Transcript: Afghanistan’s vision for peace: A conversation with H.E. President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani

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Thu, Jun 11, 2020

President Ghani assesses the prospects for peace in Afghanistan

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stressed on June 11 that a temporary ceasefire between the Afghan government and the Taliban has helped create space for potential peace negotiations, but cautioned that the road to a true peace will be long and difficult.

New Atlanticist by Larry Luxner

Afghanistan Conflict

Event transcript

FREDERICK KEMPE: Good morning from Washington and good evening to our many viewers in Kabul, where I’m delighted that Radio Television Afghanistan, RTA, is carrying this important event live. And greetings as well to our viewers elsewhere around the world across numerous different platforms. I’m Fred Kempe. I’m president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. Welcome to the Atlantic Council front page or #ACfrontpage, our premier live ideas platform for global leaders.

We have recently heard extraordinary leaders through this platform. On Monday, we heard NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who launched his effort through 2030 to strengthen both the political and global dimensions of the security alliance that our partners in Afghanistan know so well. Others on this platform have ranged from the executive director of the IMF to the president of Columbia, but I can say, I think, also on behalf of our partners of United States Institue of Peace, that this one gives us particular pleasure.

I’m delighted to be partnering today with USIP to bring you a timely discussion at a historic moment with the president of Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, who is also the recipient of the Atlantic Council’s 2015 distinguished international leadership award. President Ghani won re-election in February this year and is a leading voice for democracy, freedom, and inclusion in a country and region as rich with opportunity as it is with challenges.

The event will unfold in the following manner. Stephen Heintz, president and CEO of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, who, with his foundation, has been deeply committed to Afghanistan’s future, will introduce President Ghani. President Ghani will give brief opening remarks, and then he will be interviewed by Stephen Hadley, former national security advisor for the president George W Bush, chair of the board of directors of USIP, and executive vice chair at the Atlantic Council. After their conversation, which will include audience questions, USIP president and CEO, Nancy Lindborg, will close.

I encourage you to join the conversation either by using the Q&A function in Zoom or by tweeting your questions using the #ACfrontpage. President Ghani, I don’t know what the virtual global equivalent is to a standing room audience, but that’s what we’ve got today. So now I’d like to turn to my friend and colleague, Stephen Heintz.

STEPHEN HEINTZ: Thank you very much, Fred, and thanks to the Atlantic Council and the US Institute of Peace for organizing this important event. It’s certainly an honor for me to be invited to introduce his excellency, Ashraf Ghani, the president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

President Ghani was born in Logar province in Afghanistan in 1949. He first came to the United States as a foreign exchange student at Lake Oswego high school in Oregon, graduating with the class of 1967. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science at the American University of Beirut and a PhD in cultural anthropology at Columbia.

After a distinguished 18 year academic career, including faculty posts at Kabul University, UC Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins, President Ghani joined the World Bank in 1991, where he led projects in East Asia, Russia, China, and India. He returned to Afghanistan in February 2001 serving first as the chief advisor to President Hamid Karzai, then as finance minister, and ultimately, as chancellor of the University of Kabul. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 2009, but was elected in an intensely contested election in 2014, and reelected in similar circumstances last year.

Now a PhD and cultural anthropology might not seem like the most likely background for the presidency, but in the case of Afghanistan with its rich and complex mix of cultures, ethnic communities, and troubled history, it seems to me that President Ghani’s academic training is serving him extremely well. In 2011, he and his daughter, Mariam, published Afghanistan– A Lexicon, a concise analysis of the cycles of reform reaction and chaos that have occurred in Afghanistan’s modern history starting with the rule of King Amanullah in the 1920s. He is also the co-author of Fixing Failed States, a seminal work that analyzes the core functions of the state and suggests concrete static strategies for building the central institutions with an emphasis on tapping the expertise of citizens in the process.

