Hamid Karzai: In the shadow of terror, a meeting with the world's loneliest president

The threat of assassination colours his every waking moment. His brother, his father and several of his predecessors as Afghan leader were murdered. Yet Karzai seemed remarkably calm when he gave Evgeny Lebedev a rare extended interview in his palace in Kabul

Evgeny Lebedev
Saturday 17 September 2011 00:00 BST

Hamid Karzai lives dangerously. As President of Afghanistan, he has survived four assassination attempts. His half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was murdered recently. His father, too, was assassinated, in 1999. Whenever he ventures outside his office in the Presidential Palace in Kabul he is accompanied by seven black-suited bodyguards – part of the 800-strong, CIA-trained cordon that surrounds the Afghan leader and his circle.

Getting to meet him is an unsettling experience, requiring numerous checks and searches. This is a man who must live in constant dread that someone near him will detonate an explosion or produce a weapon – as happened to Ahmed Wali, who was shot by his own head of security as he came out of his bathroom.

He has granted a rare, exclusive interview to mark the impending 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Afghan War. We meet on 11 September, a decade after the terrorists struck the twin towers and the Pentagon; by 7 October, the US and British-led military intervention against the country suspected of housing Osama bin Laden was under way. Six weeks later, the Taliban leaders had either been killed or had fled. By Christmas, the country had a new head: the westernised Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai.

Earlier this year, Karzai confirmed that his time in power is coming to a close. He will retire, as the Afghan constitution requires, in 2014, at the end of his second term as President – the same year in which US-led forces will withdraw from a frontline role.

"The American arrival was seen at the time as a liberation," says Karzai. "They were welcomed into villages. The population rose against the Taliban. It was the subsequent mistakes that made things bad." What were those mistakes? He talks of "treasure" and "blood": the former denoting corruption, the latter denoting civilian casualties resulting from the abuse of power by Western forces.

He does not mince his words, blaming the West for spawning corruption and criminality on an unimagined scale – "for contracts, for corrupt contracts, for sub-contracts, for the contracts that the Afghan government is not involved in at all, for the millions of dollars that go to criminals ... The person that gives contracts of hundreds of millions of dollars without accountability to government officials – that is actually promoting corruption."

He has, he says, discussed this issue "repeatedly" with the Western powers, who have, finally and too late, put up their hands. "And now they admitted, they say 'Yes, you are right'." He does not deny that part of the fault also lies elsewhere, but he insists that "the big corruption" is due to foreign influence. "Corruption in the Afghan government, our own political circles, is also true. The small kind of corruption, bribes, is one thing, but the bigger level of corruption of contracts, hundreds of millions of dollars..." He shakes his head.

Karzai's home is the Arg-e-Shahi Palace, a fortress in central Kabul. Its 100-year-old stone walls, topped by turrets, separate him from the people he rules as much as they protect him from Taliban attack. He is accessible – but only beyond four checkpoints and after the removal of all personal belongings (wallets, pens, cigarettes) and scrutiny by sniffer dogs.

Inside the palace, there is eerie calm. There are gardens lined with red and pink rose bushes; birdsong echoes from the walls. Karzai lives here with his wife, Zenat, a former doctor, and their only child, a four-year-old son, Mirwais.

By his office door there are bullet holes, mementos of the Soviet occupation and the civil war. In a side room, pastoral scenes – a mountain stream, grazing camels – hang crookedly in gold-painted frames.

I am not the only one waiting for an audience. The new US ambassador, Ryan Crocker, and General John Allen, commander of international forces in the country, are waiting too. Crocker has with him a list of topics that he wants Karzai to address in a forthcoming interview with CNN.

"He has the hardest job in the world," confides Crocker. Four out of Afghanistan's past six presidents have been murdered, three of them in office. The fourth, the Soviet-backed Mohammed Najibullah, stepped down but did not flee when the mujahedin seized Kabul. He was taken from the UN compound and had his fingers cut off before being castrated, dragged behind a truck and hanged in a public square.

