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Interview with Taliban Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef

Abdul Salam Zaeef is the Taliban Islamic Movement of Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Pakistan. In an interview with IRIN on Tuesday, he discussed the prospects for peace in Afghanistan and the effects on the country of UN sanctions, and called for an end to foreign interference in the country. The Taliban, which rose through the country’s Islamic ‘madrassah’ schools to become a military force and claims legitimacy as the government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, now controls some 95 percent of Afghan territory. It is recognised as the national authority of Afghanistan by just three countries: Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

QUESTION: On Friday [3 November], the UN announced a written agreement between the Taliban movement and the Northern Alliance concerning UN-mediated peace talks. What are your views on these talks, and how important are they to your movement?

ANSWER: Firstly, we have always tried to solve all issues and disputes through understanding and peaceful means.

Unfortunately, prior to the emergence of the Islamic movement of the Taliban, there was a great deal of infighting and factional fighting within the country. The Taliban developed out of public demand, which has always endeavoured to bring peace and security to the country. In the beginning, the Taliban asked the military commanders of these groups to give up their arms peacefully and stop the bloodshed. They would say they would negotiate, and then they themselves would break the pledges given at the negotiation table. The Taliban Islamic movement emerged in order to put an end to the anarchy and the chaos. It developed in an effort to disarm these unscrupulous men.

As before, we have extended to the opposition an invitation for peace in an effort to stop further blood shed in Afghanistan. Previous negotiations with the opposition did not bring any fruitful results but again we have shown our readiness to sit with them for talks. These talks, however, should continue and should be based on the rules of the holy religion of Islam and the culture of Afghan society. I believe the opposition, having seen defeat in the recent fighting and considering that defeat, should come to the table with honesty and sincerity, and should willingly want to participate in the government. I think if the UN plays a positive role in the negotiations, the talks could bring a fruitful result.

Q: After so many years of war, why has it taken so long to reach this point?
What has changed?

A: Our movement was established in the beginning in order to ensure peace and security in the country. That is our goal. If you remember, our leadership told the Turkmenistan foreign minister [Boris Shikhmuradov], who was visiting Afghanistan, that we were ready to talk with the opposition anywhere, anytime. I myself have twice conducted negotiations with the opposition. We believe, at this point, any issue that can be solved through peaceful means, should be solved through peaceful means. But the solution should be within our culture and our religion.

Q: Last week, the UN again refused the Taliban’s request for a seat in the UN, leaving the seat with deposed president Burhanuddin Rabbani for another year. Why do you think this is this so?

A: As I said, solutions to the issues can be found if the United Nations plays a positive role. We suspect that the UN, the world body itself, doesn’t want the war in Afghanistan to end. You know, Rabbani has no seat of government and no administration in the whole country. How can he enforce the resolutions and decisions of the UN inside Afghanistan? How can he receive any official delegation from other countries to Afghanistan? It should be a government based on the people only. This seat should have been given to the representatives of the people of Afghanistan, and we consider this decision to be a factor in the continuation of war in the country.

Regardless of whether the UN gives the Afghan seat to Rabbani - or if the UN gives him all the seats that are available for that matter - he will not succeed in gaining control of Afghanistan without the support of the people. We believe this decision is unjust and unjustified, and we believe this decision can be a factor to strengthen and encourage the opposition to continue the war.

Q: On Thursday, you met with the US Ambassador to Pakistan, William Milam. What did you discuss?

A: We discussed different topics on the current situation in Afghanistan. We discussed illicit drug-trafficking in Afghanistan and the steps taken in this regard, as well as the visit of the Americans to Moscow and their meetings there. We also discussed the recent meeting between Masood and the Russian defence minister [Igor Sergeyev], and had detailed talks in this regard. [Ahmad Shah Masood is commander of the Rabbani-allied Northern Alliance, which is still fighting the Taliban.]

Q: Do you expect talks with the Americans to continue?

A: Yes, we agreed to continue with the talks and that if there were any issues to be resolved, it should be done so on this basis.

Q: A Taliban official was on Sunday [5 November] quoted as saying that Afghanistan would not expel Osama bin Laden, even if evidence linked him to the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Can you confirm your movement’s position on this?

