President Ghani: ISIS ecology

President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Mohammed Ashraf Ghani interviewed with World Apart Network on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 20th of July 2015.

Oksana Boyko: The War on Terror unleashed the terrors of war on South Asia and the Middle East, with the goal of eliminating extremism. But more than a decade and a half later, that extremism has morphed into something almost unrecognizable, threatening the very structures of borders, states and the regional order. How does one fight an enemy that combines the worst of medieval thinking with the best of modern technology? Well, to discuss that, I’m now joined by the President of Afghanistan, Mohammed Ashraf Ghani. Mr President, it’s a great honour to have you on the show, thank you very much.

Mohammed Ashraf Ghani: It’s a pleasure to be with you, thank you for having me.
OB:Mr President, we are speaking on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and one of the issues that was discussed here at length is the growth of the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh as Americans refer to it. And the issue of how you call them is interesting, because it’s a choice between the extremists’ self-aggrandizing spin, the Islamic State, or the American, rather derogatory spin. Doesn’t this framing limit how we conceptualize this challenge, and how we ultimately deal with it?
MAG: Well, first of all, we need to make three distinctions. One is an ecology. Terrorism is a system now. Morally, it’s an aberration, sociologically it’s a systemic phenomenon. Second, it is a morphology. If Al-Qaeda was terrorism version one, Daesh is terrorism version six. It’s a fast-changing phenomenon, and one needs to grasp it in its own terms, not imposed categories from outside. Third, there’s a pathology. It’s brutal. The form of brutality is increasing. But it’s also the theatre of terror. Its actions are designed to overwhelm, to strike fear and to frighten. All these need to be taken together as a system. What enables it? The weakness of the state system, the lack of coherence in the national system. Terrorism as an organization and as network is fast, it’s rapid, it’s decisive. The response to it is fragmented, partial and episodic.

