Her Excellency Roya Rahmani, the first woman ambassador to the U.S. from Afghanistan, apologized in advance if she appeared sleepy.
And who could blame her.
Rahmani, who took the job in December of 2018, had just returned from Kabul, where she joined other members of the Afghan government as the U.S. and the Taliban signed an historic peace agreement Saturday. If the Taliban meets its obligations, the U.S. — which currently has about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan — will complete a withdrawal in 14 months. Plans are already underway to reduce that force to about 8,600 troops over the next 135 days.
After a press conference at the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington, D.C., Rahmani sat down with Military Times for an exclusive conversation about what this deal could mean for U.S. forces and the people of Afghanistan. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
MT: What do the Afghan people think about this peace deal?
RR: We are looking at it as an opportunity to end this war with a political settlement. It is due to the fact that our people are very tired and exhausted of this very long-winding war. And we are just looking at it as an opportunity, hoping that that would end up to a durable, sustainable peace for the Afghan people.
MT: How difficult is it that the Afghan government is not initially involved with the negotiations? How much does that affect the outcome?
RR: The way we look at this, at this agreement at this point, is that the United States and Taliban wanted to resolve some of the issues related to them that would facilitate talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. And the peace deal will be something that will be negotiated between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
MT: A key part of the deal between the U.S. and Taliban is trading up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners for up to 1,000 Afghan security force prisoners by March 10. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that should not be a precondition of any agreement. Will this create a snag in the process?
RR: Well, first of all, it cannot be a precondition, as the president mentioned, because there are logistical difficulties and at the same time political difficulties to that decision. 5,000 is a very huge number. Afghanistan is a sovereign country and it’s under the decision and discretion of the Afghan government of how they would like to go about it. But at the same time, they would like to build political consensus around something big like this. And as the president said, we are looking at the text and the languages that the United States has said that they will coordinate and facilitate with all sides towards that. That’s not really a commitment that we have agreed to.
MT: The Taliban said that it will resume attacks against Afghanistan targets and this morning, they carried out an attack. How does that play into things? And do you hold the U.S. to its word that the U.S. will respond in cases of attacks?
RR: The United States as an ally and a partner and based on their own national security interests, have been helping our forces and have been in Afghanistan over the past 19 years. And one of the assurances that we have continuously heard about this, that should there be violation of the agreement, it will be it will be met with reactions.
MT: Will you hold the U.S. government to that?
RR: I believe the U.S. government will hold itself to that. This is the promise that they have been making, and that’s part of the agreement that they have had with the Taliban.
MT: If the deal works out, in 14 months, the U.S. and its partners will pull all troops out of Afghanistan and Afghanistan will have to defend itself completely. Will the Afghan national security forces be able to do that?
RR: Currently over 94 percent of all the military operations are carried out by the Afghan forces, and adjustment of the troops has been something that was coordinated closely with our security forces. Should we assess and get to the point that this is going to be feasible, I believe that we will be able. Plus, the 14-month time frame is under an assumption that the conflict will end, that there will be a peace negotiation and it would end to a peace deal. It’s very clear all around that is all based on conditionality. There are many, many conditions to be met along the way for us to get to that point. Should we get to that point and all those conditions should be met, then of course, there is no need. Because Afghanistan will be peaceful and we will be receiving support for our security forces as it has been committed.
MT: How much of the 94 percent of actions carried out by Afghan forces require assistance from the U.S. and allies?
RR: There has been lots of U.S. support from the Air Force, some information sharing and whatnot. But at the same time, the everyday investment that has been made towards our security forces, and the capacity they have felt, particularly over the past two years or so, has really ramped-up their ability to respond to the enemy. And this is this is what we are seeing on the ground.
MT: A big part of the peace treaty is the Taliban promise to fight ISIS and other insurgent groups. But a few years back, an Afghan three-star general told me Taliban forces go into Pakistan, essentially change uniforms, then become ISIS. How much of a challenge does that pose if the Taliban is supposed to fight ISIS?
