WASHINGTON: Afghan Presi­dent Ashraf Ghani has said that any discussion of an interim government in Kabul for transfer of power to the Taliban is premature.

In an internet conversation with US scholars in Washington on Thursday afternoon, President Ghani also said that Afghanistan now has “the closest alignment” with Pakistan on the peace process and hoped that it would translate into cooperation in other areas as well.

Asked whether he would step aside for setting up an interim government in Kabul if the Taliban and the US asked him to do so, President Ghani said: “Any discussion of an interim government is premature. I serve at the will of the Afghan people, not to the will of the Taliban.”

Dispelling the impression that the peace talks with the Taliban could lead to the disbanding of the present setup in Kabul, he said: “We need to understand that discussions will have to be mutually respectable. The key issue is not the president, but the republic.”

The Afghan government, he said, has also set up a council for holding intra-Afghan talks, as stipulated in the US-Taliban agreement signed in Doha in February this year. The council includes all factions and enjoys the support of Afghanistan’s global as well as regional partners, he said.

“We have gathered a consensus around two fundamental notions. One is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as a sovereign, democratic, and united republic. And second .... the rights and obligations that bind us together as citizens,” he said.

“We go with goodwill and we hope that goodwill will be reciprocated.”

Responding to a question about Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s surprise visit to Kabul last week, President Ghani said: “We feel that we’ve come to the closest alignment with Pakistan in terms of discourse. We hope that we will be able to turn this into an opportunity for alignment.”

In Washington, Gen Bajwa’s visit is seen as part of an international effort to start intra-Afghan talks. Pakistan’s newly appointed special envoy for Afghanistan, Mohammed Sadiq, and the country’s intelligence chief also accompanied Mr Bajwa.

The US media, while commenting on the visit, noted that relations between Kabul and Islamabad were marred by deep mistrust but both sides now seem eager to improve their ties.

Gen Bajwa’s visit followed his meeting in Islamabad with US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who brokered the US-Taliban peace deal and now leads US efforts to jumpstart the intra Afghan talks.

“We have both agreed that countries develop within regions, and the immense opportunity that India presents is extremely important,” said President Ghani while commenting on his talks with the Pakistani delegation. “Our multi-alliance means that our territory will not be used against any of our neighbors or friends or other countries,” he said.

“With this, I think that the obstacles are diminishing, the coalition for peace is increasing and the coalition against peace is diminishing.”

Asked if Afghanistan would join the China-Pakistan economic corridor, President Ghani said Afghanistan had borders with China and has had a close relationship with Russia as well.

Noting that “neither power is interested in getting engaged in Afghanistan militarily,” he said: “Regional connectivity is an important priority for me. … Belt and road is not a grant initiative.

It’s a loan and Afghanistan cannot take loans. We can only take grants.”

Afghanistan, however, would join any consortium that would bring railways to the country and would encourage regional trade, he added.

The US Institute of Peace and the Atlantic Council arranged the conversation.

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2020