Afghan President Hamid Karzai sat down to talk with Tribune correspondent Kim Barker in Kabul on Thursday, Dec. 18. In a frank, one-on-one exchange, Karzai reacted to criticisms by then presidential candidate Barack Obama, criticized the U.S.-led military operations in his country and called for focusing the war on terror more on neighboring Pakistan than Afghanistan. He also delivered a message to the families of Illinois National Guard troops now being deployed to his country. Here is an edited transcript:
Q What do you think about being described [by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama] as weak and spending too much time in a bunker?
A Bunker? We are in a trench, and our allies are with us in the trench. We were on a high hill with a glorious success in 2002 [after ousting the Taliban regime following Sept. 11], backed fully by the Afghan people. … And the Taliban and the Al Qaeda were defeated, without a fight, especially in southern parts of Afghanistan. … We must now look back and find out as to why are we in a trench, or if you’d like to describe it, as a bunker. Why are we in a bunker? Thousands of the Taliban went back to their homes. They began a normal life. The coalition forces began to employ thugs, and went with those thugs to the homes of hundreds of elders and community people, frightened them into running away from Afghanistan. I’m surprised that the Afghan people still have so much trust in what we are doing. I’m surprised that people after having been bombed, many, many times over, with their children and families killed, torn to pieces, still come to me as their president. … And we can be easily out of the bunker, or as I describe it the trench, if we begin to correct our behavior. The international community should correct their behavior, and the Afghan government should begin to be helped to do more…For years we’ve been saying that we need concentration on the sanctuaries. We were ignored. For years I’ve been saying that the war on terrorism is not in Afghanistan, that it’s in the training camps, it’s in sanctuaries [in Pakistan]. Rather than going there, the coalition went around the Afghan villages, burst into people’s homes and … committing extrajudicial killings in our country. The latest example was the day before yesterday in Khost, where a man, a woman and a 12-year-old boy were killed. Were they Al Qaeda? And even if they were, was there a court order to shoot them down in their homes? And if they were, was the 12-year-old boy Al Qaeda too? Or the woman? And if this behavior continues, we will be in a deeper trench than we are in today. And the war against terrorism will end in a disgraceful defeat.
Q What do you mean, the coalition hired thugs?
A They hired [Afghan] thugs…thugs or warlords or whatever. They created militias of those people who had no limits to misbehavior and who were sent to people’s homes to search their homes, to arrest them and to intimidate them. And we’ve been trying to tell them for seven years now that that is wrong. We’ve tried to control it. There has been some improvement, but still, it continues to happen….This has to stop if you want to succeed. Only then we can begin to build the Afghan government. If they go to the Afghan homes and burst in and arrest or kill, does that leave the Afghan people with the feeling that they have a government? No. That is actually the destruction of the Afghan government. If Afghanistan is a sovereign country, if Afghanistan has an elected government, if Afghanistan has a constitution, if Afghanistan has laws, and if there is the slogan of strengthening the Afghan democracy and institutions, then the Afghan sovereignty and the Afghan laws must be respected, and not violated in such an extreme manner as it is being done today. Therefore my plea to the international community and to the American government is – and I will do this with them, we have already sent them some documents and reports on this – that we want to sit down and redraw the map of relationship in which we take responsibility for what’s gone wrong in my government, whether it’s corruption, whether it’s narcotics, whether it’s inefficiency… but we are committed to improving as we have improved already, and I would like the international community also to commit strongly to respecting the Afghan sovereignty and Afghan laws in conducting the war on terrorism with the right tools and the right attitude.
Q But the West is now talking about doing some sort of Awakenings movement in Afghanistan, which would do precisely what you’re talking about – empower these tribal groups.
A That’s wrong. If we create militias again, we will be ruining this country further. That’s not what I want. I have been talking for a long time first of all about raising a proper police force. For a long time now, which didn’t happen, which is only beginning to happen. And then I was talking for a long time about regaining the trust of the communities, meaning, in the first stage, to stop harassing them, to stop bursting into their homes, to stop arresting them at will, and to stop bombing villages. Once that happens, then we begin the recovery process of getting in contact with them, bringing back and giving them the trust that they need and enlisting them to cooperate, as they did in 2002. The Taliban were defeated with the help of the very people who are now under attack by the coalition forces. And this attack must stop.
Q How will more troops solve the problems in Afghanistan?
A Sending more troops to the Afghan cities, to the Afghan villages, will not solve anything. Sending more troops to control the border, is sensible, makes sense. Sending more troops to help the Afghans regain the territories that we had, in that by making terrible mistakes we lost to the Taliban, makes sense. That is where I need help. I don’t need help anywhere else.
Q But the U.S. is talking about sending the bulk of 4,000 troops to Wardak and Logar provinces, just outside Kabul, next month. What do you think about that?
A I don’t think we need forces there. I think we need them on the border and I think we need them especially to bring [southern] Helmand [province] back under the control of the Afghan people and the Afghan law.