RR: The question of Pakistan as a sanctuary for the Taliban is the most important question for the peace to find its way in Afghanistan. So this is one of the issues as well as the issue of drugs. The Taliban need to define their relationship with Pakistan. And this is part of the agenda that we were hoping to be discussed during the intra-Afghani negotiations, as well as their relationship with the drug cartels, with the narcotics industry, which is fueling and funding their operations against us and against our allies.
MT: We have heard the U.S. is already withdrawing from bases in parts of Afghanistan. What can you tell us about that?
RR: I don’t have the specific details of how these adjustments are happening. But based on the information that I have, the U.S. forces on the ground work very closely together with our security forces and they are making necessary adjustments
MT: So do you know if the bases are being consolidated right now?
RR: I do not have specific information about what bases are being look into.
MT: Do you have any additional information about the Taliban attack in Afghanistan earlier today?
RR: There was an attack on civilians. And it’s heartbreaking for all of us to see as we are looking into the negotiations, and we are hoping to grab this opportunity for peace. The more civilians are attacked, the more civilians are killed or our forces, and the more difficult it makes the road to peace.
MT: You said earlier that if the Taliban wants peace, they shouldn’t kill.
RR: That’s right. If the Taliban wants peace, they should stop killing Afghans because peace would mean that they would have to find a way to reconcile and coexist together with the rest of the Afghans, with their sisters and brothers. If they continue to keep killing the Afghans, that doesn’t signal their interest in peace.
MT: How concerned are you about the future for women, girls and the gains that have made over the past years?
RR: There are two factors. One is the Afghan women themselves, based on their own resilience, on all the blood and sweat and tears that they had to shed there to get where they are. And every time I am extremely encouraged to see how far along they have come. And the other factor is the enabling environment, which is provided by the Afghan constitution. It provides for equal rights of all its citizens and President Ghani, by observing that, made sure that there are equal opportunities for women. It’s still difficult. There are still a lot of barriers and problems, but the rights of the women is the one of the most critical pieces of a peace treaty should it be reached. If the rights of women are neglected, our long-term security, the regional security and the security of our allies will be compromised. This is a national security issue, not an ethical issue.
MT: How confident are you that this will lead to peace and what are the odds of an eventual peace deal?
RR: We are hopeful. It’s only by the virtue of being hopeful and positive that you go to a negotiation because we would like to have a positive outcome. There are lots of details, very difficult questions that need to be addressed. And I believe in the resilience and greatness of the people because they have demonstrated the capacity to forego the past and still find a way to coexist peacefully, and despite their wounds and hurts that they have felt over the course of the years. They are trying to find a path forward for themselves and the future generation. So I am hopeful, but of course I also am cognizant that the road ahead is bumpy.
MT: You’ve worked a lot with U.S. troops who’ve helped out Afghanistan. There have been more than 2,400 U.S. troops who’ve died in support of Afghanistan over the years — 33,000 wounded in action and $1 trillion in U.S. dollars spent. What is your message to the American people and the U.S. troops who who’ve helped out over the years?
RR: My message, first of all, is a message of gratitude and honor. We honor them. We are extremely thankful for the sacrifices they have made. And I would like each and every one of them to know that what they have done had an immense impact. They have worked towards peace, they have worked towards providing rights, possibilities, opportunities and democracy for the people that have been longing for it. I want to tell them that we are so grateful and their contributions have made an immense impact. I can tell you every few months that I visit, I see a change. And that change is not something that can be reversed. That’s fundamental. We have a human capacity that we have never had in the course of history, the role of women that the way that they are participating and how much out and about they are has never been a precedent in the course of our history. And the thanks goes to them, who have helped our security forces, and together with them, and together with our people have made it possible. So I want them to remember that what they did had a lifelong impact on the life of people, and for a better future for them and for the future generations. So I want them to keep that in my heart.
MT: I know some Afghan interpreters and others who’ve worked with the U.S. over the years who are concerned about their safety and the safety of their families. What’s your concern for them? And also for yourself and your family?
RR: Should these negotiations end with a peace deal, nobody should be concerned, including myself. If the outcome of this negotiation means peace, then that would mean is that the interpreter, the young men and women, the girls who are playing sports or singing, or going to school or pursuing robotics or whatever, everybody should feel safe and secure. That would be a peace deal. ... What brings peace is what happens after that, and how we can uphold that.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.