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photo of dr. abdullah
interview: dr. abdullah

How did you hear about the World Trade Center attacks?

I was driving to Dushanbe from Tashkent. I was like 10 minutes to the Dushanbe city, the BBC radio was on and then I heard about Sept. 11. In fact two days before there was the Sept. 9 event, assassination of Commander Massoud. I was already shocked. ...

After a few moments it came to my mind that perhaps over 50 percent my belief was that this should be the work of Al Qaeda as a guess, as a perception. And then we went and stopped at the embassy in Dushanbe or in a guesthouse which is linked to the embassy and there I wanted to see the pictures. The pictures were already on the air which was unbelievable. So this was Sept. 11, Dushanbe time, between 7:00 and 7:30.

And when was the first time you spoke to another member of the Northern Alliance leadership about the New York and the Washington attacks -- Mr. [Qanooni], [General Mohammed] Fahim Khan? Can you recall?

With Fahim Khan I talked the same night, the same evening.

And what did you say to each other?

Of course all of us were preoccupied with the assassination of Commander Massoud. I talked about that issue as well as the Sept. 11. The next morning I met Gen. Fahim in northeastern Afghanistan. ... I met Gen. Fahim and former President Rabbani there. And my view was that most probably it is the work of Al Qaeda. But in the back of my mind there was another thing as well. What if it is the work of another group like it could be? But the probability was about Al Qaeda.

Dr. Abdullah is the foreign minister of Afghanistan. He also served as foreign minister in the interim administration from December 2001 to June 2002 and prior to that as foreign minister for the Northern Alliance. In this interview, he discusses the power struggles within the Northern Alliance when it came time to create a new government for Afghanistan at the Bonn Conference. This interview was conducted on April 5, 2002.

And did you talk in that meeting ... with Professor Rabbani and Gen. Fahim about what this might mean for Afghanistan?

Yes I did. I told them that if it is prove[n] that this is the work of Al Qaeda, Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, we will be in trouble very soon, and seriously in trouble. Bearing in mind that the numbers of casualties were already announced, the casualties in New York and Washington.

I was insisting at that time that we should bury Commander Massoud very soon. And my reason was that first of all the Taliban didn't know that he is dead and secondly because this news is on and this is the most dramatic event. Everybody is preoccupied with this. My perception was that if Taliban had had time and had it not been for the Sept. 11 event or had Taliban known about the assassination of Commander Massoud, his death, the resistance would have collapsed automatically. So I was insisting that this is the time slot, Taliban are preoccupied, everybody is demoralized, they know that there will be reaction and they also don't know that whether Commander Massoud is dead or not. So in this period we should bury him and then we should focus on the rest of the business. ...

I am going to fast forward now to the beginning of October when a Northern Alliance delegation meet with the former king's delegation. I wonder if you could tell me the story of how an agreement was reached, a kind of blueprint for the future of Afghanistan after the Taliban.

When this issue was raised first among the leadership council here, which President Rabbani was the head of it, it was taken very seriously and the decision was made that the delegation should go. But in between deciding about sending the delegation and until they arrived there it was very imminent that the Taliban will be attacked. And then the mood here in Afghanistan amongst us changed in the leadership council. OK now we have time and we should talk about things and we should ask for another meeting rather than making a decision there. There the decision about formation of a government was not taken; in fact the decision was that in the next meeting 50 people from the [Northern Alliance], 50 people from the Rome Process [the delegation of the former king] should come together and form a government. When the delegation returned home at that time this idea was reviewed by the leadership council here in Afghanistan and then the idea was that the meeting should take place inside Afghanistan. Turkey was proposed as a venue; for so many days there were discussions about it but this trip didn't take place.

Can you remember how you were informed about the U.S. airstrikes on Oct. 7? Did you hear about them in the media or were you informed by the Americans?

No we were informed by the [U.S.]officials which were based in [the Panjshir Valley] ahead of that because we had to take some precautions about our convoys, about our helicopters which were flying over in our areas so we were informed. We were expecting; in fact we knew the exact timing of it. ...

On Oct. 15, which is about a week into the campaign, Colin Powell meets President Musharraf in Islamabad and they talk about the future of Afghanistan. At the press conference afterwards there is talk of moderate Taliban inclusion in the future government. Did you have conversations either with your contacts in the valley or telephone conversations back to Washington about the danger of America listening to Pakistan too closely on this issue?

