The Political Chief of Hizb-e-Islami, one of the three main factions fighting Nato in Afghanistan, tells the Real News that his group has withdrawn from peace talks. But Dr Ghairat Baheer also warns that Afghan stakeholders must reach consensus before the US withdraws to avoid another civil war, and says the Taliban have softened their approach.
Ghairat Baheer is a citizen of Afghanistan who was held by American forces in extrajudicial detention for over six years. The BBC News reported Pakistani officials took him into custody during a pre-dawn raid on his home in Islamabad on October 30, 2002. The BBC said no reason was offered for his apprehension, and that there were rumors US security officials participated in the raid.
After his release in May 2008 Baheer asserted he had spent six months in the salt pit, one of the Central Intelligence Agency’s network of clandestine interrogation centers. He spent the rest of his detention in the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan.
According to the Associated Press Baheer is a medical doctor, a son-in-law of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hezbi Islami Gulbuddin militant group, and that he was captured with Gul Rahman, the only captive the CIA has acknowledged died in captivity. In 2010 Baheer was a member of the Hezbi Islami Gulbuddin peace delegation to peace talks.
In an interview with the German news agency DPA Bahir said he spent most of his six years in captivity in chains, bombarded with disorienting music so loud his guards wore hearing protection. He said they were fed an inadequate quantity of food, and he lost 40 kilograms, and he still hadn’t fully recovered his strength.
In 2012 he served as the HiG’s main negotiator with the United States.
HASSAN GHANI, TRNN CORRESPONDENT: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Hassan Ghani in Islamabad.
We’ve just finished filming an exclusive interview with Dr. Ghairat Baheer, chief negotiator and head of the political wing of Hezbi Islami, one of the three main factions fighting against the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan. He claims peace talks with the U.S. have failed to materialize because of dishonesty on the part of the American side. And while he said it wasn’t his place to talk about the group’s militant activities due to his position as a politician rather than a fighter, he did say that the popularity of groups fighting against NATO was growing among Afghans on a daily basis.
We asked him about human rights, democracy, and whether peace is a realistic prospect. Whatever you think of Hezbi Islami and its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the words of Dr. Baheer are worth listening to, because his party is likely to be a major powerbroker in post-U.S. Afghanistan.
Here’s what he had to say.
Why are you fighting with the U.S., with NATO forces in Afghanistan at the moment?
DR. GHAIRAT BAHEER, CHIEF NEGOTIATOR, HEZBI ISLAMI: First of all, I’m here to talk to you about the political side of the issue, and I’m from political–in charge of the party. So I would request you to not touch those things which are not related to my field.
But anyhow, in general I would say that war was always imposed on Hezbi Islami. The party was not formed for fighting. It was formed in Afghanistan when there was peace in Afghanistan, during King Zahir Shah’s rule in Afghanistan.
And later on, when the Soviet invaded Afghanistan, when there was a communist regime imposed on the Afghan people, we were forced to resort to weapon and to fight. Same thing is happening right now, and American invaded Afghanistan, although they have their own interpretation of their involvement in Afghanistan.
But the superpowers always have their own justification for their aggressions. The Soviet Union, when they had invaded Afghanistan, they say that we are here at the invitation of the Afghan government, we are here to defend democracy, we are here to defend progressive elements of the country, and they used to call those who were fighting against the Soviets, that these are rebels. So the same thing is happening now with the Americans. They say that we are here to fight against al-Qaeda, against Taliban, against international terrorism.
GHANI: But in terms of politics, then, there are now talks, at least talks about talking. Where do you see that going?
BAHEER: I think issues should be discussed on the negotiating table. But, again, you know, for negotiations, we have our own principles, which means that the negotiations should be honest ones, durable one, lasting one. And also everyone should come up with a package. Hezbi Islami was the only party which had a proposal for the solution of the Afghan conflict throughout this crisis.
We–I personally led the delegation to Kabul several times. We had several rounds of talks with the Afghan President Karzai, with peace high councils, and other relevant parties. I met personally very high ranking American officials, including David Petraeus, General Allen, and his excellency Mr. Crocker, the ambassador. So we had several rounds of talks. But, unfortunately, we have not reached to any kind of concrete solution so far.
