CNN anchor, Fareed Zakaria’s conversation with President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani during World Economic Forum’s annual meeting (2019) in Davos, Switzerland.

CNN anchor, Fareed Zakaria’s conversation with President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani during World Economic Forum’s annual meeting (2019) in Davos, Switzerland.

Davos, Switzerland

January 24, 2019


Fareed Zakaria: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for coming to this. If I may start before welcoming our honored guest with a few ground rules, we are very appreciative with our audience here at with. This show is also being taped for my CNN program and will be watched by many millions more, so as a courtesy, I would ask that you genuinely turn off your phones so that they do not interrupt the recording. And also if you could just hold off any applause, comments, we’d like to be able to broadcast this in a way that many people can take advantage of the wisdom of our special guest.

So, Henry Kissinger once said, “Those who don’t need introductions crave them the most”. I think this is not true of the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, entirely rare figure in the modern world and being a genuinely world-class academic, genuine thought leader, a person who had worked at the highest levels of the international system, who then went on to lead a country and has been very successful. So with that, Ashraf Ghani, pleasure to have you.

President Ghani: well, thank you for that marvelous introduction. It is great pleasure to see you and to have opportunity to exchange views with you.

Fareed Zakaria:  So the first thing I am going to ask you is what appears to be some breaking news. It is not confirmed. There are reports that, in Doha, there has been some kind of a deal made with the Taliban involving with withdrawal of the American troops and presumably some kind of deal that the Taliban accepts. Is there any truth to these reports? What can you tell us about these negotiations?

President Ghani: Well. Thank you. Peace is an imperative. A war that has gone on for 17 years must come to an end. This war is multidimensional, it is very strong levels of interrelationships and it is not as simple to arrive at a date and think that the war as simply ends. Because on the side of the government of Afghanistan, we have binding legal agreements with the United States and NATO; bilateral agreements and of course, multinational agreements internationally regarding assistance, trade and others.

The Taliban have a series of interrelationships that are below the surface. They have relationships with all known terrorist groups; they have relationships with the largest criminal mafia on earth, which after cocaine is the heroine mafia. They have an organic relationship with the state of Pakistan that has provided them sanctuary, resources, support and others, and they have patron-client relationships with the others. This is a cluster of relationships.

U.S. is committed to see a timeline to the engagements, but to just think that a relationship has arrived, I think, is exaggerated. We need to be able to get the relationship because the dimension that is national namely the Taliban and the Afghan people and the Afghan government, must be resolved politically. But the dimensions that continue the violence and the reason that the international forces are present in Afghanistan is not because of Afghanistan, but because 9/11 on one estimate cost the United States government and society $500 billion.

How do we deal with all these sets of relationship? We have a roadmap, we have detailed discussions. Let us not also forget that Ambassador Khalilzad, my old friend, and special envoy, was not able to meet with Taliban representatives in Pakistan. Does Doha have that authority and the function of Ambassador Khalilzad’s office is that the Afghan government and the Taliban into face-to-face discussions and negotiations. Within that, then the larger issues of U.S. presence and other international issues will be addressed.

Fareed Zakaria: But there is no breakthrough, you are saying, in recent days.

President Ghani: Not in that sense. There is discussion but the discussion needs to be shared back. A discussion that does not involve the region will not last. Afghanistan has national dimensions, neighborhood dimensions, the regional dimension, from India to Russia, the Gulf, Islamic and international. If we don’t get all the pieces right, one piece alone doesn’t suffice.

Fareed Zakaria:  How would you respond the people in America, maybe another western countries that have sent troops for seventeen years; this has gone on for 17 years. What have we got now different? We have failed in some sense, they would argue.