We went public about it through media, of course through out contacts in the valley, yes, and through our representatives in Washington. But we kept mentioning that such a thing as moderate Taliban doesn't exist and we kept explaining what Taliban meant and from those points. Of course our objective was to see that once again the United States doesn't fall into another trap. I think the later events proved that we were right.

There is a meeting we want to cover in a lot of detail because it strikes us as very interesting and that is the meeting in Dushanbe that you had along with Professor Rabbani, President Putin ... and President Rakhmonov. Can you just give me some atmosphere in the meeting because it was in the middle of the night and you must have been exhausted? It was four in the morning.

Yes the meetings started at 12:00 in the morning, it had continued up to 4:30 in the morning. ... The first thing it was evaluation of the situation and everybody around the table was in an agreement that the support for the coalition efforts is necessary and it is necessary and it is also useful, it will be beneficiary for everybody. And everybody was appreciating the opportunity which was created to combat terrorism and to get support from the international community in that combat.

While at the same time I recall very well that President Putin mentioned that the future political set up which should be much more comprehensive, that was the message. It should be acceptable for the people of Afghanistan, it should be acceptable for the international community, that was the main point. While at the same time assured us of their continuation of their support.

Presumably President Putin told you that he recognized the Northern Alliance with Professor Rabbani at its head as the legitimate government of Afghanistan at that point. Did he say something like that to you?

Yes, that was the official position of the Russian Federation's government from not just at that point, but beforehand. He'd emphasized that point, but while emphasizing that point he kept mentioning that the future political setup should be based on a broader agreement between broader Afghan [groups]. That was the whole thing. ...

Was this the first explicit expression of Russian support for your campaign since the Sept. 11 or had there been contacts between yourself and the Russians?

Before that there had been two rounds of meetings between us and officials from five countries: Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, India; in one stage a Pakistan representative was also present.

When we interviewed [U.S. Undersecretary of State for Policy Planning] Richard Haass in Washington -- this is kind of now late October, early November so the military situation is just starting to accelerate -- he remembers calling you. ... Essentially he was asking you to convene talks as quickly as possible. Can you remember that conversation?

Yes I do. I do remember that conversation very well and I received the message from one or two channels that Richard Haass wanted to talk to me. Richard Haass wanted to make his point about the importance of convening a meeting, while myself was mentioning that there is no argument about the meeting itself, but it might take time. We should try our best to make it possible. There are some differences of opinion about it but we will do it. ...

I am going to move on to Nov. 9, which is a very important day, the day Mazar-e-Sharif fell. Where were you when you heard? How did you hear.

Once again I was in Jabal Saraj. We were in constant contact to General Dostum ... from two days before the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif. And we were following the events and for something like half an hour it was. There was an ambiguous situation whether all those reports which we were receiving directly was true or not because the leaders, they had moved forward to the front lines and we had to rely on the operators of the [satellite] phones.

But yes, the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, it was a big event. I was in Jabal Saraj, I think Gen. Fahim was also there, Bismullah Khan, and some other commanders. We talked about it and I think one of us proposed and urgent meeting between the members of the [Northern Alliance] which were present in the area, not with all of the [Northern Alliance].

And that meeting takes place in the military HQ does it in Jabal Saraj?


Can you tell me about that meeting and the issues that what you said and what was said to you?

I don't recall all the conversations but I was thinking, my feeling was that it would be only a matter of days, if not hours before the fall of Kabul and other major cities. And what to do was the question that all of us were asking and trying to find an answer for it.

It was a tricky question because you had undertaken not to go into Kabul in that meeting in Jabal Saraj on Nov. 9. Did you talk to Gen. Fahim, perhaps to Bismullah Khan about the issue of going into Kabul?

Two things were happening at the same time. I think next morning we had a meeting of leadership council where President Rabbani, Professor Sayyaf and the other leaders were all present. ... There in that meeting there was lots of emphasis on the need for a quick action. While Gen. Fahim had traveled ... President Rabbani had ordered Bismullah Khan to make preparations for the offensive. When Gen. Fahim returned back, we reviewed the situation once again and we all believed that we shouldn't move into Kabul for obvious reasons. We had made this decision long before but we had let a little bit of chance for such a situation because that, that chance was based on the argument that what if Taliban withdraw from Kabul.