GHANI: But at least there seems to be a willingness to talk on all sides. Why do you think that is? Why now?
BAHEER: Unfortunately, no, this is something very common that everyone is trying at the beginning, military might and military power. And when they came to the conclusion that that is not working, war is not a solution to the conflict, and then they go to the negotiating table. The key for the solution of Afghanistan lies with the Americans. If American wants to solve the Afghan problem through peaceful means and negotiations, I think they can do it. But still I believe that Americans for some reason they are still going for the military options and they think that they can win the war, or at least to be apprehended, and so that they can get more advantages at the negotiating tables.
GHANI: So from what you’re saying, does that mean that the talks that are being talked about in the media are not progressing as well as they could?
BAHEER: Things are stuck, actually. There’s no progress as far as negotiations is concerned. With regard to Hezbi Islami, I would say very clearly that we have stopped our negotiations with the Kabul government and also with the Americans, because we came to the conclusion that they were not honest, they were not serious, and they were using negotiations for some other gains, just as a cover and just as public opinion deceptions. I would put it in this way.
One of the reasons that we stopped our negotiations with the Afghan government and also the American was the signing of the strategic accord between Afghanistan and the United States of America, and which was clearly paving the way for the security pact or security accord between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which means that Americans are planning to have military bases in Afghanistan. So we believe that the presence of Americans under any cover, under under any pretext, ultimately means the continuation of war in Afghanistan.
GHANI: So is that a–that’s a precondition for talks, is it, that there must be a full withdrawal of U.S. forces, or at least that has to be on the table.
BAHEER: Yeah, and I think you put in the right way–it’s not a precondition, but I think even the American withdrawal should be the main part of our negotiations.
GHANI: This time last year in an interview, you said that following the U.S. withdrawal it’s quite likely that Afghanistan will again fall into civil war. Is that an opinion you still hold today?
BAHEER: No, I believe that before even the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, there should be a consensus developed between all Afghan stakeholders. It means that before the Soviet–I mean, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, all Afghans should agree upon a system that will accommodate everyone according to their share, their presence, their demography, their influence in Afghan society. But if there is no consensus developed before the Soviet–before the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, or if foreign interventions are not stopped totally in the internal affairs of Afghans, then naturally we are going to enter to another catastrophe.
GHANI: I get the feeling that when you talk about foreign interventions, you’re not just talking about NATO; you’re perhaps talking about Afghanistan’s neighbors as well.
BAHEER: No, [incompr.] I mean, foreign interventions, but usually even if there’s any kind of interference from the neighboring countries, it’s spearheaded by the superpowers.
GHANI: The Taliban clearly believe elections are completely un-Islamic. And you’re talking about consensus has to be developed at least before the Americans leave in order to avoid civil war. But surely there’s a bridge or a divide that can’t be crossed there when you have a very strong force like the Taliban that will not accept elections, and then you have groups like yourself on the other side who want elections following the U.S. withdrawal. How are you going to cross that bridge?
BAHEER: First of all, [incompr.] believe that election is a part of Islamic sharia. This is our understanding of Islam. So we believe in elections. I think this is the only way to solve the problem.
With regard to Taliban, I’m not here to speak on behalf of Taliban, but I think there’s a lot of changes in Taliban’s approach towards the Afghan issue as well. There’s a lot of flexibility in their approach. It means that neither Taliban nor Hezbi Islami will compromise on the principles which is not compromisable.
But I think as far as the system is concerned, if Taliban are engaged and we all talk to them and they’re somehow a part of the political network, I think definitely I think finally they will agree to the system with the main concept of elections. But the modality will be different from Taliban. One can compromise as far as the modality of the elections are concerned. But I think in general, in principle, Taliban would also agree to it.
GHANI: I want to talk now about the U.S. occupation. The U.S. says that it’s brought development and women’s rights, democracy, and it’s trying to bring stability and security to Afghanistan. I guess you don’t agree with that.
