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There has been continuous carnage in Afghanistan. Last week, more than 200 people were killed, many at a girls school in Kabul. The violence comes as the U.S. and NATO are withdrawing troops, scheduled to be gone completely by September. Amna Nawaz speaks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani about the situation and whether he expects the ongoing violence to get worse as U.S. troops exit the country.
There has been continuous carnage in Afghanistan, even just last week, when more than 200 people were killed, many at a girls school in Kabul.
That violence comes as the U.S. and NATO are withdrawing troops, scheduled to be gone completely by early September.
In a moment, my interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, but first some background.
In Kabul on Friday, worshipers mourned the remnants of a mosque in ruins and a community destroyed by another attack. Frustrated Afghans blamed the government.
Mir Aqaa (through translator):
These government officials are traitors that do not pursue these incidents at all. How long should the situation be like this? If they cannot govern, then they must step down.
The Taliban condemned the attack, which took place during a three-day cease-fire with the Afghan government during the Eid holiday at the end of Ramadan. No group has claimed responsibility.
Pres. Joe Biden:
I have concluded it is time to end America's longest war. It is time for American troops to come home.
Last month, President Biden announced the U.S. would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September 11, extending the previous May 1 deadline, part of a deal struck last year between the Trump administration and the Taliban.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani voiced his support for U.S. troop withdrawal, calling it a new chance for the country.
Pres. Ashraf Ghani (through translator):
It is the greatest opportunity in our contemporary history.
But, in the last year, the violence has been unrelenting. The Taliban have stopped targeting U.S. and NATO forces, and now regularly attack civilians and Afghan forces.
Nearly 2,000 Afghans were killed in the first three months of the year. People here fear the U.S. withdrawal could tip the country into civil war. Yesterday, in Kabul, schoolgirls returned to a near empty classroom, after their school was bombed last week.
Nearly 90 people, mostly students, were killed. Farida, who survived the attack, insisted she will not be intimidated.
Farida (through translator):
I will resist against them. If they use guns, I will use my pen. Everyone, my father, mother and uncle, encourage me to continue, and I will continue.
And now to my conversation earlier today with President Ghani, joining us from Kabul.
I began by asking him if he expects the ongoing violence to get worse as U.S. troops continue to leave Afghanistan.
As far as the state of war is concerned, we're ready. We have been ready for months.
The U.S. withdrawal is a strategic decision that clarifies a lot of things. The war will become simpler, because their — all their allegations of international conspiracy or international desire to stay permanently, et cetera, has now come to an end. We need to work together.
And the other factor is the region. The region now is glad the U.S. has no intentions of a long-term stay. Consequently, we need to get together to arrive at collective security strategy.
I hear you say you are ready. And that says to me that you do anticipate violence increasing as the U.S. and NATO forces leave.
But, already, there is ongoing fighting in the majority of Afghanistan's provinces, right, something like 28 out of the 34 total provinces. And the Taliban has been gaining and holding ground, essentially encircling urban centers there.
When you say you are ready, if your forces have not yet been able to hold them off so far, what makes you think that would change moving forward?
I think first of all, your perception — I would like to call your perception into question, with no misrespect.
The Taliban are not holding. The Taliban are carrying sporadic attacks. It is a destructive force, not holding of territory. Arghandab was the only district in Kandahar where they tried to hold. And now the people hate them with passion.
We know negotiators from your government have been meeting with representatives from the Taliban as well in Doha just a few days ago.
Was there any progress made in those talks?
The key to a political dialogue is that the Taliban accept that the future political system of Afghanistan is based on elections.
That is the fundamental bottom line. Other things are discussible, negotiable. But if that fundamental issue is not granted, then the question of rights and the question of gains that have occurred in the last 20 years, particularly vis-a-vis women, youth, minorities, all walks of life, will be put into question.
And the Taliban have said that they will continue to engage in these talks.
But I'd like to ask you about the plan that you recently laid out in an article about how you think things should move forward, you would like to see a short transitional government put into place, elections scheduled and held. You have said that you would not run in those elections, and that you would leave office early if your successor who was elected had a mandate for peace.
Are there any other circumstances under which you would step down early?
None at all?
If there is war — no.
If there is war, I am the commander in chief. I will not abandon my people. I will not abandon my forces. I am willing to die for my country. I have no interest in power. I'm committed to the principle of ensuring order. Afghan society wants order.
At the same time, Mr. President, Taliban have told us that if you, President Ghani, wants to stay in power, they say there will be no solution. And they say, the longer you stay in power, that it will only prolong the fighting.
So, if it's in the interest of even reaching a peace agreement in the first place, would you consider stepping down early to move forward that process?