President Ghani is a leader of great personal and political courage and deep humanity. I’m sure we would all agree he has one of the most challenging jobs on the planet. During his first term, he achieved important progress in fighting corruption, developing Afghanistan’s economy, advancing rights and education for women and girls, and deepening the culture of a constitutional democracy, all while simultaneously fighting a brutal war and now managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

As he starts his second term, Afghanistan stands at a crossroads. With the US-Taliban agreement of February, the release of Taliban prisoners under way, a fragile cease fire, and even the visit this week of Bajwa, the Pakistani army chief of staff, President Ghani and his team are working tirelessly to start the intra-Afghan negotiations, where the parties will work to achieve a political settlement and a durable peace. The challenges are enormous. President Ghani, a very warm welcome to you. Thank you for joining us today at this critical time for your country.

ASHRAF GHANI: [INAUDIBLE]

STEPHEN HEINTZ: Please.

ASHRAF GHANI: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

It’s a great pleasure. Mr. Kempe, thank you for your friendship and thank you for giving me a home in Atlantic Council during over a decade. I’ve enjoyed it much and it’s an honor and a pleasure. I’d like to thank Mr. Henitz and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for their deep engagement and advice on peace process. And to thank Mr. Hadley for his wisdom, friendship, and commitment, and equally, Ms. Lindborg, and lots of friends. I hear General Petraeus is going to be there. During the transition, I had the honor of working very closely with him.

Let me first pay tribute to the American people, to the American administrations, and Congress of the United States, and particularly, the American taxpayer for the sacrifices in blood and treasure. A grateful nation, a grateful government, and a grateful president honor this partnership.

But my particular tribute is to the 2,448 American men and women in uniform who paid the ultimate sacrifice, 95 of them since I’ve been president. And the new face of our relationship under the bilateral security agreement this began. I would like to thank more than a million veterans of Afghanistan and tens of thousands of civilians we did not consider the hardship post, but volunteered to serve in Afghanistan. So let me say what a pleasure it is to be able to speak to you.

I was asked as to what my vision was. My vision is to enable my fellow Afghan women and men to enjoy the conditions to articulate and implement medium and long term visions of a common future. The reason I’m framing it in that way is that the level of turbulence and resulting uncertainty makes the application of vision like 2020 exercises very difficult. So five key interrelated related objectives will provide the foundation for that vision.

First, to overcome the turbulences of the recent past that have made uncertainty the dominant condition of our present. Peace process is going to be fundamental to remove the specter of war and violence to enable us to focus on visions, indeed.

Second, to reclaim our historic function as a nation roundabout and a hub of regional connectivity. For two millennia, we served as what Toynbee referred to as a roundabout. A place where ideas, people, goods, and of course, armies and big powers moved. But half of the roads– half of the roads of the world led to battle [INAUDIBLE]. Reclaiming that past and also, Fred Starr’s wonderful work, Lost Enlightenment– we were the center of a tolerant Islamic civilization that was second to none during our gold age.

Three, to build robust tools of governance to deal with the corona effect of the human security and the critical tasks of peace building, market building, state building, and nation building in a constantly changing context. Leadership and management under these conditions is very different than those of stable societies. But corona brings that level of uncertainty and turbulence that the whole world faces to us and makes it familiar to all of us.

Four, to create an economic and fiscal basis for self-reliance through the utilization of our immense natural capital and in assets and capabilities in order to expand opportunities for our men and women. And to launch our boys and girls on the path of prosperity. And fifth, to adopt and practice a posture of multi-alignment in our foreign policy. Pursuing a number of friendly relations with other countries while eschewing alliances and expanding the tools of partnership. It’s fundamental that our partnership shift from a predominantly-security focus, I hope, within these years to the enormous range of economic, cultural, social, financial ties that will enable us to tackle poverty, exclusion, and violence that are the fundamental blockages.

I’ll stop there. I’m sure Mr. Hadley with his usual wisdom will keep us busy. And so onto you.

STEPHEN HADLEY: So Mr. President, thank you very much. Thank you for taking the time to be with us today. We’re very grateful. I want to talk a little bit about some of the issues that are on the minds, I think, of the American people as they follow events in Afghanistan. And obviously, the first and foremost is the intra-Afghan negotiations.