Q There are supposed to be presidential elections next year. Are you planning on running, and why should people vote for you, given the situation in the country right now?
A I was not planning to run again, but I’m determined to do it now, because I’ve gained a lot of experience, because I have a relationship with the international community that’s based on truth-telling and sincerity, because in that sincerity I tell them the harsh truth that sometimes annoys them but is good for us, it’s like a bitter medicine, because I raised my voice for the protection of the Afghan people, and the Afghan people must continue to have this service. Because I’m committed to an Afghanistan that is not a burden on the international community, because I want to complete this journey and this mission for the good of Afghanistan and the international community. I want them to succeed in Afghanistan and by them, the international community, succeeding in Afghanistan, Afghanistan will have a better life, and that’s what I want to deliver to the Afghan people.
Q Is there a deadline for foreign troops to leave Afghanistan?
A No such thing as a deadline, no, we don’t want that. We want a success line, not a deadline. We want time for success. We want time for mission accomplished. And mission accomplished is defeat of terrorism and a prosperous, peaceful, democratic Afghanistan.
Q What do you want as part of this new plan you’re talking about, this new agreement you want to reach with the international community?
A Redraw a relationship on the military conduct of the international community in Afghanistan. Focus on the war of terrorism with effectiveness of removing the sanctuaries and the reasons for it and the financers of it and all that. Removing the hurdles inadvertently created in the way of the Afghan government, allow it to work and to strengthen…Deliver the international assistance more effectively to Afghanistan. You can achieve a lot more with the money that you spend in Afghanistan if you do it differently, and have proper coordination of assistance.
Q Do you believe that your neighbor, Pakistan, is serious about the war on terrorism?
A President [ Asif Ali] Zardari is, no doubt, there’s no doubt about that. And I hope he and his government will succeed in this regard … I have full trust in him and his intentions. He has personally suffered a colossal loss [the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto] at the hands of terrorism, so I am sure he will do the right thing.
Q What about the Pakistani civilian government’s ability to control the country’s powerful army and intelligence agencies?
A That’s a different question. The intention’s right with President Zardari. The ability is something we must all help around.
Q What do you think about the performance of the new Pakistan civilian government?
A President Zardari and his government are committed to working against terrorism, but the sanctuaries are still there, and we all have to work together to have them removed. And now unfortunately, Pakistan is suffering too. Because we did not act in time to remove those sanctuaries, it’s become a victim of terrorism.
Q What do you think is the biggest mistake that has been made in the last seven years?
A Lack of concentration on the sanctuaries and lack of recognizing the immense goodwill in the Afghan people.
Q What is your biggest mistake in the last seven years?
A There’s a lot that I can talk about…When we succeeded in 2002, when I had talks with various representatives of the international community on supporting the Afghan government, and removing local power-holders, the illegal power-holders, I was told that they’re not going to be green on green. I should have stood up then and said, ‘Well, in that case, you decide whether you want to stay or leave.’ ..Second, I began to talk to the international community in private, with persuasion, and with a very soft manner. And unfortunately a lot of them thought that it was weakness. It was not. It was manners, and respect displayed, and great trust in the relationship that we wanted to build. And now that I am speaking for the last two years with a louder voice, it’s the frustration of the past, of the years before 2007, and I’ll give you an example to illustrate what I mean. In 2004, the Afghan people came to me from all around the country and said the police [are] weak…A particular instance of that was the example of Arghastan district in Kandahar, having a 250-kilometer border with Pakistan. The people of Arghastan came to me – this was 2004, right after presidential elections – they said: ‘President, we have only 40 policemen for 60,000 people. Some are on sick leave, some are off duty, and 15 or 20 are on the job, without vehicles, without means of transportation and without equipment, and a $20 a month salary.’ I raised this with our allies, and we kept talking and talking and talking and talking and talking. And then finally I believe in 2005 or 2006, after having spoken for so long, in a meeting downstairs, in the dining room, mid-day, the representative of the coalition forces that day told me, when I began to push the point, he said, ‘Mr. President, think of the positive. We are building clinics.’ As if clinics were a substitute for the police.
Q It sounds like you’re very frustrated with the international community.
A No, I’m not. I’m not. I’m trying to bring home a point, that Afghanistan, the Afghan people, are friends, and if you give them the right institutions we will succeed, and the right support, we will succeed.
Q What is the status right now of negotiations with the Taliban?
A I’d like to negotiate with them very much. And I’ve had an opinion on this from the very first day. But I don’t have an address for them. I don’t know where to find them. You can find the Pakistani Taliban…but I don’t know where to find the Afghan Taliban. I try to find them, I keep sending them messages, I don’t know their address. That is another big problem. The Afghan Taliban not having an address. Therefore, I will go back to my initial words, we must concentrate on the sanctuaries and on having it right with our brothers in Pakistan.
Q What do you think of President-elect Obama?
