Interview by: Sara Massoumi / Translated by: Ali Attaran
The countdown for Hamid Karzai’s departure from The Arg, Afghanistan’s presidential palace, has begun. The man who rose to power after the 9/11 terrorist attack, is preparing for the first democratic transition of power in his country. On Saturday, Afghans will go to the polls to determineThe Arg’sresident for the next six years. The last presidential election of Afghanistan in 2009 was marred with tension: Taliban had threatened to cut the ink-stained fingers of those who had votedand Karzai’s major rival, Abdullah Abdullah claimed vote rigging, undermining the integrity of the elections. Although in his interview with Iranian Diplomacy Dr. Abdullah stressed that foreign powers had no direct influence on the 2009 election results, Hamid Karzai believes that their interventions were open and direct. This time, neither will Hamid Karzai challenge Abdullah Abdullah, nor does it seem that Dr. Abdullah would back down if he senses electoral manipulation.
Karzai leaves the office amid mixed feelings. Some believe that despite shortcomings, the Afghan president did his utmost to govern the country during a period that Afghanistan was facing its toughest security and political challenges. However, his vocal critics know him as a leader who compromised with the West and the United States over their Afghanistan strategies, and raised his voice in objection only at the final years of his presidency. Karzai, however, insists that differences emerged two years after the US’ invasion of Afghanistan, but were kept behind closed doors and it was only during the recent years that came to the light. The Afghan president sees minimum possibility that he signs the security agreement with the United States, and emphasizes that the next president will face fewer challenge in both domestic and foreign areas. Following is a translated transcript of our interview with Hamid Karzai in the middle of March, as Afghanistan was preparing for Nowruz, the new year celebrations.
IRD: After thirteen years, you are in charge of the first democratic transition of power in Afghanistan. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, two majors issues turned into international concerns. One was spreading extremism and the other was peace with the Taliban. Apparently no solutionsin this regardhave been developed during the last ten years. Do you view Taliban as an independent actor or not? And how do you see their position in Afghanistan today?
HK: Before I get to the main part of your question, let me point to what you said about extremism. Extremism and the threats emanating from extremism have become a serious issue for the Muslim World. I believe, based on my experience, that extremism is neither a product of Islam nor an Islamic environment; and it is alsonot a product of Muslims’ policies. As far as my experience in Afghanistan’s jihadi scenesuggests, it was the West that used extremism as a tool, and it is the Muslim World and Muslims who received the damage.
About the Taliban, I have to say that we can negotiate with those of them who are Afghans, and those who do not serve as a tool for others’ policies. These people, as individuals, and not as members of a group, are always ready to negotiate and we have held talks with them previously. However, Taliban as a group is under the influence of powers beyond Afghanistan and that is why official, productive talks without cooperation from external powers, or to be specific, Pakistan and the United States, are not possible.
IRD: Taliban’s demands sometimes do not match their actions. For example, they say that they areready to negotiate, but at the same time they insist that they will acknowledge neither the constitution nor the electoral process. Do you think Taliban can join Afghanistan’s mainstream politics with such stances?
HK: Yes.If we release the Taliban from the constrictions within which they are nurturing and acting and bring them to the table of negotiations, peace talks and serious engagement will take place. However, before reaching this stage and before Taliban joins Afghanistan’s political stage as a political group they should achieve political independence though negotiations with and encouragement by the US and Pakistan.
IRD: Is Taliban’s ideology popular in Afghanistan today? For example, can they attract the voters if they introduce candidates for elections?
HK: Individually yes. We have figures in the parliament who were previouslyaffiliated with the Taliban and have managed to enter the parliament. So an individual from this group may gain votes; but if they be regarded as representative of a group, the Afghan society has got problems with that and the Taliban are aware of this reality themselves.
IRD: In 2001, Taliban was a group to fight against, but in 2014, it has turned into a group to negotiate with. Why did the United States start negotiations with the Taliban without engaging Afghanistan’s central government? What are Washington’s plans regarding Taliban for 2014 and beyond?
HK: Americans came to Afghanistan in the name of fighting against Taliban.However, they never attacked their training centers and their safe havens. They raided and dropped bombs on houses of Afghan citizens. This has caused serious tensions between Washington and us. In 2013, Americans told us that they no more regard the Taliban as an enemy and will not fight against them after 2014. Considering these three points, I have to say either this war was not to fight Taliban from the beginning or it follows some unrevealed considerations. I have no answer to the question of what the United States’ goal was. The truth is that today, Washington does not see Taliban as its enemy.
IRD: Do you think Americans will give a share of power to the Taliban one day?