I have given you my answer.
Are they going to accept elections as the fundamental basis of moving forward or not? I'm not the obstacle. I have brought it. I have declared it. I built consensus around it.
They need to first say, is this a Trojan horse strategy to strip the government of capacity, behead the government, and then carry out? This is a time-wasting technique to focus on me, rather than on the solution.
Mr. President, let me ask you about the timeline, though.
What if there is a transitional government for a very long time? You ideally laid out that it would be a short transitional government, elections are quickly scheduled. What if that doesn't happen? What if there are no elections for a long time? What then?
No, the elections will have to take place, because we cannot go without the will of the people. Legitimacy depends.
I have been working on this for two decades. There are lessons. Peacemaking is not jazz. It's not improvisation. In order to do jazz, you need 10,000 hours of preparation.
You have made clear that you do not oppose U.S. withdrawal. You answered the question and said there is no sense of betrayal there on your part.
The question, you say, is where our common interests now lie. So, the U.S. has made very clear what their interests were, right? It was to get with Osama bin Laden. It was to make sure Afghanistan does not provide safe haven for any threat to the United States.
What about for Afghanistan? Where is the common interest between your country and the U.S. right now?
The threat of terrorism has changed. It has not disappeared. We are all agreed on this.
Two, the United States is committed to support things, providing support. This is financial, in the security area, in the economic area, in the humanitarian area, because the United States, fortunately, shares the values of supporting the gains of the last 20 years. And our discussion is enormously productive.
The same, fortunately, applies to NATO members and non-NATO members who have been our partners.
But when you talk about that support, what specifically are we talking about? Humanitarian aid, as you mentioned, to rebuild, structure, infrastructure, and then also continuing military aid for Afghan forces?
And are you satisfied with the level of commitment you have gotten from the U.S.?
Do you trust that there is an enduring partnership there?
I trust them, yes.
Let me ask you about the state of women, as you mentioned, because there are parts of the country in which the Taliban do hold rural parts of the country.
And there are some places in which they have reinstituted something close to the brutal regime that they oversaw in the '90s, when women do not have the same rights they had before.
I'm curious how you approach those areas. Do you plan on launching offenses to go in and help women secure those rights? Or does Afghanistan's future mean your rights depend on where you live as a woman?
The basic issue is citizenship.
Our constitution is amendable, except in two areas. One, the Islamic character of the state cannot be amended. Second, the rights of citizens can only be improved through amendment, not — so it is crucial that we remain focused on the values that holds the society and gives it hope.
If Taliban want peace, then it has to be peace that respects the gains of the citizens of Afghanistan and among them, first and foremost, women.
If they do in the want peace and want to gain power through violence and impose a remember, a dictatorial regime, than the — all the patriotic forces of Afghanistan would have to rally and make a decision. And that issue, unfortunately, would have to be decided on the field of battle.
Mr. President, with all due respect, there are parts of the country where that is already the case.
There have been reports from the BBC recently just outside of Mazar-e-Sharif where the Taliban have essentially set up a shadow government, reports from other parts of the country as well.
I'm not denying…
You say that you are ready to defend in the future, but what have you already done to defend that ground?
I'm not — we have lost more than 40,000 of our forces.
It's an all-volunteer defense and security force. And the network of support that the Taliban enjoys needs to be discussed openly, transparently, and people who provide them support need to be called also into — on the table.
You are referring to some of your regional neighbors, and Pakistan in particular, correct?
It's just not — just not the regional neighbors. There are international networks. The criminal networks, those who thrive on the drug trafficking, want this kind of disorder.
The terrorist networks are not just from the region. We have people. We are — 16 countries were providing recruits to Da'esh that are right now, just the women and children, that we're trying to return.
Mr. President, how worried are you about your own safety?
I'm not worried.
You're not worried?
You have survived several assassination attempts. The Taliban said that they see you as a puppet regime for the West.
You are not worried about your safety?
Look, I am a believer. I have survived a lot. The talk of assassination and others, it is a disabling mechanism. This issue should not focus on me. I'm an instrument for the realization of my people's wishes and aspirations.
And I need to take the risks. I cannot stop meeting with my people. I cannot stop focus. To the day, to the minute that I am alive, I will be thinking creatively and in a focused manner to improve the lives of my people. Then history will make a judgment.
President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, thank you very much for your time.
Watch the Full Episode
Amna Nawaz serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
Ali Rogin is a correspondent for PBS News Weekend and a foreign affairs producer at the PBS NewsHour.
Layla Quran is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour. She was previously a foreign affairs reporter and producer.
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