BAHEER: I told to Ambassador Crocker in a very frank manner–and he appreciated my frankness–I told him that, look, the British ruled this Indian subcontinent and with all their colonial behavior. But if you ask people of the subcontinent, they will tell you that railways, airports, universities, the same things was happening in Afghanistan when the Soviet invaded Afghanistan that resulted in almost 1 million martyrs. We had hundreds of thousands handicapped as a heritage from that invasion of the Soviet Union. But with all those bitter memories and bad memories, we have several things in Afghanistan which will remind Afghans of the Soviets’ contribution to Afghanistan–Mahipar, Salang Highway, and [tah3`’nIkUm], there’s another big university, polytechnic, and so many other very big projects that one can see that these were built by the Soviets.
But with the Americans, unfortunately, I think when they are leaving Afghanistan, they will be leaving behind their military brigades and prisons in Afghanistan. Even with regard to democracy and with regard to elections in Afghanistan, they were not successful even in that regard. Afghan government or Afghan system is now number two as far as the corruption is concerned. The American themselves admits that fact. Now it’s almost 12 years passing that American came to Afghanistan, but still Afghan side is burning. Fighting is going on there. And the resistance was not restricted, it was not crushed, but it was spreaded. It used to be in the south, and now it’s spreaded to almost all over the country. Naturally, when you are [incompr.] then you return to the other one, to the other side.
GHANI: Now, going back to the reasons for the invasion, of course the official premise was a reaction to 9/11. But there are growing numbers of people who doubt the official narrative of what happened in New York. Do you believe al-Qaeda was responsible?
BAHEER: Whoever was responsible, but the wrong people, the wrong country was attacked, and the wrong people paid the price of 9/11. The official statistic of the killing of the 9/11 was somehow between 3,000 and 4,000. But hundreds of thousands of Afghans were killed and tortured, and the same thing has happened to Iraqis. And I think a very huge price was paid by the Muslim [oUmA]. I will put it in this way.
GHANI: In terms of al-Qaeda, the U.S. says that at least the leadership, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has been working with al-Qaeda and Taliban. Is there any truth to that?
BAHEER: No, it’s not true, actually. Hezbi Islam is an independent entity. It [incompr.] was to ’70s, and it was a party before–al-Qaeda was not born, Taliban were not born then, actually. Hezbi Islami was there. And I would say very categorically that we have no relations with al-Qaeda.
GHANI: There are reports in the Western media, though, of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar praising Osama bin Laden.
BAHEER: No, it’s something very natural, actually. I mean, Osama bin Laden was praised by all Muslim [oUmA], especially by Afghan mujahideen leadership. He lived with the Afghans for decades, and he was part of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. So it’s something very natural that I think there’s a sympathy as far as Osama bin Laden’s concerned. It’s not necessary that one should agree with general opinion or the general public opinion of the United States of America with regard to certain personalities.
GHANI: And what about the Taliban? How are relations with Taliban? Do you have any relations? Are you in contact with them? Or are you working completely separately in the dark?
BAHEER: We have our own contacts with Taliban, sometimes discussions with the Taliban. But we don’t have any kind of formal agreement or formal alliance with Taliban.
GHANI: I’d like to talk about human rights in a bit more depth now. You’ve obviously had a pretty horrifying experience yourself at the hands of the U.S. military. You were held for six years or more than six years without charge or trial in U.S. custody, including U.S. black sites, CIA black sites, where the rule of law just does not exist. One of your close staff, Gul Rahman, was abducted with you and later died in CIA custody after freezing to death. How would you describe your experience briefly in the hands of the CIA?
BAHEER: I was–in total, for two years I was in isolation. Isolation means that I couldn’t see light. I was locked in my room for 24 hours. Just one or twice sometimes I was taken to the toilet, and most of the time my toilet was a small bucket which was accompanying me 24 hours. And most of the time my hands were locked to the wall. And believe me, after two years, I got so used to darkness that after two years, when the American soldier came and he wanted to turn on the light, I was resisting and I was telling him to turn off the light, turn off the light. He said, why, why? I say that no, I cannot tolerate it, I cannot afford it.
I think in a very short time, in a period of two months, I lost 30 kilos of my weight and I was just left with my skeleton. And there were a lot of problems, actually, I went through.
And you have just mentioned my colleague, Gul Rahman. He was my driver. We have been told and we have actually read it in the internet and elsewhere in very important newspapers, including New York Times, that he has been killed. But still the Americans are not admitting the facts. And we have approached the ICRC [incompr.] to the Americans that at least they should formally acknowledge his death so that the family’s a little bit consoled and they have their own religious rituals. And so far his family, including his wife, his four daughters, his ailing and aging mother, is waiting and they are living in a status of uncertainty.
