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Exclusive interview with Russian diplomat Zamir Kabulov

Vladimir Putin's envoy to Afghanistan speaks about the country's past, present, and future in wide-ranging interview

31.12.2016
Exclusive interview with Russian diplomat Zamir Kabulov Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's envoy to Afghanistan

Anadolu Agency spoke with Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to Afghanistan and director of the Foreign Ministry's Second Asian Department.

The below edited interview was carried out shortly before the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which began on Dec. 27, 1979, and ended 10 years later.

By Mehmet Ozturk

Anadolu Agency (AA): First of all, I would like to thank you for agreeing to our interview.

Starting with the first Soviet involvement in the time of Afghan Prime Minister Sardar Daud in 1953-1963, the cooperation between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan started and the Soviet Union has done a lot. Most of the infrastructure was built by the Soviet Union. I physically visited some places in Afghanistan like Kabul, Takhar, and other places. I don’t know if the Afghan people are praising the role of the Soviet Union.

Do you have any idea about the investment done in Afghanistan during the Soviet era in the economic sector, in the army and infrastructure?

Kabulov: New generation Afghans may not remember these things, but the older generation of course remembers. And now they are reviewing their own recent history thanks to several factors. Let me start with the failure of the United States of America, and then al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Mujahedeen.

AA: And Daesh today...

Kabulov: Yes, Daesh today of course.

All of them together helped the Afghan nation to recall the role of Soviet Union in building their country. So, that is why we are grateful to all these elements and factors despite being enemies with some of them. Some are still partners; I mean the U.S.

We shall see maybe new trends; we are now just guessing. Let's see the new president, [Donald] Trump, describe his Afghan policy. Then we will judge, not the words but the deeds.

AA: Do you think Trump will revise Washington’s longstanding Afghan policy? 

Kabulov: I don’t know, but everybody says, including he, himself, that he is a businessman and a pragmatic guy. If it is true, he could try to change 15 years of Americans with all American allies.

So, within 15 years the U.S. has spent up to almost $1 trillion, as they claim although I don’t know how they spent it. Not all the money came to Afghanistan. It does not matter; it is not our money. Let them count their own money. But for us, this is important: this money came to Afghanistan to do something that we as the Soviet Union had done before. But in vain.

Looking at the country’s current situation, I presume Mr. Trump should do something to change it.

Why is America spending so much money, people resources, and other things? The results are negative, so something should be done.

Of course, everybody can blame Russia for that, it is the easiest way now as it is a fashion. We don’t mind; we got used to that. These people are strange when attacking Russia. They forget one thing: we are living out of the Cold War.

Let us say it formally; only for the last 20 years, out of The Cold War, but we lived in the Cold War for much longer.

We know all the technology of the “Cold War” better than the technology of “Cold Peace”. So, it is no problem for us. We are ready to meet any challenges. We don’t want any type of war that would be cold or another.

We expect that Donald Trump will tailor a new American approach to Afghanistan and he should address several issues which are a matter of concern not only to Russia, but important regional actors, like China, Iran, Pakistan, and others.

At the end of its failure, why does the United States want land bases in Afghanistan? We don’t have a clear-cut answer.

Barack Obama, on one hand, cuts the troops in Afghanistan, on the other hand, he forces Afghans.

At first, they tried to do this with [then-President] Hamid Karzai and later they made the new administration sign the Bilateral Security Agreement which presume nine American bases [on Afghan land]. In Turkey, they have only one base, in Afghanistan, they have the right to use nine big military bases plus almost 10 more. Why?

AA: Is it disturbing for you? 

Kabulov: Of course; why should it not be disturbing for anybody? Why in Afghanistan? Where is Afghanistan and where is America!? If we did something like that in Mexico, would it not be disturbing for America? In Cuba, we have already experienced and we know the outcome. I think it is old fashioned.

Why are they doing that after all this 15-year-old anti-terror rhetoric in Afghanistan? They stupidly try to say that "it is for training."

Come on! You are not talking to stupid or foolish people. We know the reasons [for the ongoing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan]. Russia will never tolerate this.

AA: What was the purpose of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan? 

Kabulov: Multi purposes. But first of all, after they were kicked out of Iran, they have this problem.

AA: Do you mean 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran?

Kabulov: Yes, in Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, they [the Americans] lost the biggest military base in the region, which was capable of controlling vast areas of that part of Asia.

So, Afghanistan was for that, because it was an available option and a nearby country to Russia, Central Asia, China, Iran, and Pakistan. Americans are really worried about the nuclear capacity of Pakistan. All the sentiments of the first Islamic bomb is another thing; it is rhetoric but it is still a factor.

