Former President Hamid Karzai is in favor of a political confrontation with the Taliban. He holds a strong belief that the Afghan people will rise against the militant movement if they trample basic rights of Afghan people including right to education. He said America’s maltreating Afghan people fueled anti-US sentiments which then gave rise to the resurgence of the Taliban, for which he blames Pakistani establishment.
Russia Today has spoken with Former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai Kumar about a range of hot-button issues including the Taliban, Turkey’s future role in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s support for extremism, overarching role of China, Russia and India in maintaining regional stability, presented below:
Mr. President, it is great to talk to you, great to see you in Moscow again. Let me start with the question about American pullout, because over the last couple of years, you weren’t shy in saying that the Americans have outstayed their welcome. But there was a welcome in the beginning including a welcome from you, personally. Do you think, there was ever a good time to leave, given how they came into your country?
President Karzai: Well, they came in the aftermath of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, which got the sympathies of the whole world with them; the Afghan people too were waiting for such a moment of liberation.
Liberation from what?
President Karzai: Liberation from extremism, from violence, from terrorism, from a creeping invasion from a neighboring country and from suffering for such a longtime. We had pleaded with America before that and with Russia for that matter as well, and with Europe to come and help Afghanistan free itself. Then, the international community led by the United States and approved by the United Nations Security Council and even those countries which didn’t see eye to eye with the United States on many issues around the world, like Russia, like China, like Iran. They all welcomed and supported that decision of the United States and its allies to come to Afghanistan.
And, what did they change. When did you feel it?
President Karzai: And this led to an immediate success within a month and half, because the Afghan people wanted that success to happen and we begun to look forward with tremendous hopes towards a better future, and it did work. Everybody helped; the United States helped, Russia helped, the Muslim world helped; many other countries around the world helped. We launched on educating our people, boys and girls; we began to draft a Constitution that worked very well and got the approval of the Afghan people, a democratic constitution, a constitution with rights, a constitution with opportunities, a constitution where it was mandated that women should be at least 27 percent of the members of the Afghan parliament, and it worked. The most important thing, Afghanistan became the home for all Afghans; former communists, the Mujahideen, the clergy, leftists, rightists, women, tribal chiefs.
It was a dream come true but for a very short period of time, why was it so short?
President Karzai: That dream, as far as the Afghan people were concerned, continued very well in terms of economic progress, in terms of education, in terms of massive social change towards betterment that went all right, in terms of specially, let’s not forget, building of the Afghan state, rebuilding of the Afghan state; it worked very well, our flag began to fly all over the world. And embassies began to return to Afghanistan, life began to look very different. But, where it failed was in the conduct of the U.S. military in Afghanistan and the way they conducted the so-called war on terrorism. They told us that the sanctuaries were outside of Afghanistan but then they began to bomb Afghan villages and homes and get our people hurt and killed and homes destroyed. That is where the trend towards the negative began, and that is where my differences with the United States began and that’s where in the year 2006, this difference with the United States became public.
Now, I am sure you would agree with me, no complicated international problem has a simple solution. In fact there is never a choice a good or even mediocre options – it is usually a choice between bad and worst. How do you see the best case and worst case scenario for Afghanistan in a year or two from now?
President Karzai: I don’t have a worst case scenario for Afghanistan. I have the best case scenario for Afghanistan. I am seeing some trends towards that. Yes, we are at this moment in a very difficult spot. There is immense violence in Afghanistan; there is immense anger in our country. But, I also see the Afghans waking up to the new reality, and those who want to opt to stay in Afghanistan will make it better and the region, specially Russia, China, Iran and hopefully also very important, Pakistan which realizes and recognizes the dangers of continued instability in Afghanistan. This is a great opportune moment for Afghanistan to take a turn towards betterment and I am sure it will, I have noticed it, and of course I must not forget India, another great neighbor of Afghanistan, that has to recognize this.
You mentioned many actors, but you haven’t mentioned one very important actor just yet and it is the Taliban. Correct me if I am mistaken, but I think ever since the mid-1990s, your views on what that movement represents and whether it is good for your country have changed, what do you think about them now?
President Karzai: My views about them have never changed from the wrongs that were committed then and the wrongs that are committed now. My views of them are those of the Afghan people – meaning that they are the Afghan people. I rose against them when they were in power because I saw them violating the rights of Afghan people and I saw them allowing foreign influence into Afghanistan, individuals from Arab countries and official forces from Pakistan and disregarding the unity of Afghan people were the reasons I based my opposition and my resistance to them like many Afghans did. But when my government came, when the republic came, I gave them a pardon, they were pardoned, and many of them went and settled down in their homes and began a peaceful life. Then suddenly, the United States and some of their local elements began to attack Taliban homes and their villages and forced them to flee the country. It was this violence committed against Afghan people in the name of fighting the Taliban that led me to calling the Taliban our brothers, because they belong to our country, they are all our countrymen.
Well, they are your countrymen. But they have very rigid views on how other people in your country are supposed to live, especially girls and women. What do you think will happen to half of Afghan population once they come to power?
