A Station for Everyone
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Afghans Fear Their Country Will Fall Back Into War


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene.

Our own Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan at a moment when its relationship with the United States is turning a corner. And for the next couple of weeks, Renee is going to be bringing us a range of voices and also opinions about what lies ahead. Renee joins us now from Kabul.

Renee, good morning.


Morning, David.

GREENE: So you've got a surprise visit from President Obama in Afghanistan earlier this week. And I wanted to ask you about that because he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed what they're calling a Strategic Partnership Agreement. And it really did seem to put spotlight on a future Afghanistan that doesn't include a large number of American and NATO troops.

MONTAGNE: It certainly doesn't. It was big news here, especially since that signing was followed just about immediately by deadly attack by the Taliban. I mean it's good to remember that Afghans want their country back, but they're also really worried that a weak and unprotected Afghan state will once again fall back into chaos and war.

GREENE: And Renee, as I understand it, you're going to introduce us to someone today who has a lot of experience with chaos and war in that country.

MONTAGNE: He does. His name is Amrullah Saleh. Until a couple of years ago he was the head of intelligence here in Afghanistan. Back in the 1980s he was just a teenager when he fought against the Soviets, and then went on to become an aid to a legendary mujahedin fighter who became a national hero, ultimately.

Saleh remembers well what happened when the Soviet army pulled out of Afghanistan. I mean that was a transition that did not go well. The U.S., which had been supporting the fight against the Soviets, also walked away. Afghanistan descended into civil war, and that gave rise to the Taliban.

And, David, given that history, I asked Amrullah Saleh what this new 10-year partnership agreement says to the Afghan people.

AMRULLAH SALEH: It's a good step to us, reassuring the Afghans that they will not be re-abandoned, like '89, when the Soviets left. The Western aid also dried up for our country.

MONTAGNE: The strategic agreement to keep American presence in Afghanistan in the long-term, it's also a message to what is commonly called here in Afghanistan the neighbors. That means Pakistan and Iran. And in this country those neighbors are viewed as meddling neighbors. What does this agreement say to them?

SALEH: I look at this as hardening Afghanistan so it can't be played with by either neighbor of us. We are in a bad neighborhood and that's a very well-known fact. The opportunities are this strategic agreement with the United States, the massive interest of the Western nations today in our country.

So we have to strengthen ourselves to break that historical paradigm, that this is a country always dependent, always vulnerable, is stable if neighbors want to keep it stable. They will still meddle but they won't be able to undermine the state in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Would you say that this agreement, at least symbolically, says to you, Pakistan, the U.S. is here and it's here for a long time?

SALEH: No, I disagree with that. U.S. has been here for 10 years. They brought more troops and called it military surge. They provided a lot of financial assistance for Afghanistan - not enough, but significant. Did this frighten Pakistan to stop meddling? No. So what gives them the confidence that with decreased presence, with decreased assistance, Pakistan will be more frightened than today? No, I don't buy that argument.

MONTAGNE: You were head of intelligence for Afghanistan for six years. It's been a couple of years since you left that position. But you have had access to some of the best intelligences of anyone around to what Pakistan's involvement is in Afghanistan. At this moment in time, how would you describe it?

SALEH: Well, Pakistanis no longer deny their involvement with the Taliban. What the Pakistanis want, minimum, is converting Taliban into a crude Hezbollah-type organization, controlling southern and eastern Afghanistan, minimum. I know the West is branding it as a terrorist organization, but Hezbollah is a sophisticated organization. They are educated, et cetera, et cetera.

As I said, crude Hezbollah. Much more brutal than Hezbollah, much more.

MONTAGNE: President Obama did publically acknowledge that the administration is in direct discussions with the Taliban in the service of trying to get talks going this week when he was here in Afghanistan. But as he put it, these discussions, we're making clear that they, the Taliban, can be, quote, part of the future, but only if they renounce violence, break with al-Qaida, and abide by Afghan laws. You think that's an impossible goal?

SALEH: Well, they are not fighting for survival. They are fighting for domination. Their survival is now guaranteed, because everybody is talking about political settlement. Taliban represent, very simply, militant extremism. Now, by offering to talk to them, you legitimize militancy. That is a strategic mistake United States has committed. They have, by that mistake, undermined their biggest achievement, which is Afghan estate, pluralistic estate.

MONTAGNE: Then what is - given the events of this week - the long term strategic agreement - what do you see as the worst case scenario?

SALEH: The worst scenario is a ceasefire with the Taliban who will maintain de facto control of the east and the southern parts of the country. In that scenario, as I said, they will emerge like a crude Hezbollah. Afghan ANSF, Afghan National Security Forces, will sink into irrelevance, and power will once again be fragmented.

MONTAGNE: One of the predictions that's being thrown around these days is a possible civil war in Afghanistan - in fact, after the troops mostly pull out at the end of 2014. Is that realistic?

SALEH: As I said, the fragmentation of power, the fragmentation of the situation is very much possible if Karzai continues to do what he does, calling the Taliban his brothers, portraying them as a group, not representing a cause - there is the chance of civil war. Now, if Mullah Omar and company come to Afghanistan...

MONTAGNE: That is Mullah Omar, head of...

SALEH: The leader of the Taliban - come out of dark from Pakistan and say, OK, in the next elections Taliban will agree to U.N. supervision of the elections and we participate without forcing the people who to vote or who not to vote, and we agree to be part of the system, of course that will be an ideal situation.

In other words, if they dominate the country by soft power, that's acceptable. But if they come with IEDs, and if they impose long beard on me, of course it's not acceptable. If they close down woman's schools, universities, and if they destroy the foundations of pluralistic Afghanistan, which we have created with the U.S. assistance, we will resist. That is recipe for civil war.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.

SALEH: You are welcome.

MONTAGNE: That was Afghanistan's former intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, speaking to us in his office here in Kabul.

GREENE: And we'll be hearing much more of Renee's reporting from Afghanistan in the coming days. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.