It [the 2001 invasion] had also political and economic sides. Afghanistan is relatively at the center of the three biggest hydrocarbon reserves in the world: the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia. Afghanistan has easy access to all three.

Before, Iran served that purpose during the Shah era. With growing China and resurgent Russia, they needed such a thing.

We know technologies, it is much more convenient and much more dangerous to have [military bases] there, everything there is in order to attack in case of need.

So, we know, we understand, and I very well remember our military analysts at the very beginning of Obama's withdrawal stage, that they calculated everything.

Having this infrastructure as [a] basis, America will need two to four weeks to redeploy up to 100,000 soldiers on the same bases.

Such a [move] would not be an invasion in terms of a U.S.-Afghanistan bilateral security agreement.

We warned Afghans from the very beginning it [the bilateral agreement] may have implications for our bilateral relations if Americans use this infrastructure against our national interest. They said the Americans had promised. Well, we know the value of American promises.

AA: Our second question concerns the Soviet army involvement starting on Dec. 27, 1979.

Kabulov: Yes, it will be the anniversary in the upcoming days.

AA: Yes, an anniversary, so what do you think was the reason behind the Soviet Union's military involvement? Because there were good relations with Afghanistan from the time of Daud.

Kabulov: Not from the time of Daud; let me expand my answer. Our relations started and were never interrupted after the time when we firstly and you [Turkey] secondly recognized the Emanullah Khan government.

AA: In 1919...

Kabulov: Yes, in 1919. We in May and you a bit later, but the same year.

We were the first two countries which recognized Emanullah as a sovereign leader and the king of Afghanistan. Our relations were uninterrupted with Afghanistan but started to boost after the Second World War, yearly in 1953. Because it was the Cold War era.

Americans arranged the [1953 Mohammad] Mossadegh coup d’état in Iran and turned Iran into their own payroll. They managed to do it at that time. So, Afghanistan was very important.

Of course, the decolonization of India and Pakistan was also a factor. Actually, economic interaction with Afghanistan started in the early ‘50s.

After 1954 within 20 years we helped Afghanistan a lot. The major projects belong to that period. It was under [the last Afghan king, Mohammed] Zahir Shah. Daud was prime minister for some time because he was fired by the king. Later on, he arranged the coup d’état against the king.


AA: Was the coup d’état on his own?

Kabulov: Well, it was not our own. We had not designed it. It was another surprise for us. Yes, a lot of military officers who conducted the coup d’état were trained in the Soviet Union.

But all the army men, graduates were either from us [Soviet Union] or from you [Turkey]; the two biggest military training centers for Afghans, traditionally from the very beginning of 1919. You [Turkey] gave this training as well to the Afghan army.

AA: Some officers...

Kabulov: Yeah, of course, but we gave better conditions and free of charge. A lot of them came to Russia.

So the Soviet Union was not behind the Daud Khan coup d’état. Because we were quite satisfied with poor Zahir Shah at that time, he was humble, he was in excellent cooperation with us. Why should we do it? So, it was an unfortunate moment.

But now in order to understand why the politburo of the Soviet Union, Communist Party, did it [interfered militarily in Afghanistan], you should think with the perceptions of that time.

It was the Cold War. Full-fledged Cold War. Bipolar system and the Communist Party, the leadership, everything through that prism.

[...]

The technology was not like today, and it was a matter of concern for us. So, that is the perception how the Communist leadership of Soviet Union made it. They were scared of the possible American takeover of Afghanistan. Maybe not, but I am thinking their perception of how they saw the world.

And later on, the stupid comments [appeared] like Russians are going to take over Pakistan to [get closer to] the warm seas. There is no single document, nobody discussed that issue about going beyond, but the presence of Afghanistan was important, in any case.

[...]

AA: This may be a shocking question. I don’t know if anyone had asked you before.

Had the Soviet Union ever thought of invading Pakistan? Because Pakistan was the logistical base of the Afghan resistance.

Kabulov: Well if possible, we can discuss this issue hypothetically. But I was, of course, a junior diplomat at that time working in the Soviet Embassy, and I don’t remember.

I never heard anybody discussing that. I think the Soviet leadership realized the perils of such a thing, [that it] might trigger a bigger war and conflicts – after all, Pakistan already had nuclear warheads. They did not provide tests but we suspected.

I talked to many people who were very big bosses at that time. This issue was never discussed. But the issue of how to eliminate such bases within Pakistan was, of course, an operative discussion. And it is natural.

AA: I have another question regarding Pakistan's going nuclear. Who allowed Pakistan? Because without the consent of global nuclear powers, it is not possible to produce nuclear weapons. 