HK: They have made efforts, but we have resisted so far. What we want is a united Afghanistan, one which is ruled by the constitution and the citizens’ will. Any group or individual that has the vote of Afghans has the right to rule. But we are against the division of power in bargains that are made outside Afghanistan and intend to serve the manifest or latent goals of foreign powers.
IRD: Why are you against signing the security agreement between Kabul and Washington?
HK: My argument is quite clear. We will provide military bases for the United States to establish peace for the country and the people. I can’t convince myself to admit the presence of American forces in Afghanistan for another ten yearswithout the Afghan people enjoying security. If the United States is seeking military presence in Afghanistan our country should also enjoy its benefits. These benefits are nothing but peace and living in security. So, we provide the US with military bases only if establishment of peace is guaranteed.
IRD: Can Afghanistan provide its own security without the military presence of the United States?
Absolutely. Afghanistan is a country with a long history, and its people have sacrificed to defend their soil. Even today, thousands of our youth are losing their lives to guard this land. So, in response to your question I have to say yes,we can protect our country. Of course, that would be easier if other countries in the region were in harmony with us. If in Pakistan there was a government that cooperated with Afghanistan on the basis of friendship, fraternity, and peaceful coexistence, definitely we were not struggling with our current challenges. If we reach an agreement with our neighbors that guarantees the security and interests of all of us, we will need no foreign aid. Otherwise ,the circumstances requires us to ask for foreign aid, although eventually Afghanistan should take responsibility of protecting its own soil.
IRD: How do foreign donationshelp Afghanistan’s finances? Afghanistan’s revenues were just above one billion dollar in 2013, while you need four billion dollars annually for domestic expenses. Is it reasonable to expect the US and other NATO members reduce their military presence but keep up or increase their financial aid?
HK: We are grateful for the international aid that we have received, whether from Western countries or regional countries such as our neighbor Iran. These aids have been in the interest of Afghan people and improved their living conditions. However, there have been aids from Western countries that have had no benefits for Afghan people, aids in the name of Afghanistan that never reached us. Again, I thank the international community especially the Western countries for their aids and ask them to continue this trend. Whatever donations that reach Afghanistan and are used in the right way will benefit us. However, at the end of the day we Afghans should run our lives based on our own capabilities and rely on our achievements. Eventually, Afghans should spend money from their own pocket.
IRD: Many of your critics say that Hamid Karzai was a strategic ally of the United States and objected Washington’s policies only during the last two or three years. Do you agree with them?
HK: Our objections to the United States are not limited to the last two or three years. Disagreements started from the years 2004 and 2005, but they remained behind closed doors and did not come to public light. These differences became more public and reached the media from 2007. After the  air raid in Herat that killed many of our civilians, including severalwomen and children, we raised our voice against the Americans. The biggest cause of difference was the death of civilians. The second cause was the quality of Washington’s aids to Afghanistan, and creation of a parallel government. The typical example was establishment of private security firms. The political approach of Washington was more of a confrontation not cooperation, and this created differences. What we are demanding for security and interests of Afghanistan from the Americans today, we have been asking for years, but through diplomatic and political channels. Futility of that approach forced us to make the differences public. Our patience wore thin.
IRD: You pointed to Pakistan’s important role in controlling the Taliban. Is it likely that Pakistan cooperates with the next administration over this problem? Can Afghanistan achieve security and peace without help from Islamabad?
HK: If Pakistan does not help us, naturally Afghanistan’s situation will not improve. But the point is that even Pakistan is suffering from extremism today. The people of Pakistan are our dear friends; they treated us hospitably during the times of crisis and we are grateful for that. However, the government of Pakistan has been directly and indirectly supporting extremist groups for three decades and unfortunately, the damage from extremism and terror is now backfiring against them. A significant number of Pakistani citizens lose their lives everyday because of operations carried out by extremists.
We have received signals that there are serious debates taking shape inside the government of Pakistan to control the extremist movement. In domestic security surveys by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, it has been directly stated that lack of security in the country and rising terrorism and extremism is due to Islamabad’s incorrect policies towards India and Afghanistan. We hope that Islamabad, realizing this bitter truth, follows a path that eventually fosters security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or I’d better say Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, since Iran is also suffering security problems in its borders with Pakistan.
IRD: What were the challenges and opportunities in Kabul-Tehran relations during your presence in The Arg? Did the two countries use their full potential to improve bilateral ties?
HK: In the recorded history of Iran-Afghanistan relations no period has seen relations as strong and dynamic as the last 12 years. Our relations with Tehran were excellent and Iran had a correct understanding of the realities in Afghanistan which led to increasing depth and breadth in Tehran-Kabul relations. Iran looked at its relations with Afghanistan as independent from Kabul-Washington relations, despite its confrontation with Washington. Throughout these years, Iran has had frank, good relations with us. Afghanistan has also made constructive efforts. From the beginning, we told Americans directlythat Iran as our neighbor shares the same language, the same culture and the same religion with us. In fact, it’s like we share the same house, and the United States cannot and should not demand us to reduce the level of relations with Iran. The United States also acted mindfully.
IRD: Will you sign cooperation agreement with Iran before the end of your presidential term? Is there any relation between cooperation agreement with Tehran and security agreement with Washington?
HK: Of course there is a relation; and that is why Tehran asked for signing this agreement so the security agreement with Washington would not turn into a threat. Iran is doing the right thing and every country has the right to minimize the adverse impact of agreements signed by its neighbors. Afghanistan is aware of the fact that allowing the United States to hold military bases in its territory can have negative effects for its neighbors. The effects are not limited to Iran of course, but because of problems with Washington, Tehran has the right to be assured that the United States’ presence in Afghanistan will not create problems for it.
That is why in my meeting with Iran’s president Mr. Rouhani during my recent visit to Tehran, I announced my support for signing a strategic cooperation agreement between the two countries. Whatever the fate of the security agreement with the United States, agreement with Tehran serves the interests of both Tehran and Kabul.Currently, the process of drafting this agreement has started and negotiations are going on between our representatives and Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan.
IRD: Presidential electionis on the way and the first democratic transition of power is going to take place. In the 2009 presidential elections, there were allegations of vote rigging and intervention of foreign powers. How are you going to stop foreign intervention in this election?
HK: In the 2009 election, we witnessed explicit intervention of the United States and some other Western powers. With the previous experience, we will do our best to stop such interventions. We hope the elections are transparent and approved by the Afghan people.
IRD: You took helm of Afghanistan during some of its toughest years. What are some remaining challenges that the next president has to struggle with?
HK: The next president will have fewer problems than those that I had to face in the last ten years. Twelve years ago, we had to start from scratch. There was no state and no constitution. We had to revive institutions and identify efficient people. We had no financial resources and no financial reserves. Today, we are in a much better situation. From the 180 million dollars in our treasury in 2002, we have come to 7 billion dollars in 2014. Afghans’ annual per capita income has increased from 150 USD to 700 USD. Education for Afghan children has improved remarkably and we are having a larger educated population. Afghanistan’s next president who will definitely reinforce these trends will face fewer problems. Our challenges are not over yet however and we hope issues such as terrorism, extremism, insecurity and relations with Pakistan are solved.
IRD: A main criticism of Afghanistan’s current political structure is about the high rate of financial corruption. What did you do to tackle this issue during your 12-year rule?
HK: Financial corruption has always been a serious problem in Afghanistan. Corruption has two sources. Bureaucratic corruption exists in all countries and is a cause of concern, but although it needs treatment, it can’t be the main problem. The greater cause of corruption rose from foreign aids. The commissioning of contracts and the procedure of passing aids to Afghanistan has raised questions. Money in the name of Afghanistan was spent somewhere else and that created corruption. So I think external corruption was a bigger cause compared to internal corruption.
IRD: Is there adequate political stability for the next president to plan for economic stability and security improvement?
HK: We definitely enjoy political stability.
IRD: Do you support any of the presidential candidates?
HK: I support no one, and I should not.
IRD: With the wisdom of hindsight what measures would you take in foreign policy, especially about regional countries when you started your presidency?
HK: I was quite successful in my foreign policy and managed to create balance in this area. We had very good relations with the United States, that had military forces in our country, and in the meantime, with Iran, China and Russia. We did not allow Afghanistan to turn into a battleground offoreign powers. So I think in foreign policy we acted in the best way. Within these 12 years, I made 10 to 15 visits to Tehran. Iranian officials also visited Afghanistan, including your former presidents Mr. Khatami and Mr. Ahmadinejad. Mr. Rouhani also visited Afghanistan for Nowruz ceremony this year. Reviewingmy foreign policy, maybe we did not have to become so close with certain countries.
IRD: Will you remain in Afghan politics after the end of your presidency?
HK: As an ordinary citizen, I will participate and share concerns. If the next president of Afghanistan asks for my consultation, I will help him and share my experiences. I’m ready to serve Afghanistan and the next administration.
IRD: Will you return to the front stageif one day you feel that Afghanistan needs Hamid Karzai?
HK: No. According to the constitution, a third term of presidency is not possible, and I think it is not necessary. I have served Afghanistan as best as I could during the past twelve years, and I think it is better that the younger generation who are more energetic come to the fore. We can serve at the back stage.