A: We offered three solutions to solve the Osama question.

Firstly, if the Americans produce evidence and proof, they should hand that evidence over to the Supreme Court of Afghanistan and Osama will be tried by the Court. Secondly, religious scholars from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and from a third or fourth country could come together as a combined group and decide the solution to the Osama question. They should serve this decision collectively. The third option would be for the OIC [the Organisation of the Islamic Conference] to monitor and oversee these activities.

Furthermore, we also said that if there was no evidence and these scholars did not reach a solution to this question, we would contain and supervise Osama’s activities within Afghanistan, safeguarding his promise that he would not use the territory of Afghanistan for activities against any third country.

In addition, if there were a fourth solution that did not violate our rules, Islamic rules, we would be ready to solve the issue through this means. Maybe there are some people who do not know the official position of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, or do not know this issue properly. That being the case, their assertions and their views are not credible and have no validity.

Q: The UN Security Council imposed flight and financial sanctions against the Taliban last November for its refusal to expel Osama bin Laden, among other reasons. What are your views on the sanctions currently in place against your movement?

A: Sanctions are not the way solutions are brought about. The sanctions already imposed on the Islamic government of Afghanistan are actually imposed on the people of Afghanistan, not the government. It is a false description that they are imposed on the government of Afghanistan. It is the common people that are affected, not the official government of Afghanistan. The sanctions mean that the people of Afghanistan are denied medicine and items of critical necessity. This is a violation of the rights of the nation. By imposing the sanctions, the UN is saying to the people of Afghanistan: ‘You are deprived of medical treatment and you are deprived of food to eat.’ Due to the closure of our national airlines [Ariana], our people have not been able to travel and the transport of life-saving drugs to alleviate the suffering of our people has been made impossible.

[Security Council resolution 1267 of 15 October 1999 states that all UN member states “shall deny permission for any aircraft to take off from or land in their territory if it is owned, leased or operated by or on behalf of the Taliban” unless the particular flight has been approved in advance on the grounds of humanitarian need.]

In fact, the sanctions have not caused any loss to the government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan itself, but have caused great loss and suffering for the Afghan people. The UN should once again consider its decision and the impact it is having on the people.

Q: Drought and civil war has seriously affected your country, and WFP now estimates that up to one million people face starvation? What is the situation now, and how are you coping?

A: The voice of the people of Afghanistan has reached us regarding the suffering brought on by the drought. Actually the number of people facing starvation is not one million, but 10 million people. Almost half of the people in Afghanistan were living on livestock breeding, they received their revenue from livestock breeding, but now - due to the drought - they have lost their livestock and all means of their livelihood. The drought situation in Afghanistan is not just for the current year, it will continue. Already, the people who had kept their seeds for cultivation have used these seeds for foodstuffs.

In addition, there is now a ban [by the Taliban] on poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. A decree has been issued in this respect. Some alternative or substitute projects should be found for the farmers, or some measures should be taken to provide them with some means of livelihood. We have tried to reach the people of Afghanistan through our press conferences and through our individual meetings with embassy leaders and relevant organisations.

Q: What role do you feel the international community has in Afghanistan?

A: The international community can help the people of Afghanistan, and they have already rendered assistance as such. This includes the USA, the European countries and Islamic countries. We are thankful for all assistance rendered by China, the United Arab Emirates, America, France, Saudi and all other countries. And we hope that this aid and assistance shall continue in view of the scope and extensive suffering of the Afghan people.

Q: Your foreign minister in Kabul [Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel] said at a recent news conference that a safe environment would be provided for aid organisations working in Afghanistan? Could you elaborate on what measures are being taken to provide such an environment?

A: There is effective security in Afghanistan. NGOs can travel throughout the country without any fear or obstacle. There was, of course, the unfortunate incident in Herat [seven demining workers were killed, and one injured when their vehicles were ambushed in the vicinity of Sabzak Pass, Badghis province, near Herat on 5 August], which was carried out by the opposition in an effort to scare the NGOs from rendering their assistance to Afghanistan. We believe this was a betrayal on the part of the opposition against the people of Afghanistan. With regard to a safe environment, actually it is already in place. I don’t know any further details than this.

