The war in Afghanistan is now America’s longest and going from bad to worse. As of February, only about 60% of Afghanistan’s 407 districts were reported to be under government control, with the authorities in Kabul still struggling to counter a dangerous Taliban insurgency that began after the extremist group’s fall from power almost 16 years ago. The insurgency is expanding, and Afghanistan also faces threats from ISIS and other terror outfits. Some 13,000 NATO troops — among them about 8,400 U.S. soldiers — remain in the country. That number could rise, amid reports that an additional 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops may be heading to Afghanistan as the Trump administration weighs military proposals.
Against this backdrop, on May 11 TIME’s South Asia bureau chief Nikhil Kumar sat down with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani in the presidential palace in Kabul to talk about the deteriorating security situation, the possible troop increase, Ghani’s conversations with Donald Trump, the threat from ISIS and the prospects for a political settlement with the Taliban. Excerpts have been edited for clarity:
On Ghani’s impression of Donald Trump, following two phone calls with the U.S. President
Trump began with Afghanistan’s advantages, which was very impressive. The natural [mineral] wealth of the country was the first issue that we discussed. We were able to talk to each other very easily. [We had] a free-floating conversation. All the fundamental questions were asked by him. But the style is different, so you don’t prepare half-an-hour briefings [for President Trump]. You need to be very sharp. It’s a business model. Can you do the elevator pitch? Can you get your point across? And because of that I think we’ve built an excellent relationship.
On Trump bringing up Afghanistan’s mineral wealth first, before the deteriorating security situation
… Our challenge is simultaneity. You cannot make the economy wait for security. You have to be able to do it … What is important about our people: they take a certain degree of insecurity as contextual, because of the last 40 years [of conflict]. If the conflict were new, like Iraq, it would be a completely different reaction, or Syria. Here, they take a certain degree of conflict — they hate it — but they understand it. But if they don’t see you working on dams and livelihood and connectivity and others, they think you’re not coming out of the vicious circle. When we completed the first dam — and it was with very generous help from India in Herat province — it was the first dam that was completed in 40 years. There were spontaneous celebrations across the whole country. Something was being realized. The thirst for standing on our own two feet is really very high.
On his message to U.S. taxpayers, and why they should continue paying for the war in Afghanistan almost 16 years after the fall of the Taliban
The most important thing, from their perspective: their security depends on us. If I am correct in saying that this is a war over Afghanistan, I would like the American taxpayer to imagine, [given] what Osama [bin Laden] alone could do … what if a third, a half, God forbid, or all of Afghanistan, is a center of global terrorism incorporated? The threats, given the way threats operate now, will become much more pronounced. Our cooperation on terrorism is based on mutual interest and that interest needs to be conveyed to the American public. They are not safe, but if this menace is not contained, none of us is going to be safe.
On the costs of the war in Afghanistan
The number of troops is one-tenth of what they were. The costs are one-tenth. They’ve been reduced by 90%. And the most significant thing: except in the counterterrorism arena, American soldiers are not fighting. We are fighting. Over 2,300 Americans lost their lives between 2001 and the end of 2014. Since then, it’s under 50. Fifty is still too many. But this is where the dynamic has changed.
Yes, because the core reason is that we need advice at the level of the division. At the corps command level we have advice, but it is at the division [level where Afghan forces need additional support].
On whether security can be restored without a more significant increase in costs and international troops
Security can be restored, yes. First of all, my relationship with both President Obama and President Trump is not to ask for things. President Obama called me on his last day in office and said the only person who never asked him for anything was me. And I do not get into the executive decision-making process of my partner countries. I don’t go to the press; I don’t make requests. Because it has to be interest-based, it has to be a factual and demonstrable set of propositions. The security transition [with the end of the NATO combat mission in 2014 and the departure of most foreign troops] is a done thing. There is no global appetite, there is no Afghan appetite, for a resumption of that scale of presence. We need to put this to rest because if there are questions regarding this, the consensus will break.
Second, what we need is precisely the way that the Resolute Support Mission [as the current NATO deployment is known] is defined and also it’s in our bilateral security agreement: advise, train and assist. In these functions, the numbers that have been proposed are the right numbers. In 2001, we didn’t have an army; we had remnants of a dissolved army that had no hope. Our generals had literally become busboys. Restoring this has been really important. But of course there are significant issues. For example there is corruption in the police. In the Ministry of Defense, I have retired over 150 generals in the last two years. They had done their service, they had served their country. But they were being extended beyond the law. So I have put a stop to this. Reorganizing our forces is critical to sustainability. We cannot shift the burden again.