A I find him a very capable person, and I’m sure he has an understanding of the needs and the difficulties of the Afghan people. I’m not treating his remarks as a criticism of me. He reads reports. Of course I am at times quite rough with officials here, and when you are rough with someone, it’s bound to reflect in various ways back home. Look – we are walking through a very difficult period, both for America and Afghanistan in this war against terrorism. And this is a journey that has gone for a long time and that will continue to go for a long time. So in this journey, there are days that you are not happy with each other. There are days that you speak louder than softer or lower. At times the American leadership has tolerated my extreme harsh talk, and I am grateful to them for that. And at times, I have tolerated their lack of knowledge and lack of information on Afghanistan.
Q In many ways, it seems you have become the face of what’s gone wrong in Afghanistan, and people just blame President Karzai for everything. What do you think of that?
A That’s absolutely wrong, but I’m the president. Naturally people will blame me. I’m the president. I’m the punching box. And the Afghan people have expectations, the international community has expectations, I have expectations, and the Afghan people have expectations of the international communities…but the Afghan people know my heart for them, and my work for them. The international community at times fails to recognize that. And after all, the international community, especially the Western press, has been calling me the mayor of Kabul from the very first day. It’s nothing new. I was called the mayor of Kabul in 2002…And I’m still the mayor of Kabul. So it hasn’t changed. While this is the first time in the history of Afghanistan where we have a government that has reached more than half of Afghanistan’s nearly 40,000 villages. This is the first time in the history of Afghanistan where you have gone as far as the Pamir mountains of Afghanistan with a mobile clinic, and health facilities and schools. This is the first time in Afghanistan where you’ve reached the farthest parts of the country with roads. This is the first time in Afghanistan where your health services have gone beyond 85 percent of the population…There is a lot in this country that we can talk about and be proud of and the international community shares that pride with the Afghan people equally and we are grateful to them, in spite of my anger and criticism of the things that we must correct.
Q If civilian casualties continue and these raids continue that you mention, will there come a point when Afghanistan says enough, it’s time for the international troops to leave?
A I hope it will stop. I hope they will not make us go that far. I’m extremely angry and frustrated, and this I want to show, because I want them to know the anger that I have inside me, and the anger that the Afghan people have. But we are very tolerant, and the Afghans are very tolerant, because of this desire to succeed. And because of the friendship we have with the international community.
Q But at no point, will you say, time to leave?
A If it doesn’t stop, someday suddenly the Afghan people will ask for it.
Q As far as just getting more troops in here and empowering local militias, you don’t believe -
A Not militias, look, they have not understood the point…They are wrong, tell them that they are wrong. I saw in the press today, somewhere in the international press, talking of the international community raising tribal militias. That’s a disaster. That’s not what I have asked for. I am asking for regaining the trust of the Afghan tribes and communities and their elders and influentials. I am asking for first stopping their harassment and intimidation and arrest and going into their homes and then gaining their trust and that to through the Afghan government, through the mechanism that we have suggested, and that does not include raising militias. The Afghan people don’t want to have any more militias. They have suffered at the hands of the militias for so many years.
Q Some people say Afghanistan needs a strong leader -
A What does that mean? A strong leader means what? A strong leader means putting people in prison? A strong leader means kicking the international community out of Afghanistan? A strong leader means not asking for a change in strategy? A strong leader means what? Having a militia of his own? An army of his own? Or someone that has continued to hold the country together, that has made Afghanistan the home of all Afghans, that has raised a voice when it was necessary, that has spoken with almost the whole country, that has respected the freedom of the press, that has promoted the freedom of the press, that believes in democracy and the freedom of expression for Afghan people, and that has asked for the right changes in attitude of the international community. Now whenever I ask for change, I’m accused of not being a strong leader, and mostly by the international press. Well, OK. If I tow the line, I’ll be called a strong leader. When I ask for change, I’m a weak leader. I was a lovely man when I was keeping quiet. I’m a nasty man, a no-good leader, when I began to speak. Got the point? Alright…But of course, inside the country, I’ve been soft. Very, very soft. And I have been soft deliberately…I’ve been a persuasive man, not a pushing and shoving man, and I think that was the reason we kept the country together for the last seven years, in spite of all the difficulties, in spite of the environment in which we lived. We walked Afghanistan through a storm, cyclones, hurricanes, rocks and mountains, and we kept it going…So I’ve been soft inside Afghanistan, hard with the international community, when it’s needed.
Q What would you say to the parents of the Illinois National Guard soldiers, given that the Illinois National Guard is now sending its largest deployment since World War II to Afghanistan?
A Afghanistan’s prosperity and Afghanistan’s safety and security and the defeat of terrorism will guarantee safety and security and prosperity for the American families back home. Afghanistan was taken over by extremism and Al Qaeda, and that’s why Americans suffered. And I had warned of this, in July of 2000, when I spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in very clear words. So the Afghans are friends, all that I’m saying is, please treat Afghan people as your friends and allies, don’t suspect them, don’t burst into their homes, have them with you, don’t push them away from you.