Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Flash from the Past: When the Taleban wanted UN-monitored elections

Thomas Ruttig 8 min

AAN presents to its readers a 1996 interview with one of the current negotiators in the Taleban Qatar office, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai. The interview was conducted by Thomas Ruttig when Stanakzai was part of a Taleban’s diplomatic mission to Germany. The Taleban were then searching to try to establish diplomatic relations and gaining legitimacy as a partner for negotiations over solving the Afghan conflict. Stanakzai said they wanted the United Nations to intervene. Kabul was still held by the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani (it would fall to the Taleban some six months after this interview). The militant movement openly advocated the formation of a nationally representative jirga, or shura, to select an interim government capable of organising general elections with the help of the UN.

In early spring 1996, before the Taleban capture of Kabul, someone called to tell me that a Taleban delegation was in Germany trying to establish official relations with the German government – and gave me a phone number. I talked with Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai, a member of what he said was the diplomatic office of the Taleban. He later became deputy Foreign and then Health Minister and more recently, from early 2012, re-emerged as a member of the Taleban negotiations team in Qatar.(1) This call resulted in what was perhaps the first ever interview with a Taleban official in the German media (albeit one conducted in English). Here is a re-translation from German.

Q: You have met various German officials here. Are you satisfied with these meetings?

A: We have been in Germany for 14 days. I have had official meetings with the Foreign Office, the Ministry for Development, and the Social Democratic Party as well as with professors from Bonn University and members of parliament. The results are good. We are satisfied. Among other things, we discussed political issues and the situation in Afghanistan. We also discussed Afghan economic issues, regarding factories, dams and forest projects in the (Afghan) south, in Paktia province.

Q: These are former West German development projects?

A: Yes.

Q: How did the German side reply? Is Germany ready to resume these projects?

A: We did not sign any protocol about it, but they told us that they would do whatever they can. They said they would support us, first of all on the education sector, with school materials, teachers, etc.

Q: The Taleban are not the government. Wasn’t that a problem?

A: No, they did not have any problem with this. They told us of course that Rabbani’s is the central government and that the Taleban are not the government but that they could do something on humanitarian issues nevertheless.

Q: At a press conference held in Bonn, you said that the Taleban want a peaceful solution in Afghanistan. What would this look like?

A: We have always said this. We have urged the United Nations and friendly countries to come and find a solution for Afghanistan. We don’t want to fight with the factions that already exist in Afghanistan. We are ready to sit down with them and find a peaceful formula with them for Afghanistan.

Q: What do you think about the recent pact between Rabbani and Hekmatyar [bringing Hekmatyar into the Kabul government, after both sides had fought against each other since 1992]?

A: We also have heard that they reached a compromise and want to establish a [joint] government and give some government posts to Hekmatyar. But I do not believe that they will get along with each other for a long time. Hekmatyar has already repeatedly joined the government. But after some time, he always has reneged and started fighting Rabbani again. This union is about power and money. I hope that they do not stick together for long.

Q: There were similar offers to the Taleban [to join the Kabul government]. Do your words imply that you are not ready to accept this?

A: If they can really convince us that they will work for peace and unity in Afghanistan, that they are honest, that they will hand over their weapons to a neutral force and that they want to establish a government that is acceptable to everyone, then we maybe will be with them.

Q: What does ‘will be with them’ mean?

A: There are two sides. Provided that they also invite other factions to join that are fighting them currently and they ensure that a government that is acceptable to all communities is established, we probably will cooperate.

Q: Shortly after the Rabbani-Hekmatyar pact, there was a Taleban statement that the offer to the Taleban to join is a trick and that the Taleban will continue to fight for the overthrow of Rabbani…

A: Yes, this was said. We cannot trust what they say. It is not the first time that they join forces. What I want to say is that if they are truthful and loyal to the people of Afghanistan, if they are honest with the other factions, then we will talk with them.

Q: But isn’t there a large difference between continuing the war and a peaceful settlement?

A: Three or four days ago, when Hekmatyar’s first forces came to Kabul, they tried their new unity on us immediately. They started a big attack on us in the area of Chahrasyab [south of Kabul]. The fighting went on for three days, and hundreds of people were killed. If they want a peaceful solution, why do they attack us?

Q: When the Taleban came to Afghanistan last year, they promised to end the war and were supported by the population. When their first attack on Kabul was unsuccessful, however, the Taleban also started firing on civilian areas. Isn’t this a contradiction to your claim that you are different from the other factions?

A: Our movement, which is a national movement now to stop violence all over the country, has started to end all these things. Therefore, we always called for Rabbani, Hekmatyar and the other parties to come together and find a solution. But always when we talked to them, there was no solution. They only fight for power. We told them that all of us should hand over our weapons to a neutral force, have a free selection [of new leadership] in Afghanistan and then a proper election under UN supervision. Then it would be the duty of that government to decide what form of government there will be, who would be president and who would be prime minister. But this proposal has always been rejected because everyone just fights for power.

Q: Including the Taleban?

A: No. We are not fighting for power. We are a movement and not a party that wants to participate in the elections.

Q: But you fire rockets on civilians…

A: The life of people in Kabul has continually been threatened by the parties throughout the past four years. They killed many people, and now we are here to save the people. If they, the government, are not ready to leave Kabul, we have to fight to drive these people out of Kabul.

