According to the protocol of Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban resistance, Amrullah Saleh is to be addressed as His Excellency Caretaker President. Formerly vice president of the collapsed Afghan republic, Saleh left Kabul ahead of the Taliban takeover for the Panjshir Valley, where he led an ill-fated stand against the country’s new rulers as head of the National Resistance Front (NRF). Saleh is a senior figure in the NRF, which is led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of his former comrade in arms, Northern Alliance Gen. Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Before the republic’s demise, Afghanistan was corrupt and poverty stricken. In the months since, without the international aid that propped up the government for 20 years, the country has become destitute and desperate.
Saleh spoke with Foreign Policy about Pakistan’s role as the Taliban’s sponsor; about the “false hope” of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s deal, which facilitated the Taliban’s return; and the United States and NATO’s betrayal of Afghanistan.
The Taliban do not have the support of the Afghan people, he said; the group’s days in power are numbered. The resistance, he said, is not about him. It is about returning Afghanistan to its people. He called for elections but did not rule out taking the country back by force. The fight for Afghanistan’s future is already underway, he said.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: How do you assess the current situation in Afghanistan?
Amrullah Saleh: The forceful grab of power by the Taliban is an extension of a vicious cycle. It isn’t a matter of celebration for any part of Afghan society except for the Taliban as a group and Pakistan as their patron. No one welcomed them in Kabul. This power grab has created deep internal wounds; the society feels insulted and marginalized. Politically, this is a shaky setup. It is facing resistance. The resistance will gain strength. We don’t see any meaningful window for a peace process at this stage.
FP: You left Kabul for the Panjshir Valley, and once the Panjshir fell, you left for Tajikistan, where the resistance is now based. What is your plan?
AS: I left Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021. I wasn’t able to connect with leaders of the security sector and decided to go to the valley, where we created the resistance. I am satisfied that I didn’t leave my country and escape.
Regarding the larger strategic aims of the resistance: We are in constant consultation with everyone who matters in the anti-Taliban camp. Some leaders needed more time to collect their thoughts. Everyone knows that the peace process was a scheme to keep us divided; it was a false hope. It didn’t exist, and it doesn’t exist today. Therefore, the formation of an anti-Taliban resistance, both politically and militarily, is becoming easier and easier.
FP: What support does the resistance have? What are your policies?
AS: Afghanistan today is a protectorate of the Pakistani military. The Taliban try to hide this bitter fact. But in reality, the virulent hand of the [Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI], in the form of the Haqqani network, is in power. U.N.-sanctioned terrorists are in control of Kabul.
We are in contact with everyone that matters in the anti-Taliban camp both inside and outside Afghanistan. Of course, there are some who aren’t willing to fight. We respect their choice. But no Afghan with dignity is ready to join the Taliban regime.
In the NRF, we are united and disciplined. We fight for a pluralistic Afghanistan. We want elections. We want the will of the people to matter and determine the course of the country. We will resist until our aim is achieved. The Taliban have indeed grabbed power, but this wasn’t an immediate military victory; it involved a covert geopolitical scheme as well.
FP: What support does the NRF have politically, financially, and militarily?
AS: For us, the fundamental factor is the situation inside Afghanistan. The majority of the Afghan people feel insulted, marginalized, and reduced to voiceless subjects. This junta regime won’t be able to sustain this situation. With or without foreign support, we will continue to resist.
The quasi-occupation of Afghanistan and its current status as a Pakistani protectorate isn’t going well with most of the region either. Will the region accept this reality and let this oppressive protectorate prevail? You have to ask the neighboring countries. The dirt of this reality isn’t to be brushed under the carpet. The region smells the stink.
FP: Does the NRF have the support of the Afghan people? Do you? Are you not associated with the corrupt, incompetent, and failed republic?
AS: The Afghan people haven’t yet recovered from the shock of Aug. 15, 2021. They are still discovering the magnitude of lies and falsehood. It isn’t over yet. The dominant narrative on the reasons for the collapse revolves around corruption in the Afghan government and incompetence of the leaders. There is a calculated and deliberate effort by the powerful media to ignore the larger issues. The geostrategic calculus is missing in this narrative. The unimaginable deal with a terrorist/insurgent group is less talked about. The debacle and tragedy of Aug. 15 is reduced to blaming the Afghan side.
We do understand our part. But that is not the whole story. Where is the whole story? Why were we bypassed? Why was Pakistan not punished? What happened to the Bilateral Security Agreement? What is the status of the Strategic Partnership Agreement with several NATO member states? Isn’t it a fact that a terrorist insurgent group has invalidated those agreements?
I am not escaping from my responsibilities. I am not scapegoating others. The Afghan people have the right to be angry, frustrated, and confused. The only way to measure the popularity of any group or person is with elections, real elections.
The purpose of the current resistance is not for the ego of Amrullah Saleh or anyone else. It is for a much larger and deeply humane purpose. When this resistance bears fruit, I may not be of significance in it. No one is fighting for me. They fight for their dignity, for their identity, for their basic rights as human beings.
