Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, will give up office after the Afghan elections in April, after having served two five-year terms. In this “unusually emotional” farewell conversation with two reporters from the Washington Post, Karzai reflects on why it was that things went south with the United States:
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“The relationship has been at a low point for a long time, at least since 2007, as far as Afghanistan is concerned and the Afghan president is concerned. It began to deteriorate with the civilian casualties and the neglectful attitude toward my complaints about it. In 2007, we had the most serious incident of civilian casualties in Herat province of Afghanistan, when things turned very difficult between us, and since then it has not recovered.
“Of course, there other issues as well, secondary to civilian casualties. The private security firms, the parallel government structures, the contracts given to people, to individuals, causing corruption. And, of course, in a deeper way, reflecting a deeper lack of agreement between us, the way the so-called war on terror was fought. The sanctuaries were left alone outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the civilian villages were attacked. So when I say civilian casualties and when I say the incorrect strategy, the attack on the Afghan villages, that is exactly the crux of the difficulties.’’
On whether he feels as though the United States has been against him in Afghanistan:
“Well, I’m not going to characterize it or describe it as against or for Afghanistan — that the U.S. knows better. I’m going to characterize it as not having the right policy or the right approach — not behaving like a partner with us. So it’s a matter of policy, not a matter of judgment of their inner thinking.
On what he would say to Americans who wonder whether Afghanistan is worth more investment in troops and treasure:
“My message there is very clear. The American president has said they are not here for Afghanistan. So it’s not the American blood shed for the Afghanistan or the American resources spent for Afghanistan. If you go to President Obama’s speeches, he repeatedly says that he’s here for the sake of American interests, for the safety of America, for the security of America — that they are here in Afghanistan helping Afghanistan in order to help America. Therefore, it’s not for us — it’s for a cause that America holds dear.
“And in order to help that cause — the American cause of security and prosperity — the United States came here in 2001 to Afghanistan, and the Afghan people received them with open arms. And we succeeded initially. So it’s not for us — it’s for the U.S. security and for the Western interests.
Where we have received an assistance that helped Afghanistan in the process we are grateful, we are happy. Where we were taken as numbers, that, of course, causes us to protest and to ask for change, and that’s what I did.’’
On whether this is Afghanistan’s war:
“If you pay attention to the statements of U.S. officials and leaders, they say ‘America’s war, America’s war,’ they never say Afghanistan’s war. So the purpose was American, and for that American purpose, or larger Western purpose, they came to Afghanistan. We the Afghans found common ground in that purpose.
“The common ground was that both of us wanted to be free of terrorism and extremism and to be secure and stable. Now, part of that was achieved for us, the other part was not. And the part that was most important was not achieved, which was security for the Afghan people and protection of Afghan life. And that’s where I have disagreed and that’s where I continue to disagree and raise my voice.
And that’s why I have a condition for the BSA — the launch of the peace process — because I no longer believe that the continuation of this situation in the name of the war on terror in our villages is going to bring an end to fighting in Afghanistan. I’ve said this a long time back, and I’ll continue to insist on that.’’ . . .
On his decision in February to release dozens of Taliban captives from a prison at Bagram air base, despite vehement objections from the United States, which had captured the prisoners and judged them too dangerous to set free:
“This is not done to receive the good will of the Taliban. This is done to bring justice to people who have been imprisoned without a reason, who are mostly Afghan citizens from Afghan villages, who were taken during night raids, who the Afghan judicial system has not found guilty, who the Afghan intelligence have no report on, no intelligence on. This is justice, justice for the Afghan people, and I believe, firmly, that Bagram has in a very serious way violated the rights of the Afghan people. The existence of that prison is a very unfortunate thing for Afghanistan, and has thrown a very serious difficulty at our relationship with America. . . .
“We are releasing those that we find not guilty — with or without the U.S. objection.’’
On whether remnants of al-Qaeda are still present in Afghanistan, and on whether the United States has succeeded in its mission to defeat the terrorist group:
“When the U.S. insisted on having the freedom to go and launch operations [as a condition of the agreement over a post-2014 troop presence], I said ‘Why — why do you need to go after Afghan villages after you have the BSA?’ This was one of the most serious issues in discussing the BSA. . . .
“They said [the reason would be] if there is al-Qaeda. I asked, ‘What do you mean by al- Qaeda? Do you mean a large number of people, of individuals, of groups?’ They said probably less than 100. Actually, our national security adviser told us they were actually talking about a number of people between 35 to 40, 45.
So if that’s the number, then they’re no threat to us or to the United States. . . .