Since the signing of the US-Taliban agreement, the two major obstacles to getting to intra-Afghan negotiations seem to be the maintaining reduced levels of violence and prisoner releases. And we were pleased to see the three day cease fire over Eid. And I understand that violence levels have been somewhat reduced since then. And of course, a considerable number of prisoners have been released on both sides. So what else needs to occur in order for intra-Afghan negotiations to begin? And what is your sense about the timeline?

ASHRAF GHANI: Well, thank you. First, the Eid cease fire was a major movement to enable us to take some bold and critical decisions. As you saw what the declaration of the cease fire announced the release of 2,000 Taliban prisoners and managed to release 1,000 within two days. I think the final numbers by the two teams– we have a Taliban team in Afghanistan present that are checking the numbers– today, we should have reached or crossed the 3,000 figure. The remaining commitment, my colleagues and I made the decision to release an additional 2,000 prisoners within a very short period. We will announce the date soon.

In terms of reduction of violence, there has been a reduction, but the casualty figures to average around 60 to 70 a day. The number of fatalities, unfortunately, are averaging 30. It’s extremely important for public support that reduction reaches the maximum effect. And also, that we ensure that irreconcilables and spoilers are not given an opportunity.

I’ve spoken to Ambassador Khalilzad yesterday, and also, to the special representative of Qatar this morning. I think now we are on course. And next week, we should be able to inform the world of the next step.

I’d like to state for the record that the United States and Afghanistan are completely aligned. I express my appreciation of Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Khalilzad, who have had a very constructive discussion with us on the end state of a sovereign democratic United Afghanistan at peace with itself and with the world. And getting to peace is my absolute priority. And I hope that we will be able to make use of a window that is rare.

There is a window of opportunity and I am very pleased that General Bajwa visited us on the 9th, and has also indicated support for this end state of a constitutional democratic Afghanistan that would serve as the center– a hub of trade, energy, and connectivity. And we feel that we’ve come to the closest alignment with Pakistan in terms of discourse. We hope that we will be able to turn this into opportunity for alignment.

And furthermore, we have both agreed that countries develop within regions, and the immense opportunity that India presents is extremely important. Our multi-alliance means that our territory will not be used against any of our neighbors or friends or other countries. With this, I think that the obstacles are diminishing the coalition for peace is increasing and the coalition against peace is diminishing.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thank you Mr. President. If I may follow up on that in just one respect, if I hear you correctly, certainly, a reduction in violence is something that is essential to prepare the political ground for negotiations. I gather, though, when people have talked about a permanent cease fire, that is something that would be a subject of the negotiations once the intra-Afghan negotiations begin.

We were wondering whether the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity since the Taliban as well as non-Taliban controlled areas are suffering from this disease, is this an opportunity to accelerate the reduction in violence and maybe have almost a de facto cease fire as the government and Taliban work together to deal with the COVID-19 crisis?

ASHRAF GHANI: First, one issue needs to be highlighted– the members of that Afghan National Security and Defense Forces that have been imprisoned by the Taliban are not completely released. It’s important that the commitment– because this is a mutual commitment– is fulfilled. They claim 1,000. The number keeps shifting. But we need clarity regarding the fate of those that are with them and assurance that the last person remaining with them is released.

The humanitarian situation requires joint action. COVID is a hyper event. The was before and after COVID are not going to be the same. Everybody is hit. We are now gone– we envisioned five phases– awareness, diffusion, adversity, relief, and recovery. We know the faces, but not the duration, because [INAUDIBLE].

We are now in the face of adversity. But the economic consequence of this means that about 88 to 90% of the Afghan population requires food assistance and other medical attention. A humanitarian cease fire is urgent to enable us to provide services to every Afghan. To me, an Afghan child is an Afghan child, an Afghan woman is an Afghan citizen. We have to articulate this, whatever the formal name is called, for opening up the space, for cooperation in this. We have to move urgently.

