Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef was one of the founding members of the Taliban. He was the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, after the 9/11 terror attacks. A year later, Pakistan handed over him to the US. He was sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he spent four and a half years in detention. Back now in Afghanistan, Zaeef is no longer a formal member of the Taliban, but he is actively associated with the group. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Zaeef spoke about the importance of a political compromise to find a solution to the Afghan crisis. He said it was absolutely important for India and the Taliban to talk directly and resolve all outstanding issues.
Q/ Do you think the Taliban and the Afghanistan government will continue to fight?
A/ Eventually, the Taliban and the people know that fighting is not the solution. The end will only be through a political solution. The Taliban does not recognise the elected government of Afghanistan, which it thinks is a puppet government propped up by America, working for the benefit of the Americans. The government, meanwhile, does not recognise the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. That is the problem.
Q/ Do you think a compromise is possible?
A/ Yes. I think there is no other way. The people of Afghanistan are tired of the continued fighting, they can’t take the burden any more. Also, all countries (in the neighbourhood) agree that a stable Afghanistan is necessary, and that war is not the solution.
Q/ You have talked about stability in the region. How do you see the role of Pakistan?
A/ Afghanistan will only be for Afghans. It will be a neutral country. It will not be against any country, nor will it be used by any country. (Afghans) will convince all concerned countries that Afghanistan will be a safe and a neutral country to have a good relationship with and to do business with.
I know the competition between Pakistan and India in Afghanistan, which is damaging the people and also the sovereignty of the country. This will be stopped completely. Afghanistan will have a good relationship with Pakistan, India, Iran and other neighbours. We will not allow the soil of Afghanistan to be used against anyone. When the peace agreement and the intra-Afghan dialogue come up in future and reach a conclusion, this will be agreed upon. I know the concerns of India, and of other countries. I know the interests of Pakistan, too.
Q/ India has said that it will provide military help to Afghanistan.
A/ India will try to support the administration. Once there is peace in Afghanistan, we will not need military aid or equipment from any country. We want to see a neutral country. We do not want to see any competition—between India and Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia and America or between China and America—in Afghanistan. It is not possible for a small country to (be a venue for) all this competition. Our relationship with all countries will be based on respect, help and cooperation.
Q/ You are a founding member of the Taliban. Has the Taliban changed? Will the new Afghanistan be democratic?
A/ I am not with the Taliban now. I am independent, but I study the group and its members. They are my brothers, and I feel their pain. When we started in 1993, we had no experience and did not even know the geography. We were not aware of the power and the influence of the Americans. We did not know about India and its interests, or the global interest in Afghanistan. Now the Taliban knows everything. It knows the interests and concerns of other countries. It knows how Afghanistan will be in the future.
I cannot say whether there will be a democratic government or an Islamic government, it depends on the negotiations between the Taliban and the present government.
Q/ But will it have space for women?
A/ Of course. I was sitting with the Taliban in Moscow and in the conference in Doha. The Taliban agreed that women’s rights would be respected in Afghanistan, although women would not be given the top position of the emir. But in all other positions and fields such as politics and business, women would be involved.
Q/ Do you think India has reached out to the Taliban?
A/ It is necessary for India and the Taliban to reach out, share the concerns and find solutions through negotiations. It is important for peace in Afghanistan. I know India’s concerns. I am sure that the Taliban will not be working with Pakistan to damage India. But the distance between India and the Taliban is increasing, which is a concern. This is not good.
Q/ After Islamic State, there is the fear of Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K).
A/ Islamic State was brought to Afghanistan by the intelligence just to put pressure on the Taliban. My understanding is that Islamic State has no place in Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan don’t accept the idea. Islamic State has been repulsed by the Taliban. It does not have even a single base in Afghanistan.
Q/ Pakistan and the Taliban have deep connections. What will the Taliban do if Pakistan forces it to keep India out?
A/ The Taliban policy is very clear about that. The territory of Afghanistan will not be used against anyone. The future of Afghanistan will be as a neutral country. Its territory will not be used against any other country. If India and Pakistan want to fight, they have a long border and they can do it there. But not here in Afghanistan.