KABUL, a top American diplomat says, ruling out a repeat of the 1990s when the global fraternity left the country high and dry after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“We have been very careful students of history and we understand the concerns, the anxiety about a repeat of the ‘90s. We do not intend to leave Afghanistan in that way,” the US embassy charge d’ affaires said.
In an exclusive interview with Pajhwok Afghan News, Karen Decker acknowledged many Afghans were worried about their future, as the international community prepared to leave the country.
“I am confident that the United States will remain a fundamental partner for the Afghan people and we will continue to work together to develop the country’s economy, to develop the country’s democracy,” the diplomat remarked.
Referring to Afghanistan’s achievements in different fields over the past two decades, Decker particularly commended the emergence of a vibrant free media in the country.
“Let me say first that I think one of the top achievements, one of the most important achievements of the past 20 years is the development of Afghanistan’s free media. People like yourself, organizations like Pajhwok, you’re not only good reporters doing good journalism, you are among the best in your region…”
She added: “Now you have a difficult neighborhood, but still it is a huge accomplishment when you think about, and I think you may remember what the media was like under the Taliban emirate, and you look at today.”
Decker hastened to explain that although the environment was not perfect, she was so impressed with the work of Pajhwok and other Afghan media outlets. The US did not intend to lose or reduce Afghanistan’s free media.
The charge d’ affaires said her country was proud of the work it had done to partner with Afghans in government and outside government to start to rebuild a free, sovereign and democratic country with a self-sustaining economy.
“It’s a huge job. I don’t need to tell you that. But we are very committed not only to protecting these achievements, but taking them further,” she maintained.
“I understand that many Afghans are worried about the future, but I am confident that the United States will remain a fundamental partner for the Afghan people and we will continue to work together to develop the country’s economy, to develop the country’s democracy.”
Here is the full text of the interview:
Pajhwok: Thank you very much for giving Pajhwok Afghan News this opportunity to convey your news to the Afghans on the current situation and the peace process in the country.
CDF Decker: Okay, you want my views on the peace process?
Pajhwok: My question is that Afghans already appreciate US contribution to the reconstruction of their country, the fight against terrorism and building Afghan security forces. But after the US-Taliban deal, Afghans fear the militants will again come to power and create problems for the people. There are concerns the Taliban may once again bar children going to school and violate human rights and media freedom. What do you think will happen after the peace process?
CDF Decker: Very good question. Thank you very much. And let me say first, that I think one of the top achievements, one of the most important achievements of the past 20 years is the development of Afghanistan’s free media. People like yourself, organizations like Pajhwok, you’re not only good reporters doing good journalism, you are among the best in your region. And I think I would back the Afghan media against anybody else’s media in your neighborhood.
Now you have a difficult neighborhood, but still it is a huge accomplishment when you think about, and I think you may remember what the media was like under the Taliban emirate, and you look at today, it’s not perfect. The environment’s not perfect, but I am so impressed with the work that you and your colleagues do in journalism here. And we do not intend to lose or reduce Afghanistan’s free media.
The United States is very proud of the work it has done to partner with Afghans in government and outside government to start to rebuild a free, sovereign, democratic country that has a self-sustaining economy. It’s a huge job. I don’t need to tell you that. But we are very committed not only to protecting these achievements, but taking them further.
So for the United States, I understand that many Afghans are worried about the future, but I am confident that the United States will remain a fundamental partner for the Afghan people and we will continue to work together to develop the country’s economy, to develop the country’s democracy.
Pajhwok: Could you please give me details on latest developments in the peace process after France and Australia asked the Afghan government not to release some of Taliban prisoners. The process has stalled. When will intra-Afghan negotiations start?
CDF Decker: Nothing has stopped. There’s a lot of work that is still going on in quiet, diplomatic channels. I think that is appropriate. I expect that intra-Afghan negotiations will start very soon and I believe that because the Republic has done a huge amount of work in the past five months or so, since February 29th. And you remember in February we had the Joint Declaration reaffirming the U.S.-Afghan partnership and we had the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement. Since that time the government here has released more than 5,000 prisoners. The government has put together a national negotiating team. We are now looking at the debate about the High Council For National Reconciliation.
So I know there are still details to be worked out, but so much work has been done. I am very confident that peace talks will begin soon.
The US and the Afghan government as well as representatives of the TPC, the Taliban Political Commission in Doha, continue to talk about solutions to address the few remaining prisoners but I am confident that some kind of arrangement will be worked out so that the people who have been victims of all of the other prisoners who have been released, that they see the start of peace talks and they know that their family’s sacrifice has not been in vain.
Pajhwok: There are some differences over the National Reconciliation Council. Former President Karzai declined to be part of the panel. Also some political [radical] people, like Rabbani and Hekmatyar, have also refused to join the council. What do you see will be the [consensus] on this?
CDF Decker: I have learned to be very patient as Afghan politicians debate the participation in various groups. Over the past two years we have seen a number of times when there have had to be lengthy consultation in order to get the right group together to talk about peace. It has always happened, it just takes a long time.
