Opinion: Afghan President Karzai hopes Obama will “settle down,” show “better judgment”
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(UPDATE: We’ve added the full transcript of the Karzai interview below. It’s a very revealing one about U.S.-Afghan relations and how they work -- and sometimes don’t. Scroll down or click on the ‘Read more’ line.)
President Barack Obama is moving up in the world in terms of picking fights. Or walking into them.
First came a disagreement over the impact of the administration’s economic stimulus package in East Peoria, Ill., with Jim Owens, the man who runs Caterpillar. The Ticket reported that one here this morning.
Now, it seems the new U.S. president has a problem with another president, Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, which Obama has long maintained is the actual central front in the ongoing global war on terror. Despite opinion poll numbers showing weak public support among Americans, Obama’s expected to make a decision here soon on how many additional U.S. combat troops to send into that fractious land.
The good folks over at CNN, merely in the interest of spreading information, you understand, have sent us a quick excerpt from this Sunday’s ‘GPS’ program with Fareed Zakaria. Fareed’s got a lengthy, exclusive taped interview with Karzai to air there at 10 a.m. Pacific.
Here’s one unsettling exchange with the Afghan chief of state sounding a tad displeased with his newbie presidential counterpart:
Zakaria: ‘Mr. President, how will you deal with the Obama administration because you did get on well with Bush. President Obama says that ‘Karzai has a bunker mentality.’ He has said that the Afghan government seems detached from what is happening in the rest of the country. Richard Holbrooke has made similar criticisms. Do you feel that these people -- President Obama, Special Representative Holbrooke -- do not understand what is happening in Afghanistan?’
Karzai: ‘I saw that statement and I was surprised to see that statement.
‘About seven months ago, the U.S. embassy signed a multi-million dollar contract with our ministry of health -- over $100 million I believe -- because the ministry of health, according to the U.S. embassy, has done such a great service all over the country and is present all over the country. Our rural development program has reached 75% of Afghan’s 40,000 villages.
‘We had schools in the country where we’ve never had schools in our history. We have roads in the country paved where we’ve never had roads in our history. The engagement with the Afghan population is so wide and so widely spread that we’ve never had in our history. And the U.S. government officials in Afghanistan know that.
‘So I was surprised to hear that statement. Perhaps it’s because the administration has not yet put itself together. Perhaps they have not been given the information yet. And I hope as they settle down, as they learn more, we will see better judgment.’
-- Andrew Malcolm
Complete Text of CNN ‘GPS’ Interview of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, broadcast Feb. 15:
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: This is GPS, the Global Public Square. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I’m Fareed Zakaria. So, let us begin. President Hamid Karzai joins us from the presidential palace in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Welcome, Mr. President.
HAMID KARZAI, PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN: Good to see you. Thank you.
ZAKARIA: Mr. President, let me ask you about your dealings. How will you deal with the Obama administration? Because you did get on well with Bush.
KARZAI: Oh, President George Bush is a great person. I have a lot of respect for him.
ZAKARIA: President Obama says that Karzai is in -- has a bunker mentality. He has said that the Afghan government seems detached from what is happening in the rest of the country.
KARZAI: Well, I saw that statement, and I was surprised to see that statement. Perhaps it’s because the administration has not yet put itself together. Perhaps they have not been given the information yet.
And I hope as they settle down, and as they learn more, we will see better judgment.
ZAKARIA: When you hear Barack Obama say the things he said about Afghanistan, what is your reaction? You’ve met President Obama. Do you think that you can work with him? Do you think he understands the region?
KARZAI: I can certainly work with him. I can certainly engage with him very, very, very positively. It’s part of what has been said by him during his election campaign. It’s part of the things that’s been said recently. I consider him a remarkably great person.
ZAKARIA: But you don’t think he understands Afghanistan.
KARZAI: Surely he understands Afghanistan. Surely he’s a very intelligent person as well. And given the right reporting by his administration, given the right figures by this administration, he’ll figure out very quickly as to how things are in Afghanistan.
ZAKARIA: What are the issues? What are the things that you think that cause it?
KARZAI: Well, it’s -- there’s the question of civilian casualties. There’s the question of arrests of Afghans. There’s the question of home searches. These activities are seriously undermining the confidence of the Afghan people in the joint struggle that we have against terrorism, undermining their hope for the future.
