Exclusive interview with Khalid Noor on Doha peace conference

From Left, Khalid Noor and Lotfullah Najafzada at Doha peace conference. July 8, 2019.

Amid a series of peace talks over the last months, Taliban and Afghan representatives gathered in Doha and agreed on a roadmap to end the 18 years of war. Since last year, the U.S. appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as the lead Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation to broker a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, in hopes for a long term ceasefire. 

In Doha, Qatar, a meeting co-hosted by German and Qatari officials brought together diverse individuals interested in achieving lasting Afghan peace. Sixteen Taliban and sixty Afghan representatives (composed of delegates from political parties, government officials and civil society organizations) engaged in discussions that led to a potentially positive arrangement. Doha conference, instilled newfound hope as the Taliban agreed to reduce its reliance on violent attacks by avoiding various public spaces. Rise to Peace’s Ahmad Mohibi interviews Khalid Noor, one of the participants at Doha conference, to give a closer look at the future of the Afghan peace process. 

What is your takeaway from the Doha Peace Conference?

Khalid Noor: I think the Doha meeting was a great opportunity for the two sides [Taliban and the Afghan representatives] to sit down and share their issues, and to explain their concerns with each other. The talks provided the opportunity for both sides to discuss some of the most sensitive and critical topics that were overlooked at previous peace talks. For instance, we talked about regime creation. I personally changed the nature of the meeting from ceremonial to more serious discussions with my thoughts, that we want the regime to be the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — this is our goal and our red line. The Taliban wants an Islamic Emirate and that’s their red line. 

What were some of the questions that were brought forth to the Taliban at the Conference?

Khalid Noor: We would like to know how likely it is that the Taliban is willing to participate and accept our Islamic Republic if we bring substantial changes. My next point was that elections are valuable to us and we are not willing to lose them at any cost. Our fellow citizens are concerned about this, but they want to know: will you [Taliban] participate in an Afghan lead election that is controlled and financed by Afghans after reaching an agreement on a coalition government?

The moderator interrupted me shortly after my first two questions and requested if it’s possible to avoid technical and serious questions in order to not disrupt the meeting. I respectfully accepted but continued with my last question: Is it possible to elaborate and emphasize freedom of speech? For instance, you [Taliban] have said though press releases and other forms of public messaging, that the Taliban would respect freedom of speech. Although, in your other statements the Taliban threatens media over the same matter. It’s imperative for us to understand, ‘what’s happening on your side and what is your vision of certain freedoms in Afghanistan?’

What was one of the main points that both parties were mostly concerned about?

Khalid Noor: After listening to each other’s questions and concerns, the two sides started to raise their issues about violent attacks. For instance, we shared our sorrows and criticized the current Taliban tactic of sending suicide bombers to kill innocent people in congested parts of the cities. It is not Islamic or logical. The Taliban also criticized the Afghan government by saying that the government ‘only talks about the civilian casualties caused by us [Taliban] and not the night operations conducted by the government, that resulted in the martyrdom of our people and civilians. No news agency reports that. So, when you [Afghan government] raise such concerns, it’s also necessary to discuss our casualties as well.’ One of the Taliban members sternly asked, “Do you think our civilian casualties are not human beings?”

Were there any other matters discussed following the Taliban’s concern of mass casualties?

Khalid Noor: The Taliban raised another point about human rights after we repeatedly defended human rights, women’s rights, and freedom of speech. They told us, “since you are speaking about human rights, is human rights only what you hear about on television and what you believe is right, or do you think about what we go through? They [Afghan National Security Forces and Coalition Forces] enter our homes at night, disrespect our women, our children, and mothers.  For example, one of our commanders was arrested by the Afghanistan National Intelligence Agency and the National Directorate of Security (NDS).

When he was taken into custody at NDS, the investigators told him “Now call your God to help you.” The Taliban expanded on this example and challenged us on “what part of this misbehavior of our personnel, where torture is following the principles of human rights?” They continued and said, “if you look at the prison systems, they are not fair to us [Taliban]. Aren’t your human rights’ values applicable to this case or it’s only the media that shows our negative actions?” Taliban said “we are not denying our mistakes. We have done mistakes but to be fair, it’s good that both sides accept the mistakes.”

Who were some of the other key representatives at this Conference?