In that kind of two day period, Nov. 9 and 10, were there CIA operatives or perhaps by now I am sure Special Forces urging you to behave -- sounds a bit patronizing, but given the precedents in 1992 were there Americans saying "Go easy, be careful we don't want a repeat of 1992?"

We were being told by the Americans to avoid repetition the situation in 1992, which the internal civil war started as a result of the situation which was created. But this was exactly the line of our thinking about not going into Kabul without a political agreement, a broad political agreement. But we wanted to emphasize that we should have the choice of going to Kabul if Taliban withdrew from Kabul because then it will not be a choice not to go to Kabul; we will have to go to Kabul. That should be understood. Otherwise we will wait and we will push for the political agreement before going to Kabul. ...

As you have just said you then cast your eyes to the future and the possible make up of the future government. Paul Bergne [the U.K. special envoy to Afghanistan] asked you could there be a Pashtun chairman for this administration, could there be Pashtun leadership? What did you say to that?

Yes, my answer was yes. But I tried to explain the situation that the events of the past has happened in a way that Taliban have falsely represented themselves as the Pashtun leadership. No alternative Pashtun leadership has been created, so while from one side I mentioned to Paul Bergne that we would like to see a Pashtun leadership, from the other side, in practical terms, I was not sure how it could happen.

And then your talk turned to specific people. You might be up for the running and Paul suggested Hamid Karzai. Could you tell us what you said when Paul Bergne said, "What about this Hamid Karzai fellow?"

Yes, the name of Hamid Karzai was mentioned. I had heard that he was in either in Pakistan or in Afghanistan but not sure. But my answer was quite content about the name and I said that yes he is one of the figures.

And what about when Paul suggested or asked for your thoughts on Professor Rabbani? What was your reply to him then?

I mentioned that in the later stages, President Rabbani might not like the idea of transfer of power but when there is a solution for Afghanistan what we will vote for or what we will go for will be the solution, not a certain person or a certain personality. But that at this stage he is the legitimate cover for the movement, for the resistance against the Taliban and he is the leader and he is the president. But if he in later stages disagrees with the idea of transfer of power, which will be based on a broad agreement, we will go for that agreement. ...

And still with Paul Bergne, he asks you your thoughts on the former king as a potential leader in the administration. What was your response to that?

My response to the question about the former king of Afghanistan was that he is a respected personality, he will be respected, his role will be welcomed, but he cannot be the head of state or the king of Afghanistan because that is a decision which we should let the people of Afghanistan to decide about it. That was my comments on the former king of Afghanistan.

Moving back now to the military situation which is obviously accelerating, which is why you are having these conversations accelerating fast, can you remember when you heard about the evacuation of the Taliban [from Kabul] and you realized that this changes things?

That night I was in Jabal Saraj until 1:00 in the morning as the troops kept advancing towards Kabul. I thought that eventually they will enter Kabul, because Taliban were badly defeated in the front lines. I was not happy with this situation. ...

[Gen. Fahim] explained that how difficult it was to control the forces and also how needed it was to make the go into Kabul. I was not satisfied but I accepted that yes this has happened. And then I emphasized on the need for the taking control of the situation as soon as possible because in the chaos in the first hours of entering to Kabul was possible. ...

So you enter Kabul and you invite all the various Afghan factions to talks in Kabul. Why did you choose Kabul when other places had been suggested?

To agree the sense of peace and to promote we didn't want to give a sense that we have entered Kabul and now our intention is to exclude everybody from the process. Our call was that Kabul should be a venue for peace talks, not a venue for the war. So to change the perception which existed to some extent, we went into Kabul, we will stick to Kabul, we will monopolize power and we not allow anybody else. So that was the call. ...

I'd like to move onto James Dobbins [U.S. envoy for Afghanistan] now, who arrives with the brief of convening talks along with Francesc Vendrell [the U.N. deputy envoy to Afghanistan] all the Afghans factions can go to. You meet him in Tashkent alone, first I think in the U.S. ambassador's residence. It's about Nov. 18, five days after Kabul fell. And he asks you to explain why the Northern Alliance had gone back on their undertaking not to move into Kabul. What did you reply to him?