It’s something that I’ve raised with my friends in the United States. And we hope to have a solution soon to this. We are talking about it.
I have given my word to our friends in the United States -- to Hillary Clinton, to Vice President Joe Biden and to others -- that as soon as Afghanistan is assured that such activity would not take place in Afghanistan, that our homes will be secure, that the conduct of operations will be done together with Afghan forces -- and in consultation with Afghan forces -- the fundamentals will remain very strong between us, and Afghanistan will continue to be a friend, will continue to be an ally.
But Afghanistan deserves respect and a better treatment.
ZAKARIA: Do you think Barack Obama should send the two to three brigades more of American forces that some people within the government are advocating?
KARZAI: What should have happened early on didn’t, unfortunately, happen. Now, the country is not in the same mood as it was in 2002.
So, any addition of troops must have a purposeful objective that Afghan people would agree with, that any addition of troops should effectively curb terrorism and terrorists crossing into the Afghan side, and that the Afghan people should feel secure.
In other words, the war on terrorism -- as I’ve said many, many times before -- is not in the Afghan villages. So, any addition of troops, if agreed upon between the Afghan government and the U.S. government, must be in order to defeat terrorism and to protect Afghans, and not cause them casualties.
So, this is a serious matter. And I think the U.S. government should discuss this with us and evaluate it. And then, upon agreement, we will decide about it.
ZAKARIA: Do you mean by that, Mr. President, that any additional troops should really be focused on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, rather than in the heartland of Afghanistan itself?
KARZAI: Definitely, the war on terrorism is not in the Afghan villages. It never was.
Afghanistan was the victim of terrorists -- before Sept. 11th, for many, many years, till Sept. 11 occurred. And the world then began to pay attention to Afghanistan -- which was good.
And the partnership between the Afghan people and the U.S. and others produced significant results, for us and world security. Now, when -- if there is a deployment, in consultation with the Afghan government, it should be in places where the fight against terrorism gets us a result, where terrorists are, where we see better security -- not in our villages. Definitely not in our villages.
ZAKARIA: Let’s talk about corruption, Mr. President. There are many reports -- and this is part of the reason that there is negative press about you -- there are many reports that your government is riddled with corruption. There are reports that, while you personally may not have been involved, certain members of your family, your brother, have been deeply involved in corruption. How do you answer those charges?
KARZAI: Yes. These charges have been there for the last at least three years, three years and a half. And I’d like to talk about this now, publicly. There were charges in the New York Times in 2004, just about a month-and-a-half before the presidential elections in Afghanistan, that my brother was involved in drugs -- or rumored to be involved in drugs.
Now, incidentally, Mr. Zakaria, this happened after I had a serious dispute with the U.S. and British ambassadors on a spraying from air on a poppy field in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan.
I considered that spraying, which was done without the permission of the Afghan government, as a violation of Afghan sovereignty and Afghan airspace.
And when I protested to that spraying of chemicals on our country, the next day or the day after that, an article appeared that my brother was involved in drugs. And indeed, I, at that time, did not see the connection.
But subsequent to that, when there was an incident of torture in Bagram and report in the press, and when I reacted to that -- again, within a day or two -- there was something again in the New York Times about my brother and a connection to drugs.
And this kept repeating. Whenever there was a disagreement, this kept repeating. So, my conclusion today is that perhaps it was because of that.
ZAKARIA: But let me clarify, because this is a very important point. You are suggesting that, because of political disagreements you have had, where you have objected to U.S. policy, some elements within the U.S. government -- perhaps within the U.S. Embassy or in Washington -- have been spreading this rumor. Is that correct?
KARZAI: My conclusion is that, yes, this was part of a political pressure tactic, unfortunately. But, well, I understand that, you know. For a country like us, and in a situation that we are in, that’s -- we can probably understand it.
ZAKARIA: But Mr. President, you’re surely not saying that there isn’t a problem of major and large-scale corruption in Afghanistan and in the Afghan government. That seems to be beyond doubt.
KARZAI: Yes, corruption is there. Sure. Corruption in the Afghan government is as much there as in any other Third World country. This country was completely destroyed. Afghanistan is a...