FP: What would you have done differently? What are your regrets?
AS: I wasn’t in the government from June 2010 to 2019. I was absent for almost a decade. But I did play a notable role. There are cardinal mistakes that were made: The unforgivable mistake was our trust in the so-called international community. We alienated our neighbors as the hands of our government were loosely held by Western powers.
As a representative of the resistance, I also have a narrow focus on subnational mistakes. Our leaders lacked the skills of hard negotiations and they easily compromised our strength. We increasingly relied on institutions, which were confused in their loyalty. It became a slippery slope that led to a dead end. We kept cajoling and massaging our psyche and souls by sticking to false promises from the outside world and justifying the decay in the name of “good relations with the international community and the national interest of Afghanistan.”
I was a junior official in 2001. I would have not signed the Bonn Agreement [which laid the groundwork for the first post-Taliban government]. I would not have easily said yes to unethical pressure from [then-U.S. ambassador Zalmay] Khalilzad in 2004 or to the constitution. I would have involved the deeper layers of the community in the drafting process of the constitution. I would have built the army in a different way. I would have not allowed private security companies to operate at any cost—even if it led to collapse in 2007. The parallel structures at national and subnational levels consistently undermined our legitimacy and effectiveness.
For my part, I did create the most competent organization in the entire government structure: the National Directorate of Security intelligence agency. But an island of good wasn’t sufficient. Afghanistan, at best, got 15 cents out of every dollar that came to Afghanistan and none from dollars that came in our name. Nevertheless, media deliberately focused on the 15 percent to hide the corruption and incompetence of the remaining 85 percent.
FP: The republic was backed by the Western alliance for 20 years. Many former leaders blamed the United States for its collapse. Internal factors must also be taken into account, including waste, corruption, poor leadership, lack of governance, and failure to build a security sector. Where would you lay the bulk of the blame for the rapid implosion of the republic?
AS: The assistance of the Western alliance came with lots of caveats, nuances, conditionalities, and alien procedures. There are many factors that led to the tragedy of Aug. 15. The United States didn’t work with us on solving the issue of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. Today, the “veritable arm of the ISI”—as [former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen famously called the Haqqani network—is in power.
When the Taliban took Kabul, they were so headless that no one was there to declare victory. The real chief, the Pakistan army, couldn’t stand up and say they were behind the Taliban’s return, but they were. It took them 41 years to reduce Afghanistan to a protectorate and quasi-colony. It won’t last. For everything else, we had a mechanical fix or a management fix, but not for the continued, unwavering support of Pakistan of the terror and insurgency in my country.
FP: Some Western diplomats note the Taliban control the whole country and say that violence and corruption are reduced. Ahmad Massoud has met with Taliban representatives in regional capitals, and Norway hosted Taliban figures in a meeting with Afghan civil society representatives. Is international momentum building toward recognizing the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan?
AS: Corruption in the Taliban regime is far more than in the republic. There is no access to information. Smartphones get searched. The junta isn’t accountable. People don’t know the income of the country. Over 70 percent of media outlets have been shut down. Critics are intimidated. How do you know there is less corruption? There is less reporting, less access, no accountability, and a prevailing atmosphere of fear and loss.
How is violence defined? Why do millions of people want to leave the country? If there is no problem, why the need to meet Ahmad Massoud? Why do the regional states invite him for meetings? Why does Pakistan beg him for a reconciliation? If everything is alright, why do they need him to endorse the regime?
On Norway, I would quote Horia Mosadiq, a leading activist who asked the European Parliament: Can you show us the visa forms that the Taliban delegation filled in? It asks visitors to declare they haven’t been part of a terrorist organization, taken part in genocide, used any other name, haven’t taken part in torture, and so on. I am sure the Taliban all answered no to these questions, which means that Europe has accepted their lies, which means the European Union is interacting with liars and terrorists.
FP: If the Taliban do receive recognition, what will that mean for the NRF? Do you have plans to form a political opposition or to take up arms and fight?
AS: If the Taliban start to seek legitimacy from the people of Afghanistan and start a genuine and credible process, we will welcome it. We will participate in a process that will empower people to have a direct say in determining the character of the state and election of its leaders. We will be open to this option. We will resist any other means and ways that will prolong the tyranny of the Taliban.
As for the armed resistance, it is already going on. The internal factor is key. People don’t want the Taliban. If the Taliban claim popular support, they should say yes to elections, to a process where people will play a direct role in determining the character of the state, of governance, and be able to demand accountability.
This resistance isn’t an adventure by a few people. It isn’t about the grievances of a few individuals. It is about people who aren’t suppressed and oppressed by the tyrannical Taliban rule. If it was resistance of a few characters, the Pakistanis would have not gone door to door begging Ahmad Massoud to make peace with their proxy in Kabul.