The words matter, because the ultimate approval of the peace agreement that we are very keen to ensure will be decided by the Afghan people to the institution of the Loya Jirga Loya Jirga cannot be manipulated. They are truly an institution of democracy in practice like New England town halls. So shift in language. Violence will not persuade. Gestures of reconciliation, of acceptance.

Let me add one other word. The war has no winner. All of us are losers in a war. The winner of peace will be the people of Afghanistan and our neighbors. So let’s really work for those whom we are elected to serve or in whose name we claim authority. The people of Afghanistan have a consensus that peace must come and must come soon. And I hope that we can truly muster a sense of urgency to get to that.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thank you Mr. President, very much. Let me ask you another question, if I may, on the peace process. They generally require inclusivity and national buy in, as you talked about, to be sustainable particularly during the implementation period, and after. And this, of course, is particularly challenging in a country as diverse as Afghanistan, as you well know.

Could you tell us what you are doing to ensure that all Afghans feel included in this process in particular? That the voices of women are an integral part of the peace process?

ASHRAF GHANI: Well, of course. The first move was to reach agreement with my friend, Dr. Abdullah, that he got persuaded to serve as chairman of the peace council. This is extremely important. And of course, members of his team will be joining the government, but the constitutional order and rules will now prevail. We will not have a two-headed government. The consultation, I’ve seen Dr. Abdullah continuously, including last night– we are keen to work together. And we are working together.

Second, the negotiating team is an all-inclusive team representing all the people of Afghanistan. It’s been done to immense consultation. Thirdly, women are serving directly on the negotiating team. And in terms of the women of Afghanistan, I’d like to make a couple of remarks.

One, they speak for themselves. Their strength, their will, their capacity to work together– the women’s consultative huge national gathering on peace some months ago was an indication. Two, the glass ceiling is broken, the question is the middle. We have two women ambassadors to the United States and United Nations, and I’d like to recognize Roya Rahmani, are very able ambassador the United States that is truly representing of women

The key is that the rest of the world listens to that one woman. I’ve had the honor of just appointing the second woman to the cabinet, and I intend to appoint two more. There will be at least four members of the cabinet– that’s my cabinet– and on the high peace council as soon as Dr. Abdullah is able to form it. Because of the peace process has moved so rapidly, So we focused on negotiations as the first priority. Women will be there in numbers, as will be youth, the ulema, and others.

Peace is being discussed everyday. Our framework of reference derives from the 2019 peace Jirga, Loya Jirga, that all its members were elected from the rural communities up to others. This is serious business for every Afghan citizen and I’m delighted by the level of engagement. I think there will be no question about inclusion.

But also, we have to balance inclusion with efficiency and being able to move forward. So the process has to be inclusive, the outcomes have to be inclusive. And the outcomes have to be publicly ratified so the inclusion is continuous.

That cease fire of two years ago showed that the Afghan people are ready to embrace the Taliban, who espouse peace. The Taliban are a part of reality of Afghanistan. And its force is no longer the instrument, the prime instrument, for bringing stability to Afghanistan. We must bring this to an end politically. And I hope that then, we’ll be able to face the hard task of implementing our agreements.

So the agreements that we enter must also be implemented. And [INAUDIBLE] key issues that are of concern, both to the Afghan public, and to the regional partners, international partners must be part of this understanding.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thank you. One last question for me, and then we’re going to go from some questions to our audience. And my last question is this. There have been press reports here in the United States that President Trump is considering further drawdowns of US troop levels in Afghanistan before the end of the year. What impact would such drawdowns have on the prospects for peace and on the security situation in Afghanistan?

ASHRAF GHANI: Well, first, this is the sovereign decision of the United States. I’ve always indicated that the sacrifice in blood and treasure is immense. And we appreciate the partnership regardless of the decisions that are made.

Scenarios are always discussed. So one has to understand that this is not the first time that those scenarios are being discussed. Yesterday, General McKenzie had come, said the conditions were not right. The key framework is a condition-based approach. So what would be important is to have a dispassionate sense of those conditions. Our imperative now is to conclude peace as soon as feasible, but a sustainable peace. I think that that, again, will be an important issue.