ZAKARIA: You’ve dropped -- you’ve dropped on Transparency International’s corruption index...
KARZAI: Yes, I’m coming to that.
ZAKARIA: Mr. President. You’ve dropped on Transparency International’s corruption index by 50 places...
KARZAI: I’m coming to that.
ZAKARIA: ... in the last year or two.
KARZAI: I’m coming to that. I’m coming to that. As any other Third World country. And one like Afghanistan that was completely destroyed by interventions from the Soviet Union, and then the neighbors, and then the subsequent abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew to complete misery and destruction.
Daily, we have judges dismissed. Daily we have officials dismissed. Daily we have people imprisoned. We have ministers dismissed. We have governors dismissed. We have governors in prison -- done sentence terms. We have ambassadors dismissed. We have ambassadors held to accountability.
It’s going on on a daily basis. The problem is that we don’t announce it. And that’s why it doesn’t become a knowledge for those of us in the international community. So, I guess we have to improve on that. But there is serious and systematic work going on in this regard.
ZAKARIA: We will be back in a moment with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) And we’re back with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan.
Mr. President, I know you’re a reading man. You read newspapers, magazines. So, let me ask you if you saw the article in last Sunday’s New York Times that said, leader of Afghanistan ‘finds himself hero no more.’ And there is a general tone of coverage in the West, where you have -- your star is shining a lot less brightly than it used to. Why do you think that is?
KARZAI: Well, there is a lot of -- I don’t like to call it propaganda. That’s a terminology I don’t like to use. But there’s a lot of misinformation and, indeed at times, disinformation from parts of the Western press against me, especially from American and British press.
And I know the reasons. We have issues with each other that you are talking about that I keep raising, sometimes publicly, and that perhaps angers our friends. And the response is in that form. But I understand it.
ZAKARIA: One of the things you have talked about -- and you talked about in your speech in Munich, and we have talked about in the past -- is the issue of talking to the Taliban. You have argued that it is not possible to imagine political stability in Afghanistan without some outreach to certain -- to some elements of the Pashtun community who identify themselves with the Taliban.
Now, when you have an attack as you just had last Wednesday, doesn’t it seem to make much more complicated your case and your argument? You are going to try and talk to people who are engaging in terrorist attacks a quarter of a mile away from where you live.
KARZAI: We have been fighting them for seven years. And the Afghan people have given great sacrifice in the past seven years, together with our allies in the international community, with blood and resources.
This will never be possible by military means alone, if you want to defeat them. There are thousands of them who are not ideologically our enemies.
There are thousands of them who don’t hate us or hate our way of life, who are not enemies to America, who are not enemies to the world, who just want to live in their own country in peace, who are frightened, are intimidated by bad behavior -- from the very beginning -- by some of the people that the coalition employed and by some of the people that the Afghan government had working on security issues.
So, we have to bring those elements back to Afghanistan who are not part of Al Qaeda, not part of terrorist networks, and who are accepting the Afghan constitution and who are willing to come back. That opportunity must be given to them.
ZAKARIA: Do you need the Americans to understand and to be more in favor of this policy? In other words, are you finding resistance from the U.S. government when you try to make some efforts to reach out to the Taliban?
KARZAI: Well, yes, I have occasionally found them not comprehending exactly what we are trying to do. Sometimes they fail to understand. And I have been having a very frank and complete engagement with our U.S. partners on this question.
When President Bush was in office, I had regular engagement with him on this question, and ... also with the secretary of State and with the secretary of Defense, and the U.S. officials here in Afghanistan.
ZAKARIA: Do you think that President Obama should follow through on something he said in the campaign, which is that, if he found actionable intelligence that there were Al Qaeda elements in Pakistan, he would be willing to authorize American troops in Afghanistan to cross the border and strike at those camps?
This would benefit you enormously, because, of course, a lot of those Al Qaeda elements in Pakistan use their bases in Pakistan to attack Afghans. So, do you think Obama has it right?
KARZAI: Well, attacking Al Qaeda hide-outs, Al Qaeda sanctuaries, Al Qaeda training grounds, Al Qaeda personnel, is a legitimate target.