President Ghani: No, absolutely, but the first thing is, the United States is not there because it is fighting in Afghanistan. It is fighting for its security. Second, we have engaged in a very open dialogue. The United States as a sovereign power, as a global power, is entitled to leave. But we need to get the departure right. Are the fundamental reasons that brought the United States to Afghanistan—are those objectives accomplished? The first issue is cost. We completely agree that the cost must come down, must become more efficient. So the first thing I request is that everything under the sun should not be built under the war in Afghanistan. When the U.S. navy needs money, when the US army needs money, the U.S. Air Force, it bills it under Afghanistan. What is the cost of the war in Afghanistan?

Second, the number of troops. We are engaged in a discussion, we had initiated this to see that the number corresponds the essential needs, because every U.S. soldier essential at least cost a million dollars a year. On making it more efficient—this is crucial. And we understand that our relationship is based on mutual interest which flows from mutual threats on the one hand, and mutual goals on the other.

So my answer first, I pay tribute to every mother and father who have lost their children in Afghanistan. This has included the highest levels of government, like Secretary Kelly, chief of staff, who lost his son in Helmand.

Second, over a million American soldiers, men and women in uniform, have seen action in Afghanistan; we pay tribute. But the job that we started together needs to move.

Thirdly, since I have become president, a hundred thousand troops left. Over 45,000 Afghan security personnel have paid the ultimate sacrifice. The number of international casualties is less than 72. So it shows you who is doing the fighting, and the support is mutual. We need to get a stable Afghanistan as an entity that can ensure security of America and Europe and others on the one hand, but more fundamentally our own democratic rights and institutions and our right to live in peace and harmony.

Fareed Zakaria:  And if I look at Afghanistan today, what I am struck by is, you have a functioning democracy; you are up for elections, elections again in July. There have not been major terrorist attacks in recent months. The economy seems to be moving forward. Is it fair to say that Afghanistan has turned the corner?

President Ghani: Afghanistan is turning the corner. My first tribute is to the Afghan women. Afghan women have come to voice their own. In 33 provinces of Afghanistan there have been discussions, and the last one is taking place now. We are going to have the first Jirga – the gathering – of all Afghan women in the coming month. These are people who grow, come from the grass roots. What do they want? A democratic, orderly system. Second is the youth, the youth of Afghanistan has really come to its own. Please understand that Afghanistan of today is a very different Afghanistan in terms of demographic composition. And three are the poor.

Fareed Zakaria:  Different even from Afghanistan of 9/11 in 2001.

President Ghani: Absolutely. Because this generation—we lost three generations to war. This is the first generation that has gone directly from refugee camps and internally displaced people to the best universities on earth, educational capability. We are now able to staff a modern administration and run it, so the ownership and leadership that has come. It is also networked generation. They talk. They are rooted on the ground, but they are able to talk with all our neighbors and to that the global community in a language.

And the economy is beginning to move fundamentally, but the most important thing is our constitution. As you mentioned presidential elections will take place in July. The people of Afghanistan will elect their leaders. From 1747, when the last incarnation of continuous Afghan State has taken place until I succeeded president Karzai, with couple of exceptions, every succession involved a conflict. And in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet-backed regime, there was no agreement on rules of the game; Kabul was destroyed. The country went to a level of deprivation and destitution that didn’t know. Why? Because a number of people who had all been friends could not agree on rules of the game. The rules of the game are now placed in the constitution.

390 laws have been passed only in the past four and half years. This is different country. I think, I am confident that we can turn the corner. And by 2024, it would be a country that would be able to pay for itself as a going proposition, because you need an economic base, and a country that has a vision of itself as a roundabout where ideas, people and goods can flow.

After 117 years, we have again an integral part of Central Asia. We have fantastic relationship. We look at every aspect of our relationship as an opportunity. So on the one hand, the United States, our foundational partner, Western countries, NATO and non-NATO countries. But the region; we have come with a position vision of good relationship with every single one of our neighbors near and far.

Fareed Zakaria:  As you know, there is great debate in the United States about “nation building” and there is a great frustration people say, “Why did we go to Iraq and Afghanistan with the idea that we could national build?” I think what people really need is not “nation building” but “state-building”, “democracy-building”. Is it your view that the situation in Afghanistan proves that that kind of “nation building” does work?

