Home / News / World /  There are no good Taliban and bad Taliban: Condoleezza Rice

As the US and the international community prepare to scale down their military involvement in Afghanistan in 2014 and the Obama administration seeks talks with the Taliban to stabilize the war-torn country, former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has voiced doubts about the readiness of the group to join a reconciliation process. In an interview, Rice said she was “sceptical whether the Taliban can be brought into a peace process". Rice, currently a professor of political science at Stanford University, was in New Delhi last week for the 11th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. Edited excerpts:

This is a critical time for the US in Afghanistan in the context of the transition in 2014. How do you see US-Afghanistan and US-Pakistan relations against the backdrop of this?

The US-Afghan relations is difficult because it is a difficult set of circumstances. It’s a relationship of partnership first of all. We have had to do a whole lot of hard things in Afghanistan. We had an apology from our military for innocent civilian deaths in Afghanistan. It’s not like the American military would have it that way, but unfortunately it happens. We have pressed the Afghans on the drug trade, we have pressed them on corruption, sometimes the relationship can be difficult, but I think it’s a long-term relationship and we will remain engaged there. I hope we will keep a military presence there. I think that would help. But we are in this relationship for the long term. We are not going to leave like we did after the Soviet Union was defeated there (in 1989), leaving then the kind of chaos that led to the Taliban and ultimately the Al Qaeda setting up home base there. With Pakistan again, it’s not easy. It takes patience on our part just as it takes patience on the part of India.

If you were secretary of state, would you have thought of opening a line of communication with the Taliban given what happened on 9/11?

I guess you have to think about it and I am not on the inside, and I am always careful because I know that you don’t always know all of the factors (involved). I think you have to be extremely careful. I don’t think there are good Taliban and bad Taliban. I don’t think there are Taliban who are in favour of the stability of Afghanistan. And so I am sceptical whether the Taliban can be brought into a peace process. Eventually there will have to be reconciliation of the Afghan people and I don’t doubt there are some who were Afghan people who fought on the wrong side. Everybody has to have reconciliation at some point. But people have to be ready for reconciliation and I don’t know the degree to which the Taliban is ready for reconciliation.

There was this recent agreement between the international community and Iran on its controversial nuclear programme. What are the opportunities that this deal throws up for the US in Afghanistan for example?

Well I don’t know if it would open up opportunities in the geo-strategic issues. It seems sometimes to me that the Iranian government is in two minds—it wants to have a nuclear deal and it wants to have better relations with the United States, and it wants to reshape the Middle East in ways that are antithetical to our interests and I don’t see that changing, frankly, in the short term. Now it may be on Afghanistan because to a certain extent terrorism in Afghanistan is a problem for the Iranians; there would be some small opening there. But I would not generalize from what happens in the nuclear deal to a stronger, better relationship with the Iranians. I think that takes work on other kinds of issues like Iran’s interference in the Persian Gulf.

So Pakistan will still have primacy in any Afghan calculations?

Pakistan has to be part of the calculations. Instability in Pakistan is a problem for Afghanistan and instability in Afghanistan is a problem for Pakistan. So those two are forever linked in that way. And I do hope that the Pakistanis will recognize that the Taliban in Pakistan is a real problem for Pakistan, not just for Afghanistan. As long as you have extremism in Pakistan, Pakistan will be a large part of the equation. You will have to pay a lot of attention to it.

What is your opinion of the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear programme? Your allies in the region Saudi Arabia and Israel are uncomfortable with it.

Everyone knows there are many people who would like to do commerce with Iran, and I think that is what worries people. The first thing to remember is that even if there were to be a final nuclear deal, Iran is still a problem in international politics. The reason we don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon is that Iran with a nuclear weapon would be even more dangerous than Iran today. Iran is very dangerous today, it is trying to destabilize the region, the Hezbollah is involved in Syria and so I would say to the administration and to the allies we have to make sure that Iran’s behaviour is really understood to be dangerous behaviour. If we only make this about the nuclear deal (and) then start to embrace the Iranians, then we make a very big mistake.

Your last visit to India was immediately after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and during your visit you advised patience while dealing with Pakistan. Five years since, India has had no closure in the case. Would you still counsel patience?

I think India has dealt with the relationship responsibly and with restraint. I understand the anger that was brought upon the Indian people after Mumbai and it had been building all the way back from the attack on the Indian Parliament (13 December 2001), and so I understand that anger. But Pakistan is a complicated place. There are so many Pakistanis who don’t like extremism in their country and want to see it rooted out. But there are some deep elements of extremism and some of its institutions, and it takes time to turn that around and it’s not going to happen that easily. And so I would still caution patience, because there isn’t another option. It isn’t something that can be dealt with through hot conflict between India and Pakistan, it has to take patience, it takes trying to do something with Kashmir and the Line of Control (LoC).

I think India has properly set this as a condition that there should be peace along the LoC. That takes work on both sides. So I think I would, even five years hence, counsel patience.

Recently, the Chinese announced an air defence identification zone, which has ruffled a lot of feathers in the region. What role do you see for Japan in settling the tensions in the region?

One thing that I understand is that the India-Japan relationship is getting closer. It is very important. Japan is also one of the democratic pillars of a peaceful Asia. It has a lot of history that it has to deal with as well with its neighbours. But I don’t really understand why the Chinese have done this. It seems to needlessly provoke, it seems to needlessly worry people in the region. If it were actually carried out, it would be potentially quite dangerous for some kind of accident. So I would hope this is something that the Chinese government will believe in reconsidering.

There used to be a line of thinking about forming an “axis of democracies" in the region. Is that idea applicable in this current context?

I think the reality is that it is there, I don’t think you need to call it anything. It’s not perfect, Japan and South Korea have particularly good relations these days. But I have no doubt that the democracies in this region will find areas of cooperation and maybe we would be better off not to name it.

There is also a worry that the US may not pay attention to the Middle East given that its energy dependence on the region will lessen given the discoveries of shale gas in the US and neighbouring countries.

Well when I go around the United States, one of the questions I am asked is that if we are energy independent, do we have to worry about the Middles East? And so it is an important question. I think that the Americans can be convinced that even if the North American platform—the US, Canada, Mexico—provides energy supply that would effectively supply our needs, we still are the largest global economy and we have to worry about energy supply for others.

We need an Indian economy that is growing, we need a Chinese economy that is growing. So we will still be in a position of having to protect sea lanes, we will still be in a position to have to secure stability in the region so that the energy supply can be stable, so I don’t think it lets us turn a blind eye to what is happening in the Middle East and that is a case that will have to be made to the American people, it’s a case that can be made.

Even if we wanted to, I don’t think we could. I know there are a lot of people who would like to. They see a Middle East in turmoil and they say haven’t we done enough. But even if few wanted to disengage, we can’t. There is the matter of reliable energy supply for the global economy and there is a matter of terrorism. If one looks at North Africa and the areas just around the Middle East, terrorism is going to be a threat to us for a long time. We are going to have to remain engaged in the Middle East for a long time.

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