On the growing threat from the Taliban and whether Afghan forces can hold back the insurgents without a significant surge in international troops
We can hold [them back], because, again, we need to see, 2015 [the year after the end of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan] was a battle for survival. We did everything the Taliban, Pakistan and others were saying — we brought a massive reduction of security forces. But instead of coming to consensus over a political solution in Afghanistan, they accelerated the fight. So the Taliban and their backers have had two goals: one, to overthrow the government; second, to create two political geographies. They were able to take Kunduz momentarily. But except for that they have not been able to take a single major [provincial] capital.
[TIME: But the Taliban are at the gates again]
They are at the gates. We are not saying we are not in conflict — that would be illusionary. What I am saying is we are not about to collapse. We have been able both years [2015 and 2016] to contain immense onslaughts in a time when, because of Congressional sanctions against Russia, we had no airpower [with Western sanctions on Moscow preventing Afghanistan from securing spare parts for its aging Russian aircraft]. Our fleet? The only assistance that they could secure after knocking on the doors of over 50 countries was from India. Four helicopters that really were lifesavers. Now we expect … should the plan be approved by President Trump, a major overhaul of the Afghan air force, a doubling of our special forces, a reorganization to the level of the company and the division, that enables us [to get going]. So [what] we have been doing in 2015 and 2016 that is an extremely rare phenomenon: fighting and reforming at the same time. And the jury is out. But it has not been not for lack of effort.
On how much input his government has had in the Trump administration’s review of America’s Afghan policy
Input has been two-fold. We prepared a four year plan. It was completely driven by me, and by my colleagues, our national security council has agreed on it. Then we shared it … We have been very lucky. It’s probably very rare in history to have so many top security officials be the friends of Afghanistan.
[TIME: In the US?]
In the U.S. General Votel [commander of U.S. Central Command], General Scapparatti [NATO’s top military commander], General Dunford, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Thomas [Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command], and of course General McMaster as U.S. National Security Adviser, and Secretary Mattis, the former General Mattis, among the first people to have landed in Kandahar. So we know people who know us intimately. The conversation has been enormously productive.
On the dropping by the of the so-called Mother of All Bombs on ISIS fighters in eastern Afghanistan in April, a mission that Trump called “very successful” but which Ghani’s envoy to Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal, condemned as “reprehensible and counterproductive”
Our ambassador changed his mind, of course, because he had not been briefed properly. He’s an honorable man, he submitted his resignation, I refused it. We have an attachment to every inch of this soil and when the land hurts, we really hurt. But the judgment came from the people. I had a very large gathering of the people in the six districts that were most affected. And their words really need to be taken into account. They said, “They call this the mother of the bombs; we want the father.” Daesh [the Arabic term for ISIS) is truly a heinous phenomenon.
On what the bomb achieved
It destroyed a very significant group of Daesh leaders … They were attempting to use caves that had been dug up during the Soviet period, and then their attempt was on Tora Bora [the cave complex in eastern Afghanistan and former Taliban stronghold where Bin Laden fled in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2001]. Tora Bora was a symbolic thing. All of this has been put to an end.
On whether there had been any civilian casualties
No. Whenever there have been civilian casualties, the local people have come absolutely forward … I had all the leaders [visit], about 400 people, not a single person raised the question of civilian casualties.
On the threat from ISIS in Afghanistan
If al-Qaeda was version 2.0, [Daesh] is version 4.0. Daesh is not face-to-face. It is face to Facebook. This is a significant difference, because it combines old things, and now the lone wolf phenomenon is produced by ideology, the communication part of Daesh. I’ve put forward these three notions: the ecology, morphology and pathology of terror. Pathology by Daesh is distinctively to swallow its opponents, to frighten the population. In that regard, the threat is very real. The attempted recruitment is of a different standard, and the nature of the conflict that they propose is of a different order, so it needs to be taken seriously. And, if you look at Dabiq, their publication, they are asking all their followers not to go to Iraq and Syria and to go to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And the movement is made possible by the same networks that make possible the flow of drugs, antiquities and bring oil and other things. Going after the financing and after the criminal economy now, I think, has become imperative.
On the numbers of ISIS fighters in the country
It would be guessing. I would say hundreds, not thousands. But hundreds that are lethal.
On whether Al-Qaeda is still active in Afghanistan
Yes. We’ve eliminated a number of key places and we’ve captured a lot of information. [But] it’s not finished by any means.