President Ghani: That kind of nation-building works, but not through the foreign agent. Foreign aid needs to be rethought fundamentally. The key is both national ownership and international partnership. With that proposition and making sure that things are not done for you, but that you can really take ownership. I just give you a very small illustration. The Afghan agricultural sector is vital but had not received. Last year, we were the largest producer of pine nut in the world but we didn’t know it, so the international figures showed that our production was 3000 tons, actually it was 26000, because everything was going to Pakistan and then to China as added value.

We created an air corridor, we have just sent in three months, 500 tons of pine nuts to Shanghai and 4000 are going to Istanbul to be distributed. This type of relationship is fundamental so you get it right. And what is important, Business Administration has become a discipline. Political Science unfortunately still at the realm of theory. So state building as a discipline is not consolidated and we need to bring this a lot of people who work and international organizations, my former colleagues, I hope they don’t mind, are amateurs. They are not disciplined. The discipline comes from democratic accountability. Democratic accountability is crucial to make a bureaucrat, a leader responsive. It forces them the national debate. You need to learn. At times I am told, when I speak English international interlocutors think I cannot talk Pashto or Dari or Uzbeki, and when they see me talking those languages, they are amazed because you need to connect; the vocabulary is different. The substance is the same but the vocabulary changes.

Fareed Zakaria: What is the biggest revelation to you? Having been an academic who has studied these issues as a practitioner who now has to actually live these issues.

President Ghani: First is the nature of resistance. Short-term interests unfortunately trumps medium and long-term national interest. And this resistance really needs to be taken seriously, but the second thing which is the pleasant revelation, how much a citizen-focused agenda gets response, and how extraordinary the ordinary people are? What a woman who has lost three sons comes and embraces you and says, “Take my fourth son, but give me dignity.” That is truly something that you cannot put a price on; it is worth billions. Or you see a young child who marches with you and takes a review, her head erect or comes right on my shoulders, saying “This is my grandfather, the president!” on the ones side, this immense decency of the general public, the citizens, on the other hand the short-sightedness.

And the last issues is, a lot of our international colleagues who provide advice are out of touch with the times. They provide you turn of the nineteenth, of the twentieth century or mid-20th century advice. We need to become much more dynamic, much more people-focused.

Fareed Zakaria: The short-term perspective, does it make you wish you had the kind of power that President Xi in China and President Putin in Russia has that put you think long-term for the country?

President Ghani: I think long-term for the country, democratically. We tried authoritarians. We had one of the worst despotisms at the turn of the 20th century. And we had the Soviet style. There is a man called Elphinstone who wrote a book in 1809, he really got it right. He said this country is most suited to democratic governance. Afghans have a sense of equality. When I talk to another Afghan, I am her or his equal and that moves me to tears; we are not sycophants. And authoritarian regimes might suit others, it doesn’t suit our culture. Our culture is one of equality. Hierarchy, market; for the market, we are willing to accept hierarchy. For the state, if we don’t engage in discussion—we have a saying, if you put a meal in front of Afghans but they have not be engaged in cooking it, they will criticize it.

Fareed Zakaria: The single biggest strategic challenge you and your predecessor have had has been that you are facing insurgency of Taliban that has funding, training and geographic support bases in the neighboring country, Pakistan. The Pakistani military has used this to destabilize Afghanistan, to secure what it sees as its interest. There is a new civilian government in Pakistan, a new prime minister; do you sense any change in Pakistan’s attitude towards Afghanistan?

President Ghani: We have talked on the phone. We have not met in person. The proof of the pudding is the fundamental issues in action. We have been promised repeatedly in the past so much as saying that next week they will be changed, and next week, we have seen intensification of the conflict. Afghanistan wants an engagement with Pakistan. Our relationships fall in three buckets; one, removing the shadow of violence. For 40 years, there has been engagement. Disengagement is against all international rules, all norms of decency. A neighboring country that recognizes and enjoys particularly close cultural relationship, does not sponsor subversive movements and armed subversive movements. So that is one discussion.