I wish that there was greater unity. I will be honest with you about that. I think that lack of unity only benefits the Taliban and that Afghanistan is a country with 34 million citizens, very diverse, different perspectives, and all of those perspectives must be heard in the peace process. So it makes sense to me that there would be debate and that there will be disagreement about some things, but I expect Afghanistan’s leaders ultimately to come together to demonstrate unity and to demonstrate compromise because that’s what they will need to do with the Taliban. And as you said, we have just learned about the High Council for National Reconciliation, so we’re seeing that process happen right now.
Pajhwok: Is it possible for the Taliban emirate to come back? Will the world support or oppose it?
CDF Decker: I do not personally see the possibility of a return of the emirate. I think it is propaganda that the Taliban uses to intimidate the other side. I hope that the Afghan negotiating team is not intimidated and that they are prepared to negotiate on behalf of the Republic. But the Taliban must understand that after a peace agreement is reached Afghanistan will still require significant amounts of international assistance. There’s just still too much work to be done, and it’s not a shame for Afghanistan. The country needs support and the United States and other donors are prepared to continue that support, but the Taliban has to understand that our assistance comes with conditions and those conditions are directly linked to the rights of the Afghan people. The respect for human rights. The respect for women’s rights. The respect for minorities. The preservation of a free media. All of the things that we have worked together on for the past 20 years, those are achievements we do not want to give up, and those are achievements we expect will be reflected and protected in a peace agreement.
Pajhwok: How do you see the women’s rights situation in Afghanistan after the peace process?
CDF Decker: I think, I’m very happy to see that there are strong women on the negotiating team. I wish there were more of them, and the government has heard from me and others here at the embassy several times about the need for more women to participate in the debate and the negotiations about the future of this country. Women are probably in the majority of this country, as are young people. I do not believe young people and women are properly represented, and their participation will need to be enlarged as the peace process goes forward. And I am counting on the Negotiating Team and the Afghan side to prioritize women’s rights and women’s opportunities.
The role of women has to be meaningful. It’s not enough to just have women on the list or have a woman in the room. They have to have a meaningful role to play. And I’ll tell you why. It’s because women have a completely different set of experiences that they bring and can contribute to any peace negotiation. By and large, women do not control fighting forces so they can be seen as neutral and that gives them power when there is conflict in a negotiation. They have different social roles and responsibilities, and so they have different networks. They have additional networks.
All of these things that women bring to the process need to be used by the negotiating team and that will shape what rights look like for women after the process is completed.
But I see a role for women in the negotiations. I see roles for women in a post peace environment as peacekeepers in the security forces, as civil society activists and as development workers in government.
So I think that the future for women here can be very bright, but we need to make sure that they are included in the decisions about the future. Does that answer your question?
Pajhwok: Yes. In recent weeks, violence has spiked and the reduction in violence was the key principle in the US-Taliban agreement but it has not [stopped]; instead it has increased during talks between Ambassador Khalilzad and Taliban. In the beginning, Khalilzad made a famous statement that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, including a comprehensive ceasefire. But there is no ceasefire and no reduction in violence. And everything is agreed with the Taliban.
CDF Decker: I think there’s a little bit of misunderstanding about the ceasefire. The agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban actually says that a comprehensive nationwide ceasefire will be part of the negotiation for a political settlement. So it’s not a precondition, it’s one of the agenda items for the peace talks.
Now because the Afghan people demanded a reduction in violence and in fact demanded a ceasefire before negotiations started, Ambassador Khalilzad and his team, General Miller and his team, have been working very hard with the Taliban to get them to reduce violence before negotiations start.
So the ceasefire, the big one, is actually part of the negotiating process. It’s one of those four conditions that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. But we have tried to add to that to reduce the violence before talks actually start. It has been incredibly difficult, and I agree completely as everyone does in the U.S. government that the violence is too high, the suffering of the Afghan people is too high, and that the Taliban are not demonstrating good will and are not demonstrating their readiness to participate in peace talks by keeping violence at such elevated levels.
This is a huge preoccupation for the U.S. We have not given up on the reduction in violence before talks begin. You have seen periods where violence has gone up and down and there was a second ceasefire over the Eid. We now hope that with the final set of prisoner releases that there will be a reduction in violence leading into the start of negotiations which we hope will happen as soon as possible.
According to the Doha Agreement, the United States agrees its troops limit around 8,000 and they recently announce it will decrease to 5,000. Is it possible that the United States bring its troops level in Afghanistan to zero?
CDF Decker: Well, some day. But to go to zero there will be conditions. As we just discussed, we will need the guarantees, the counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban and I think part of that guarantee is seeing the political settlement and giving — like you said, the four conditions, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Our ability to completely withdraw from this country would be very dependent on the existence of an agreement between the Afghans and the Taliban on a political settlement and a peaceful future.
So we want that. We support that. But it will be conditions like that that dictate whether our troop levels continue to go down.
Pajhwok: Are regional countries supporting the Afghan peace process? What about Pakistan? Are they sincerely supporting the Afghan peace effort?