“I would not say that they are defeated, because I don’t even know if they exist. So it’s an area that I’m not well informed about. So al-Qaeda to me is more a myth than a reality. They have no headquarters, they have no — I can’t talk about the defeat of something that I don’t see. If they are real, I hope they are defeated, and we will work together to defeat them, if that’s true — if they’re there.’’
On whether Afghanistan is doing better, overall, than it was when he took office:
“Well, Afghanistan is a lot better than it was 10 years ago. Life has improved considerably here. A lot of Afghans are doing very, very well, which is great. Our institutions are growing, our democracy is growing, you see our press and the freedoms that we have.
“Part of it was the work of the Afghan government, part of it was my own work, with dedication toward democracy and the freedom of the press, and human rights and all of that. Part of it was definitely the contribution of America and the countries helping us, for which we are grateful.
“But you cannot be a happy family if five members of that family are doing very well and [in] another part of the family, the same family, there are wounded and killed. No matter how rich you become, how happy you become, when you have suffering in one corner of the room, of the same house, you are never happy. So that’s why my insistence on the peace process.’’
On whether security is worse now than it was 10 years ago:
“Yes, surely, in parts of the country, yes, it’s no secret.’’
Why does the Taliban remain so strong as a fighting force?
“I think I earlier said that the strategy was wrong, that it causes all the problems that we have, and the continuation or perpetuation of insecurity or conflict if we call it. . . . I believe there is no war to be fought in Afghanistan. I believe that much of the conflict is a creation in which the Afghans suffer, and I want to undo that creation by insisting on the launch of the peace process.
“The United States came here to fight extremism and terrorism and al-Qaeda. The Afghan people found common cause with it. And that cause was there for some time, and then it began to weaken and eventually disappear, because of casualties, because of lack of attention to sanctuaries, because of conducting the war in Afghan villages where this fight wasn’t to be found.
“Why is America here? I can’t answer for America. The American president says they are here to fight extremism and terrorism and to secure America. If the way toward securing America is raiding Afghan homes, fighting in Afghan villages — well, that will not secure America. In my view, securing America from extremism is going to the sanctuaries, to the motivational factors, to the financiers, to all the elements that promote a threat against America, and that threat is not in Afghan villages.’’
On what a better relationship between the United States and Afghanistan might look like:
“What I’ve told the American government, the U.S. president and others, repeatedly, is: Let’s have a relationship of a tenant in the second floor of a house. That the family down there that has rented a room to you stays within its culture, within its religious practice, within its daily labor and earning of bread and butter. That you have a second entrance to the second floor of the house, that you have your business there, that you have your binoculars watching out of the windows towards the outside, but that you never interfere or cause discomfort or harm to the family downstairs.
“So we are not in a position as a nation to stop you from what you are doing. We just want to be protected and live happily among ourselves — and be friends with you, provided that being friends with you brings us peace and stability and not war.’’
On whether the United States has been guilty of cultural misunderstanding:
“They have not tried to attack our culture or way of life directly. They have caused bodily harm to our people. They have not brought peace to us. They have not brought fulfillment of the objective for which they say they are here.’’
On what he called his worst day in office, after an American air attack in September killed civilians in Kunar province:
“The worst of it was when I went to visit a little girl in the French hospital who had no face, who was 4 ½ years old, who had no face, completely blown off from the chin up to the eyes. She was blinded — her eyes were there but were blinded. Her arm was also not there. And she had lost the whole family, the entire family, 14 of them, in the bombing in Kunar. And that day . . . [note: there is a 39-second pause as Karzai struggles with his emotions] . . . that day, I wished she were dead and not alive, so she could be buried with her parents and brothers and sisters.
“She is walking now, she is in America. We arranged for her to be taken to America. She’s there now. And I spoke to her, some days ago. I called the family with whom she was. She’s still blind; she will not be a normal girl again. They’re trying to conduct plastic surgery on her. The lady that looks after her, an Afghan lady, says she keeps asking about her younger brother who was 3 years old when they were killed.”
And the loss of Afghan soldiers, the Afghan people as a whole, our soldiers, our troops, the Taliban are Afghans too. All Afghans died, in a war that’s not ours.
“There are lots of other stories, lots of other events. Extremely hard for me to accept. . . .
On an effort to raise concerns with President Obama during a 2010 visit:
“I went to Washington and I carried that picture with me. It was a picture of a night raid where an extremely poor family — it’s night and it’s dark in that picture, a frightened, weak, afraid woman sitting there with two or three children around them — and the hand of the man lying there. . . . And this frightened family, looking into nothing, just gazing, with fright and fear. And I took that picture to the president of the United States , and I said, ‘President, this is what I’m trying to end, the intimidation of Afghan families at night, in the name of fighting the Taliban.’ . . .
