Christiane Amanpour: President Ghani and First Lady Rula Ghani, welcome to the program. You know, it is rare to see the first couples speak at the same time. I wondered if you have new messages of this New Year, particularly with the incoming administration in the United States.
President Ashraf Ghani: First of all a very happy new year! Our deepest sympathies on the losses from Corona. Our gratitude for the sacrifice of the American servicemen and women, 2448 of whom have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Our thanks to American men and women in uniform who have served in our country.
I look to a world that would be healed, that would become whole, that our partnership will be strengthened and based on mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust. And I trust that you will be able to attain peace in Afghanistan and hopefully stability in the region.
First lady: I cannot add much more to that. All I would like to say is that COVID has taught us humility. We find out that no matter who we are, we are not in control of our lives and we need always to adapt, so that is the lesson I got from the last year.
Christiane Amanpour: Well, let’s address all those issues. First I want to ask you both because I think it matters to you both as the representatives of all the Afghan people. What is the latest in the peace talks or so-called peace process that United States has backed and initiated between your government and the Taliban forces?
President Ashraf Ghani: Well, first of all the beginning is important because after nearly 20 years of conflict, we are beginning to speak. The process has been slow because over four months were spent just dealing with procedure. But the second round message is, can we agree on the goal that the international community and the region has agreed with us namely a sovereign, democratic, united Afghanistan at peace with itself and the region. If that goal becomes accepted, we can move forward. But if the objective of the Taliban is to dominate and give us the peace of the grave then that will have very negative consequences. Our society is united and seeking peace but we want to have a positive peace.
First Lady: Yes, I would like to mention that when the peace talks started in Doha, we always heard that it would be at the cost of rights of the women. And what was really interesting and very warming for me is that the women did not lie down and accepted. They did stand up and made their voices heard and through several interventions they showed a lot of political maturity and they were able to insert themselves or at least to be the part of the process, fully part of the process. Not only do they speak for themselves now, but they speak for the whole country, for the whole people of Afghanistan. So, this is a positive aspect of what has happened.
Christiane Amanpour: I want to play a little bit of an interview that I conducted with the commissioner of your Civil Rights Commission a few months ago as some of these talks were underway. You are absolutely right, the fact that several women have been sat across the table from the Taliban who never recognized that women actually had the rights to be out of their home is pretty dramatic. This is what Gaisu Yari told me about her and other women’s concerns.
[Clip from Gaisu Yari: One point that is very important for the international community to focus is that we are not ready to give up; we are not ready to lose the achievements that we have had in the past, almost twenty years now. Yes, we do want peace in the country but are we going to with the price of losing women’s rights or the achievements we have had in the past two decades.]
Christiane Amanpour: I want to ask you because you have spoken about how the Taliban actually talks about women when they think they are not being listened to in public. Do they really speak, are you confident that even if a peace deal is signed they respect the gains women have made, respect what your constitution provides to women’s rights, if the Taliban involve, those would be respected?
First Lady: Let me answer it in a different way. The Taliban are our brothers and our sisters and as Afghans they have the right to come and live in Afghanistan and actually quite a few of them do.
What here the question is whether or not they should bring with them their own way of thinking and impose it on the rest of the population. And our position is that our constitution is made to allow for diversity in Afghanistan. We have diverse group, ethnic, linguistics, religious and there is a place for the Taliban if they want to come under the Constitution and they can live totally and you know as I said quite a few of them already live here, and they can benefit from the services of the government and they can if they want to have if they have political ambitions they can do it through the electoral process.
Christiane Amanpour: Mr. President. You have been the forefront of the post-Taliban Afghanistan since their fall back in 2001. You served under the previous president and you are yourself a president. What do you think, what is your gut telling you about whether this longest of American wars can end in any way that actually guarantees the rights of all your people and that ends the violence?
President Ashraf Ghani: Well, we are in an open moment. The incoming Biden Administration has an immense opportunity to work with us.
First to define what US security interests in Afghanistan and the region are. No one wants a return to a heavy footprint.
Second, an agreement on the future stability of Afghanistan guaranteed both by the region and by the international community is essential to end 40 years of conflict.
Third, I have been leading the peace process; I’ve owned it; I secured the first ceasefire in 2018 in our history. The process must now be truly owned by the Afghan government and the Afghan people.
Fourth, the scale and scope of US presence in Afghanistan needs to be defined. Here the most critical issue is how to marry a condition-based approach with a time-based approach. My basic goal is to be able to hand power through the will of the people to my elected successor. This is crucial to enable us to both honor the sacrifice of our civilians, our activists, and others.
