Often referred to as “the shadow president” during his time as security adviser (2014-2018), Atmar backs an all-inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue to advance peace efforts in a bid to end Afghanistan’s 17-year war.
An ethnic Pashtun, Atmar began his career in the KGB-linked Afghan security and intelligence agency in the late 1980s.
Under former President Hamid Karzai, he served as minister of rural development, minister of education, and minister of interior. He left the government in 2010 and went on to launch his own political party, the Right and Justice Party.
In 2014, Atmar played a key role in Ghani’s election win. Known as a skilful negotiator, he also brought Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to Kabul in 2017, after two decades in hiding, to recognise the Afghan government.
In August last year, Atmar resigned as national security adviser, citing “serious differences” with Ghani, before announcing that he was entering the upcoming presidential race. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Al Jazeera spoke to Atmar about his disagreements with the government, his presidential bid and the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and US officials in Qatar.
Al Jazeera: After standing by President Ashraf Ghani’s government for four years, you resigned citing serious differences over the country’s political future; what were those differences that couldn’t be bridged?
Hanif Atmar: There were at least five significant issues we could not resolve.
The first one was government policies, which made the government quite isolated. The second was the irresponsible use of force in domestic matters, which, as a national security adviser, I opposed.
The third issue was his [Ghani’s] selectivity in peace; peace on terms that were not necessarily representative of the aspirations of the Afghan people. My approach to peace was, “let’s not be selective, let’s look at the greater interest of the nation and embrace peace in that manner.”
We also disagreed on the country’s electoral reforms; those reforms were never carried out effectively and honestly, and that’s why [in October 2018] we probably had the most disastrous parliamentary elections in Afghanistan’s history.
Finally, we disagreed over the imbalance in our regional relations. I was advocating for balanced relations in the region and with our international partners. But unfortunately, the foreign policy pursued by him was, at times, erratic.
Al Jazeera: Do you believe this is an inclusive government?
Atmar: No, it is not; and that was the reason I was unhappy about it. Afghanistan cannot be ruled without a genuinely inclusive government, but the one at the moment is run by a self-serving clique.
My sincere recommendation was that it was important to have a good team for its administration, but political stability requires inclusion in the government of all of the country’s prominent political forces.
Al Jazeera: The main failure of this government has been in the area of security, yet you were the architect of the national security strategy – who is to blame and what went wrong?
Atmar: There was no problem with the government’s security policy and strategy. I would give credit to the leadership of the security sector. My authority was to coordinate the process for developing the security assessment policy and strategy.
The problem was not the policy; it was its implementation.
The first challenge was that the Afghan national security forces did not have enough resources to implement the policy, such as adequate air force [capabilities] to provide essential support for combat operations.
The security forces did not also have enough manpower. Many experts believe that Afghanistan – given the population of the country and the strength of the insurgency – should have 600,000-700,000 troops, but we only have 382,000 troops, so it is not enough.
The final challenge for the implementation of the policy was the leadership.
To sum it up, the insurgency was too big for the resources and the capabilities that we had as part of the implementation process, so for that reason, the policy did not produce the kind of result we were hoping for.
Al Jazeera: Is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group a real threat in Afghanistan?
Atmar: Yes, it is posing a real threat – not only to Afghanistan but to the entire region. This is a real danger, a real threat.
ISIL has mainly emerged in the eastern Nangarhar province, where they committed an awful lot of atrocities and where our people fought against them with bravery and courage. The majority of ISIL fighters are foreign. Most of them come from the other side of the Durand Line.
The second type of ISIL fighters in the north and northeast of the country are, in fact, mutations of regional terrorist groups that are now claiming that they are part of ISIL. Afghanistan was quite good at making progress in the east but we still have challenges in the north, particularly in Badakhshan province where a number of foreign fighters that associate themselves with ISIL have a stronghold.
We have to destroy that and I think the best way forward to eliminate ISIL from Afghanistan is to make peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban. With Taliban coming to the peace table, I believe there will be no place for ISIL.
Al Jazeera: The government may reach a peace agreement with the Taliban, but real peace must be made at a social level. What is your plan for achieving this?
Atmar: This will have to be all thought through in the comprehensive peace settlement; we have to look at it from all dimensions. Frankly speaking, the majority of the Taliban leaders that I have talked to are saying that their real issue is the foreign troops in Afghanistan, not any other Afghan ethnic groups.
If that is the case, then I believe we can ask, “what if all of us agree on a peace settlement where foreign troops will leave Afghanistan on the basis of certain conditions, and then you [the Taliban] start a peaceful life with the rest of Afghans so that they don’t get threatened by you.”
The Taliban have said yes to that, but we need to have that in practice; we need to get it implemented as part of the peace agreement. So to move forward, we will have to look at the reconciliation and reintegration processes.
Al Jazeera: How much of the current conflict in Afghanistan is an internal tribal conflict?
Atmar: I do not rule out the fact that there is a tribal dynamic, but the level of its contribution to the larger conflict is minimal – it should not be overestimated.
We have always had tribes in Afghanistan; tribes have had problems and issues but they never led to the type of conflict we currently have.
This conflict has regional and global dimensions, with regional and global actors, state and non-state actors – that is why it is the most destructive and protracted conflict in the history of Afghanistan.
We believe that we have to deal with the larger issue of the conflict through peace and reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and also deal with the smaller issues of the tribal conflict.
Al Jazeera: What are some of the issues you will highlight during your election campaign?
Atmar: I am afraid the list will be a long one, but there are specific issues that we will focus on the most.
The biggest focus is national unity, which is central to any other issue that we have to deal with. Second is lasting peace. Third is security, whether in terms of the ongoing conflict or the cause of criminality and organised crimes that are affecting our country’s security. Fourth is justice and good governance. I am also focusing on economic growth to reduce poverty in a sustainable manner. Finally, all of these will depend on domestic cooperation, as well as from the regional and international community.
Given the complexity of challenges, we will have to focus on all of these issues.