“Ask him, ask him if remembers that picture. So we are really an angry people. I am — I can speak for myself.’’
On why he says this isn’t Afghanistan’s war:
“How can it be ours when a U.S. plane bombs a truck carrying a family? Would you do that in America? Would you shoot a family into total destruction in America in the name of fighting a terrorist in an American village? Would the U.S. Army do the same in America?’’
On his decision to become more publicly forceful in his criticism of the United States:
“I did not get attention when I spoke behind closed doors, when I used dialogue and persuasion and urging for a change. Then I had no other weapon to resort to, no other means to resort to, but to speak publicly and get attention that way. In other words, I was forced to yell.’’
On whether he believes his approach was effective:
“Yes . . . we have now private security groups disbanded, we have fewer attacks on Afghan homes, we have fewer bombardments of our villages. The landscape is different today.’’
On whether he still sees any part of the conflict as Afghanistan’s war:
“No, that stopped when the sanctuaries were not paid attention to.
“I don’t want to see Afghanistan at war with the Taliban. I want peace. . . . If there is a war, it comes from somewhere. . . . If this is an insurgency, then the insurgency becomes a local matter, an Afghan issue. So what are the foreign troops doing here? And then it is for the Afghans to settle down the difficulty that we have among us. But if this is terrorism and radicalism and al-Qaeda, then we all know the origins of it. So why should Afghans suffer continuously for years in a war that we were the victims [of] the first day and that we are the victims [of] today as well?’’
On the challenges facing Afghanistan, and the Afghan National Security Forces, as the United States withdraws its troops and the level of foreign assistance begins to decline sharply:
“Foreign assistance brought an expensive way of life to Afghanistan. We will have to end this expensive way of life with or without the presence of the international community here, with or without the presence of the BSA here, with or without the strategic partnership agreement between us and America and others. This way of life is not sustainable. Afghanistan has to live by its means.
“Now if on top of that, there is an assistance to us, good enough. But if not, a poor family has to find ways to live by its means, and to work hard to do better. This has been a concern as well, and for a long time we’ve been discussing — discussing, discussing — with America the huge salaries they have brought, this luxury that we cannot afford.
“The ANSF for now is needed for Afghanistan at the level as it is, but as we move forward, definitely Afghanistan will have to rethink the size of its forces, the structure of its forces, whether we should go back to a drafting system, the system of service to this country, as we did before, whether we should have a combination of conscription and volunteers. . . . These are all things that we have discussed.
“I would be happy with an army that Afghanistan can pay for, and with an army that is mobile and efficient and well-trained. So efficiency and affordability are the two main objectives here.’’
On whether the American war in Afghanistan has been worthwhile overall:
“I am of two hearts here. When I see good, I am in approval. When I see the losses of Afghan people, our children, maimed and killed, I’m in disapproval. So I cannot give you a simple answer of yes or no. It’s very difficult. Maybe I can give you an answer of yes or no two, three, or five years from now, when my emotions have subsided. Right now I’m full of emotions.’’
On what the world should know about him:
“The world either doesn’t know my intentions or my way of life. If it’s deliberate, then of course it’s political. If it’s not deliberate, then it’s a lack of understanding. I’m not a worldly person by the way, by the standards of today’s world. I am not street smart. I believe in certain things, and I work for it regardless of whether I’m liked or not liked by those who are in power. In other words, I am a pacifist, I am a total, absolute pacifist. I don’t believe in war, and I don’t believe in guns, and I don’t believe in politics. I think it’s dirty.’’
On whether these have not been good qualities for a wartime president:
“Probably right. Probably right. That’s what I am.’’
On whether he regrets having been president:
“No. . . . I did my work for this country, but I did not abandon my principles, which were peace and solution through talks.’’
On his advice to his 7-year-old son:
“I keep telling my son to be very pacifist. I keep telling him every day. As a 7-year-old, he likes to have toys, and surely he likes to have a gun toy, but I’ve never allowed him one. Never. I’d rather urge him to do more painting — he’s a good painter — and to do calligraphy and things like that.’’
On his message to Americans:
“To the American people, give them my best wishes and my gratitude. To the U.S. government, give them my anger, my extreme anger.’’
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“Transcript: Hamid Karzai says U.S.-Afghan relationship ‘has been at a low point for a long time,” Washington Post, March 2, 2014. The interview was conducted March 1 by Kevin Sieff, the Post’s Afghanistan bureau chief, and Douglas Jehl, the foreign editor. See also the accompanying piece by Kevin Sieff, “Interview: Karzai says 12-year Afghanistan war has left him angry at U.S. government,” Washington Post, March 2, 2014.