But on the question of crossing troops from Afghanistan into Pakistan in pursuit of Al Qaeda personnel, or for the destruction of Al Qaeda hide-outs or training grounds or sanctuaries, this is something that the government of Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and the United States -- must work together and agree upon together, and then implement.
ZAKARIA: But do you in principle think it is a good idea as a policy matter?
KARZAI: It’s a very important -- it’s actually the most important component of our war against terrorism. And that’s exactly what I’ve been saying for seven years now, that the war on terrorism is not in Afghan villages, that Al Qaeda will not have, and does not have, a hiding place in Afghanistan anymore since the Taliban were driven out in 2001.Therefore, let’s go to the sanctuaries. Therefore, let’s go to the training grounds.
Therefore, let’s go to the financiers of them, and the ideological motivators of them wherever they are. And in that I’ll be a complete and full partner with the U.S. government, with President Obama, to getting it done.
ZAKARIA: What about Iran’s role in the region? Do you feel that Iran has been playing a helpful role or a harmful one?
Iran was helpful during the Bonn Conference, which set up the Afghan government. They were against the Taliban. But there are many reports now that the Iranian government has actually been helping the Taliban.
KARZAI: Iran has been playing a very positive role, right from the Bonn Conference till today. Both Iran and the United States have understood Afghanistan’s particular relationship with both countries.
Iran is a neighbor, and a country that shares language and religion with us, and culture. The United States of America is a partner and a strategic ally with us.
Therefore, the two countries have been told in clear words, by me, that we’d like them to put aside their differences and to begin to talk to each other. We find this in the interest of Afghanistan, and also in the interest of the region, that Iran and America begin to talk to each other. And we support that.
ZAKARIA: But when senior American officials say Iran is playing negative role in Afghanistan, is supporting the Taliban, you simply disagree with that.
KARZAI: We have heard those reports. I don’t think that’s a serious matter. What matters is to have our neighbors involved in peace-building in Afghanistan. What matters is to have Saudi Arabia involved in peace-building in Afghanistan. What matters is to have India and other countries in the region involved in Afghanistan for a constructive engagement, for rebuilding Afghanistan and for fighting terrorism.
ZAKARIA: How would you suggest that the American government, for example, or the British government, could help President Zardari establish the primacy of civilian control in Pakistan, and therefore deliver on some of these issues?
KARZAI: Well, first of all, the articulation of policies should be such that it supports him politically, rather than undermining him. Second, that democratic institutions should be supported and given the right backing.
Third, that the Pakistani establishment -- the military and the civil service, and all that -- they should be helped along with the elected officials of Pakistan to have the ability to conduct themselves towards an effective fight against terrorism.
Fourth, our allies should work between the countries in this region -- with the countries in this region -- to enhance confidence and boost cooperation.
ZAKARIA: We will be back in a moment with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) All right. Let me ask you, Mr. President, a final question that is certainly, probably on the minds of many Americans.
When do you imagine that American troops will be able to leave Afghanistan?
KARZAI: Americans were welcomed so wholeheartedly in Afghanistan by the Afghan people, that our history has no example of. Our history generally is not well inclined towards foreign troops. But the United States and our other allies were received with overwhelming goodwill and great expectations.
The delivery has been very good. The American taxpayer money has come to Afghanistan and has built our lives. Millions of our children are going to school. We have a health service that we could never imagine in another 30 years from now. The American blood has been shed in Afghanistan protecting Afghanistan and fighting against terrorism alongside other countries.
So, the Afghans are extremely, extremely grateful for that. And we will remain grateful forever. We are known to be a nation of a value that doesn’t forget one’s help to us.
The U.S. forces will not be able to leave soon Afghanistan, because the task is not over. We’ll have to defeat terrorism. We’ll have to enable Afghanistan to stand on its own feet.
We’ll have to enable Afghanistan to be able to defend itself and protect for the security. And that will also provide, by extension, security to the rest of the world.
Then the United States can leave. And at that time, the Afghan people will give them plenty of flowers and plenty of gratitude, and send them safely back home.
ZAKARIA: Hamid Karzai from Kabul, a great pleasure to talk to you, Mr. President.
KARZAI: Thank you very much, sir. It’s good to talk to you. A great interview.