President Karzai: It is these views of them on how women should live in the country and education of girls and rights of women that I opposed then and continue to oppose now and I will be opposing in the future.
Mr. President, I am sorry for interrupting you. You have such an illustrious biography. You are one of the wisest men in your country and maybe abroad. I want to get a candid answer from you, not a diplomatic answer. Somebody who knows your country very well, do you think they will grant the same amount of tolerance?
President Karzai: They will not. But, we will not allow them that. We will have that difference of opinion. The struggle will be someone like me seeking the best rights for people, for children and girls. And Afghan girls should have the best education as girls elsewhere. If the Taliban continue to oppose that, this will be confronted; but, I want this confrontation to be political, not militarily.
Do they want it to be political?
President Karzai: They must agree to that, or they would be defeated. Afghan people will rise against them. Afghan people have given them an opportunity for peace; this means an opportunity to co-exist and to allow the country to progress. If they don’t allow that and continue to seek their own domination of Afghanistan, that will give rise to a national uprising, without a doubt and I will be one of those people.
If it wasn’t me but, let’s say, the parents of one of the schoolgirls who was killed tragically in that horrific school attack. I’m not implying that the Taliban did it. But the Taliban have a history of attacking women and girls. If it were them sitting in front of you and pondering whether they should send their other daughters to school. Would you have the gut to tell them that?
President Karzai: My own daughters are going to school in Afghanistan. They go to school right now. They go out and shop and play, they go to school. Because, we are attacked by those extremist elements and terrorists who don’t want us educated, we must add to our resolve to send our children and girls to school. We will never give up on that. I’m sure millions of Afghans won’t give up on that and we will challenge and defeat these terrorist forces with or without international community’s help with us.
I’m sure your girls have a better security than the most people in Afghanistan. Don’t think that makes a difference?
President Karzai: It doesn’t make a difference. They go to the same school in Kabul and they go to the markets. That physical security is more of an appearance rather than a reality when it comes to threats. I had security, but I was attacked many times. Security has to be mental, and that means a security we have in our resolve to continue the progress Afghanistan needs and that progress fundamentally lies in the Afghan girls and women be able to educate and go to work. And that is a fundamental right that I am seeking and will pursue further.
Mr. President, there is a geopolitical joking going on in the world right now as to who will strike a deal with Taliban movement. A number of countries including Russia have held talks. Do you think those efforts could yield a lasting result. Can the Taliban be trusted to stay true to their word?
President Karzai: It isn’t a question of trust. It’s the question of the application of efforts for peace in which they have an interest as well. The Taliban, even if we don’t like many aspects of what they have done to Afghanistan or what they think, are still the Afghan people, they are people like we are. They have children, families, schoolgirls. They have suffered like the rest of the country has suffered. They understand that they need peace. Therefore, the efforts Russia launched in November 2018 – that continued to 2019 with the convening of very significant intra-Afghan talks and last March when the Troika meeting was held in Moscow with participation of both Afghan sides, the Taliban and the republic – were very significant effort and I would ask that Russia continues this exercise wholeheartedly and surely we will have results.
Russia still lists the Taliban as a terrorist organization and for the record it’s the world’s deadliest terror group with almost 5,000 deaths attributed to it in 2019. That’s three times more than Daesh in the same year. Do you think any law-abiding country should be talking to terrorists or labeling any group as terrorist given how politically charged that word is?
President Karzai: Well, the Taliban being listed as terrorist by the United Nations is a consequence of their action. And everybody is trying to talk to them, because there is no alternative. Things went wrong and they began to reemerge and part of the population went with them. The answer is not continuing to fight. The answer is to find a solution and bring a solution. That is what Russia has done and we appreciate it and we want it continued in fullest.
One of the reasons that Kremlin is pursuing those talks is because the calculation here is that the Taliban is essentially the lesser of evil. As well, they are holding on to the Afghan territory. They serve as a bulwark against other groups including Daesh and jihadist groups which have regional expansionist plans to go to Central Asia and perhaps to Russia. Whereas the Taliban say they have no ambitions beyond your country. Strategically and tactically, do you think that is an accurate calculation on the part of Kremlin?
President Karzai: Kremlin’s calculation to bring about security and stability in Afghanistan is the fundamental to addressing this issue. Once you have peace and stability in Afghanistan and a government that governs the whole country, the threats that can be posed to Russia and to the region automatically go away.
I mentioned the school attack in May. That was not an isolated incident because according to the UN mission in Afghanistan, the number of attacks and casualties has significantly increased since the Americans announced their decision to pull their troops out. How do you personally explain such a sharp growth in violence?
President Karzai: Violence has been at its highest in the past few years, unfortunately. And Daesh was responsible for some of the most horrible attacks, especially against schoolgirls and the most vulnerable and people in the cities. Daesh is an entirely foreign phenomenon. The Taliban are rooted in our country, they come from our villages. But Daesh is entirely foreign to our country. Therefore Daesh must be treated as an extremely violent terrorist group and it is upon all of us to fight against it.