Kabulov: That is not true, Pakistan proved that. But the Soviet Union was not a friend of Pakistan.

AA: Maybe the United States?

Kabulov: The United States, China... Pakistan had a lot of friends. I don’t know which of them. Everybody blamed [Pakistani nuclear scientist] Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan. But somebody should give [support], because it is not only about using intelligence, or know-how money. Some actors, Saudi Arabia as well... It was not a consensus between the great powers. It is possible.

AA: When did the Soviet Union decide to finish the Afghan war? Because some say it was 1988 but I think it was earlier.

Kabulov: [...] Our military presence in Afghanistan was seen as an obstacle to the development of the Soviet Union.

So, in that sense yes, 1985 was specifically important because, our losses, military loses went high for many different reasons, but again, the main reason was the unpopularity of the war inside the Soviet Union. That was because of the casualties.

The social and economic circumstances in the Soviet Union brought this idea all together; people believed that.

Afghanistan did not consume so much money. We cannot put all the blame for the problems and economy of the Soviet Union just on our spending in Afghanistan. No… it was a much more structural [issue] inside the Soviet Union and the inefficiency of the economy. Of course, Afghanistan added problems but it was not decisive.

AA: Some say stingers...

Kabulov: Stingers played an important role, yes. Specifically, against helicopters. Now, Afghans are keen to get from us these MI-35 helicopters. They were the most popular and efficient gunship helicopters then. Stingers were specifically efficient against those.

AA: You mentioned that the withdrawal decision of the Soviet Union was made in 1985, but stingers were supplied later than that. 

Kabulov: Yes, but I told you that in 1985 we had more casualities. Because by that time Americans and its allies Saudi Arabia, everybody, almost everybody, was supporting, paying, providing to Afghan Mujahedeen, making them bigger and bigger. So, by 1985 the number of Afghan Mujahedeen was very high. So, they could inflict a lot of blows on the Soviet and Afghan Army. That was the reason.

AA: About these causalities. You must have data and statistics?

Kabulov: You see, I have a lot of books about Afghanistan here, those people who fought in the Afghanistan war.

AA: I remember Gennady Gerasimov, the spokesman at that time, announced officially more than 15,000 military causalities.

Kabulov: 15,545 something like that.

AA: And these are only the losses at the end. If you count servicemen who served in the army and got injures, perhaps more?

Kabulov: Perhaps.

AA: And on the other hand, some talk about 1 million casualties of Afghan people?

Kabulov: It’s fake. I heard these statistics many times.

AA: So what are your statistics?

Kabulov: Nobody, nobody ever calculated. The last poll statistics, census conducted in Afghanistan in 1978 under the then-Daud Khan regime, before the “April Revolution”. The population of Afghanistan by that time was 15.2 million. This figure was invented by Americans and others in order to impress the world: "Look at the bloody Russian butchers, they are doing this."

AA: Do you have your statistics?

Kabulov: No, how you can imagine that we keep statistics in Afghanistan? We fought there, we stayed there. No statistics. But not only we, nobody had statistics.

AA: Do you have an amount of your material losses? For example, some say the United States’ losses in Afghanistan – Iraq is about $3 trillion.

Kabulov: There is a different perception. The West likes to flog the idea that Russia every year spent $5 billion in Afghanistan. It is very difficult to calculate it. Because, you know, the ruble was not convertible at that time.

And it is very difficult even to understand. They, for instance, take the price of that equipment, not only military, wheat, equipment, foodstuff, everything. They put the price. Because they know the amount sent from the Soviet Union inside Afghanistan and they put a world market price for it.

But for the Russian government, it was not a world market. It was local prices of Russia. That’s why material losses in Afghanistan were many times less.

So, it is very difficult to give you the actual losses, I mean the budget of the Afghan war of Soviet Union.

It is difficult, we don’t mind if the West is happy with that $4-5 billion per year. So what? We cannot get it back. Why should we dispute on that? We can dispute on one million causalities. Yeah, we will dispute. Nobody wants to dispute.

AA: Do you think the roots of Daesh and al-Qaeda go back to the Soviet era?

Kabulov: No, no, no, it was not back to the Soviet era; al-Qaeda emerged later.

AA: Yes, but do you think the destabilization in Afghanistan following the 1979 Soviet invasion might have led to the emergence of radical groups?

Kabulov: I think the answer is broader than that. Osama bin Laden, Yemeni-origin Saudi citizen, and many others who were unhappy with things going on in the Muslim world, wanted to meet the challenges, including the ones that they saw as a threat to Islam.

