December 17, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Afghan Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni

Afghanistan's interim Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni has flagged off a new diplomatic nexus between New Delhi and Kabul. The de facto number two in the erstwhile Northern Alliance -- whose parents lived in New Delhi throughout his struggle against the Taliban regime -- was in New Delhi recently to seek Indian help to revamp Afghanistan's security system.

Qanooni, a very close aide of the late Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Masoud, was, during the eighties, in charge of relations between the Jamiat-i-Islami and the ISI (Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence) from whom money, weapons and ammunitions were available.

During the years in Kabul, Qanooni served as spokesman and was also appointed co-defence minister in 1993 when President Burhanuddin Rabbani agreed to dismiss Masoud in order to obtain legitimacy from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (Rabbani was later re-elected in December 1992 without the vote of five main political parties among the most influential ones.)

After the fall of Kabul in September 1996, Qanooni took part in the meetings that led to the creation of the Supreme Council for Defence of the Motherland. Once again in 1997, he played a political role in the creation of the United Islamic and National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan.

Since the beginning of 2001, Qanooni has led several official missions to Europe, especially Rome, to meet important Afghan figures and groups based overseas to discuss joint efforts to strengthen the resistance against "Pakistani aggression" and help restore a durable peace.

He later helped set up a new council to topple the Taliban and create a new government with ex-king Zahir Shah.

In an exclusive interview with Shahid K Abbas, Qanooni spoke at length about the challenges before his government in the changed situation in Afghanistan. Excerpts:

There was some problem at the Bonn conference. Perhaps some differences had cropped up between you and Burhanuddin Rabbani. Was that why it took a little longer to form the interim government?

You see, we had only two options. Either we could have opted for peace or remained in war. We compromised with our party interest and gave preference to the national interest. We had the miseries of the Afghan people in mind, our people who, after continuous fighting and struggle for over two decades, were tired of war. So that is why we signed the agreement at Bonn.

Moreover, Burhanuddin Rabbani was not acceptable to all the groups. The United States wanted King Zahir Shah's group to emerge as a major power centre while Pakistan was pressurizing that the leadership should not go into the hands of the National Alliance. And that is why a compromise was reached on the name of Hamid Karzai. And, mind you, all differences were resolved, only then we signed the Bonn agreement and there are now no differences with Burhanuddin Rabbani.

While you [the Northern Alliance] were almost single-handedly fighting the Taliban, Pakistan was supporting your rival until September 11. Now, in the changed scenario, what will be your attitude towards Pakistan, which still enjoys clout among a sizeable chunk of the Afghani people, particularly the Pushtoons?

We expect that Pakistan will review its policy of interference and establish a good friendly, neighbourly relation. Unfortunately, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have not been friendly in the past and the reason was the hostile policy adopted by Pakistan and its secret agency, the ISI. We expect that in the new situation Pakistan will desist from its past policies and adopt a strategy that will be beneficial for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we would like to have good neighbourly relations with Pakistan, should it come with a friendly posture.

But there are so many Pakistani Army regulars holed up in Afghanistan. How is your government going to deal with this problem?

We have arrested foreign elements only on Afghan soil and therefore we will deal with them in accordance with the law of our land. We are not going to hand them over to any third country. The foreign elements who have been supporting our enemies have been arrested on Afghan soil and we will treat them as prisoners of war.

India has been supporting the Northern Alliance in its struggle against the Taliban all along, both financially and militarily. Now, in the changed scenario, what sort of relations do you foresee developing between Afghanistan and India?

Relations between Afghanistan and India have been very historic. India has helped Afghanistan in wartime, particularly against the Taliban. And at this stage we will have much stronger ties between India and Afghanistan in the coming years.

The Taliban had been a key training centre for Kashmiri militants. How do you look at that problem? What is the role you intend to play in this context?

I can tell you in few words that we are against any foreign intervention in any part of the world, including Kashmir.

At this stage, what will be the priorities of your government?

The first priority will be to restore peace in Afghanistan, reconstruction and then establishing a kind of broad-based government.

What will be the time-frame for establishing a broad-based government?

The present interim government is there for six months. After this the Loya Jirga (Afghanistan's high-powered panchayat-type system) will have representation from all ethnic and religious groups to form a broad-based multi-ethnic government.

What role do you expect India to play in the reconstruction of your country?

India is a big, democratic country. We wish to share its experience and we appreciate India's offer of helping in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Are you going to keep peace-keeping forces in Afghanistan?

We need peace-keeping forces in southern Afghanistan.

There are about 11,600 Afghan refugees in India, of whom 75 per cent are Sikh or Hindu, while the majority of the Muslim refugees are in other countries. Now, are you going to take them back, particularly the Sikhs and Hindus?

We assure the Sikhs and the Hindu Afghan refugees living in India a safe return and also assure them that their properties will be restored to them. Their temples, gurdwaras and dharamshalas will be restored and rebuilt. We invite the Sikh and Hindu Afghans to return and share in the government's responsibility of reconstructing the country. We will facilitate all their business activities.

As interior minister, it is my responsibility to ensure their security and dignity. We have also given instructions to our foreign minister to expedite the process of documentation [passports, etc] so that the refugees living outside Afghanistan may quickly return to their homeland. I have also requested the Indian government to resume the New Delhi-Kabul air service so that the return of the refugees and the process of re-establishment of trade links is expedited.

There are reports that a Chinese firm had offered to supply telecommunication equipment to the Taliban.

That is purely a business and trade deal. This does not mean China has supported the Taliban against us. And even if it is so, we have been opposing all Taliban supporters in the past and even now.

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