"There has to be peace now"

In an interview, Afghan President Hamid Karzai says he's ready to talk with the Taliban

Published February 1, 2010 2:02PM (EST)

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai   (AP/Ibrahim Usta)
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (AP/Ibrahim Usta)

At the Afghanistan conference in London, you -- as well as other participants -- spoke of reconciliation with the Taliban. Could you envision receiving Mullah Omar on the red carpet at the presidential palace in Kabul?

Mullah Omar is first and foremost an Afghan, and we want all Afghans to return. Afghanistan is a democratic country, but it is also an Islamic country and the Taliban know that. If they accept our constitution, it will be their constitution, too. We welcome all Afghans back to their country with this little bracket of not being part of al-Qaida or the terrorist networks.

Is the renunciation of al-Qaida a prerequisite for reconciliation or is that something that can come as a result of talks?

The rejection of al-Qaida and terrorist networks is an absolute prerequisite.

You have suggested that Taliban leaders should be removed from United Nations terrorist lists in order to allow the initiation of talks with them. But why should the international community allow the same people back into Afghanistan who they sent soldiers into the country to get rid of?

Because they didn't get rid of them. There has to be peace now! It's a process that the UN must see through. And we will see as to how to involve the UN. We have requested that the UN take some people off the list. They have done that and we are grateful. We will also request that they remove more, and we feel that is good for the peace process.

What is needed for a successful reconciliation program?

It must have two main components: Reintegration and reconciliation. The reintegration is for the thousands of Taliban soldiers and village boys in our country who have been driven out of their homes -- either by fair means or by intimidation, by bad behavior on the part of NATO forces or by bad behavior from Afghan forces -- and who do not stand ideologically against the Afghan people or the international community. They must be persuaded by all means to return.

And who does the second group comprise of?

Then there is the political structure of the Taliban, which has its own environment of relations with the rest of the world and the question of al-Qaida and the terrorist networks. Our neighbors and the international community will be involved in this. That's going to take a lot more effort.

How can you trust a Talib who agrees to abandon his alliance with al-Qaida?

I think it is a small fraction of the Taliban who are actually in contact with al-Qaida. But within the mainstream, the whole of the movement -- and even at the higher levels of their command structure -- there are people who don't know al-Qaida, there are people who have never seen Osama bin Laden and who don't even understand what al-Qaida is up to.

The reconciliation program has already existed for years, but it has failed so far. Why do you suddenly expect it to be successful now?

The new thing is that the international community now understands how important (the reconciliation program is). New is that the United States, Europe and Japan are willing to contribute to it, and we have the support of our brothers in Saudi Arabia. We hope that King Abdullah will personally assume a prominent role in leading and supporting the peace process.

The international community, especially your most powerful protectors, the Americans, have lodged serious allegations against you. At issue are bad governance, corruption and nepotism. Have these persistent allegations changed your relationship to the West?

Some political and media circles in America and Britain were clearly very keen to have me replaced by mostly unfair means, but the Afghan people decided differently. This didn't change our relationship, but it did make me wiser.

Do you still even have control over your country?

There are regions that are under the control of the Taliban. But where we are, we are strong. We deliver services and issue instructions. And I can dismiss or appoint anybody I want. The same Western press that called me the "Mayor of Kabul" without reach in the country, overnight began calling me an all-powerful president who caused fraud in the votes, had cheated in the votes and had people in government working for him all across Afghanistan to rig an election.

Which image did you prefer -- that of Mayor of Kabul or election-rigger?

None of it was true -- neither the Mayor of Kabul, nor the fraudulent elections. We are a legitimate government. We are a Third World country. We have poverty, war and poor education opportunities. We have a lack of capacity and a lack of money. So how we function is in accordance with the environment which we have. And that's the better description.

The U.S. has since acknowledged your re-election, and even your best-known American critic, Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, now says he is looking forward to working with the new government. Do you still trust him?

When the war began in 2001, the Afghan people had tremendous expectations. Back then, they really believed the arrival of America and its allies would bring peace to Afghanistan. And they cooperated with them, and the Taliban were driven away in only two months. That is the perspective from which we must view the situation today. What has happened to cause the Afghan people in the south to allow the Taliban to return to their villages? Something must have gone wrong. But who allowed things to go wrong? Was this entirely the fault of the Afghan government and the Afghan leadership? Or was this also the fault of our partners?

What has changed since Barack Obama took office?

With President (George W.) Bush it was a very engaging relationship. We had regular contact, we spoke about the problems, we had frank conversations and discussed civilian casualties and all other issues. My ministers participated with me in the video conferences we held together with the Bush administration.

It sounds as if you miss President Bush.

President Obama is the new American president, and he has announced a new strategy. We backed the strategy to the extent that it would bring security to Afghanistan. Now, the American people have given Afghanistan a lot of resources, for which we are grateful. But there are issues that we have that we hope will be resolved as we move forward.

In his speech at West Point two months ago, President Obama announced that he wants to start pulling American troops out of Afghanistan beginning next year. Is this one of the issues you are concerned about?

We must be realistic. We know that we will not be entirely ready for that date and that we will require help for some more years to come -- and that realism is something that we have conveyed to our partners. But we are also happy about the announcement by the US president because it creates pressure for us to work hard to sustain ourselves with our own resources and abilities.

Is the new strategy the right one?

General McChrystal is a good soldier, his strategy focus is on protecting Afghan civilians, and this is the key factor here. If we adhere to that and respect it, we will succeed. If we don't, failure is certain. Terror does not originate in the Afghan villages. That's why the war on terror is directed at the sanctuaries, the training grounds and the financial support. Had our allies recognized that eight years ago, we would have a lot better story to tell in Afghanistan today.

You appear to be referring to Pakistan, which is believed to be the operating ground of the Taliban leadership. You speak frequently with Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, and his top security people. Will the day ever come when Pakistan is prepared to expel top Taliban leaders from its soil?

I hope that, in the peace process, we will begin to cooperate on all these questions and that reconciliation will become reality at the highest level of the Taliban movement and others. And we will do that with the help of Pakistan.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Afghanistan Al-qaida Taliban