December Issue 2003
Interview: Hamid Karzai
“Terrorists are getting support in Pakistan”
– Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan
Visitors to the Gul Khana Palace in Kabul, where President Hamid Karzai has his office, have to pass through three security cordons manned by members of the newly organised Afghan army as well as US soldiers. The president’s office, surrounded by heavily armed American guards, is situated in a recently renovated part of the once grand structure which was badly damaged by two decades of war and civil strife.
Mr. Karzai’s movements have been restricted after last year’s attempt on his life in his hometown, Kandahar. But the Pashtun leader, who was installed as president after the rout of the conservative Taliban regime by the US-led coalition forces two years ago, dismissed suggestions of any major threat to his government. In a wide-ranging interview with Newsline at the Gul Khana Palace, the Afghan leader spoke of the achievements of his two-year-old administration and the challenges he continues to face as president of Afghanistan.
“The situation in the country is far more stable and we are fully capable of dealing with any threat,” he maintained, waving aside the suggestion that more coalition forces needed to be deployed. “We do not need more troops, but a better intelligence network to deal with the issue of terrorism.”
President Hamid Karzai contended that Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the ousted Taliban regime, could be hiding in Pakistan’s border city of Quetta which, in his opinion, has become the base for launching terrorist operations in Afghanistan.
Mr. Karzai asked President Musharraf to restrain hardline Pakistani Islamic groups from providing sanctuary and support to the “terrorists” who were responsible for the recent upsurge in violence in Afghanistan which has left more than 400 dead over the last four months. “Afghanistan is affected by terrorism mainly from outside the country,” he said, demanding that the Pakistan government take immediate action, particularly against clerics who, he alleged, were openly recruiting volunteers from madrassas in Balochistan and the NWFP which are governed by pro-Taliban radical Islamic groups. Mr. Karzai alleged that the killers of a French UN worker were paid 50,000 rupees by militants operating from Pakistan.
Although he disagreed with the contention that the war in Iraq had distracted the United States and the international community from Afghanistan, he admitted that the financial support pledged by the international community for the rebuilding of his country was slow to arrive. “The efforts to rebuild Afghanistan would have moved faster if we had enough assistance,” he said.
The Afghan leader identified terrorism, narcotics and warlordism as the principal challenges to his administration. Afghanistan has reemerged as the biggest producer of poppy and the west’s main supplier of drugs. He accused the Taliban of using drug money to finance their guerrilla operation. “A direct link exists between terrorism and narcotics, and there is need for an international effort to deal with this menace,” he said.
With the loya jirga (grand assembly) scheduled to meet in two weeks to debate the draft constitution, factional war among pro-government warlords is becoming increasingly worrisome for Mr. Karzai. The ratification of the draft document, which envisages a presidential form of government and is seen as a compromise between pro-west liberals and the conservative Islamic elements, would pave the way for general elections in June next year. Mr. Karzai, who intends to stand in the election for president, is well aware that the ratification of the draft is crucial for his political future. But the factional strife may create a serious hurdle in its passage. “I will stand in the election only if the loya jirga approves a system in which the president is the sole power centre,” he declared.
Mr. Karzai had conciliatory words for supporters of the Taliban, saying they were Afghans as well, entitled to live in their homes peacefully. “The Taliban also belong to Afghanistan and are part of this country,” he said. “There is a difference between terrorists and the Taliban. Those indulging in narcotics and encouraging destruction are terrorists and not the Taliban.” He confirmed that Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister who was freed by the American forces in Afghanistan last month, has offered to cooperate with his government.
Over to President Karzai…
A: I am satisfied with some aspects and not satisfied with certain others. I am very happy with the economy. Last year we had surplus wheat production. And never before have so many Afghan children attended school. Twelve million children have been vaccinated against measles, six million against smallpox. The country is experiencing democracy and Afghanistan has now become a home for all Afghans. There is complete freedom of press. In fact, our press is probably much more free than some of our neighbours’. We are in the process of formulating a constitution and have met all the deadlines set by the Bonn process. Also, reconstruction has picked up very well this year. We are inaugurating one of the major roads from Kabul to Kandahar. The currency is stable and the inflation rate almost zero.
But we have problems too. Afganistan is still affected by terrorism coming mainly from outside the country. It is increasingly affected by narcotics production, which is partly an Afghan problem, partly an international problem. Afghanistan is still plagued by warlordism which is entirely an Afghan problem. We still do not have a capable administration which can deliver services to the country efficiently. There is corruption in the bureaucracy. We do not have institutions to replace those that were destroyed. What we must immediately address are the problems of terrorism, narcotics, factional fighting and warlordism.
Q: The international community had promised to help rebuild Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Have those promises been fulfilled? Do you think the war in Iraq has shifted the world’s attention from Afghanistan?
A: We are quite happy with the attention that Afghanistan has received. It may not be enough in monetary terms, but the international community has been very kind to us in the past two years. We have received tremendous encouragement from all over the world — from America, Europe, Japan. The United States has just given us 1.8 billion dollars more and that is a good thing. I don’t believe Iraq has distracted US attention from Afghanistan: it has remained focussed on Afghanistan. And President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have both given me assurances that Afghanistan will continue to be given attention.
Perhaps we can question whether we have had enough assistance to rebuild Afghanistan quickly. But we are happy with whatever we have received so far.