One of the main slogans of support for Afghanistan [during the invasion] was that the Soviet Union came to eliminate Islam. It was a good enough slogan. So many people were encouraged to go to fight in Afghanistan and do their jihad there.

Afghanistan became a convenient place for like-minded people to meet. In that sense, yes. It was very convenient to go there, to train, but to do what?

Who wants to wander around mountainous land? Ambitions were much higher and beyond that. They added even more destabilization to Afghanistan. But who are they? Mujahedeen paid by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, matching one dollar from the U.S. with one Saudi petrodollar. China, you know all of them, even Iran, Pakistan.

AA: It is important that you are naming China…

Kabulov: At that time, it was clear, it was an official position of China. It is not a secret...

AA: China was a silent actor and played a very big role supplying all the arms with maybe petrodollars. Maybe in the future China will play a role in Afghanistan?

Kabulov: China today has a role in Afghanistan. And our partner.

[...]

AA: Regarding Taliban, do you think it is a local entity or an internationally managed group?

Kabulov: First of all, the Taliban is not homogenous. Within the Taliban, there are different wings with almost different ideological backgrounds.

But the bulk, main leadership, current leadership, and the majority of Taliban now – as a result of all these historical lessons they got in Afghanistan – became a local force. They gave up the global jihadism idea. They are upset and regret that they followed Osama bin Laden. And I very well remember, physically, I saw the young Taliban in 1994, 1995, I was in Kandahar, negotiating.

AA: Did you meet Mullah [Mohammed] Omar?

Kabulov: Yes, of course, so, I remember that they spoke the same language that Daesh speaks today, not different at all. The same scenario, same ideology, different people.

And I well remember I was sitting, talking to Kandahari Shura and on the wall there was a big map, printed in Saudi Arabia. Caliphate, everywhere. The Middle East was part of it, Afghanistan of course, parts of India, Central Asia up to almost our suburbs of Moscow. That was all caliphate. I saw this map on the wall.

So, they suffered as a result of this policy and the Taliban said "No, we are a local force. Our country is invaded by crusaders, and we are now fighting the enemies of Islam and occupiers. And of course we want a government that will serve the Islamic nation. And we should live according to these Sharia rules and canons, so we want that type of government. Very simple."

But within the Taliban, you can find very influential groups like the Haqqani network whose ideology is more radical, closer to Daesh. They haven’t given up all the ideas, I would say.

There are a lot of reasons for Taliban not to be homogenous. The tribal reason is also important. Different Pashtun tribes, you know in Afghanistan there are up to 200 tribes and clans. All this animosity, rivalry goes back 300 years ago.

My short answer is that today the Taliban is predominately a local force.

AA: Do you have any peace plans for Afghanistan and do you want to organize conferences on the issue?

Kabulov: No, we don’t have any peace plan for Afghanistan.

AA: Why not?

Kabulov: We are not Americans to make plans for other nations. We do not have bad habits. Secondly, we are not planning to organize conferences [to discuss peace in Afghanistan], because we have not been asked to do so.

What kind of a conference? We, as the international community, every year have a conference on Afghanistan. We are skilled at doing excellent conferences, the latest two were in Amritsar, in Brussels.

AA: Heart of Asia...

Kabulov: Yeah, Heart of Asia, Istanbul Process... We are skilled at holding conferences, but we failed in making actual results. No conference can bring peace in Afghanistan.


AA: I think you are now closer than the U.S. to bringing peace in Afghanistan.

Kabulov: Peace should be between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

For that, we should be asked according to international law and principles of foreign policy [of the] Russian Federation. Both sides should ask us: "Please arrange such a conference, we want to make peace under your auspices." We haven’t gotten such a request yet. If you get one, let me know.

AA: How do you see Afghanistan in the next two decades? Will the war continue or will there be peace there?

Kabulov: I hope that for two decades I can be more confident because you may not find me in two decades for accountability.

I think there will be peace in Afghanistan but there are conditions. First, a possible future peace in Afghanistan has to be built today and tomorrow.

If there is no change in international efforts in Afghanistan, that will help it to improve in three things: the economy, administration, and army, Afghanistan will not have a future at all.

Afghanistan will disappear, will fall apart. But we hope we can do it. We don’t want this scenario because from all accounts, it is against the interests of my country and the entire region.

It will be very damaging and dangerous. That’s why we hope, if these three conditions are met in 20 years in Afghanistan, there will be peace.

AA: If not?

Kabulov: If not, Afghanistan will disappear.

AA: Do you foresee a war of all?

Kabulov: In stages, it will be a war against all but there will be parts of the country declaring themselves independent states and they will be very much dependent. Because no resources will be independent of neighborhood, immediate or far away, it will be bizarre, but after that, believe me, in another decade, they will come together again.