One thing needs to be clear; Afghan society is not willing to go back and we are not a type of society that the Taliban-type approach of the past can be imposed on us. That was the peace of the graveyard. We want a positive peace where all of us together overcome our past, embrace each other and together rebuild an Afghanistan that can be what I call a roundabout where all civilizations, all people, all activities can interact.
Christiane Amanpour: Here you are saying we don’t want a heavy footprint forever, but I wonder what you feel about first, President Trump calling for the reduction by half of American forces there, and secondly Vice-president Biden, President-elect Biden who is also not a massive interventionist to say the least. I just want to play a little bit of an interview that he gave to CBS a year ago. This was before he won the nomination obviously before his election. But this is what he was talking about a year ago.
[Clip from Mr. Biden’s interview with CBS: Do I bear responsibility? Zero responsibility. The responsibility I have is to protect the American national self-interest and not put our men and women in harms way to try to solve every single problem in the world by use of force. That is my responsibility as the President and that is I will do as President.]
President Ashraf Ghani: I agree with President-elect Biden that his responsibility is protection of American people. You know since I have been President, the number of Americans – this is since 2015 – that have lost their lives is 98. While we, the Afghan people, have lost over 40,000 civilians and military. We are in the front line of your security.
The key issue is not charity for us or responsibility. We would be grateful for the United States for what has done with us. The question now is “What is the threat of terrorism? Is it a system or is it individuals?” That is where our common interest is and it’s on that basis that we move forward.
In terms of blood, the sacrifice has been reduced very substantially this.
The question is not ‘endless wars’ because Afghanistan is not a civil war. The question is whether there are endless threats to our current global order and how Afghanistan fits within that. We are assuming responsibility for our future. So if the United States would like to withdraw, all we ask for is a process that is predictable that is mutually agreed. I had the honor as you mentioned of leading the transition process where over 100,000 American troops during four years left Afghanistan. Gen. Petraeus was commanding 150,000 troops. Now we are reaching about 2,500 troops by 15 [January 2021]. So it has come down. President elect Biden must make his decision and then together we will forge a pathway to make sure our mutual interests are ensured.
Christiane Amanpour: I want to ask you Madam First Lady because you have spoken in other forums about the effect on the presence of international forces and international NGOs, non-governmental aid agencies. If you would put on your role you had as a former journalist, how would you assess what happened in your country with all these outside interventions on balance. What does it look like today?
First Lady: Well, basically what I have been talking about is the NGO model is not a sustainable one, because it is a cyclical model and at the end of every cycle the NGO people have to go around with their begging bowl and ask for more funds. I much prefer they would become local associations that rely on the population of Afghanistan. They still can receive funds from abroad but they should be accountable to the people they are supposed to be serving.
Christiane Amanpour: What are your fears for COVID in Afghanistan and now that vaccines are coming out, do you believe that countries like yours will benefit from that?
President Ashraf Ghani: Well, first of all I think Afghanistan showed that despite our small and limited resources, we could predict accurately the onslaught of COVID. We categorized it in five phases, awareness, diffusion, adversity, relief and recovery. The first wave; we took very strong measures and our casualties were minimal and equally the disruption to the economy was handled because, thank God, agriculture…
The second wave again just in the last week is going down; our fear is the third wave. We have managed the first two, I think, remarkably well mostly because of our population configuration. Fully 70.6 percent of the Afghans are under 30 years old, so the youth give us that and also collective immunity.
The Third Wave that has now started from the UK is the focus of our attention. On vaccines, we are hopeful. The first assist batch that will come to cover 20 percent has been agreed.
Christiane Amanpour: I want to turn finally to you First Lady. Your husband mentioned that his goal is to transition peacefully to whoever is his elected successor. When you see the hollow blue that is going on in the United States right now with the current president not transitioning peacefully and putting a large amount of obstacles to the duly elected president-elect, what message does that send to Afghanistan and to other countries in your neighborhood.
First Lady: Well, I suppose we are finding out that the America is not very different from our countries, and that maybe the efforts that we are doing here in Afghanistan to install a solid Republic, a solid Constitution, and a system that allows a voice for everyone with respect. Mutual respect and trust is something that will be durable and probably might be an example for other countries. I still hope and I can already see, I still hope that the systems that are existing in the United States are protecting the Republic in the United States and are allowing that whatever disruption has happened during the past few years, will be just that, and that there will be a return to normal.
Christiane Amanpour: On that note, First Lady Rula Ghani, President Ashraf Ghani. Thank you so much for joining me from the Presidential Palace in Kabul.
President Ashraf Ghani: Thank you. It is an honor and pleasure to be with you.