OB: Now, when you talk about terrorism, you often use, and you just did it, these biological metaphors. You refer to ISIS, I think on one occasion you likened it to cancer, you just used this ecology metaphor. Can I push it a little bit further and ask you whether you approach it as let’s say a mutation, an accident of nature, or something that is a product of evolution that is here to stay?
MAG: It can be both, the jury is out. When you use the term ecology, it’s not judgmental, it’s a descriptive, analytic term. Because an ecology both has elements of symbiosis and competition. Part of the terrorist networks are in competition with each other, part are in harmony, in symbiosis. But what is characteristic now is that the state collapse has become a pattern. It’s not an isolated event. So previously, if you had a weak link, now you have a broken chain. In this regard, what strikes us, leave that phenomena aside, is that we now do not have rules of the game in conduct between states. And we do not have an agreement as to how to reconstitute the state system as a viable way, or to coordinate our responses at the national level, the regional level, and the global level. And that’s what is required.
OB:You also argued, I think, on many occasions that the war in Afghanistan, for example, shouldn’t be approached from this classic war theory. And as a former war correspondent, I would say that it applies to every conflict. Because every war has its own ugly face, its own dynamic. So in this respect, what do you think is so special, what do you think is so unique about ISIS?
MAG: What is unique about it is the combination of network and organisation. The military thinking comes from the Baathist officers, both Syrian and Iraqi. So the level of territorial conquest that it has managed to achieve is unprecedented. It has managed to do, in a period of collapsed time, what took Al-Qaeda or other organisations years, or at times decade of planning. So, that speaks both of its own abilities, but also an enabling environment – the collapse of the Syrian state on the one hand, and the incompetence of the Iraqi on the other. Their factional quarrels, lack of focus enabled it. Now, with Yemen, Libya, others, the theatre of operation is expanded. And for networks, that type of situation is an ideal situation to grow. But equally significant, while the end of the world, the eschatology, is very medieval, the organisational form is totally modern. The means of communication deployed, the networking, the recruitment through Internet and others, combined forms. So the morphing or the morphology involves very rapid – If you look into network theory, and there are some very good studies which are available through Sitcom online, it shows that Daesh is turned, it’s bypassed about four to five stages of network formation in a very short period. That means that innovation within the psychological system is very rapid. And if you are going to contain it, we need to be equally fast, creative and coordinated.
OB:Well, it doesn’t look like that’s going to materialise any time soon, given the disagreements within the international community. I hear often, you hear people comparing ISIS to the Taliban. And I know that, in Afghanistan at least, you claim that the Taliban does enjoy a certain degree of political legitimacy. They are the product of war and the trauma that your country had to go through. They also have legitimate grievances, at leas you said that on a number of occasions. Couldn’t the same apply to ISIS, at least where they originated from in Iraq and Syria?
MAG: In terms of where they originated, you’d need to do a lot more local expertise. I’ve written on the Middle East, but I need to run a country. So, analytically, I need to be very careful in terms of saying whether that indeed is the case, or not. But they differ fundamentally from the way the Taliban were formed. Because the Taliban formed in the context of internal conflict, and then connected to Al-Qaeda, which was a very minor organisation at that time. And at their current formation and nature of activities, is very different. And because of it, they’re competing and are actually in conflict with these other forces. The fundamental difference is that Al-Qaeda has accepted Taliban ideological leadership. Daesh has refused that, while in the past, six years ago, its key adherents acknowledged the supremacy of Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership. What is distinctive in their relationship to Afghanistan is the naming. Khorasani – Khorasan is the medieval name of Afghanistan.
OB:And they believe that the final battle will come from your side.
MAG: The final battle will come from our side, but also that historically, it was Afghan forces, or forces from Afghanistan, today’s Afghanistan territory, that overthrew the Umayyad Caliphate and installed the Abbasids. So, twice the caliphate was changed by forces from Khorasan, and because of it, there is a very significance, symbolic significance attached in their narrative to Khorasan, to Afghanistan. And the other part is, of course, if they succeed in making the elected Afghan government fail, it will be an enormous gain for them. So that’s [the] symbolic importance.
OB:The reason I’m asking this question is because your government has, so far, seen some success negotiating with the Taliban. I don’t want to exaggerate it, but it’s been celebrated. And your efforts are supported by the so-called international community. But that support obviously came only after years of military action. The question is whether we should spend similar number of years fighting ISIS, rather than, let’s say, start negotiating with them now. Do you think we can reason with these people?
MAG: Will they, will they negotiate with you?
OB: I don’t know, I’m asking you.
MAG: Well, but that’s the question, that’s the question. You negotiate in circumstances where there is a stalemate. Negotiations do not come out of abstraction. I’ve looked at over 100 peace agreements, I think I wrote a very long paper in 2007 or 2008, looking at the content of peace agreements, which no one to my knowledge, had previously examined. And normally, there has to be a willingness from both sides. And the current construct of Daesh, that willingness to take the interlocutor in Iraq or Syria is not there.
OB:But they’ve just started their movement, I mean they are on the roll, so that’s why they’re confident –
MAG: (crosstalk) Well, I mean if you want to pre-judge, it’s your privilege. But I’m giving an analytic answer, and you’re trying to force a political answer. You insist that it is negotiable. I’m saying –
OB: (crosstalk) I’m not, I’m saying –
MAG: No, but you are, you’re insisting. The way you pose a question is pre-suppositions in it.
OB:But Mr President, we did hear the same thing about the Taliban years ago. I remember, I’ve covered wars for many years, and the same argument was advanced about the Taliban, that you cannot negotiate with these people. These people are medieval, these people are stuck in the past –
MAG: (crosstalk) No, it is not, I’m making. No, please do not, let’s stay on course of what we’re discussing. I don’t attribute medievalness to anybody. We’re contemporaries. There’s no one whose medieval. Anyone who lives in the 21st century is a product of the 21st century. It’s patronising to call others medieval. People are always carriers of cultures and product of cultures. Culture is not a static phenomena. It’s an ever-changing dynamic phenomena, and we need to understand how it is produced, how it produces certain types of interpretations. Somebody who spent a year studying madrasas as an anthropologist, 1985-86, I do not believe that people are frozen in time, they’re always living in. But layers of time are important, they interact, and they form. The past is always with us. Every single great country has a past that it continuously invokes.
OB:Absolutely, and it could be for better or for worse, I mean it works both ways.
MAG: For better or for worse, yes.
OB:I had a chance just a couple of weeks ago to speak to your predecessor, Mr Hamid Karzai, and he agrees with you that ISIS or Daesh ideology is totally alien to Afghanistan. But he also says that if the Islamic State was to advance in your country, that wouldn’t be without a strong, foreign help. Do you agree with that assessment?
MAG: Strong foreign help means what – networks? Certainly. Who, well who are the terrorists? We have Chechens, they are exported to us from conditions of Russia. We have Uzbekistanis, they’re exported to us from there. We have Pakistanis. All these are products of a series of relationships. Wealth – who finances these? Drug dealers to various other types of networks collectively. So, financing is important, but whether it’s state sponsorship, that there is an accusation that certain states – that needs verification. In the past, we’ve had examples, particularly in our part of the world, where states have sponsored violent movements in order to achieve their own goals. And that, I think at this moment of time, I hope that lessons are learned that that type of activity does not take place, because the blow-back from these activities is strong, not to benefit the patrons.
OB:Absolutely, and yet in my conversations with officials from Israel to Palestine, from the United States to Syria, many of them accuse each other of doing that. And my question to you is, perhaps the problem is not with one state supporting ISIS, but many groups seeing perhaps a tactical advantage in trying to utilise ISIS’ negative energy –
MAG: But that was the part I was bringing to your attention earlier. You know, the ecology, the expansion of that ecology and its sustainment is not possible without weak states or uncoordinated action. So the lesson is, anyone who plays with these things, they should know they’re playing with fire, their hand is going to be burned. And looking at countries as battlefields is not only morally wrong, it is politically suicidal. It will blow back, and the hand that feeds will be bitten.
To be continued…


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