Q: How serious is the Taliban-led insurgency in parts of Afghanistan?
A: There are no insurgent Taliban. There is no insurgency. There is terrorism. For example, the two terrorists who killed the French UN worker in Afghanistan were given money to commit that crime. The man who pulled the trigger received 50,000 rupees. For 50,000 rupees they killed the best aid worker, one who wanted to be buried in Afghanistan. Other Afghans wanted to burn the killers’ houses but we stopped them. The sad thing is, Afghanistan is so vulnerable that those who want to hurt Afghanistan can use this [money]. Poverty is still rampant and there are people who would commit crime for money. We are affected by terrorism. Afghans dislike it. People are extremely angry with the terrorists. Our brothers in Pakistan should do more to stop this menace. They are getting support in Pakistan. I cannot say they are getting support from Pakistan, but they are getting support from people who are enemies of President Musharraf and Pakistan. They are enemies to both of us. Everybody knows that terrorists are being recruited from the madrassas in Pakistan. We want the government of Pakistan to put a stop to this.
Q: You had a developed a very good chemistry with President Musharraf. What has happened now?
A: I still have this chemistry with President Musharraf. I spoke to him only day before yesterday. My wife called Begum Musharraf to convey Eid greetings. We have a very good and close family relationship. I have called him very often and we have been exchanging gifts. We want Pakistan to recognise that those who are trying to hurt Afghanistan are also going to hurt Pakistan. Their actions will have immediate repercussions for Pakistan. Terrorists are nobody’s friends. If terrorists are bent upon destroying Afghanistan’s reconstruction, stability and peace, [this, in turn, would] also destroy Pakistan’ stability and economic progress. That is why we want Pakistan to take much stronger action against the clergy involved in recruiting militants from madrassas with the cognizance of local authorities.
Q: Does President Musharraf realise this?
A: President Musharraf recognises this danger and he spoke to me about it. He realises that if this situation continues, it might invite the anger of the international community as well, and hurt Pakistan too.
Q: Where are Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden now?
A: We got a call about ten days ago from our sources in Quetta that Mullah Omar was seen at a mosque near Saleem complex in the city. This is the first time I have said this publicly. I know where the Saleem complex is. I have lived in Quetta myself for many years.
Q: Does al-Qaeda still pose a threat to Afghanistan?
A: No, terrorism has no base in Afghanistan. It came from outside
Afghanistan and was sustained from without. The threat is still from outside Afghanistan.
Q: Afghanistan’s draft constitution is going to be debated by a loya jirga next month. Are you happy with the draft document?
A: This draft constitution has been widely debated and reviewed by many people. First there was room for a prime minister also in the constitution, but after a lengthy debate it was decided that this would create two power centres and not be conducive to stability. A constitution should be built around one power centre. The draft will now be placed before the loya jirga. The response for the elections to the loya jirga has been tremendous. Khost, for example, had the highest turn-out, with about 95 per cent participation.
Q: Are you going to stand in the election for president?
A: If the loya jirga approves the presidential system, yes, I will stand in the elections.
Q: Are you confident of victory?
A: I am not sure about that. Let’s see how the Afghan people feel about me, whether they vote for me or not.
Q: How safe do you feel about travelling in Afghanistan, particularly since the attack on your life in Kandahar?
A: I feel very safe. I have had many narrow escapes during the struggle against the Soviet forces.
Q: The infighting among the warlords has led to a huge number of casualties. How are you going to deal with this issue?
A: Yes, the infighting has been terrible. It’s long-term issue, but we have initiated certain steps that are being implemented one by one. Institution-building is much better now than it was a year ago.
Q: How is the disarmament campaign proceeding?
A: Disarming the warlords is our highest priority. The campaign has been very succesful in several places. We have undertaken disarmament in the north and in the south. Next it’s going to be Herat. But I am not happy with the pace so far. It should be speedy and more effective.
Q: Do you want more international troops to be deployed in Afghanistan to deal with terrorism and insurgency?
A: More troops will not help. We are not in a state of war. We are facing terrorism, and that can be tackled with better intelligence and better coordination with Pakistan.
Q: The insurgents have started targeting international aid workers and the UN has suspended its operations in several areas after the French UN worker was killed. How has relief work and reconstruction been affected in the wake of such attacks?
A: The main objective of the terrorists is to disrupt reconstruction. But they have not been successful.
Q: Do you believe the Taliban still pose a threat to your government?
A: What do you mean by the Taliban? Ordinary Taliban are also people of Afghanistan. They have emerged from the madrassas but they are our people. They are part of this country. They can go back to the madrassas and resume their religious studies. We respect them. But there is a vast difference between terrorists and the Taliban. Those who are indulging in narcotics trade and terrorism, those are the terrorists, not the Taliban.
Q: Are you in contact with former Taliban foreign minister Abdul Wakil Muttawakil after he was freed last month?
A: He sent me a letter and offered reconciliation. He is an Afghan like all other Afghans. I meet my countrymen every day and probably one day he will come to see me too. He is welcome. Those who do not want to take part in terrorism, those who do not want to hurt Afghanistan, those who want to see Afghanistan prosper, are welcome. But those handful who have committed crimes against our country are not welcome.
Q: How hopeful are you about Afghanistan’s future?
A: I am very hopeful.
The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.