GHANI: Now, when you sit across the table from U.S. ambassadors or U.S. diplomats and talk to them, you know, in negotiations that were or the talks that were taking place earlier, how do you feel having gone through that experience?
BAHEER: Actually, I was asked the same questions when I was in custody, that, Doctor, in case if you get released or what will be your impression of Americans. What has happened, actually, through my detention experience, that I tried my best not to let any kind of hatred be developed in myself against Americans as a people. I knew my status among Afghan society. So I was expecting that the time will come that I will be released, and then I will be again a public figure figure and I will be in a position to play a role for the future of Afghanistan. And that role is there now. I’m chief negotiator on behalf of Hezbi Islami. And if I had hatred towards Americans, that wouldn’t allow me to carry out that mission. And when you’re talking to the Americans, if Americans come forward with peaceful solution which will end this agony to my people, I think [incompr.] will be more than happy to talk to them and to sit with them and to tolerate them.
GHANI: After keeping you in detention without charge or trial for more than six years and then releasing you without ever having seen a judge or any legal process, what did they say to you?
BAHEER: The last time that I met them in Bagram, they say that we had 135 meetings, including today’s ones. So almost every session was one hour, or sometimes two hours. And we had no barriers between ourselves. There was no need of interpreter. We used to talk directly in English. And those meetings were called interrogation, but they were not really interrogation. Sometimes it was just an exchange of views. They wanted to benefit from my experience, from my information, from my political background. And even I gave them a lot of written stuffs about Afghanistan advising them what to do in Afghanistan in order to solve Afghans’ problem. So we had a lot of deliberation and negotiations.
And the last words that I was hearing from them were that we are sorry, wrong person in the wrong time in the wrong place, and we couldn’t find anything against you, and you were a peaceful man, you have never been a part of the militancy in Afghanistan. But it was too late, although I was not convinced what they were saying, but I was not in a position to, I mean, argue at that time.
GHANI: Do you think that through these policies of indefinite detention–often innocent people are caught up in them–or the drone strikes, which often kill bystanders, innocent civilians, are the United States creating new enemies for themselves unnecessarily?
BAHEER: Actually, I used to tell them that, look, these detention centers that you have made in Afghanistan, don’t call it detention centers; call them factories of enemies productions. Actually, the Americans by doing so, by treating people in this way, by arresting people, they are creating, actually, enemies by themselves, they are producing enemies by themselves. This is why their own statistic says that those who are released in different stage from detention centers, 70 percent of them goes to the mountains and fight against Americans. Especially when your dignity’s insulted, your religion is insulted, your culture insulted, this is something that you cannot forget it.
I think the same thing is happening with the drone attacks. If American thinks that they have killed x and y from Taliban, then this is the end of the story. It’s not the end of the story, actually. To replace x with y, y with z in Taliban ranks is not very big job, actually. But this drone technology is disturbing the whole country here, the whole system here. You have been listening to the radios and TV since yesterday that this is the main and the burning topic of today here in Pakistan.
GHANI: Still on the topic of human rights, clearly the U.S. has a very poor record of human rights in Afghanistan. But human rights weren’t particularly great before the U.S. arrived in Afghanistan. You see them deteriorating further after the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan?
BAHEER: No. I believe that if Americans really leave Afghanistan and let Afghans to determine their own destiny, I don’t think that we will have violation of human rights in Afghanistan. The reason is very clear, actually. We are Muslims, and there’s a very great respect for human beings and Islam in our religion. And Afghanistan has a 5,000 years history. It’s not a new entity on the planet. So we had our own system, we had a peaceful country, and people were very civilized people. The Soviet Union, when they were defeated in Afghanistan, when they withdraw from Afghanistan, it was a physical withdrawal from the Soviet Union, but they continued their intervention, their interference in Afghan affairs.
GHANI: But the predominant governments towards the end, it was Hezbi Islami, and then the Taliban came to power. Neither of those two groups had any connection with the Soviets. In fact, if anything, they had connections previously with Pakistan as a proxy, and at the back they were in contact with the U.S. during the Soviet jihad.