The second is, what should normal cooperative relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan look like? We, I think, will be the greatest asset to a prosperous and stable Pakistan, because we are the source of power from Central Asia and others and the source of transit and connectivity. And three; the joint issue. What do we do with the continuing problem of terrorism? We need to engage. The key is Afghans, as a nation and as state; we are dedicated to overcoming the past. The question that Pakistani leadership needs to face is: is their conduct of the last 17 years benefited them, harmed them, isolated them, made them central, and can they—how would they get to 2047, the year when they celebrate their 100th anniversary. An excellent analysis has been done by the World Bank. If they continue the current course, they will be a very poor country. But if they change and engage in regional cooperative and fundamental economic and social political reform, they could be a middle-income country. The choice is theirs.


Fareed Zakaria: The Trump Administration when it came into office, in a way of relieved you of some uncertainty of the Obama administration which was always debating whether or not to stay in Afghanistan. And the Trump Administration said, “No, we are going to stay.” We are in fact going to increase the intensity of engagement. But they said the same in Syria, and rather bizarrely and dramatically, President Trump decided to withdraw forces. Do you worry that you are going to get a phone call from Mike Pompeo saying “Guess what? The president just tweeted we are going to leave Afghanistan tomorrow.”

President Ghani: The first issue is President Trump and I had an excellent relationship. The South Asia Strategy was a very thoughtful response to a situation. And let’s not forget, the core of the South Asia Strategy was to bring peace to Afghanistan, and we have welcomed this.

Second, it is condition-based strategy, and this condition-based strategy would have been interpreted as putting conditionality on ourselves, not to say that conditions are going to be left to others to change. We have changed our security forces, rootstock and branch during this. Reform of the Inherent Law brought the age of retirement for a general to 56 years. Our four-star generals now retire at 62. Over 2,000 generals and colonels have been retired. We are really focused, we have used this and day by day, we are gaining strength.

Now, as I brought to your attention, a sovereign state, the world’s most powerful, has a right to disengage, but we don’t think it is going to disengage. The reason is not because of wishful thinking, the reason is because of a dialogue that is based on reason and mutual interest. We have had this dialogue because you need to think in scenarios. The problem is the public panics when they think when our scenario is reality. But as you know, the United States has hundreds of scenarios at Department of Defense for every conceivable situation. One of them leaked, we have had discussions.

The South Asia Strategy is the strategy. Proof: the level of cooperation that we have received from the U.S. military and from the U.S. security forces has been immense. During the past month, General Miller has leaned backward, the commander of the Resolute Support forces, to remove uncertainty and to be able to work with us. But the ultimate goal, neither of the United States, nor of Afghanistan is to make this into a permanent thing for ages. Our goal is to become a partner, not a dependent. Because of this, we need to be able to pay for ourselves, for our security and to make sure that the relationships are such.

Bottom line: our cooperation depends on the level and threat of terrorism. If that threat is lowered, off course, the forces need to be lowered and leave, but we need to understand, and you are in a better position than all of us, is this threat over or actually other forms, it is morphing constantly, and as the latest is, is Daesh gone to version 4? If you are talking about the Globalization 4.0, we need to talk also about version 4 of terrorism. That issue requires the attention of all of us.

Fareed Zakaria: Just to clarify, you are saying the Daesh that is ISIS, and presumably the Taliban, the more radical elements of the Taliban still remain real terrorist threats to the west?

President Ghani: They do. And instead of taking my words for it, I think, we need arrive at consensus. To the region also, the problem with some of the regional behavior is, it is reverting to 19th century thinking. They think spheres of influence are a better concept. Let us not forget, the Middle East, Southwest Asia and South Asia have still not arrived at a full embrace of Westphalian system where sovereign states interact with each other. My argument is that both for the economy, for environment, for security, we need to arrive at state-to-state centered relationships so our people can interact, our businesses can interact. But we cannot be seeing zero-sum games, and interference as a way of securing our interests.