Q: Many of Afghanistan’s neighbours have expressed the fear that Afghanistan’s internal problems could spill over into their countries, bringing instability to the region. What do you say with regard to this fear?

A: There has never been any evidence that we are a threat to the Central Asian region. We have never claimed - nor do we claim - to be a threat to our neighboring countries. This is just propaganda launched by Russia in order to expand its influence in the region - the same Russia which has martyred two million Afghans, the Russia which has taken 60,000 Afghans that are still missing, and the Russia which is still providing logistical assistance and arms that are being used to kill Afghan people today. Russia wants to spread its influence in the region and to play neighbouring countries against Afghanistan. For this reason, they have launched a campaign to scare other countries about Afghanistan.

As I said, we have always said that we want to solve all issues through dialogue and talks. Some of our neighbors have come to the conclusion that this is mere propaganda. One of these countries is Uzbekistan, which now knows this was merely exaggerated Russian propaganda. We have other neighbours, like Turkmenistan, that have no concerns about Afghanistan whatsoever. We have Pakistan that has no concern. We have Iran which, however, supports the opposition. We also have our neighbor China which has no concern. It is only Tajikistan, where Russian troops are deployed, that has concern. However, in this regard, Tajikistan is not speaking for itself as it is dominated by Russia.

If anyone has evidence to the contrary, they should produce it. If they have no evidence, and we have never claimed to be a threat, than this allegation should be seen as nothing more than a baseless accusation.

Q: Uzbekistan and Afghanistan have recently held diplomatic talks on a wide range of issues in an effort to improve relations. What are the main issues, and do you see a normalisation of relations between your two countries?

A: We have no problems with Uzbekistan. The problems were actually created by Russia. In fact, no insurmountable obstacle exists between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. We have assured them that we will never be a threat to Uzbekistan. We want to have commercial trade with Uzbekistan. We have had different meetings with their envoys and these talks will continue. With the progress made, we hope there will be fruitful results in the future.

Q: There have been many accusations in the press that the Taliban is not doing enough to stop the drug trade in Afghanistan. What measures are you taking to halt it?

A: The supreme leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [Mullah Mohamed Omar] has issued a decree to ban poppy cultivation in Afghanistan completely. We have also called on people living in areas under the control of the opposition to stop cultivating poppy on their lands. If the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] forces capture those areas, they will destroy the poppy cultivation there promptly.

We recently destroyed 25 heroin processing plants in Chattu, near the border with Pakistan. This was a great step taken by the Emirate. Unfortunately, however, the UNDCP [the UN Drug Control Programme, recently renamed the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP)], has not even issued a report in this regard. They ought to send a letter to embassies informing them of the destruction of the heroin-processing plants, given that their own representative was there to witness it. We will continue our war - without any conditions - against poppy cultivation and illicit drug-trafficking in Afghanistan, even if we receive no international assistance.

The UNDCP previously claimed that Afghanistan was the center of drug-trafficking and demanded that the Afghan authorities do something about it. When the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan issued it decree banning poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, they held a meeting in the region and announced that they would form a belt around Afghanistan. We believe that they have done nothing to cooperate in banning poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. We believe this organisation, the UNDCP, is not sincere in putting an end to poppy cultivation. If there is no poppy cultivation or narcotics, there would be no need for the UNDCP to exist. In other words, in order to continue their existence and to receive further donations from other countries, they exaggerate the situation. They do not sincerely want to put an end to poppy cultivation, and their desire to survive is at the expense of others.

Q: There is a great deal of pessimism in the world regarding Afghanistan. Do you see an end to Afghanistan’s problems? And what are the prospects for peace in your country today?

A: The problems of Afghanistan would be immediately solved, even within a time-frame of two months, if foreign interference was stopped immediately. The UN supports a few gunmen to continue the war; Russia, the USA and Iran - they give logistical aid to these armed men. We believe if there was no interference, no foreign interference in Afghanistan, these problems would be solved.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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