Today's date:
Spring 2009

Stop Bombing Villages

Afghan President Hamid Karzai sat down to talk with Chicago Tribune correspondent Kim Barker in Kabul. The Tribune Co. is NPQ's syndication partner. Excerpts from the interview follow.

NPQ | What do you think about being described by the new American leadership as weak and spending too much time in a bunker?

Hamid Karzai | 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 the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States), backed fully by the Afghan people....And the Taliban and al-Qaida were defeated, without a fight, especially in southern parts of Afghanistan....We must now look back and find out why we are in a trench.

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 its 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 (insurgents') sanctuaries. We were ignored. For years I've been saying that the war on terrorism is not in Afghanistan, 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...(has been) committing extrajudicial killings in our country. The latest example was the day before yesterday in Khowst, where a man, a woman and a 12-year-old boy were killed. Were they al-Qaida? 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-Qaida, 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.

NPQ | What do you mean, the coalition hired thugs?

Karzai | 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.

NPQ | But the West is now talking about doing some sort of Awakenings movement (the mainly Sunni Arab fighters in Iraq who now serve the government) in Afghanistan, which would do precisely what you're talking about—empower these tribal groups.

Karzai | 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. 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.

NPQ | How will more troops solve the problems in Afghanistan?

Karzai | Sending more troops to the Afghan cities, to the Afghan villages, will not solve anything. Sending more troops to control the border is sensible. Sending more troops to help the Afghans regain the territories that we had, which by making terrible mistakes we lost to the Taliban, makes sense. That is where I need help. I don't need help anywhere else.

NPQ | But the US is talking about sending the bulk of 4,000 troops to Wardak and Logar provinces, just outside Kabul. What do you think about that?

Karzai | 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 (the southern province of) Helmand back under the control of the Afghan people and the Afghan law.

NPQ | Is there a deadline for foreign troops to leave Afghanistan?

Karzai | 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.

NPQ | Do you believe that your neighbor Pakistan is serious about the war on terrorism?

Karzai | 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 last December of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto) at the hands of terrorism, so I am sure he will do the right thing.

NPQ | What about the Pakistani civilian government's ability to control the country's powerful army and intelligence agencies?

Karzai | That's a different question. The intention's right with President Zardari. The ability is something we must all help (it achieve).

NPQ | What is the status right now of negotiations with the Taliban?

Karzai | 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.

NPQ | What do you think of President Obama?

Karzai | 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....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.

NPQ | 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?

Karzai | 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 is for them, and my work is for them.