Fareed Zakaria: The Trump Administration has also done something which I assume you welcome, which is, it has taken a tough stand on Pakistan, but has that been real? Again there was a certain rhetorical outburst where the Trump Administration and Trump himself threatened Pakistan with the withdrawal of aid and such. Have you seen an increase of an American pressure on Pakistan?

President Ghani: I have. First of all, $1.2 billion were withdrawn. It is an allocation that has never going to be restored, unless in future. Second the level of engagement that has discussion quiet but has been very systematic and very focused. The level of engagement leaves nothing to be desired, it is principled, and we welcome it. But it is also catalytic because it is not pressure for the pressure sake. It is pressure for the sake of engagement. It is an engagement agenda.

Pakistan is a pivotal state in the region. Its stability is vital to Afghanistan’s interest, to India’s interest, to everybody’s interest. We hope that Pakistani leadership would come out of the scars of its creation. Partition was painful, the wounds have been immense, but for South Asia to become whole, like Europe, they need to overcome this trauma of the birth. 70 years is enough time, and in this regard, I think, embrace of 21st century by Pakistan will make all its neighbors and all its international partners, and Islamic partners come to a supporting stand and come to cooperate. So we think the advantages of cooperation for Pakistan are immense. The advantages of confrontation are close to nil. But if there are sections of Pakistani state that still think that, those, we hope, need to rethink.

Fareed Zakaria: So you are the rare foreign leader who has had a very good and productive relationship with Donald Trump. And do you think his policies have basically been supportive and successful? Why do you think that is?

President Ghani: Well. First, I don’t talk much. No literally, maybe you have to be able to get your main arguments in two minutes. President Trump is engaging. And if you get your points across cogently then he’ll ask you questions. Our first phone call, when he was president-elect, lasted fifteen minutes more than we thought, because it was a real conversation. One cannot dismiss the questions, the fundamental questions of a world leader and think one is getting away with it. And the other is you need to be able to represent your country with dignity. I don’t ask. You know, I have never begged for myself anything. For my country, I want.

Third, you need to know to show that you care a lot more about your country than your foreign friends and partners. And fourth, we are very lucky, because we have had a very large range of American diplomats, particularly American military personnel and others, who have gotten to know my country and particularly me. During the years of President Karzai, I was responsible pro bono basis, for bringing the security transition of the U.S. and international forces so that gave me an opportunity to see both my country and to see the relationship.

As part of this modern leadership, particularly for one of the poorest countries on earth, is representation. We have to know the networks. And when context changes, a lot of people fight the context. Our approach has been to say what our opportunities in the new context? And that enables us not to be defensive. So when policy is made, you need to understand it is going to take a process. When the Afghan policy was made by President Trump, a lot of my American friends came and when they came to my room, they were uneasy; this is taking too much time, and I assured them that under President Obama, it took longer. You have friend who understands that policy making and, because of it, I pride myself of never having lost an international colleagues and friend because of short-term worries. And when questions are raised, we answer them.

Fareed Zakaria: So when Americans look back on this long engagement in Afghanistan, you think they can take pride and feeling that they achieve something?

President Ghani: Enormous. First, thank God. There has been no recurrent of 9/11. It is not because of luck. It is because of the immense sacrifice and effort. Second, the Afghan people are a very different people. We are thousands years old civilization and culture, but in terms of youth, we are one of the youngest countries. And three, the fundamental numbers have changed. Democracy, as you have written, and articulate every other day on your program is not an overnight dose that you inject or an injection. Democracy building requires that patience and I think we are at the cusp and with the elections, I hope that the transition will consolidate and we will be able to show that the investment that was made in us was worth it.

Fareed Zakaria: President Ghani, pleasure to have you.

President Ghani: Thank you.