcome the latest U.S. strategy and appeal to the international community and regional stakeholders to pay specific attention to safe havens in Pakistan.