Second, the Afghan security forces have not been defeated. They are committed to the nation, to the democratic order. God forbid, if violence resumes, we’ll be able to defend ourselves. That our commando forces that I managed to double and special forces and air force that we managed to triple are key pillars of survival and ensuring constitutional order. But we hope that a condition-based approach would be explored. Professor Cordesman, excellent set of papers, demonstrate that the cost of war in blood since I’ve been president has been reduced.

Still, less than 100 is a tragedy, but compared to before, that cost in blood has been reduced, and the cost in treasure has been reduced immensely. Part of the press reporting on the cost of war is that they unbundle navy, air force, a lot of other things are also covered under the cost of Afghanistan. So Professor Cordesman’s very long academic paper should be distilled and share.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thank you, Mr. President. We’re now going to go to three live questions from participants. Then we’ll go to some questions from social media. The first question will be from Senator Kelly Ayotte former United States senator, and one of three co-chairs of the Afghan study group of which you are aware. Senator Ayotte.

KELLY AYOTTE: Thank you. Mr. President, it’s good to have you with us. I wanted to ask– five years ago, you visited Washington, and I had the honor of attending you’re very eloquent address to a joint session of Congress. I wondered if you visited Washington today, what arguments would you make to an increasingly skeptical Congress about having the US stay engaged and involved in Afghanistan?

ASHRAF GHANI: Thank you, Senator. It’s an honor to interact with you, and thank you for serving on the Congressionally-mandated Afghanistan task force. I look very much forward to benefiting from your wisdom and judgment.

Whenever I’ve asked a high ranking member of the security or defense or intelligence of the United States as to where Afghanistan fits in terms of national interest, the answer comes Homeland Security. I’d like to pay tribute to my good friend, General Petraeus that now I see being present. The argument is on the following lines.

First, has engagement in Afghanistan then positive in terms of Homeland Security are not? Two, the reduction in the number of troops. General Petraeus commanded over 130,000 troops and over 650,000 contractors. 8,500 in comparison to that, plus counterterrorism.

Three, what is the threat of terrorism? Is that threat eliminated or is that threat present? We do not ask help for Afghanistan. What I would be asking Congress is how it perceives its interest and how Afghanistan fits within those interests. You have no obligation to us. You’ve fulfilled your moral obligation, both in blood and treasure, and as I pay tribute– always, I pay tribute to the fallen heroes of the US forces.

This is a partnership that has to have mutual interest and mutual respect. We are going to do everything to make sure that we can pay for our security and we will do everything to reduce the turmoil, particularly the war, so that the relationship is mutually beneficial.

The last point is now this is a time-bound and conditioned-based schedule. I think the goal of the American people can be achieved.

KELLY AYOTTE: Thank you.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Mr. President, I’d now like to turn to General David Petraeus, who’s chairman of KKR Global Institute and as you well know, a former commander of US and allied forces in Afghanistan. General Petraeus.

DAVID PETRAEUS: Thanks, Steve, and great to see you, Mr. President. And if I could gently correct you, we actually had 150,000 US and coalition forces at the height of the Afghan surge, if you will, plus all the others that you mentioned. So it’s an enormous reduction.

And let me just say thank you for recognizing the sacrifices that US and all coalition forces have made alongside Afghan forces and say what a privilege it was to work with you as the commander in Afghanistan, and before that, as the Centcom commander and after that as a CIA director. Thanks for what you continued to do in service of your country.

As you know, I have expressed public concerns about the agreement between the US and the Taliban. And I’ve noted as well, though, that no one wants peace more than those that have actually been engaged in the fighting. We’re now down to somewhere close to 8,600 US forces and a few thousand coalition forces. I have argued for a sustainable commitment which would seem as if that would be roughly that number.

But if indeed, the conditions are met, and the casualties you mentioned are not that encouraging, candidly, in terms of meeting the conditions– but if say somehow, we reach the conditions and the US were to withdraw the number of forces below 8,600, perhaps all of them, what US assurances, funding levels, military capabilities, and so forth would you want in such a case? Thank you.