On the controversial peace deal between the Afghan government and the former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose forces bombarded Kabul ruthlessly during the country’s civil war in the 1990s. Critics say the pact, which paved the way for Hekmatyar’s return to Kabul in early May, highlighted a culture of impunity in Afghanistan, with former warlords being allowed to escape accountability for their actions
Did the deal in Northern Ireland underline the culture of impunity? What are the two standards? How many Nazis were prosecuted after World War II, how many Vichy? Let us not impose two standards. If we are seeking peace, we need to have forgetfulness regarding the past.
[TIME: In his speech when he arrived in Kabul, Hekmatyar referred to the Taliban as brothers and said he would act as a mediator. Is that a position you endorse?]
The casualties that we suffer do not allow for luxury. Peace is not a luxury. Peace is a necessity… I’m spending 4-6 hours a day on security. This is an unnecessary imposition. They key issue is: can we change bullets to ballots? Bullets will flow and will kill. Can we shift the conflicts among us to the political arena? Our failure in the past has been a failure of politics.
[TIME: So is a political settlement possible with the Taliban?]
It depends on them.
[TIME: What are your red lines, when you say it depends on them?]
On his government’s contacts with the Taliban
We have open lines of communication with a lot of Taliban. They reach us. This in Afghan society, it’s a connected society. But the discussions need to be principled and open.
On reports late last year of secret talks between his government and the Taliban in Qatar
Between buzz and discussions you need to differentiate. People reach out. There are a lot of honest brokers, or attempted honest brokers, that want to bring peace. We are not closing the door. But when we get to formal open discussions, that’s when we have the breakthrough. And that’s our insistence. It’s not going to be under the table. It’s going to be through the Afghan Peace Council [a government panel tasked with negotiating an end to the conflict] and through a properly constituted delegation, along the lines that we did it in Murree [the Pakistani hill resort where an earlier round of peace talks were held].
On the suggestion by General Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, that Russia was supplying arms to Taliban insurgents
The first issue is we need Russia to be part of the consensus for a stable Afghanistan. Second, our request to the Russians is that we do not become part of a global chess game, a tit-for-tat for other situations. Russia would lose and harm its own interests if it armed the Taliban or other groups.
[TIME: But do you think it is? Have you seen any evidence?]
I do not want to comment on this. We need engagement and we are going to be convening a regional meeting. A regional consensus is important for us. There was a spontaneous regional consensus in 2002, [and] there must be an active regional consensus now. We have made a lot of progress towards this. We have work to do with Russia and I hope that it will be productive.
On reports of Chinese troops operating in Afghan territory
There are no Chinese troops on Afghan soil.
On his message to President Trump about Pakistan, a country that Ghani has accused of waging an “undeclared war” on Afghanistan
A stable Pakistan is in our interests. A stable Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interests. We hope that the U.S. that has sacrificed so much in blood and treasure with us can help Pakistan normalize itself.
[TIME: And how do they do that?]
By showing that continuing to sponsor destabilizing forces … harms their own interests. Look, Pakistan amended its constitution, amended its Army Act, prepared a national action plan against terrorism. All this goes against the distinction between good and bad terrorists. There can be no such thing. This is a snake that will bite you.
On his remarks to the BBC last year that he had “no sympathy” for Afghan migrants fleeing the war-torn country
I’ve lived in exile for 24 years. I was never discriminated against. I went to the best schools, I taught at the best schools, I worked at the World Bank. I was given all my jobs on the phone. But I was very unhappy. I’m happy [now]. I have the hardest job in the world. I get a billion curses a day. But I’m happy. I was not talking about lack of sympathy. I was talking about love. I came back because my textbooks, my elementary school textbooks, compelled me to come. That was my message. It got distorted. Afghans are a networked society. When I go to Afghan villages, I ask two questions: how many of you have been abroad? How many of you have relatives abroad? Sixty percent of hands go up. In 1978, the answer to these two questions would probably have been zero point zero something. It needs to be looked at as an organized process. Who is underwriting this? People are spending $30,000 to $50,000 to migrate and lose their lives in the Mediterranean. That’s the part I’ve no sympathy for — the smugglers. And it’s also an appeal. When they go, when highly educated people go, and become manual laborers — it breaks my heart. There is a country to build here.
On the challenge of absorbing the recent surge in returning refugees from Pakistan, Iran and Europe. Last year, more than 600,00 returned from Pakistan alone, amid a breakdown in relations between the two countries
If we have half a loaf of bread, we will divide it with the returnees. But this will make Afghanistan whole. As long as we have refugees, we are not whole.
Those that have gone to Australia, to North America, to Europe — their second and third generation, we hope, will do what the Irish and the Indians and the Chinese have done… But the refugees that are in Iran and Pakistan, and some in Greece and others, have difficult conditions. And we need to be able to prepare. Again, it forces us to speed up certain parts of the economy.