I'd always started explaining the situation and then that explanation, it came out. That's why we did go there. James Dobbins mentioned a few points, one of which was that since we were fighting together, we expect this victory was made possible because of our efforts as well as yours. So there are rules of the game. ...

What is important now is the political agreement. That was the focus of conversation with Richard Haass as well at one stage. So, the political agreement, there I mentioned ... that we want a political agreement and we know that that there should be transfer of power from the [Northern Alliance]. We are not a candidate for the future leadership. We prefer a pastoral leadership. And, then I think I mentioned the name of Mr. [Karzai].

And was Jim Dobbins surprised to have a member of the Northern Alliance recommending a Pashtun, not a member of the Northern Alliance, as a possible chairman?

... I shouldn't think that he was surprised but he might have been happy to hear that. Yes. ...

Mr. Dobbins was very keen to impress on you that talks should not happen in Kabul, and that they should be convened not by you, but by the U.N. When he made those two points to you, what were you able to say in your reply?

About convening the talks in Kabul, we also knew the restrictions of holding talks in Kabul, and it was accepted. But there was no doubt about the rule of United Nations that the United Nations should hold the talks with the way it is. ...

Do you remember the moment in your meeting with Mr. Vendrell where you realized you had agreed that the meeting would take place? It would take place in Bonn, and you were actually getting somewhere. Do you recall a moment like that?

Yes, I recall the moment that there would be a meeting. We will be sending out a delegation and there would be an agreement, but I had thought at that stage, our perception at that time was that in the first meeting, in Bonn, we might reach to an agreement about the principles. For example, the principle of another meeting where the transfer of power will be accepted, will be discussed and decided, and so on, and so forth -- the principles and the framework. At that stage I had not thought that we'd [be] sending the delegation [to] a meeting [where that] would be concluded. I had thought that the maximum which we might get is timetable, principles, framework agreement. ...

Moving on to Bonn. I imagine Younus Qanooni doing the negotiating actually in Bonn, and a kind of constant meeting of yourself and Fahim Khan and Professor Rabbani back here in Kabul. Is that how it worked?

Yes, yes. Even before that, when the day of the Bonn Conference was coming closer and closer, we were behind because we had not agreed upon the number of the people, the names of the people which we'll be sending there. Amongst ourselves there were hot debates about the numbers of the people, the balance between both sides or different sides, in that meeting. The leadership council here expected at least one person more than all the others. For example, if the Rome, Cyprus, and Peshawar processes, they represent 10 people, we should represent 11. ... That issue was forced well before, becoming a very controversial issue which could have jeopardized the pact of attending the meeting by our people. That was a painstaking job.

Then the day that we decided that we were going to send a team, that was a very interesting and important and historical day. In fact, twice we did debate. In the first meeting, which took place around noon, I don't recall the date, but of course it was like three days before the departure of the delegation to Rome. We met in what is called palace number one, which is now the residence of official visitors of Chairman Karzai. We sat on the ground, on the grass, like local tradition Afghan way of sitting. It was of course Ramadan and we started talking. And President Rabbani, Professor Sayyaf, they were sort of reluctant to send a delegation. We argued, and if you ask anybody in that meeting, they will say that I did most of the argument, in that meeting, until we managed to get an agreement in principle that we were going to send a delegation. Mr. Qanooni was assigned to chair that team. ...

We finalized the names, and 11 people and some as observers from our part. Later on there were some changes with consent of the United Nations about it with Francesc Vendrell and it continued to discuss that issue, and they departed. They went to Bonn. They arrived at Bonn.

The media focused on this issue that in a matter of one or two days there will be an agreement about the transfer of power. From the first day of the meeting it was imminent that this agreement would be about every details of the formation of a government, not about the principle, not about the framework. So I [was] sort of, not directly, sort of blamed for pretending otherwise beforehand, but honestly that was my perception at that time. But later on, when they said that "Now, every details has to be discussed and finalized" I say, "OK. There is an opportunity. Why not?" But the some members of the leadership council they were not happy about this. And they said that they should just agree on the principle, and they should just [come] back and the next meeting should be in Kabul.

Presumably this really rears its head when Younus Qanooni gets back to you from Bonn and says, "Right, we're talking names now, names for the interim administration. I need a list of names authorized by yourself and Professor Rabbani." Can you remember when you heard from Younus Qanooni that negotiations had reached this point? You're not only talking a framework, or a constitution, you're talking the names of ministers?