Daesh, or the so-called Islamic State, emerged in your country when the U.S. had full control of Afghan air space and land mass. You called it an American failure in the past. But putting diplomatic ambiguities and niceties aside, was it truly a hapless failure or an intended outcome?
President Karzai: That’s a question we ask every day, if this was the result of failure of the U.S. policy in Afghanistan, an unintended consequence that we are facing. But it was not that, and then the United States has to explain itself to the rest of the world as to what happened.
What will this explanation will do for you and the rest of the world?
President Karzai: An honest answer by the United States, an honest engagement of the United States with the rest of the world will make it easier for us to work together and to find solutions.
While Americans want to disengage from Afghanistan, there are other regional players who are looking to increase their influence. I want to ask specifically about Turkey and its ambitions to provide security for Kabul airport and possibly something on a broader scale. Do you think that’s a good idea for Afghanistan people as well as Turkey’s NATO partners?
President Karzai: Afghanistan is the home of Afghans and it is for us to provide and protect our home and our country. It should be the Afghans doing this. If it is for a temporary period when Afghanistan needs that sort of service, Turkey and or any other friends of Afghanistan are welcome. But in the long term, it is responsibility of Afghan people and no foreign force should be in Afghanistan protecting any place.
There is a saying in many languages “nothing is more permanent than temporary”. The Soviets and Americans came to your country on a short term basis, but they stayed for decades. Do you think if the Turks come, they will leave as agreed?
President Karzai: We don’t know about that. The Turks will not come in the large numbers that the Soviets or Americans did. The Turks are talking about the airport in Kabul, about 600 or 700 people. That’s also not determined, that’s a speculation. The principle here should be that Afghans should be able to protect their country and to provide security and we have the capacity and we should do it.
I want to ask about Pakistan. Your own family history is very intimately connected to that country. In one point, they provided refugee and then your father was assassinated. Do you think Pakistan’s game in Afghanistan at this point of time is lined with the interests of people in your country?
President Karzai: They have to align that with the interests of people in our country. And they have begun to speak in that direction, but they must prove that. Pakistan has been an ally of the West and Nato from the cold war in the promotion of religious extremism against former Soviet Union. Then we were fighting for independence from the Soviet Union. So our independence struggle was one thing, but using our struggle for independence from the Soviet occupation by Pakistan and the U.S. and others to promote extremism was another. It was at our cost. We are a Muslim country, not an extremist and fundamentalist country. We paid the price and we still continue to pay the price for Pakistan. And this is our most important demand when it comes to relations with Pakistan. For Pakistan to be hoping to be friends with Afghanistan, they must give up the use of extremism as a tool of policy that they had adopted during the time of the Soviet Union. Then, the Afghan people respond very positively. Afghan people are very grateful to Pakistani people for the home they provided us when they were refugees. But they have equally strong complaint and anger at the way the government of Pakistan used extremism to hurt Afghanistan. And look where we are; look at the suffering of Afghan people, it is because of that. So, a civilized relationship is the fundamental need of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
We Russians like to say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes and to some extent it applies to the old Zbigniew Brzezinski’s thesis that of Eurasia as the grand chessboard. With the economic rise of China and geostrategic rebounding of Russia and Afghanistan being in the middle, this region is gaining importance and it is seen as the center of the new world order. Theoretically, that may offer your people lots of benefits. But practically and historically, that has brought you a lot of misfortunes. Which one is more likely going forward?
President Karzai: If we Afghan people grasp our immensely important strategic location well which has been for the last three hundred years, we are in the middle of a region in which Afghanistan is neighbored with the superpowers of the day. Therefore, those who are competing with these superpowers from far away definitely will come and look around at our territory for that competition. Afghan people must handle this more accurately and capably. We must understand the value of the soil and the location we are living in and use that especially in promoting confidence and trust with our neighbors and major powers in our region and have them with us as allies for stability.
One of Brzezinski’s thoughts was that no Eurasian challenger should be allowed to emerge, because then it will be trying to dominate the whole of Eurasia and therefore challenge the American preeminence. The way both Russia and China are seeing the region and the world now is a bit different. They see themselves as different poles that can lift up strength in the middle. Is that realistic?
President Karzai: That is. I had a very good conversation with the late Brzezinski in 2013 over dinner in Washington during my last visit to the United States. I had a conversation with him on the use of religious extremism that they used and on all aspects of global politics. In this region which is already showing to be the most important region in the world in terms of economic output and global significance of power projection and all other aspects. A cooperative environment between Russia and China and hopefully with India eventually will be the greatest factor of global stability and security. So it is imperative upon this region, especially Russia and China, to work together.
Did Brzezinski see it as a good outcome for his own country?
President Karzai: That may not be seen as a good outcome for the United States. That’s why the United States is in this region and was in Afghanistan. We hope the US will see this as inevitability in the world today and approach it wisely rather than through negative competition.