ASHRAF GHANI: Well, thank you, General Petraeus. And again, a tribute to your leadership, your vision, and your management, and your service. It was a great privilege to be working with you on transition. Successfully, we brought a solution. When I became president, the number of troops had been reduced to minimum, and we were able to continue.

The first issue is to thank you for your position, because you speak as a true soldier, a true statesman on securing US security interests. You’ve put your entire life in the service of this cause. And without doubt, you are among the most knowledgeable people globally on the threats that face the United States. And appreciation of those threats, jointly, were extremely important to moving forward.

We should acknowledge this and have continue to have a strategic dialogue on the nature of threats and how we continue. That threat of terrorism from al-Qaeda, from Daesh, and from other groups is not going to end with peace with Taliban.

So one of the most important parts of the agreement with the Taliban should be one, understanding a gradual reduction of forces. And second, a framework agreement for cooperating against counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics. Without these two, the large support coalition for implementing the peace that we envision would be put at risk. Should the decision be made– and as I said, it’s a sovereign decision, and we appreciate the decision-making process– support for the Afghan Security and Defense Forces to the level that would enable us to continue reforms.

And as you know, I was able to implement some very significant reforms in our security forces. More than 2,000 colonels and generals through change of the basic law will retire. In another country, is for the probably five or six but civilian leadership in our country’s [INAUDIBLE]. We are consolidation of these reforms. Second are the enablers, particularly the air force that is being completed. The program of record that you and General Dunford initiated needs to be completed.

But the third part is US diplomatic convening power– US continuous engagement with the key partners to assure that in agreement, that a stable democratic Afghanistan is in everybody’s interest. And the fourth is change of the instruments. Particularly, the successor of OPEC in terms of guarantees, insurance, and securing, and supporting us to develop our vast natural resources.

You of course, know this immensely. Afghanistan is described as the Saudi Arabia of lithium. We can be among the 10 largest players at least on 10 basic minerals in crucial– a package that changes the tools of partnership will enable us to continue to underwrite our heroic security forces to whom I really pay tribute. Their sacrifice were the number of US and coalition casualties– thank God, has come down.

Our all volunteer force has not left a stone unturned to secure our freedom and your security. This is a partnership that has been written in blood, and we hope that the sacrifices of all those veterans that fought under your command will be honored by all of us so their families could visit a peaceful Afghanistan.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thank you, Mr. President. And let me go to our final live question, if you will. And this one comes from Jessica Donati, who is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Jessica, over to you.

JESSICA DONATI: Hi, and thank you very much for giving me a chance to ask the question. Mr. President, as you know, the long held position by the Taliban is that talks must include a broad range of Afghan groups and not just the Afghan government. And one of the ideas that has repeatedly surfaced over the many years, as you know, is the idea of an interim government made up of Taliban and government officials to lead the country through that process. I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on an interim government and whether you could see yourself stepping aside if this was a request made by the Taliban and the US? Thank you very much.

ASHRAF GHANI: Thank you. The group is all inclusive. The negotiating team is considered by everybody. Both region and global partners, as well as the United States, we have put together incredibly inclusivity. And the team will speak for Afghanistan. Any discussion of an interim government is premature.

I serve at will of the Afghan people, not to the will of the Taliban. We need to understand that discussions will have to be mutually respectable. The key issue is not the president, but the republic. We have gathered a consensus around two fundamental notions. One is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as a sovereign, democratic, and United republic. And second, citizens. The rights and obligations that bind us together are those of citizenship. We go with goodwill and we hope that goodwill will be reciprocated.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thank you, Mr. President, we are now going to go–

ASHRAF GHANI: And let me just make one comment. Dr. Najibullah made the mistake of his life by announcing that he was going to resign. We are left to a film– please don’t ask us to replay a film that we know well.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thank you, Mr. President. We are now going to go to questions from social media and from the audience. I have to tell you that at this point I have 90 questions that have been submitted and climbing. So it’s evidence of the popularity of your presence today. And I apologize to all those people whose questions we will not be able to get to. So let me just pick some of them that we have not yet covered.

