Ambassador Cornelius Zimmermann, a German career diplomat, is now serving as NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan. In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, he says the transatlantic alliance is committed to Afghanistan until it succeeds in creating peace and lasting stability in the country.
RFE/RL: Ambassador Zimmerman, thank you very much for your time. NATO welcomed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s latest ceasefire announcement with the Taliban. Are you hopeful that the militants will cease fighting?
Cornelius Zimmermann: NATO, namely our Secretary General, welcomed the recent announcement of President Ghani to offer a unilateral ceasefire. I think that’s bold. It’s a courageous step. It’s far-sighted, and it builds on the offer made by Ghani in February, an offer of unconditional talks to the Taliban.
The onus is clearly on the Taliban to take up that offer. NATO is closely cooperating with Afghan security forces, helping them to increase the military pressure on the Taliban. The Taliban will be well advised to take up the offer to go to the negotiating table. There is no better deal for them, and this the only way they can legitimately integrate themselves into Afghan society and politics.
RFE/RL: So the question is why have the Taliban not yet accepted the generous peace proposal offered by Ghani in February?
Zimmerman: What we know is that there are discussions, there are talking ongoing, informal talks. And that shows that at least parts of the Taliban are reflecting. I think that’s a reason for optimism, and let’s not forget that this country is marked by almost four decades of conflict, so it certainly takes a while to move from the war mode to the peace mode. We have to work on that mindset, and I think combining the fighting approach with the talk approach with the offer to have unconditional talks at the negotiating table is a step in the right direction.
RFE/RL: You know there has been a blame game going on between Kabul and Islamabad. Do you see any real progress in the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Zimmerman: What is making me hopeful is that there is an intensification of dialogue. Diplomatic activities with talks and finally with the successful conclusion of an Afghan-Pakistani action plan designed to build trust and confidence between the two countries, and I think that’s exactly what we need.
Your question is absolutely legitimate. In the end, we will judge both countries by deeds and not only by words, so that needs to be followed up. And let me assure you that NATO as a political organization is not only interested in the security sector of Afghanistan but that we are closely monitoring and following the political process. So we encourage Afghanistan and Pakistan to find a good arrangement which will allow Afghanistan to move to a better future. I think we will need a constructive engagement with Pakistan to achieve that objective.
RFE/RL: Let’s talk about the role of other regional stakeholders in Afghanistan. What are NATO countries doing to persuade Iran, Pakistan, and Russia to refrain from covertly backing the Taliban?
Zimmerman: You’ve certainly noted that our NATO foreign ministers during their spring meeting this year issued a statement. And in this statement, they reassured [Afghanistan] of the continued military and financial military support for its security forces. They also pointed to the fact that in order to bring about a peaceful solution in this country, there is a need to engage Afghanistan’s neighbors constructively.
They singled out Pakistan, calling and encouraging Pakistan to cease giving safe havens to insurgents, and they underlined the need ... that Pakistan should become part of the solution and that a stable and prosperous future of Afghanistan is also in the very interest of the Pakistani people.
RFE/RL: Lastly, you know that ordinary Afghans are very much concerned about the security situation in the country. For example, mosques are being bombed, schools are being attacked, the Interior Ministry in Kabul came under attack, and the Ulema council meeting in Kabul was attacked just recently. Given all this, do you see a light at the end of the tunnel for Afghans? Do you see peace and stability on the horizon for ordinary Afghans?
Zimmerman: The security situation in Afghanistan remains a challenge. But I don’t know if you had a chance to listen to General Nicholson, who is my closest military partner. In his assessment, the Afghan security forces are getting better day by day and the Taliban are more and more on the defensive.
So I think there’s reason in that respect. I would just like to give you a personal detail. So far, more than 5 million Afghans have registered [to vote] despite a certain security risk. Why do they do that? Because they believe that participation in the democratic process is worthwhile. So it shows the Afghan people are standing united in defending their own country. And I think these are two good indications which give reason for a better future of this country.
Defense ministers today at the NATO headquarters discussed the situation in Afghanistan for more than two hours, and I take away from that meeting that there is unanimity around that table, unanimity in continuing the support for Afghanistan. [Afghan Defense] Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami was present. He got a very strong backing and a lot of praise for what he is doing in reforming and professionalizing the Afghan security forces.
So you have that commitment of the alliance, and I am sure the upcoming NATO summit will reaffirm that NATO stands by you, and by you I mean by the people of Afghanistan. Our conditions-based approach basically means nothing less than we stay until we have accomplished our mission, and that’s creating peace and lasting stability in your country.