Stefano Pontecorvo, a career Italian diplomat, is NATO’s new Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan. In a recent interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, he indicated that long awaited peace negotiations between the Taliban and the representatives of the Islamic Republic, the current political system, will soon begin after negotiators recover from coronavirus infections.
Radio Free Afghanistan: As you know the intra-Afghan negotiations have been long overdue, will Afghans negotiations between the Taliban and representatives of Afghan government and society this year?
Stefano Pontecorvo: I am pretty confident that we’ll see them not only in this year. But a lot sooner than the end of the year. Inshallah as they say, I remain confident that they will take place in the near future.
Radio Free Afghanistan: There is a peace deal in place between the U.S. and the Taliban but at the same time the fighting has been going on between the Afghan forces and the Taliban relentlessly. In your view why is that so?
Pontecorvo: First of all, it’s not a peace deal but a bilateral agreement. Technically the Taliban are keeping faith to that agreement. However, I agree with you that violence is unacceptably high because it’s on the Taliban side of course. It’s creating a lot of difficulties on the republican side. The Taliban are refraining from attacking the coalition forces in the urban centers. That is the spirit, the letter of the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban.
But the level of the violence that they are otherwise practicing is totally unacceptable. You asked why, It’s probably because that Taliban believe -- but it’s a wrong belief on their behalf -- that they would go into the intra-Afghan negotiations from a position of strength by impinging on the morale of the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense Forces], which is, however, quite high. So, I think it’s a miscalculation.
However, I must stress that the level of violence is too high. It must go down and everybody is aware of it.
Radio Free Afghanistan: The Taliban had once provided sanctuary to Al-Qaida in Afghanistan, are they still friends with Al-Qaida?
Pontecorvo: There is anecdotal evidence that there are still ties between Al-Qaida and the Taliban. I know for a fact that these are being investigated. And there is a lot of hard questions that the Taliban are going to have to answer to.
Radio Free Afghanistan: Have the Taliban met the conditions needed for going to zero international troops by May?
Pontecorvo: I will refer you back to what high-level American officials have said that the conditions are not there yet.
Radio Free Afghanistan: How can the COVID-19 pandemic impact the war and peace in Afghanistan in your view? Will it become a window of opportunity for peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government?
Pontecorvo: COVID-19 is impacting at all levels. It’s impacting on the level of forces on both sides. It’s impacting the leadership. A number of members of the negotiating team on both sides are reported to have gone down with COVID. I have personally reached out to a number of these negotiating teams on the [Islamic] Republic side and they are down with COVID. It’s impacting already the composition of the teams, I don’t think the teams will change, they will not change for COVID, I know that for example. The republic is quarantining the members of the negotiating team which has gone down with COVID. And they will reach Doha when they will test negative. On the other side, we don’t know exactly what’s going on anyway, this won't be the place in which to talk about it. It should be as you are referring to. It should be an occasion for peace and for a window of opportunity. Unfortunately, we see that on the Taliban side it’s not being considered as such.
Radio Free Afghanistan: What’s NATO’s long-term commitment toward Afghanistan, especially with regard to human rights, women right and democratic values?
Pontecorvo: NATO’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan has been reiterated many times and recently by the [NATO] secretary-general in his press conference following the NATO defense ministerial. During the defense ministerial all ministers have reiterated their long-standing and long-lasting commitment to Afghanistan. We are committed to supporting Afghanistan, the security forces, the police, and so on. We know that we’ll have to negotiate the presence, if requested and if required. We are extremely willing to do so both from the training point of view, resources and funding, etc. We’ll have to negotiate all that with whatever governing entity comes out of the inter-Afghan negotiation.
We are very keen that that progress that has been made by Afghan society under the security umbrella provided by NATO and that would not have happened had not NATO provided that umbrella, we are keen that these are all safeguarded.
That said, we are also very aware that it is an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. They are intra-Afghan negotiations, only Afghans will be in the room. We’ll abide by whatever the two Afghan sides decide is good for Afghanistan and for the Afghan people. Of course, then, once we see what comes out of the negotiations, donors and international organizations will make up their minds and evaluate if they like what they see and if it's worth keeping having to invest. That said today I tell you that the commitment by NATO towards Afghanistan is very firm and rock solid.
Radio Free Afghanistan: How do you assess the role of the regional and neighboring country with regard to the peace process in Afghanistan?
Pontecorvo: I think that probably everybody has a stake in seeing a stabilized Afghanistan. We’ve recently witnessed the visit of Pakistani army chief to Kabul. He had high-level conversations; I know they went very well. Pakistan has been quite an actor in Afghanistan, and I won’t go into that and I think that Pakistan’s assistance in getting here has been valuable and has been recognized by the U.S. and by the U.S. mediator.
The other regional actors, I think, all have an interest in having a stabilized Afghanistan. We see it from the political point of view, from the economic point of view. Afghanistan can be a hub for a number of regional infrastructure networks, I am thinking about CASA 1,000 -- the Central Asia and South Asia electric line, the TAPI or the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India pipeline, and the TAP Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan pipeline. These will be very good for Afghanistan, not only for the transit lines but because of the resources and development, economic development these will bring. There are a lot of stakeholders in these infrastructural projects.
Radio Free Afghanistan: And finally, how concerned are you personally about civilian casualties in Afghanistan?
Pontecorvo: I am extremely concerned. Gen. Scot Miller, the RSM [NATO’s Resolute Support Mission] commander, is extremely concerned. Let’s say it very clearly, the levels of violence are unacceptable -- are simply unacceptable. Enough is enough, I mean. It’s more than 40 years that the civilians have suffered the consequences of at times an imposed war. I hope that there is enough statesmanship around here on all sides to understand that the Afghan people need peace, want peace, and will not forget and will not forgive those that stand in the way of peace.