Q: You now use the same means as the mujahedin. What is the difference between you and Hekmatyar?

A: Hekmatyar’s is a political party and wants to come to power. We don’t want power. We want to continue our fight with peaceful means, but when this is impossible, we will put them under pressure until violence is ended in Afghanistan.

Q: You mentioned that you are in favour of the ‘selection’ of a new government first. What does this mean in practice?

A: This means that representatives of all languages and provinces should come together to find a formula under which free elections can be held.

Q: Is this a Loya Jirga?

A: In our traditional language this is called a Loya Jirga, but we also can call it a shura. Representatives of all parties, provinces and different communities – Uzbeks, Pashtuns, Tajiks – should take part in it.

Q: And the following elections are meant to be like those here in the West, with all parties who want to being able to participate?

A: Of course, that’s what we want. Our aim is that all parties come together in honesty.

Q: Would this also include the Khalqis?

A: No, not the Khalqis and Parchamis, the former communists. They are criminals and have completely destroyed this country. We want them to be punished for what they have done in the past.

Q: All of them, or their leaders?

A: Those who have committed crimes. I talk about the generals, the high-ranking ministers, etc.

Q: There are rumours that former Khalqis are working with you. Is this correct?

A: This is not correct. This is claimed by the Kabul regime and our enemies. They want to put us in a bad light, claiming that we are not real Afghans but Pakistani and even Americans. But this is not true, and they cannot prove this to the world.

Q: Will women also be able to participate in the future elections?

A: This is not up to us to decide. The future Afghan government must decide about this.

Q: Do the Taleban have no opinion about this?

A: Yes, we do. We think that women should be given rights in Afghanistan, according to the provisions of Islam.

Q: When Taleban took over Herat, they closed down the girls’ schools. But the right of women to be educated is even mentioned in the Quran…

A: Yes, in Islam, women and men have equal rights for education. There is no difference. But we had some problems in Herat. After the Taleban took over Herat, the schools remained open for some days. But you know that Iran is our western neighbour and that the people in Herat are Shia. Most of the teachers and students are Shia, and they brought explosives and laid bombs in shops and busses. When we arrested some of them, we found out that these things came from Iran and the people had been instigated. So, the shura decided to close the schools until security had been restored.

Q: And what is the situation now?

A: The situation is not very good yet. Three days ago, there was an attack from the Iranian side on the border crossing of Islam Qala. The fighting lasted for five or six hours, and we captured 60 people. Some were Afghans; some were Iranians. We will show them to the media soon.

Q: Were these Ismail Khan’s people?

A: Yes, but also some from Kabul who belong to Massud. Ismail Khan is in Iran and is training his people for attacks on Herat, Farah and Nimruz.

Q: Does he receive official Iranian support?

A: Yes, we have photos of three military camps along the border. There are some Iranian officers who train them and give them money, weapons and ammunition. We have captured some weapons that came from Iran. There are also Iranian transport planes. Five or six fly to Kabul every night and bring supplies for the regime. But we are quite strong in Herat and try to secure the border.

Q: Some days ago, UN envoy Mahmud Mestiri gave up his position. What does that mean for you?

A: We have heard this. Some people say he might be replaced by a German. But we have not heard anything official yet.

Q: How were the relations between Mr. Mestiri and the Taleban?

A: We had good relations. When he came to Kandahar, we always had good meetings with him. We told him that he, as a representative of the United Nations, was able to bring a peaceful solution to Afghanistan and that he is welcome. But unfortunately, his efforts over the previous years remained unsuccessful.

Q: Mestiri’s position was that the Kabul government is not legitimate. Do you think that the UN will change its position after the compromise between Rabbani and Hekmatyar?

A: No, Mestiri’s plans had always been rejected by Rabbani and Hekmatyar because they did not want to hand over power. Whoever replaces him, we will cooperate with him. We will try our best so that he or she will be successful.

Q: Have you already been in contact with Mestiri’s possible successor, Mr. Holl from the Foreign Office?

A: No. He has not been appointed yet. But the Afghan people have always had good relations with the German people and the German government. They have supported us in our 14-year fight with the Russians, and there is a long-standing friendship. Therefore, we hope, if a German is appointed by the UN, he will be active for Afghans’ aspirations.

Q: You also have met prominent Afghans in exile. How were these meetings?

A: We have met the former Prime Minister Dr. Yussuf, Samad Hamed [a former deputy prime minister] and Dr. Popal, a former Minister of Education. We have discussed the situation in Afghanistan briefly, and we have informed them about our views and plans. They have listened to us and promised that they also would pressure the other parties to come together and find a peaceful solution for Afghanistan.

Q: Were they ready to come together with the Taleban?

A: No, they will not join us. But I had the impression that they support us in theory.

Full German version published in the newsletter Mahfel 51 (April-June 1996), Berlin; a shorter version appeared in Neues Deutschland on 12 June  1996, link to the PDF file here.

(1) Find here biographies of the Taleban delegates to their office in Qatar after its opening on 18 June 2013.


Burhanuddin Rabbani Elections Germany Gulbuddin Hekmetyar Ismail Khan Khalqi Mahmud Mestiri Norbert Heinrich Holl Parchami Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai. Taleban United Nations