Khalid Noor: The two sides listened carefully to each other’s issues and concerns. Our Muslim scholars, who were part of the Kabul delegates, also condemned Taliban actions and illustrated that our interpretation of Islam is better than the Taliban interpretation. The Muslim scholars added that it’s imperative that we [Afghan and Taliban] scholars sit and discuss these issues and come to a conclusion whose interpretation of Islam is right or wrong.

Would you consider this meeting successful?

Khalid Noor: The main point of this meeting was that an opportunity emerged so that both sides could clearly raise their thoughts patiently. This was unlike many other peace talks. In previous conferences, the intra-Afghan dialogues were smaller, about 5-6 people from the Taliban and Afghan side. Unlike before, this time we were part of a bigger team where we discussed various topics. Most importantly, the Taliban delegates participated in the conversation and answered questions. This was a great achievement.

What can be done to increase the likelihood of success in future peace talks?

Khalid Noor: On day two, we were more open to collaborative discussions compared to the first day where mostly everyone was serious and had this hatred towards each other. Representatives from both sides felt comfortable to share something and they listened to each other. I really think that this was a good meeting as the two sides exchanged ideas. If we had one or two more days, I really believe that our discussion could have been more technical and friendlier. It’s imperative to keep such talks in the future. In addition to actual Afghan-Taliban peace negotiations, we need to have separate dialogues, because negotiations can be tough sometimes and in that circumstance, it’s better to refer the issue to the dialogue team, so they can discuss it without a judgment call or simply answer out of ignorance.

Do you believe that the Taliban will keep their promise in efforts to reduce violence? 

Khalid Noor: It’s too early to know if the Taliban will keep their promises or not. But I have to express that the two sides [Taliban and Afghan government] should be involved and support each other. It’s important that both the Afghan National Security Forces and the Taliban fighters implement the promise reached by both sides at the meeting. We are both held accountable. A judgment call can be made if we see a civilian casualty in any of their attacks. We would ask them: You promised us that you would not attack civilians, so what happened that now you attacked schools, hospitals, and targeted civilians? Thus, their promise is a way to keep them responsible for their actions.

This is in case they break the agreement, and they most likely will. But, it’s difficult for us to understand how strongly they are going to keep their promise.

What are some of the drivers for the Taliban to end their fight and join the Afghan government?

Khalid Noor: Some of the main reasons that the Taliban are willing to come to a negotiated settlement and end the war which the Afghan and American governments, along with the international community, believe that no party or side will create peace through war or the use of force. Neither the Taliban can defeat us, nor we can defeat them. In the past 18 years, we have been fighting continuously on the frontlines. Although the Taliban had massive casualties, they are still standing strong against the Afghan government. I do believe that each side has come to the understanding that negotiations are the best option, as war is not the solution to problems.

At the same time, we can tell they [Taliban] are tired of fighting and do not want to continue this war. Their foot soldiers are getting older and the leadership may face trust issues with the current generation of soldiers, as they may not be as loyal. I do not know for sure, but this is my personal understating.

Taliban said, “We also would like to see our children go to school. But because of you [Afghan government], we seek refuge in the mountains, so we cannot send our children to gain proper education and have the basic needs of living.”

What can the Afghan leaders offer to meet those drivers?

Khalid Noor: I strongly believe that the two sides [the Afghan government and the Taliban] should compromise on certain issues and accept each other’s point of view. Without compromise and understanding, there is no other way to solve the problem. The two sides should meet in the future to discuss their concerns. They may need to revise some of their strong policies or views to reach the common goal of a deal to build a regime in Afghanistan.

How does the U.S. contribute as the main broker in intra-Afghan dialogues?

Khalid Noor: The U.S. role in negotiations is critical. Bringing the two sides to a negotiation table is great assistance. Second, if the U.S. direct talks with the Taliban are successful, then this will definitely support the Afghan peace process. Additionally, the U.S. role in pressuring political parties and the Afghan government, so they can come to a united stand in efforts to negotiate with the Taliban, is very critical. I do believe that the U.S. has a key role in encouraging politicians, elites and the opposition to work together on a unified agenda and concept.

Ahmad Mohibi, a writer and activist is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

What 9/11 Means to Me

On September 11, 2001, the tragic news of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was transmitted through a radio that hung from a tree branch. This tree branch was in our backyard. We lived in the Keshm district of Badakhshan province in Afghanistan from 1996-2001. You didn’t know it yet, but we were lost. Between a fear that was consummate, and a fundamental human hope for survival. 2001 restored our hope for democracy, resistance, and freedom.