There is a lot of focus in the United States these days, of course, about the activities of Russia and China, and the extent to which they are moving into spaces which they were not there before, many times at the expense of the United States. So one question we have from a student at Georgetown School of Foreign Service is, if the United States continues further withdrawals, will you see Russia or China in some way filling the void?

And not necessarily on the military side, but another question, what role do you see for them economically? For example, would Afghanistan join the China-Pakistan economic accord or as part of the Belt and Road Initiative? What do you see for the role of Russia and China as this situation plays out going forward?

ASHRAF GHANI: China is our neighbor. We have a short border, but we are neighbors. And with Russia, we have a long history, part of it tragic, part of it very constructive. The core idea of multi alignment is to increase the members of the coalition for peace and prosperity and stability in Afghanistan. Neither power is interested in getting engaged in Afghanistan military. I think I’m fairly confident about this. My request from all our colleagues is to please take us off as a space of regulating in big power plays. That’s That’s what brought us tragedy in the 19th century and in late 20th century, it brought tragedy.

Regional connectivity is an important priority for me. We did not benefit from the railway revolution of the 19th century because that Afghan King, Amir Abdur Rahman between 1880 and 1901 refused the railway. There was a vision by the men who made the Suez Canal called Berlin to Bombay. Every inch of it was built except Afghanistan connection. Now we are very keen.

Belt and road is not a grant initiative. It’s loans. Afghanistan cannot take loans. We can only take grants. But a consortium that would enable us to bring all of these actors together for railways is extremely important. We welcome that. The key decision will be that we will go for the railway to the Russian gauge, because we have had a complete transformation of our relationship with central Asia. And I’d particularly like to single Turkmenistan in respect, that have made an immense effort for connectivity. Equally, Azerbaijan, for its investment that has now connected us to Eurasia, with Pakistan.

So the other pledge would be the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, European Union, other colleagues. We need to be able to raise significant money and resources to make connectivity happen.

Trade– we are seeking trade with all of these countries. I think with pine nuts, we showed– three years ago, we didn’t know that we were one of the largest producers. Now we have a $1 billion contract with China for export of pine nuts. Marbles alone, there is a billion a year market. Chinese market taxes, [INAUDIBLE] market taxes for vegetables and others.

An economic area of cooperation and coordination, I think, will open up. And for that, we want the largest number of friends. And we have learned that both China and Russia is also to serve as hosts among a series of posts of the peace talks. And everybody’s participation, again, in this is welcome.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thank you, Mr. President. I’m getting a lot of questions about preservation of the rights of women and the gains that women have made in the last 18 years. Also, the protection of minorities, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians. These are protected in the Constitution. And as you get into the negotiations, what priority do you give to maintaining the constitutional protections for these groups going forward?

ASHRAF GHANI: Well, thank you. The first issue, as I brought your attention, it’s worth repeating– it’s the Afghan citizens that are going to have the ultimate say on ratification of an agreement. So everybody needs to focus on getting an agreement that can be approved by the Afghan people.

We are an open society and a truly debating society. Now, particularly with Facebook and that digital access. This is not a censored society. Our poetry, our literature, our novels, short stories, are thriving. It’s new horizons.

Women of Afghanistan, one, cannot be put back. Two, the 20 years, particularly the five years of Taliban, were an aberration in our history. It’s conditions of being refugees that marginalize women. In the 1960s, women were in the universities, doctors, nurses, et cetera. So it has to be understood that poverty is our greatest enemy, and without women’s participation in the polity, economy, and society– let me tell you a story.

In the Loya Jirga, a hairdresser was appointed– a woman hairdresser was a widow from Herat. And Vice President Saleh, who I’m honored to work with closely every day, asked her, why you? Said, you know we’re securing the livelihood of hundreds of women? So they wanted to make sure that protection of the right to work for women was secure.