About the name of the head of state, we had discussed it in the past. Two names were discussed -- we knew that the former king of Afghanistan is not intending to play an executive role -- the name of Mr. Karzai, and the name of [Abdul Sattar] Sirat [an ethnic Uzbek who was a close aide to the former king]. I was not happy with due respect to Mr. Sirat about the name of Mr. Sirat as the head of the government for certain reasons, one of which was that we should put an end to this perception of the Northern Alliance pushing for a non-Pashtun. It would have been perceived once again as our attempt, when this was not the case. And also for realities for Afghanistan, for the real need for a change we needed a Pashtun. ...

And then conversation turns to lists of names [for the interim cabinet]. When we spoke to Jim Dobbins, he said the big sticking point in Bonn was when he went to the east delegation and said "Right, now we need your lists of names of people to be put up for ministerial positions in the interim administration." Younus Qanooni gets back to you in Kabul and Professor Rabbani says, "No."

Yes, yes.

Could you tell me how that was worked out?

When we reached to the point that we have to give names and Mr. Qanooni asked me, "What do you think? ... Before talking about the names, which posts should we emphasize? I told him, he will remember, the ministry of defense, for obvious reasons because it's stability, continuity of the security, and so on and so forth. Second, the ministry of security, once again for security and stability. He said, "What else?" I told him that I'm not concerned about the rest. These two are important. Because a failure to the agreement would have been a failure for everybody, and a little mistake in these issues would have caused failure for the agreement. And secondly, and also, while I was emphasizing at the beginning that OK, because we were told that there would be an agreement on principles and framework, and timetable, we should have stick to that. That was the first thing, but when Mr. Qanooni said "No, the expectations are different. We cannot go without agreement." Then I told him, "Make an agreement."

And what did Professor Rabbani say?

Professor Rabbani said that the delegation should return back. They should come back. They are not authorized to sign an agreement. We will not give them a list of names, and so on, and so forth.

And you said to him?

In a leadership council meeting, twice we reached to very delicate point. In one stage, when they said that we should [re]call the delegation, I said that I'm not a part of this decision, and I clearly can announce my resignation from the government, yes? I will not be a part of a decision which is against the will of the people of Afghanistan and the will of the international community and ruins their chances for all of us. I will not. So it was a very negative gesture for the people who where present there, but it proved to be very positive in its impact. ...

Jim Dobbins remembers quite vividly, the day after this sticky moment with names, you called him in the morning and said, "Ambassador Dobbins, we're going to go ahead with this. It will be all right. We'll give you a list of names. It won't be a problem, but I just need some more time to persuade the leadership council."

Yes, I called Jim Dobbins, that was early in the morning and I assured him that we will make an agreement, we will provide a list of names, but we need time. We need time to work it out amongst ourselves and convince as much as people as we can. We will have an agreement with or without President Rabbani's consent.

Ambassador [Dobbins] has also told us that you told him, that in one of these leadership meetings a message came from the Russian Ambassador?


Could you just tell me that story?

I mentioned a bit about to Mr. Dobbins that in between those dates, the Russian Federation's envoy in Bonn ... had called President Rabbani. He later on called me, and he had passed a message that the world expects an agreement. We are part of the international community, [and] as a part of the international community you should expect that without an agreement our support for the [Northern Alliance] can[not] continue. I think that message had important impact. ...

And was there a moment when Professor Rabbani backed down, if you will? He said, "OK send the names." Or was he never fully persuaded? Did you just send them anyway?

He sent names of 36 people. The names of me and Mr. Qanooni was not included on his list. [Laughs]. And Qanooni received that list but we continued our discussions about the names which should be a part of the internal cabinet.

From President Rabbani's point of view, my former boss, former President Rabbani, it might sounds like from what I explained some people might perceive that we betrayed our boss, which is not [true]. I think it was the best solution for President Rabbani -- his face was saved. He finally he was seen as one personality, a president, who transferred power based on an international agreement, based on an agreement between the Afghans and internationally provisional agreement, which was the best solution. Any idea, any dream of continuation of his tenure would have been disastrous for himself, for the country, and for the people of Afghanistan. ...

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