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Former U.S. Envoy Sees A Major Chinese Role In Afghan Stability

Zalmay Khalilzad.
Zalmay Khalilzad.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador and special presidential envoy to Afghanistan, is optimistic about the direction Afghanistan's national unity government is taking.

In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Zarif Nazar, Khalilzad said that in addition to safeguarding the national unity government and making a plan for U.S. cooperation after 2016, looking to countries like China for investment will be key to Afghanistan’s development.

RFE/RL: Afghans are optimistic after the inauguration of their new national unity government. Do you share their optimism?

Zalmay Khalilzad: The formation of the national unity government is a new beginning for Afghanistan. It marks the first peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another. The initiatives and the direction this new administration is perusing are positive.

The new government will need to carefully choose a few priorities in implementing the much-needed reforms. It should carefully craft a team to make sure that the top three or fours priorities are implemented. I have no doubt that President Ashraf Ghani has a good plan for reforms, but he needs a good team to implement it.

RFE/RL: Will the supporters of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah be able to work together?

Khalilzad: The history of Afghanistan is not very positive about national unity governments. We saw that the communist factions failed to work together even after forming a national unity government in the 1980s. Similarly, the anticommunist Mujahedin factions failed to make a national unity government work [during the 1990s]. But the sustainability of the current national unity government is very important for the future of Afghanistan.

I am optimistic that under the leadership of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, this government will last. Both are educated and experienced. They have witnessed the calamities of the 1980s and 90s. With the help of their Afghan and international allies who want their government to succeed, they will be able to preserve and strengthen this government. This government is the foundation. If it doesn't function or faces problems, everything else will be in danger.

I am happy that both leaders have agreed to meet three times every week and have pledged to cooperate. There are, of course, rivalries between the supporters of the two, and they are not on the same page on all issues.

RFE/RL: You mentioned that the new government needs to identify its priorities. What should those priorities be?

Khalilzad: The first thing they need to do is to change Afghanistan's foreign policy and international relations. They have already taken steps towards that end. They have signed the stalled security agreements with the United States and NATO. They also need to plan for the aftermath of 2016 because the current agreements allow an international troop presence only until the end of 2016.

The question of whether there will be an international troop presence after 2016 has a large impact on the situation in Afghanistan. Maybe they are waiting to see what happens until that time, whether their armed opponents are ready to participate in the peace process or not.

My advice would be that the national unity government should map out its own program for the aftermath of 2016. They need to plan a partnership with the United States after that time and aim for reaching an agreement with the various corridors of power after the end of U.S. President Barak Obama's term in office. I think that Afghanistan needs the presence of U.S. and NATO troops until it can stand on its own feet.

If the roadmap towards such an objective becomes clear, it will have a positive impact on regional perspectives about Afghanistan and the peace and reconciliation process within the country.

Establishing the rule of law is the next important issue promised by the government. But the most important priority for now is to form an administration that is capable, balanced, clean, and representative. This can help in implementing the government's reform agenda and it sends a very powerful message.

Of course, the economy is also very important. Initiatives, such as investment, that can help in creating employment opportunities and improve the economic fundamentals are very important.

I am happy that President Ashraf Ghani has plans to visit China later this month. If he attracts Chinese investments in Afghan infrastructures such as roads and railways and other projects, it will be good for Afghan prosperity. China is interested in developing Afghan resources and has strategic interests in helping to provide economic opportunities to Afghans.

RFE/RL: What else can countries like China do to promote stability and reconstruction in Afghanistan?

Khalilzad: China can definitely play a very positive role in Afghanistan, especially if it is coordinated with the United States. First, as I explained earlier, China has a very important economic role.

Secondly, China has been a major strategic ally of Pakistan for the past several decades. China can facilitate an improvement in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It can get Pakistan to put pressure on the Afghan Taliban to participate in peace negotiations and stop fighting. This will complement the U.S. pressure on Pakistan and convince Islamabad not to sabotage the peace process in Afghanistan and instead convince the Taliban to join this process.

We should remember that China is very worried about [Islamic] extremism. Some Chinese militants operate from camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some of them have been arrested by the authorities in the two countries.

Following the visit of the Afghan leader, the U.S. President will visit China next month. I hope we will see progress during that time. It also depends on Afghanistan to skillfully manage this [diplomatic initiative] to serve its interests.

RFE/RL: President Ashraf Ghani has identified peace as a prerequisite for developing the country. What will it take to bring the armed opposition to the negotiating table in Afghanistan?

Khalilzad: The improvement in economic, security and the rule of law will help in establishing peace. This is because the opposition will sense that this government is not going to collapse and they need to open a window for reconciliation. Secondly, Afghanistan's stronger international relations will help in sustaining the current government and convincing its opponents to embrace the path to peace.

The role of China is very important in connection to Pakistan. The policies of Pakistan's security agencies have been considered as one of the key reasons for instability in Afghanistan. Now how can they be convinced or coerced to help in stabilizing Afghanistan? China, the United States and Saudi Arabia are the three countries capable of playing a fundamental role in this because Pakistan needs them.

This is why Afghanistan's diplomacy is important. The Afghan leader's visit to China is a positive development and it should be followed-up with steps to attract the help of the United States and Saudi Arabia for peace.

Afghanistan is not a spectator and has a vital role in resolving its problems. Its robust plans and strategy will help in ensuring success.