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

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