After Karzai was named head of the transitional government following the defeat of the Taliban, he seemed to be in a strong position. He was trusted by the US – indeed, was rumoured to have worked for its intelligence services – after years spent wooing it for help against the Taliban. He was also supported not only by his native Pashtuns but also by Afghanistan's other ethnic groups.

Two presidential elections later, the situation is different. There has been a spate of high-profile assassinations, including those of his brother Ahmed Wali and his close confidant, Jan Mohammad Khan. The security situation seems to be deteriorating. According to UN figures, civilian deaths are up 15 per cent in the first six months of this year. Only this week, the Taliban attacked the embassy quarter close to the Palace, resulting in a 20-hour firefight in which the US embassy came under rocket-propelled grenade fire.

Karzai is blamed for not acting decisively enough to prevent such setbacks. WikiLeaks revealed diplomatic cables from 2009 from the then US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, that called him "corrupt" and "incompetent" and not "an adequate strategic partner". Unsurprisingly, meetings between US officials and the President are now limited to around once a month – a far cry from when the US ambassador might see him three or four times a week.

As I enter his office, Karzai leaps up, hands outstretched, palm upwards in a gesture of greeting. He is wearing a white kameez and black suit jacket. He is charming and gracious, his English impeccable – learnt as a student at Simla in India. Only occasionally, when asked a question he does not wish to answer, does his expression darken. Then the grin is replaced by a twitch near his left eye.

The President's flagship policy has been "Big Tent" politics, an attempt to include all ethnic groups and factions in his government. This has led to the empowerment of former warlords whom ordinary Afghans associate with their country's darkest days: the brutal civil war that preceded and precipitated the rise of the Taliban.

Some see this policy as a miscalculation. To others it is a sign of weakness – a trait reviled in Afghan culture. Karzai knows this. "This government was labelled as the government of the Mayor of Kabul," he says, referring to claims that his authority is limited by his officials' fecklessness, by his own isolation, and by the re-emergence of warlords. But, he insists, these critics are "absolutely wrong. Afghanistan is a very united country. Tribes and ethnic groups are all part of the mosaic."

In the course of the morning, pieces of that mosaic are shown in to see him. There's Burhanuddin Rabbini, the country's former president, whose seizure of power in 1992 prompted the mujahedin factions to turn on each other; there's a parliamentarian who is having problems with a visa application for India; and there's a tribal elder who has travelled to the capital to inform Karzai of local Taliban leaders wanting to be absorbed into the government.

At lunch, Karzai is joined by a group of eight MPs from Baghdis province, angry at the lack of electricity and good roads and at local girls being prevented from studying medicine. So determined are they to make their case that, at the meal's end, a bodyguard has to pull away a hand restraining Karzai as he tries to leave.

His schedule raises questions about the extent to which Karzai is dealing with matters that should be the business of his ministers or his civil service. This is a criticism made by Western diplomats. "[Karzai] insists on handling everything himself," says one. "His ministers are the same, signing every document that authorises any piece of expenditure."

Another complaint concerns the last presidential elections: a UN-backed electoral watchdog threw out a third of the votes cast for Karzai on the grounds of apparent fraud. In response, Karzai insists that it was the Western powers, not he, who practised electoral fraud, in a bid to weaken his powers. The diplomat I spoke to dismissed this as "paranoia" and repeated the claim that Karzai had stuffed ballot boxes. The tragedy, he said, was that he did not need to cheat, as he would almost certainly have won in a second-round run-off against Abdullah Abdullah, his former Foreign Minister.

This diplomat then claimed that the Western powers had been conferring about the best way to get rid of the President, whatever the election result. "I was shocked," Karzai says, when asked about this allegation. "I always thought they had respect for democracy." (The same diplomat told me that similar interference had been responsible for the brevity of Ibrahim al-Jafarri's tenure as Prime Minister of Iraq, from 2005 to 2006. The mistake the West made with Karzai, he said, was to allow too much loose talk in public about his removal, instead of simply removing him.)

