Hamid Karzai: ‘Al-Qa’ida is more myth than reality’ says Afghan president

In a candid interview to mark the end of his Presidency, Hamid Karzai speaks of his regret at  the innocent lives lost in Afghanistan – and why America’s view of the enemy is all wrong

Kabul

Hamid Karzai was in the midst of negotiating a security agreement with the United States when he met a four-year-old girl who had lost half her face in an American air strike.

Five months later, the Afghan President’s eyes welled with tears as he described visiting the disfigured little girl at a hospital. He took long pauses between words. Sitting behind his desk on Saturday night, the man who has projected a defiant image toward the West suddenly looked frail.

“That day, I wished she were dead, so she could be buried with her parents and brothers and sisters.” Fourteen of them were killed in the attack.

In an unusually emotional interview, the departing President sought to explain why he has been such a harsh critic of the 12-year-old US war effort here. He is deeply troubled by all the casualties he has seen, including those in US military operations and says he feels betrayed by what he calls an insufficient US focus on targeting Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. And he insists that public criticism was the only way to guarantee an American response to his concerns.

To Mr Karzai, the war was not waged with his country’s interests in mind. “Afghans died in a war that’s not ours,’ he said in the interview.

In Mr Karzai’s mind, al-Qa’ida is “more a myth than a reality” and the majority of the US’s prisoners here were innocent. He’s certain that the war was “for the US security and for the Western interest”.

Such statements elicit scorn and shock from US officials, who point out that Americans have sacrificed mightily for Afghanistan – losing more than 2,000 lives and spending more than $600bn (£360bn) in the effort to defeat al-Qa’ida and the Taliban and rebuild the country.

Some Americans call Mr Karzai a delusional leader, an ally who became an adversary during the 12 years of his presidency. In the latest blow- up, he has refused for months to sign a security agreement that his government had negotiated with the US that would permit a residual US force to remain here beyond 2014. He has added several new demands in exchange for signing the deal.

But in a phone call with Mr Karzai last week, President Obama said he will accept having the winner of Afghanistan’s April presidential elections sign the pact. Mr Karzai indicated that he views that as a best-case scenario. He won’t have to submit to US demands – such as the continuation of counter-terrorism operations – but the popular security agreement will probably still be finalised.

Departing President Hamid Karzai has been a harsh critic of the 12-year-old US war effort in Afghanistan Departing President Hamid Karzai has been a harsh critic of the 12-year-old US war effort in Afghanistan (Getty Images)
“It’s good for them to sign it with my successor,” the Afghan leader said.

Mr Karzai’s antagonistic approach seems to have succeeded, in the sense that he has forced US officials to move deadlines, and even to reshape policy. His strong criticism of the civilian casualties caused by American attacks, for example, forced the US military to revise its tactics, producing a dramatic decline in the number of non-combatants killed by American forces (although Taliban-inflicted casualties have increased).

His demands that the US hand over the Bagram prison were eventually met, allowing Mr Karzai to release dozens of high-profile detainees last month despite US protests. Those experiences reaffirmed his conviction that public criticism of the US is often his most effective diplomatic tool. “I had no other weapon to resort to, no other means to resort to, but to speak publicly and get attention that way. In other words, I was forced to yell,” he said.

Mr Karzai reiterated that he will not manipulate the 5 April presidential election. He has told his older brother to withdraw his candidacy to avoid the perception of interference. Qayum Karzai has refused, but he acknowledges what most Afghans believe. “Without the President’s support, it will be impossible to win,” Qayum said.

Every day, candidates and elders plead for Hamid Karzai’s backing, pouring into his office and calling his aides as the election nears. Although his influence on the US war effort is waning, he has never been more relevant, or at least more talked about, in Afghan political circles.

“People do come to me, a lot of people, every day rather. Groups of people, individuals – they ask me [for support],” Mr Karzai said.

Some of them ask him to remain in office, he said, but he dismisses the idea. “I’ve done enough; it’s time for me to move on,” he said.

Now that he has decided to leave office, he is reckoning with the same question that many Americans and British are asking: was the war worth it? “I am of two hearts here. When I see good, I am in approval. When I see the losses of Afghan people, our children, maimed and killed, I’m in disapproval,” he said, speaking in English. “Maybe I can give you an answer of yes or no two, three or five years from now, when my emotions have subsided. Right now, I’m full of emotions.’’

Mr Karzai is at his most emotional – and most hostile – when civilian casualties occur. Even his critics don’t doubt the sincerity of his feelings. He said Afghanistan’s “common cause” with the US dissipated because of such casualties. He has also said that US forces should have done more to target Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, rather than conduct operations in Afghan villages.

During a visit to the White House in 2010, he carried a photo of what he described as a family whose members were “just gazing with fright and fear” during a US-led night operation. He showed it to President Obama.

“I said, ‘President, this is what I’m trying to end, the intimidation of Afghan families at night, in the name of fighting the Taliban.’ ”

Asked about Mr Obama’s response, Mr Karzai shrugged, indicating it was unsatisfactory. Then he said: “So we are really an angry people.”

Read more:
New Afghanistan law could silence women
More children dying in Afghan violence says UN
Comment: After 12 years, we leave behind poverty, fraud – and the Taliban

© Washington Post

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
football
News
Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese
people
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us