CDF Decker: I believe they are. I believe that it is a very difficult topic for Afghans and for Pakistanis and that there is a lot of confidence-building that must go on bilaterally between the two countries, between Islamabad and Kabul. I think some of that work is underway through various mechanisms like the Foreign Ministries APAPPS set of meetings. But we have long heard Afghans say that you cannot have peace in Afghanistan without dealing with Islamabad. We have also told Pakistan that they want a better relationship with the United States, well that path goes through Kabul and support for the peace process.
I think that’s a really good question also to ask the Afghan government because I think they too talk to the Pakistanis on a bilateral basis and that is a hugely important part of this calculation. A regional consensus, and then also the leadership that comes from Kabul to engage with its counterparts in Islamabad.
Pajhwok: In a few months, we will have a Geneva Conference on Afghanistan. Will the United States and the international community support Afghanistan?
CDF Decker: Yes. The United States has invested too much for too long in Afghanistan to leave it alone. So when we talk about Afghan led and Afghan owned, that does not mean without the United States in support. Our relationship — we have had a relationship with Afghanistan for 80-something years. I expect we will have a relationship with Afghanistan for another 80-something years and the support that goes along with it.
We are just now talking with allies and the Afghan government about the donor conference. I think that we want to see the start of the negotiation process because it will help inform our capitals about how best to support Afghanistan if we have a sense of where the peace process is going and if we have a government in place in Kabul. And I’ll be honest with you, it’s been a little frustrating to wait for the Cabinet decisions and the implementation of the political agreement between President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah. I’m glad that there seems to be some momentum now but donors want a government that they can partner with, and right now we are still waiting for the government to be set.
Pajhwok: How do you see the Afghan government’s fight against corruption? Recent reports in Afghan media and Pajhwok alleged misappropriation of funds for combating the coronavirus and food distribution. How do you see the government’s efforts against corruption?
CDF Decker: I also saw those stories. I applaud journalists for reporting on difficult stories like that. That kind of transparency is necessary in a free democracy. And I was horrified, frankly, to hear these stories and these allegations about corruption, preventing desperately needed assistance from reaching vulnerable Afghans in the middle of a global pandemic. I mean I have a hard time understanding the kind of people who would steal from anyone under these circumstances.
Corruption is a big problem. I have often said to Afghans that we focus on the Taliban and we mourn and grieve with the families of Afghan soldiers and civilians who are killed by the Taliban, but it’s corruption that’s going to kill this country.
So the government — we have an ongoing, constant, frank conversation with the government about corruption. There has been too much in the past 20 years. Some of that is not only the responsibility of this government, but we have to see a good plan. We need a game plan from the government on how it’s going to use its political capital to bring an end to what I think is a huge vulnerability for the future of this country.
Pajhwok: Your message to the Afghans, as they are unsure about the future in terms of security and a long-term partnership with the US. Some people fear the US will once again leave Afghanistan as the international community exited the country during the 1990s. What is your message to the Afghans?
CDF Decker: We have been very careful students of history and we understand the concerns, the anxiety about a repeat of the ‘90s. We do not intend to leave Afghanistan in that way. I will admit that I am sometimes anxious myself when I see the political fighting and the factions, the different political factions fighting with each other. To me that looks like the ‘90s.
So America wants to stay here, wants to continue to be a strategic partner for the Afghan people. We need the Afghan leaders to demonstrate that same sense of commitment. It’s a hard thing to say, but as I said earlier, I think lack of unity only benefits the Taliban.
This is a country with limitless potential. Your population is young. Your population is energetic. You have agricultural wealth. You have mineral wealth. You have the resources, human and natural I think, to make Afghanistan a regional powerhouse. But we need to make sure that politics doesn’t get in the way of that and that Afghan leaders across society — not just politicians, but leaders in civil society, leaders in the private sector, that they come together and say preserving the Republic, building on the gains of the past 20 years is something that we are going to do as a nation and we are going to work together with our international partners. And I think with that kind of message international partners will say yes, we are here, we are ready.
Karen Decker has served as the deputy chief of mission of the US Embassy in Kabul since September 2018. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Karen has specialised in assignments that involve conflict resolution and crisis management. She served multiple tours in southern and eastern Afghanistan, most recently as the senior civilian representative for the 14 eastern provinces from 2012-2014.
Prior to returning to Afghanistan, Karen was the Director of the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team, leading interagency teams in Turkey and Syria responsible for humanitarian and stabilization assistance in support of the C-ISIS campaign. Earlier overseas assignments include Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Estonia (2007-2010), Political Counselor in Greece (2003-2006), at the U.S. Mission to NATO (1998-2001) and in Bosnia (1995-1998). Her first overseas tour was in Pakistan in 1990.
Washington assignments include the Foreign Service Institute, the European Bureau and the State Department’s Operations Center. From 2001-2002, Karen served as the Executive Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs. In the days and weeks after September 11, 2001, Karen traveled with the Assistant Secretary to build European support for and contributions to Operation Enduring Freedom.
Karen is the recipient of numerous performance awards from the Department of State and the Department of Defense. In 2001 Secretary of State Colin Powell awarded Karen the Director General’s Award for Reporting and Analysis for her work to elaborate U.S. objectives in the Balkans. She holds the rank of Minister-Counselor.