Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul of Afghanistan has the demeanor of a veteran physician -- indeed, he's one. Rassoul studied medicine in Paris and later worked in Saudi Arabia and at the Paris Research Institute of Cardiac Diseases. His calm nature serves him well in what may be the world's hardest Foreign Minister post. 10 years after the invasion of Afghanistan, he negotiates with countries eager to get their soldiers back -- and he has to convince them that Afghanistan's own forces are improving, while at the same time asking for more help. He also has to negotiate with Pakistan, the neighbor whose influence reaches far inside his own country.
Former President Rabbani was assassinated in September, and top politicians including President Karzai have survived assassination attempts. Do you feel safe in Afghanistan today?
Of course there are many threats and forces that are opposed to peace and stability in Afghanistan. That's why there are assassination attempts. But it's not just VIP's who experience violence; it's regular people, too. There are bomb explosions, car bombings, etcetera. It's our country. We need to keep struggling to bring peace and stability here. In the end, we're responsible for it. And remember how far we've come in the past 10 years. You can't compare Afghanistan in 2001 to Afghanistan 2011. Tremendous change has happened in this country. Security is one of the challenges that remain.
Will the situation get worse when international troops leave? According to a new survey 37% of Afghan women think Afghanistan will become a worse place if international troops leave.
It has been 10 years. It's simply time for Afghan security forces to take over. International forces can't be responsible for Afghan security forever. At the Lisbon Summit we agreed on a transition plan so by the end of 2014 Afghan forces will be fully responsible for security in Afghanistan. Of course, that doesn't mean that the international community will abandon Afghanistan. Our security forces till still need training by foreign troops as well as equipment. At the same time, we're working with our allies on the post 2014-relations. So, we're preparing ourselves for transition by building future relations with our allies.
If a Danish soldier in Afghanistan asked you why he should risk his life for the Afghan people, what would you respond?
The arrival for international forces was decided by the UN Security Council, not by Afghanistan. But from our perspective, international soldiers have contributed to the well-being of Afghan people. What we have today in Afghanistan, we have thanks to these soldiers' presence. We have a constitution, human rights, women's rights, eight million children going to school, 40% of them girls. For the first time we have tens of thousands kilometers of paved roads. We have basic healthcare. Thousands of children are surviving instead of dying during infancy as children did before 2001. And the international forces have defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan. There are still Taliban outside Afghanistan, but in Afghanistan they've been defeated. And the soldiers have contributed to the security of their own countries. No country that has soldiers in Afghanistan would have been free of risk of being attacked - not just in Afghanistan, but inside their own countries. We, the Afghan people, are full of gratitude and thanks that they've risked and sometimes sacrificed their lives for us. But they've also done so to protect their own countries.
Occupying forces are rarely popular. Maybe Afghans will be better off without foreign soldiers?
This is the first time in the history of Afghanistan that foreign soldiers have been welcomed. That's because this time the international forces came to liberate Afghanistan. But now that 10 years have passed, of course Afghans want to see their own soldiers taking care of their security. The 2014 withdrawal of international forces is something that the Afghan people want and that our allies want. Public opinion and the financial crisis have obviously put pressure on this to happen. In order to be successful, this transition has to be irreversible. That's why we have to work on how Afghanistan will function after the transition is over. We have to make sure that Afghanistan isn't mistreated by its neighbors in the region, and we have to focus on our economy so we don't lose what we've accomplished in the past 10 years. In a few years we hope that Afghanistan will stand on its own feet. We have very rich mineral resources, gas and oil.
In other words, the main accomplishment of the international troops is that they've defeated terrorism in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is no longer a source of terrorism. The terrorism we're seeing in Afghanistan comes from the outside. If the aim of the invasion was to make sure that Afghanistan doesn't threaten any other country, then it has succeeded. But if the aim was to bring total security in Afghanistan, we've not succeeded and have to work harder. Because the source of the terrorism isn't inside Afghanistan we're starting to work with our neighbors to make sure that that source will be eliminated.
Are you referring to Pakistan?
Pakistan could reign in the Taliban but doesn't seem to be doing so. Could it be that Pakistan doesn't want a stable and peaceful Afghanistan?
No government since the creation of Afghanistan has been as engaged with Pakistan as our current government. Our position is that the promotion of terrorism isn't in Pakistan's interest either. Pakistan is suffering from terrorism, too. We need to work together to defeat that, but so far we haven't seen the result we want to see.
So Pakistan should do more?
Is the Afghan National Army up to the task? According to a 2010 UN report, 90% of its soldiers are illiterate 30% are drug addicts.
I don't agree with those figures. We have some drug addicts in the ANA, but not 30%. Illiteracy remains a problem because two generations of Afghans couldn't go to school. How can you have a literate army under such circumstances? But now we have a very intensive literacy program for new soldiers, and the percentage of literate soldiers is increasing every month. Regarding the quality of the soldiers, you can ask any commander on the ground, from any country, and they'll tell you that the Afghan soldiers are doing a very good job despite a very short term of training and lack of adequate equipment.
A tougher challenge is the police force, with police officers helping our joining the Taliban...
Yes, we have many problems with the police force. We started training them very late, and being a police officer is much more difficult than being a soldier because he's dealing with the population. He needs to be literate; he needs to know the laws. The Taliban are not recruiting Afghan police officers. There has been some infiltration of the police force by the Taliban, but the majority of police officers don't help the Taliban. Every day we lose 5-10 police officers in the fight against the Taliban. The police force has taken the brunt in the war against terrorism.
Russia says that drug smuggling from Afghanistan is now so widespread that it's a threat to Russia's national security. How is Afghanistan going to stop it?
The production of narcotics in Afghanistan is the result of 30 years of war. Since 2001 we've put in place proper government institutions to fight poppy production, and we have a counternarcotics ministry, but it's not easy. When we took over 80% of Afghanistan's provinces grew poppy. Now over 30 provinces are free of drugs, but the quantity being produced in the other provinces is very high. Why? Because of the link between security and poppy cultivation. Areas that are insecure, not fully under government control, grow more poppy. There's also a direct link between the education level of an area and its poppy cultivation: provinces with a higher level of education grow less poppy. There's a third link, between poverty and poppy cultivation. The poorest regions of Afghanistan are not growing poppy, while the richest provinces, like Helmand, do. Helmand produces 50-60% of Afghan poppy - and it's because of a lack of security. But the drug barons are not inside Afghanistan. Another outside factor, of course, is the demand for poppy. We, as the government, are attacking one area, the source of poppy, but we can't do anything about the demand. Those who accuse Afghanistan of being a drug producer should help us by reducing the demand. If there's no demand, no Afghan will grow poppy.
There's a growing debate on legalization of soft drugs in Europe. Would legalization of such drugs be detrimental to Afghanistan?
It's not our business to intervene. Our aim is to make Afghanistan a drug-free country. With regards to demand -- it's mathematical. If there's less demand, there will be less production.
Russia also claims ISAF forces don't want to eliminate Afghanistan's narcotic crops. Is that your view, too?
The mission of ISAF is to fight terrorism. ISAF has contributed to the elimination of poppy cultivation, but the most important step is to reduce demand.
As Foreign Minister of Afghanistan you have to deal with a constant stream of problematic issues. Looking back at these past 10 years, which issue would you highlight as an Afghan success story?
Democracy. We were at war for 30 years, and within 10 years we have developed democratic institutions. We have freedom of expression. We have a parliament that's elected by the people. 26% of our members of parliament are women, a higher percentage than many Western countries. We have a constitution that grants men and women equal rights. We have the freest press in the region.
Previously published in Metro www.metro.lu.