Karzai insists that, if the Western powers truly desire peace, they must stop meddling in Afghan affairs. He recalls the Andrew Mitchell briefing papers fiasco – in which the International Development Secretary accidentally showed the press a confidential note saying that the British government should "welcome" the end of Karzai's presidency – as a sign of that interference. "If they want someone here who represents their interests, it's not right," Karzai says. "Are we happy with the West? Yes, they have given us a lot. Do we want a long-term relationship? Yes. But we believe that the West must respect Afghanistan's constitution and not be intrusive to the daily life of Afghans."

This mistrust of his allies resurfaces in connection with his brother's death: he blames the West for rumours that Ahmed Wali was immersed in the local heroin trade. "It was to put pressure on me," he says. "Some Westerners wanted to spray Afghan fields [to destroy opium poppies in a practice that risked harming the soil's long-term fertility and poisoning drinking water], and I opposed it. Strongly. When I did that there were stories about him in connection to the drug wars. I called the American and British diplomats and I asked if they have evidence, and they always said no."

The President was in his office when he heard the news of Ahmed Wali's murder. "I was sitting right where I am, right now, talking to one of my advisers. And the news came through. I didn't leave my chair. I didn't leave my desk. That day I was to receive President Sarkozy for a lunch meeting. I said, 'No, don't cancel it. We will receive him; then we will go to attend to my brother's death.'

"I did that because almost every day I get the news of the killing, or the assassination, or the bomb, that causes the Afghan people to lose brothers, lose family. So for me that day was one more incident of an Afghan losing a person they love."

This outer steeliness is betrayed by the emotion that shows on his face: a look of devastation similar to that seen at Ahmed Wali's funeral, when he dramatically stepped into the grave to bid a last goodbye. Then he smiles. "Let's go for a walk," he says.

It is early evening. The palace is covered in shadow and a full moon is rising above the turrets. I find myself thinking of those who lived here before, and the grisly fate many of them suffered. Does he ever imagine the ghosts of old presidents? "No, never. Those were different times."

He changes the subject, turning the conversation to Europe, which he used to like visiting before he took office. "I am an outdoor man. I like the simpler life. I am looking forward to completing my term and going back to being a citizen of my country. I have a house in Kabul. I want my son to be educated in Afghanistan."

We stop. "How do you feel about living here?" I ask, gesturing around.

"Not happy," he replies.

Will things ever improve for his country? Will Afghanistan achieve the peaceful, liberal democracy that the West seeks? Yes, he says, but only if those nations are "respectful towards our religion, our tradition, and mindful of the state of our society.

"We want greater co-operation in Afghanistan, to bring partnership between the Afghan people and these international forces, where Afghans will do their work and the international community will do their work... We don't mind their presence, but we want a change in their behaviour."

He is not unsympathetic to the British forces in Helmand. "They learnt to do better after their initial setbacks ... They have a better cultural understanding of Afghanistan's needs." He adds that "the Prince of Wales is a very good friend of Afghanistan and is helping the revival of Afghan culture."

But it is no longer just to the West that he looks for support. "Good relationships with the neighbours, especially Pakistan, can contribute greatly to Afghanistan's stability. They could do a lot more. China, too; India, too."

Does he think Western forces should have left sooner? "The Afghan people would agree to the presence of the Western military in Afghanistan. The Afghan people would not really care about the number of troops. The Afghan people would want a change in their behaviour – the Afghan people don't want them knocking on their doors at night; the Afghan people don't want them breaking into their homes; the Afghan people don't want them taking prisoners from their population."

It's that lack of respect, he says, that rankles. "The Afghan people want them to respect Afghan laws."

And does he believe that, after 10 years of death and destruction, the West truly wants the Taliban defeated?

He pauses. "I hope so," he says.

It is perhaps his most telling answer of all.

Evgeny Lebedev is chairman of Independent Print Ltd, owner of 'The Independent'. This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with world leaders.

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