AA: After the emergence of Daesh, do you think that the al-Qaeda threat has finished completely?

Kabulov: No, the threat of al-Qaeda has not finished, but it downsized. Daesh as the rival of al-Qaeda operates much more smartly. It learned from all the mistakes of al-Qaeda. It brought more advanced and sophisticated people to design, plan, and for executive policy. Of course, they are not successful everywhere.

They believed that nobody would meet their challenge in places like Syria and Iraq and they made a mistake; but it doesn’t mean they were finished.

I don’t believe that Daesh has one leader. [Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi or something is a phenomenon, without centralized leadership, only one thing is centralized: that is ideology. And this ideology is shared by a lot of people.

But Daesh or similar things will exist until all those problems of the world exist. I mean [as long as] the Muslim world feels curbed by the Western world, and [as long as] the leaders of some Muslim countries are very rich but the people are not.

Everybody puts all the blame on the West because it exploits this. This social-political rhetoric is very common. And it is an explanation for the younger generation.

For instance, “Why am I not so successful, like those I see on TV, Europeans and other people. Because they have taken my wealth and used it." This belief is very close to the hearts and minds of Muslim young generations. That is a problem.

AA: Who do you think stands behind Daesh?

Kabulov: Well, the devil (laughing).

AA: For sure, do you have any name for that devil?

Kabulov: There are a lot of fathers of Daesh. We have a good Russian proverb on this, perhaps you have it in Turkish too. When the child has too many nurses, the child may lose one eye. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Of course, you know that better than I, you are closer to the birthplace of Daesh.

AA: An important factor affecting this region, including the Russian Federation, is drugs originating from Afghanistan. Do you see any relation between the U.S. and drugs in Afghanistan?

According to UN statistics, at the end of the Taliban era, there was about zero cultivation of opium, but at the time of the U.S. invasion, it reached its maximum level in quantity. 

Kabulov: Well, I’m not sure about the UN statistics because I have my own statistics; and I know all these tricks of the UN. Because I also spent two-and-a-half years as the UN senior political officer at the Afghanistan mission; so I know as an insider how they do this job.

America is the godfather of drug production in Afghanistan. Why? Because before jihad, poppy cultivated in Afghanistan was a very small amount. It started to be used very broadly, at the peak of jihad. The CIA provided corridors for processing and selling heroin. In that sense, Americans are like the godfather of drug brothership.

Later on, it became a bigger business and everybody ran after it. As for, the so-called very good Taliban who stopped poppy cultivation and bad Americans, I have an objection: not about bad Americans but about the good Taliban. Before the Taliban came to power in Kandahar, it was the third year of drought in Afghanistan which eliminated a lot of poppy fields. That is the reason, not the Taliban.

Second, when the Taliban came to power, they called, gathered all the drug barons, and said, “Now, it is haram (forbidden religiously) but we will send this haram thing to the crusaders and make money out of that for the sake of the Muslim people. But, it is under our control. You don’t have right to sell it and traffic it yourself. It will be centralized.”

They forced, they killed some drug barons who did not understand the seriousness of the proposal and kept it.

Why they do this? Because they met with the international drug mafia. Do you know who were first at that time? Albanians were running this business.

AA: Albanians?

Kabulov: Albanians... They talked to the Kandahari Shura people not to Shura but to some people. It was Albanians, who met the Taliban, they told them, “Stop producing so much heroin, market prices are going down. Let’s control it.” Since there was drought, they provided them seeds that can resist drought. Albanians just represented bigger mafia, I don’t know who is behind them. There is a chain of command in the international drug mafia. Albanians are only a small piece, front liners.

So, that’s why there was a drop in the statistics. Not actual. The Taliban never eliminated poppy [production]. They eliminated some poppy fields of those who didn’t pay zakat and oshour, religious taxes, they punished them. It is a myth and legend of the Taliban.

AA: Lastly, how do you compare the Soviet Union with the Russian Federation of today? The Russian Federation became, at least in my opinion, more effective than the Soviet Union. Do you agree with that?

Kabulov: Of course, although I like both of them. Of course, everybody would agree with you.

Russia is more efficient because Russians learn lessons from past mistakes. Perhaps I shared with you when I talk to Americans, I always tell them, “Guys, the difference between you and us that you don’t like learning from history, you like making history.”

We learn from history and we try not to repeat first of all and improve. After all time, enough is enough. Russian people in a broader sense, during the Soviet Union, we lived with some golden ideas which may be coming very close but we never reached. But, that’s why in the Russian Federation we want to live not wait to live.

AA: Thank you very much for the interview.

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