Afghanistan’s former president said on Sunday that the United States, having come to his country to fight extremism and bring stability to the war-tortured nation, is leaving nearly 20 years later having failed at both.
In an interview just weeks before the last US and Nato troops are due to leave Afghanistan, ending their “forever war”, Hamid Karzai said that extremism is at its “highest point” and that the departing troops are leaving behind a disaster.
“The international community came here 20 years ago with this clear objective of fighting extremism and bringing stability ... but extremism is at the highest point today. So they have failed,” he said.
“We recognise as Afghans all our failures, but what about the bigger forces and powers who came here for exactly that purpose?” he asked. “Where are they leaving us now? In total disgrace and disaster.”
Still, Karzai, who had a conflicted relationship with the United States during his 13-year rule, said he wants the troops to leave, and that Afghans are united behind an overwhelming desire for peace, and need now to take responsibility for their future.
“We will be better off without [the US] military presence,” he said. “I think we should defend our own country and look after our own lives.” He added: “Their presence [has given us] what we have now. We don’t want to continue with this misery and indignity that we are facing. It is better for Afghanistan that they leave.”
Karzai’s presidency followed the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 by a US-led coalition that launched its invasion in order to hunt down and destroy the al-Qaeda network along with its leader, Osama bin Laden, who was blamed for the 9/11 attacks on America.
During Karzai’s rule, women were given more freedom, girls once again attended school, and a vibrant, young, civil society emerged. New high-rises went up in the capital Kabul, and roads and infrastructure were built. But his rule was also characterised by allegations of widespread corruption, a flourishing drug trade, and – in its final years – relentless quarrels with Washington that continue even today.
“The [US/Nato military] campaign was not against extremism or terrorism; the campaign was more against Afghan villages and hopes: putting Afghan people in prisons, creating prisons in our own country ... and bombing all villages. That was very wrong,” said Karzai in the interview.
In April, when US president Joe Biden announced the final withdrawal of the remaining 2,500-3,500 troops, he said America was leaving having achieved its goals. Al-Qaeda had been greatly diminished and bin Laden was dead, he said, and America no longer needed boots on the ground to fight the terrorist threats that might emanate from Afghanistan.
Still, attempts by the US to bring about a political end to the decades of war have been elusive. It signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 to withdraw its troops in exchange for a Taliban promise to denounce terrorist groups and keep Afghanistan from again being used as a staging arena for attacks on America.
There is little evidence that the Taliban are fulfilling their part of the bargain. The United Nations claims the Taliban and al-Qaeda are still linked. The architect of the US deal and current US peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said some progress has been made, without offering any details.
Karzai has expressed himself with harsh words and uncompromising criticism of US war tactics over the past two decades in Afghanistan. Yet he has become a linchpin, of sorts, in a joint effort being launched by the United States and Britain to get a quarrelsome Afghan leadership in Kabul united enough to talk peace with the Taliban. The insurgent group has shown little interest in negotiating, and instead has stepped up its assaults on government positions.
The Taliban have made considerable strides since the 1 May start of the US and Nato withdrawal. They have overrun dozens of districts, often negotiating their surrender from Afghan national security forces.
But in many instances the fighting has been intense. Just last week, a brutal assault by the Taliban in the northern Faryab province killed 22 of Afghanistan’s elite commandos, led by local hero Colonel Sohrab Azimi, who was also killed and was widely mourned.
“The desire of the Afghan people, overwhelmingly, all over the country, is for peace,” said Karzai, who, despite being out of power since 2014, has lost little of his political influence, and is often at the centre of the country’s political machinations.
Diplomats, western officials, generals, tribal elders and politicians on all points of Afghanistan’s political spectrum regularly beat a path to Karzai’s door in the heart of the Afghan capital.
As the final military withdrawal is already more than 50 per cent complete, the need for a political settlement – or even a visible path to an eventual settlement – would seem to be taking on greater urgency, even as Afghans by the thousands are seeking an exit. They say they are frustrated by relentless corruption, marauding criminal gangs – some linked to the powerful warlords in Kabul – and worsening insecurity, and few see a future that is not violent.
Karzai had a message for both sides in the conflict: “The two Afghan sides, none of them should be fighting.” While accusing both Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership is headquartered, and the United States of stoking the fighting, Karzai said it is up to Afghans to end decades of war.
"The only answer is Afghans getting together. We must recognise that this is our country and we must stop killing each other.”