In the 1990s the Taliban provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network. Afghanistan turned into a safe haven for terrorist groups who planned and executed deadly attacks in Kenya, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Manhattan. Osama bin Laden used Afghanistan as a tool for his political and religious objectives. Had the United States and the international community had the relationship, cooperation, and communication lines it now has with the Afghan government, 9/11 could have been foreseen more clearly, and maybe, prevented.

[pullquote]The Taliban governed Afghanistan for almost five years and acted as the entry to heaven for jihadis, and other extremist fighters.[/pullquote]

The Taliban governed Afghanistan for almost five years and acted as the entry to heaven for jihadis, and other extremist fighters. That typo is a little too perfect to delete. I mean, under the Taliban, Afghanistan acted as a safe-haven for jihadists, and other extremist militants. This included bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the latter being the founder of what would become ISIS. Interestingly, most of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These are two of the only states to recognize the Taliban government in the 1990s.

By 2001, the Taliban occupied 90% of Afghanistan, with the exception of Panjshir, Sheberghan, and our enclave in Badakhshan. In these three provinces the Afghan mujahedin, also known as the Northern Alliance, successfully resisted the Taliban. On September 9th, 2001 al-Qaeda and the Taliban assassinated the Northern Alliance leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Two days later, they brought down The Twin Towers at New York’s World Trade Center. In December 2001 the Taliban was toppled by the United States and its Northern Alliance ally. Remnants of the Taliban scuttled to Pakistan. There, they regrouped and came back strong. 17 years later, the United States remains mired in the longest war in its brief history.

When the war began, many Afghans fled to Pakistan, Iran, and other neighboring countries. My parents chose to stay. They chose to fight extremism. I remember passing through the Hindu Kush Mountains, sleeping on the ground, looking at the stars, and praying for peace. This, while friends, neighbors, and more distant family sought refuge in places farther away. We lived 45 minutes from the Taliban and its trenches. I distinctly remember the sound of heavy-artillery as formal war broke out between Northern Alliance and Taliban fighters.

[pullquote]To the Taliban, we in the north were less than Muslims, less than human. The Taliban saw us as part of the resistance. But after 9/11, everything changed.[/pullquote]

In 2001, Keshm became the center of the mujahedin resistance. As kids, we stood on the streets while military tanks and artillery passed by. It was startling to watch the men, women, and children as young as 12, armed to the teeth. Our family, like many, feared for our lives. The Taliban and its killings were brutal, their ideology – extremist. To the Taliban, we in the north were less than Muslims, less than human. The Taliban saw us as part of the resistance. But after 9/11, everything changed.

At first, the change was not for the better. With Massoud‘s death and the successful attacks in the United States, we lost any remaining hope that we had. But it wasn’t long after when the US B2-s started bombing. Taliban trenches and supply routes were all hit. We all had hope for survival, and to be sure, for freedom, come back to life inside us. It was the first time we witnessed the Taliban being defeated. It was the first time we witnessed the Taliban being bombarded, eliminated. We breathed peace. Never before had we been able to openly celebrate the eradication of the Taliban.

The US war in Afghanistan turned a grim page in Afghan history to a new one rife with hopes for freedom and democracy. Despite that the war has worsened of late, these 17 years have given rise to unprecedented opportunities for Afghans – to learn, to improvise, to bring innovative ideas forward to their communities and the nation. Under the Taliban, we lived in fear, and with no sign of a meaningful or fulfilling future. But today, legitimate and numerous security challenges notwithstanding, there remains in Afghans a strong sense of hope for peace and self-autonomy.

[pullquote]9/11 reminds us that terrorist groups like al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban seek to divide us through hate, fear, and ignorance.[/pullquote]

9/11 reminds us that terrorist groups like al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban seek to divide us through hate, fear, and ignorance. They want a humanity controlled, a collection of strangers. We oppose this idea as a wanton affront to human dignity. We seek a community of connected human beings. We must stay strong, we must persevere, and we must work hard to counter terrorism on a global scale, to protect the lives of the innocent, and to thwart attacks on peace, and civil society.

On this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I share my deepest condolences with the families and friends of its victims, in addition to innocent people who are affected every day by the ongoing tragedies that terrorism inflicts on them. We will continue to stand together and fight for humanity, for the world, and for generations to come.

Ahmad Mohibi is Founder and Director of Counter-terrorism at Rise to Peace, a non-profit organization, and a national security expert. He is a published author, journalist and news commentator on TOLONews, and an alumnus of George Washington University and George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi