US plays double game in Afghanistan, refuses to hit terrorist sanctuaries – Hamid Karzai

Fifteen years after the American invasion, Afghanistan still remains a battlefield between the government in Kabul and Taliban forces. Despite millions of dollars spent on attempts to fix the broken region, the US has achieved little – and is steadily drawing down their presence in the country. As the Taliban widens its offensive, taking over entire cities and gaining control in some of the country’s provinces, will the Afghan Army ever be able to hold on its own? Over a decade and a half after the US-NATO invasion – why is Afghanistan still as unstable as it was before? We ask the country’s former President – Hamid Karzai.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: The former President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, welcome to the show, it's always great to have you with us. So, Mr. Karzai, the Americans have been fighting in Afghanistan for 15 years now - is their presence a curse or a blessing for your country?

Hamid Karzai: In the beginning, the arrival of the Americans in 2001, together with the rest of international community, Russia included in support of it - was a blessing. We were liberated from a creeping invasion by a neighbouring country and the Afghan people joined hands and we did very well. But subsequent to that liberation, within a few years what was then called the "War on Terror", unfortunately, was not conducted properly, nor was it conducted in the right place. The Afghan people were made the victims and that's how things changed wrong. Today, as you see, things are not happy in Afghanistan, we have tremendous insecurity, so today, as far as security is concerned, and the campaign against extremism is concerned, we are unhappy.

SS: Americans came in with the aim of defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and to build a new Afghan state. 850 billion dollars and tens of thousands of lives later - the Taliban are alive, al-Qaeda is also doing well, and there's no end to the war in sight. Why is the Afghan state still relying on America to survive?

HK: You're right. Afghanistan is not secure, the Taliban have taken more territory, interferences have increased in Afghanistan, so as for the mission for the security and peace in Afghanistan was concerned, by the U.S. and it's allies, that has failed. And that is why it is now time for the U.S. to explain its situation in Afghanistan and call it what is: a failure, unfortunately, on the security front, and seek help from our big neighbours, Russia, China, India and Iran, and find ways of addressing the issue of radicalism together with these countries, because Russia too is affected, because China too is affected, because India is affected as well, and because Iran is an important neighbour of Afghanistan. We also have to factor in Pakistan here, and engage with them in a manner that will bring us an ease in campaign extremism. Other than that, this will be an ongoing tragedy for the Afghan people, where Afghans will keep losing lives, which isn't, of course, acceptable any longer to the Afghan people.

SS: But also, looking at it from the American side, Obama argued that the U.S. needs to continue its presence in Afghanistan after “all the blood and treasure we’ve invested in Afghanistan over the years”, that's his quote - but if the American strategy in Afghanistan isn’t working, why is Washington sticking with it?

HK: Where the U.S. taxpayer's money, the help of the American people has been a contribution to the betterment of life in Afghanistan, we're very grateful. Where that money has brought us schools and roads and reconstruction and a better standard of living - we are grateful and we understand and we appreciate it, and have expressed gratefulness repeatedly. That is one side of the picture. The other side of the picture, the more important one, as far as the Americans are concerned and the Afghan people are concerned - the reason they're concerned is the campaign against extremism and terrorism and the bringing of security to Afghanistan and peace to its people. That has not happened. That is a failure, and we cannot deny it. It's impossible to deny it because we see it, clearly, confronting us. Therefore, my advise to the U.S. has been to reconsider their approach to this campaign and to admit the truth and to seek help. The moment they do that with the Afghan people, in a sincere, frank way, and the moment they do that with Russia and with other neighbours, we will see a change towards improvement. We will, probably, sooner see security and peace rather than later. So that is required. What I meant was that the U.S. must now sit down and admit the mistakes and begin a new course - a change of course is required.

SS: But Afghanistan's current government is saying it “doesn’t support the reduction of U.S. troops, and their broadened presence is helpful and necessary in combating terrorism.” Should American troops just stay in the country indefinitely? Is that what the government is aiming for?

HK: As far as the Afghan people are concerned, we want peace. We want stability. We want an end to fighting in Afghanistan, we want an end to the casualties of the Afghan people on a daily basis. And we want a region that's friendly with Afghanistan, that sees Afghanistan as an asset rather than as a growing threat. If the U.S. can provide this for us, alone, with us, the Afghan people, all in consultation and cooperation with the rest of the region, especially Russia - then it's welcome. But if the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will mean for the Afghan people continuity of war, of casualties, of suffering and of worsening regional relations - of course, that's not desirable and we will not seek it.

SS: America has spent 60 billion dollars on training and equipping Afghan forces, but the latest Taliban offensive shows they’re not fit to oppose the Taliban on their own. In the recent assault on Kunduz, it was reported that some fled without firing a shot. Moreover, in recent months Afghan troops have suffered record casualties. Why such heavy losses... And what has gone wrong for the Americans, why haven't they been able to rebuild your army?

HK: A few things. First, the Afghan soldiers defend their country heroically. They sacrifice their lives every day, in all corners of the country. We value that, we appreciate that, but we don't want that to happen. We want our soldiers to live, not to die in their own country. Second, the provision of equipment and weaponry to the Afghan forces is not sufficient. It's not enough to enable them to defend the country. We don't have an air force, we don't have a radar, we don't have any of the things that we had before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and during that time, when the Soviet Union was here and was providing significant, important military equipment and materials to the Afghan forces. It's now a major conflict and during a major conflict of this sort, when there are thousands of people on the other side as well, it's difficult to cope for a long time. Therefore, we seek a correction in the manner, in the way, in the policies, in the tactics and the strategy that is being pursued in the fight against radicalism, because the sources of this conflict are not in Afghanistan, they are outside of Afghanistan, and the U.S. has been ignoring that four years in spite of our repeated calls to them and repeated pleas with them. They must go to the sanctuaries, they must go to the training grounds, they must go to the motivational factors, they must go to where the financial resources are coming to extremism - and that is beyond Afghanistan. The U.S. did not do that. Rather, the U.S, as if it played both sides, they provided us and they provided those who are supporting extremism, beyond our borders, and more specifically, and unfortunately, our neighbours in Pakistan. Therefore, no matter how brave, how willing to sacrifice the Afghan people will be and our troops will be - we will not win unless the sources to the promotion of extremism and terrorism are dried up outside of Afghanistan. That the U.S. has not done and that is our major, major complaint in this whole saga of the Afghan trouble and misfortune in the past 7 years.

SS: American troops are not only aiding and advising their Afghan counterparts, they have now been tasked with accompanying them on ground and air operations targeting the Taliban - will America expand its mandate even further? Will increased involvement be enough to make a difference?

HK: Sophie, you know that I have been against that when I was the President. I stopped the U.S. from bombing our country, from carrying air raids on our villages, and I did not want the participation of their troops in combat in our country. Afghanistan can only be defended by the Afghan people and through our own sacrifice and hard work. U.S. bombardment of villages has caused us immense casualties, immense destruction. There's right now a girl in the United States, who's now 8 years of age, whom  four and a half years ago... whose entire family was bombed in pursuit of an unknown target. An entire family of 14 people, and she was left without a face. I went to see to see her in a hospital, then. She had no face! She was blinded! She had no arm, her hand was cut-off. That is not acceptable, and the U.S. must stop bombing Afghanistan, if they want to win in Afghanistan. The military pursuit of the kind they're carrying on has failed, and will not succeed.

SS: The horrors of war and the consequences of war are always terrible and unfortunate, but here the question is:  if the Taliban are winning a battle, is it better to let go, to retreat, or maybe have the Americans bomb them?

HK: Bombing will not get us free, bombing will not secure our country, bombing will add to the complexities of the problem and to the extent of the problem. It has not helped, it will alienate the Afghan people. That alienation, that suffering will cause more uprisings against us, and more trouble in Afghanistan. Therefore, there are only two ways. One: the U.S. - I must repeat myself - must admit that there were mistakes made of a very gross kind, of a very gross nature, and a course correction must be undertaken now...

SS: What about the Taliban that's winning the battle?

HK: The Taliban.. Those that are part of the Afghan people, those who are from this country, those who are sons of this soil, they must come back to Afghanistan and seek peace here, and they must be freed from the influences on them by foreign intelligence agencies beyond our border, namely Pakistan. So, they must free themselves, they must behave as Afghans and Afghan patriots and come to the country. There's no other way, you cannot win it by war. Have you won it by war? No! Therefore, to the Taliban who are Afghans we extend a hand of friendship and brotherhood and compatriotism; and to those who are backing them and supporting them and using them... the U.S. and Russia and other countries must join hands and stop that at the source.

SS: Mr. Karzai, hundreds of billions of dollars in international aid is spent in Afghanistan - focusing on urban areas, while leaving farmland owners resentful - is that why the Taliban are enjoying successes in the countryside at the moment?

HK: Initially, developmental projects and reconstruction were quite evenly spread and we are grateful for the U.S. and its allies for having done that. Schools were built all around the country, clinics were built around the country, roads and lots of other rural developmental projects were implemented, which helped the Afghan people a great deal. But as mistakes were made in the War on Terror, we began to see resentment in Afghan villages and that resentment, of course, led to what we have today. Where the money has been spent on Afghan projects, decided by Afghans - those were successful and worthy. Where they planned their own projects and implemented them themselves, those projects became expensive and ineffective. So, again, while we are grateful, we also feel that it could have been done much better.

SS: With unemployment at 25% in Afghanistan, a lot of people turn to opium production as a means of survival. It’s also a main source of funding for the Taliban insurgency. Does the Afghan govt have the resources to defeat the opium battle on its own today?

HK: No. No. Not at all - because it isn't, in its essence, an Afghan problem. It is not. It's the result of Afghan desperation and hopelessness for more than 30 years. It's because the Afghans could not tend their fields, it's because the irrigation systems were destroyed, it's because of all other factors that affect a society negatively - and the overpowering presence of the international mafia and its trade. Therefore Afghanistan is not able at all to cope with this alone and also, I must say, there has not been a real, sincere effort by the international community in this regard. The money that came from the West, from the U.S., was misspent on firms, on private security firms and on NGOs who either did not or were not interested in solving the problem.

SS: Poppy cultivation flourished after the start of the war in 2001 - with NATO troops refusing to fight it for fear of alienating the Afghan population. What is more harmful at the end of the day, in the long term - the Taliban or the drug trade?

HK: Well the Taliban is a part of the Afghan people. I hope they will recognise that they belong to Afghanistan and it's their country and they should not hurt their own country, that they should come and live with the rest of the Afghan people, and accept that people will have different points of view and different ways of living and recognise that and live with their own countrymen. But poppies, of course, is a curse, in a very significant way and it hurts the Afghan people, it hurts our economy, it hurts our agriculture, our way of life, and it also hurts you and Russia. I know that, much of it comes towards Russia. Therefore, I hope Russia will step in more effectively, not only over poppies, but also over other issues in Afghanistan. This morning, I saw the statement by President Putin in India, where he expressed his willingness to cooperate more with India on Afghanistan in a more deep and strategic way. I think that will be significant for Afghanistan, such a cooperation between India and Russia is definitely going to be a factor of stability in Afghanistan, and that is what I am going to recommend and seek and ask for.

SS: It's no secret that Afghanistan needs to negotiate peace with the Taliban - you’ve said it time and again that the Taliban has to be part of a political settlement, part of the government - what’s standing in the way of that now? Why isn’t the Taliban at the negotiating table?

HK: Lack of interest in the U.S. and in Pakistan. In my view, these are the two main factors preventing peace in Afghanistan. They were, definitely, during my time in government.

SS: The Taliban overran the provincial capital of Kunduz for the second time this year, and it's threatening several other capitals - why is this happening again? Is the Taliban hoping to win on the battlefield to rule the country?

HK: I don't think the Taliban will be able to bring themselves to governing Afghanistan again, no. They have shown their ability to take provinces and to take provincial capitals, like in Kunduz, with, unfortunately, heavy losses for the Afghan people, for the civilians and for the population as a result of the conflict and fighting there. But they are  part of Afghanistan and they are a significant part of Afghanistan and they are welcome to participate in the Afghan Constitution, in politics, in governance - and they have the rights of all Afghan citizens. We hope they will understand and enjoy that right. But they will not be able to take over the country or govern alone, no. The scene has changed in Afghanistan, this country has to be the country for all Afghans and the opportunity for all in this country must be there and that is the fact right now. So, no, they will not be able to rule alone.

SS: An American drone strike in Pakistan killed Taliban leader - Mullah Mansour. His successor, now, is someone more radical. Has this drone strike actually complicated the path to peace?

HK: Well, we don't know the circumstances of the killing of Mr. Mansour. That's what the Americans say, that's what some Pakistani said... But, Mawlawi Haibatullah, the new Taliban leader is definitely more accepted by the Taliban than the previous arrangement, and we hope he will recognise as an Afghan that there's a lot of Afghan bloodshed for the interests of foreign powers, and that we as Afghans must get together and protect our country and not allow foreign interests to shed our blood for the pursuit of other interests.

SS: Yeah, but the question here is - how has the drone strike affected the peace process? I wonder if the Americans keep on killing Taliban leaders, until someone who wants to negotiate steps up? What do you think? Maybe if they kill this leader too, then the next one is going to be less radical?

HK: That's an open-ended question. We will never know an answer to that. We cannot affirmatively say that ‘yes’, the drone strikes will one day force the Taliban to come to negotiations. It has been the other way around so far. Violent actions against them have brought more violence, so, no, I my view, that is not the way to seek peace. No. At it has been proven.

SS: Okay. In any peace deal, one of the major factor is the position of Pakistan -  and you think Pakistan can force the Taliban to negotiate with Kabul. Why isn’t it doing so, does it want the war to go on?

HK: Pakistan is a major, major factor, no doubt, and, unfortunately, Pakistan has not played its hand well in Afghanistan. Afghanistan could have been a great friend of Pakistan, and we wanted that friendship to be there. They were seeking other forms of relations with Afghanistan   - one of domination, one of exploitation, one of them determining events in Afghanistan. That, Afghan people will not allow. Also, we must factor in very heavily the U.S. interests in Afghanistan and in the region. I think a combination... I should say, I am sure that the combination of the two, of the U.S. interests in the region and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan and the nature of their relations with India has been determining events in Afghanistan - negatively, unfortunately and we hope that that will turn into positive. Then we will have peace. Other than that, we will not see peace in Afghanistan and the region will, as a result, further destabilise.

SS: Mr. Karzai, thank you very much for this interview. As usual, it's great talking to you, we wish you all the best. We were talking to Hamid Karzai, the former President of Afghanistan, discussing the possibility of the peace talks with the Taliban and if Afghan security is still dependent on the presence of American troops in the country. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.