BAHEER: No, actually. Hezbi Islami was not given the chance to rule Afghanistan, although it was the most popular party, it was the backbone of the Afghan resistance. This is what I’m saying, that there was a conspiracy hatched against Afghans that they wanted–that Hezbi Islami should never be in power. And this is why, actually, they have designed–we call it Peshawar Accord. And that accord, the power was distributed in a way so that Hezbi Islami’s [cArn3`] and Hezbi Islami’s not given its due role in Afghan future system [incompr.] a long history.
But I would again repeat myself that the bad experience of 1990s were not–it was not the creation of Afghans, but it was the creation of the superpowers and some great powers and some regional powers here.
GHANI: I’d like to go back to women’s rights. I mean, the U.S. said it’s improved women’s rights in Afghanistan. It’s an important issue for our audience. How do you see women’s rights progressing or degrading after the U.S. withdrawal?
BAHEER: Actually, the interpretation of women’s rights is something very important. What do you mean by women rights? If the interpretation of women rights is women’s dignity, it’s rights and role in the society and it’s contribution to the society, I think that has existed in Islam. And Islam, in our religion, has a very great respect for women. But sometimes, unfortunately, women’s rights is just interpreted in wearing Western-style clothes or appearing in public stages without taking into concentration your religious and cultural values. Sometimes women rights is interpreted in this way.
But, anyhow, we, as far as Hezbi Islami’s concerned, I told you that even during jihad period we had schools for girls, we had universities for girls, and women were given a very big share in our political activities. I am representing Hezbi Islami and I have got two doctors. They’re–two daughters. They’re medical doctors, and the third word one is in third-year medical college. I think the same thing is happening with almost every member of our party. So it’s just a matter of definition of the women rights, how do you define women rights.
GHANI: But, of course, you’re one party of two or three factions that are quite powerful or will be quite powerful in post-U.S. occupation Afghanistan, and, again, the impression that we get in the West is that under the Taliban rule, girls’ schools were closed down. As somebody who’s watching from the side during Taliban rule, what was your impression?
BAHEER: No, actually, the schools were not closed, but there were some restrictions, and those restrictions were somehow hard, and it was interpreted as if the Taliban are not allowing girls to go to schools and universities. But I heard myself from a Taliban representative in Paris, when he was attending Paris conference, Mr. Shahabuddin Delawar from Qatar, he came from Taliban’s office from Qatar, and he was very clear on women’s rights in Afghanistan and girls, women education in Afghanistan as far as Taliban are concerned. He was very clear and he was putting it in a very clear manner that they have no objection to women education and women role in Afghan society.
But, again, they were putting their own–it’s not their own conditions, but I think it’s generally even that would be our conditions that every–I mean, one should contribute or work within that legal framework, Islamic framework, which is not contradicting with our religion, with our culture, with our social values. I think it’s something that should be respected by the Americans. Why the Americans should expect from Afghans to be as Americans? Afghanistan is Afghanistan. United States is the United States. Why we are not imposing our own system on the Americans and the Western world, our Islamic system? I think the American also should respect our own way of life and our values, our culture, our tradition, and our political system.
GHANI: Afghanistan has been in a constant state, almost constant state of war for many decades now. Do you realistically see long-term peace as a prospect that we can see anytime soon in Afghanistan?
BAHEER: First of all, I would tell you that I think Afghan nation has been created by God to be the toughest nation of the war. What we have experienced for the last almost three decades, I think no other nation can afford it, to tolerate it. We went through very difficult time, and still we’re going through a very miserable situation. I think all Afghans can afford it and can tolerate it. We are tough people. That’s why we are telling to the Americans that if this kind of experience continues for another decade, we can tolerate it, but it will be not tolerable for the Americans themselves as well.
But anyhow, we are looking forward for a urgent solution of the Afghan crisis and we are looking forward to have a peaceful Afghanistan, prosperous Afghanistan, and to have a normal life like other human beings have it in the world. And that will be, of course, in respect to all international laws and norms and regulations.
GHANI: Dr. Ghairat Baheer, thank you very much for joining us on The Real News Network.
BAHEER: I’m very grateful to you as well. Thank you so much. Welcome.
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