Exclusive interview with Stefano Pontecorvo, the Senior Civilian Representative of NATO to Afghanistan hosted by Ariana News correspondent Zmaryalai Abasin on Monday.
Pontecorvo says that the Taliban’s high level of violence is unacceptable, noting that the government’s concerns about not releasing the remaining Taliban prisoners are legitimate.
The following is a transcript of the interview:
Zmaryalai Abasin: Mr. Ambassador thank you very much for giving us the time that we conduct an exclusive interview. We are very much eager to hear you and your mission in Afghanistan and most welcome to your new mission in Afghanistan.
Stefano Pontecorvo: Assalamalaikum. Thank you for having me. Actually, for me, it is not the first time. I have some very vivid memories of my time here, and hopefully that I will have more.
Abasin: Thank you very much so I will come up with my first question. How do you see the progress in the Afghan peace process till now? We had an agreement in Doha on the 29th of February which is now in progress, and there are still some challenges. But how do you see what has been made so far?
Stefano: Reaching peace is not easy after forty years of conflict in this country. But big progress has been made towards Intra-Afghan talk negotiations. NATO has supported ambassador Khalilzad’s efforts to get the two sides to the peace table. I think there is a certain momentum. Both sides have understood that there is no military solution to the conflict. The afghan people are asking for peace. They will not forget or forgive those who stand in the way of peace. So I think we are getting there.
Abasin: The process that you just talked about. Of course for every peace process especially the Afghan peace process after four decades of very bloody and long war, it would be very sensitive and very hard to reach the cheerful parts. How do you see the challenges here? There are still some problems in front of this process and the difficulties, especially for Intra-Afghan negotiations. So how do you see the challenges and the problems under the government by the Taliban and other parties?
Stefano: There are two parts to my answer. The first is, the conditions are being fulfilled except for the level of violence which is high. The Taliban must demonstrate that they are not only serious about peace but serious about creating the conditions for going to the table by lowering the level of violence. The attacks on Afghan civilians are absolutely unacceptable. The casualties are unacceptable. They have to demonstrate that they will be good and trustworthy as the partners for peace. On the government’s side, I think they are doing what they can. There is the prisoner’s issue which is not only a political issue but also a legal issue. We call for flexibility on all sides to get to this famous 5,000 number and to one thousand number on the Taliban side. We must never forget that it’s a two side deal. We know that we are in a pause in a certain point although the prisoner release is slowly proceeding, we would like to see this stepped up a bit, but there are issues which are real issues on the side of the government, on releasing the remaining number of prisoners.
Abasin: How do you suggest the government? Should they expedite the release of the prisoners?
Stefano: I think that we have come quite far. The Afghan government has made public and has told us also that there are some issues, they told the US also which is broker of this whole peace. There are real concerns, and that is why we call for flexibility on both sides. Both sides be also the Taliban. In the sense that President Ghani himself had made clear that there are issues. There are problems. There are legal problems. There are constitutional problems. And that they are willing to get to the 5,000 problems which they have not questioned. But you know on the other side, if you keep fixed on a list, you are not going anywhere. So we need the flexibility to get there. I think the Afghan government has shown its willingness that they are willing to arrive to 5,000. There is an issue in the last 1,000. So this issue has to be addressed. They are legitimate concerns. And these legitimate concerns have to be taken care of.
Abasin: At the same time, when we talk about the challenges. One of the most important things in Afghan issues when we want to get out of the conflict is the need for consensus. You know better. We see two different sides to this. First of all, I will come up to Afghan consensus in regard to the Afghan peace process. How do you see it so far? We were witnessing many of the issues and conflicts between the president and Dr. Abdullah, and it seems like they still have two different ideas about the Afghan peace process, the prisoner release, and the Intra-Afghan dialogue. So how can we reach this consensus and how do you see it?
Stefano: The team has to be united, and for unity, you need unity in the leadership. I think that the recent political agreement has gone a long way. That agreement now needs to be implemented. It is in the final stage of implementation. Now we expect that the Afghan government response to the request of the Afghan people which is unanimously for peace. And to get to that peace, you have to get to the table.
Abasin: Besides the Afghan consensus, we need global and regional consensus. How do you see this, as we are witnessing a lot of conflicts and new issues especially between Washington and Russia? How do you see the global and regional consensus till now?
Stefano: I would say there is a unanimous consensus, regionally and internationally that the ultimate goal of peace in Afghanistan is supported by everybody. I welcome the initiative by foreign minister Atmar who created a forum for regional and international partners. The consensus there, with no exception, was that we support peaceful agreement between Afghans, the Intra-Afghan negotiations, and that we hope to get there as soon as possible, and that the government’s stance is supported. And to have a stable and prosperous Afghanistan, the gains of the last 19 years that the Afghan society has made need to be reserved. We cannot go back on those because those, only the gains that the Afghan society and people has made, will ensure for a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. We are proud of being a part of it. We have a security umbrella under which ANDSF which are getting better day by day have shown that the conflict is not militarily winnable.
Abasin: I will come up with my last question. How was your experience of engagement with Afghan society, the government, the officials, and other political conspiracies that Afghanistan has. You know the sensitivity of Afghan society. It is without any doubt difficult to get engaged with every party with the size of conflict and political parties. How do you see your experience and how do you observe your experiences with the government and political faces in Afghanistan.
Stefano: I have had about 140 engagements with government officials starting from Pres. Ghani, Dr. Abdullah to all the main political personalities in these countries. I have reached out to groups, parties, women, youth, and media. I find that it is a very sophisticated society. It is a society that knows well what it wants, and it wants peace, stability, and the gains of the last 19 years preserved. So I think that all Afghans know what they want, know how to get there, and that they are very well prepared to get into the Intra-Afghan negotiations. We hope that unity will prevail, and we are sure that it will prevail. Because unity and the team along the table is what will deal with the negotiations.
Abasin: Thank you, Ambassador Stefano Pontecorvo, for giving us the time for this exclusive interview, and thank you for your passion so far.
NATO SCR: Thank you so much, sir. I really hope… I am confident that things will work out. Afghans will work out the differences and will be able to deliver a peaceful Afghanistan to Afghans first and then the region. Thank you.
Abasin: let’s hope for the best, and we obviously need the support of the international society, NATO, and every part that is involved in this process. Once again I appreciate your time and what you have shared with our people in Afghanistan. Best of luck in your upcoming missions.
Stefano: Just as a closing remark, NATO is committed to… We don’t want to stay here forever, but we are committed to assisting for as long as we need to be here, and that will be decided by the Afghan government.
Abasin: Let’s hope for the best. Thank you so much, Sir.