Hindus have been part of this country before we embraced the religion of Islam. There was a very significant Hindu population at Kabul one time more than 1,000 years ago and others. Those are part of our richness. Afghans always describe ourselves as a garden. We’re the flowers of different shape and size, but all bringing together an aroma and a sense of richness that is reinforcing. Our diversity is an immense strength and only can thrive in the context of a democratic order where we build bridges and not separate.

Hierarchy where one group is elevated artificially at the expense of others is not the way to bring peace. To start a war or sustain a war in Afghanistan, all you need is about $60 million a year. But the true task will be to bring everybody together, and that takes common imagination, and a common understanding and capacity to forgive and forego the past, and move forward in owning the future.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thank you, Mr. President. We have run over our time because of the great interest in your presentation and your being with us. You’ve graciously said that we would have a little time. I don’t want to impose upon your graciousness. So that, unfortunately, is the last question we’ll be able to take from our audience on social media. Sorry for those whose questions we did not get to. And let me turn it over to Nancy Lindborg to bring this session to a close.

NANCY LINDBORG: Thank you, Steve. And I want to give special thanks to you, President Ghani, as well as two of our friends at the Atlantic Council. Thank you for the partnership and to everybody who tuned in for this very important discussion.

As Fred mentioned at the top, we are at a pivotal moment for Afghanistan. And with evidence of important progress underway to end more than four decades of violent conflict. President Ghani, we appreciate your joining us to share your very detailed comprehensive vision of how to forge a pathway to sustainable peace and especially how to seize this moment in the midst of a global pandemic.

USIP has worked very closely with partners in Afghanistan for nearly two decades and supporting the potential for peace has been a core priority of USIP for the past two years. And we remain committed to doing whatever we can to support efforts to reach a political agreement that ends these decades of violent conflict.

We know that peace agreements are likely to be more successfully sustained when they are inclusive, and when women especially are at the table with their own voice and views. So thank you, President Ghani, for your very eloquent embrace of this approach and being such a champion of diversity as we just heard. We also know that there is still a very long, difficult, and complicated road ahead, but I think everybody here today is encouraged by the discussion. And we’re all leaving with a renewed sense of possibility.

In closing, I just want to note I had the great pleasure of visiting Kabul in Jalalabad last October. And I left deeply heartened by the spirited cry for peace that I heard from women, tribal leaders, elders, civil society, members with whom I met. And more than any of my previous visits over the past 20 years, the desire for peace was palpable. And this is what gives me great hope.

And with that, I would also like to acknowledge and thank ambassador Roya Rahmani, who’s here with us today. Afghanistan’s very energetic, very wise ambassador here in Washington, who’s a great friend, and an important champion for peace in Afghanistan. As we know at USIP, peace is possible, but it takes action and it takes all of us. Thank you very much.

ASHRAF GHANI: Again, let me conclude for thanking you, Ms. Lindborg for your long years of association and support for Afghanistan, and thank USIP.

On [INAUDIBLE], I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my teacher, Rula Ghani. Her vision, and commitment, and her immense sense of belief in the potential and capabilities of the Afghan women, and her selfless ability to create a listening post instead of to push an agenda, and a refusal to engage in the political game is an inspiration. I am privileged to have a partner. And that reminds me that women must, are, and capable of leading and managing anything that we ask them to do.

But also, let me thank the [INAUDIBLE], who are a tremendous energy. Their drive, their entrepreneurship, their creativity from the robotics team, to the music, the orchestra, and to the range of civil society actors. I’d like to particularly single out our ulema. Their joint fatwah two years ago enabled us to make the first cease fire. They represent a voice. And what has been truly a heartening is how much common ground and the negotiating team the ulema and the women of Afghanistan and helped together.

That reading of Islam and understanding of our deep history, particularly, the golden age of the Abbasids and when Afghanistan was the central hub is extremely important. Peace is going to require courage, compassion, and commitment. And I’m sure that those are commodities that are not in shortage in this immense country.

My biggest desire is to be able to retire to my village where my family has been for 600 years, and write my books. I am looking forward to in Afghanistan where I’ll be able to teach again and learn continuously. Thank you for this opportunity.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thank you so much, Mr. President.