Sunday, January 27, 2008

With Taliban violence on the rise in Afghanistan and reports of government corruption marring his government's image, Afghan President Hamid Karzai finds himself embattled and on the defensive. Last week, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he spoke with Newsweek-Washington Post's Lally Weymouth about the Taliban and Pakistan, his government's challenges and its ties with Iran. Excerpts:

Q. How are the Taliban affecting you in Afghanistan?

A. By trying to prevent progress, by trying to prevent reconstruction, by killing our people, by [preventing] our children in southern Afghanistan from going to school, by killing the community leaders, the religious leaders, intimidating cultural leaders. By all means.

How strong are they now?

They would not be strong without support.

From Pakistan?

I've just had a very good trip to Pakistan, so what I would say is that Pakistan and Afghanistan and the United States and the rest of the world must join hands in sincerity in order to end this problem. They have to take [action]. They have to.

The last time I interviewed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, I thought he was very angry. It's really a crazy situation in Pakistan.

Yes, very much. I found him to be more cognizant of the problems of extremism and terrorism. That's a good sign, and I hope we will continue in that direction.

Do you think Musharraf will do something about it, send forces into the problematic border areas ?

We have to end extremism. We have to end support for extremism in the region. Unless we do that, the picture is one of doom and gloom, for Pakistan, and as a consequence for Afghanistan.

When I interviewed former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December, she said to me, "I feel they are going to come knocking at my door one night."

Unfortunately, her death, the way it happened, proves her point. That's the irony. That's the sad thing about her death. She predicted something, and she proved right in that prediction. So it must be listened to. We cannot use extremism as a tool for any purpose. It will hurt us eventually, as it has begun to hurt Pakistan.

The United States is sending 3,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Will that help?

I'm happy about that, yes. The American contribution to the war against terrorism is fundamental and strong.

Will it make a difference?

It will make a difference when the Americans are clear and straightforward about this fight.

What do you mean by that, Mr. President? "When the Americans are straightforward about the fight"?

They mean what they say. They do what they say.

You think they don't now?

They do now. Straight means they do now. Straight means they really are fighting it.

Do you think they're the right type of troops? Should they be special operations troops?

That's a professional issue. It has to be addressed by the military. What we need is the right number, the right quality and the right-equipped troops.

But you have a problem with foreign forces -- they have limits. The Germans, for example, won't go to the south [the Taliban stronghold].

That has to be settled within the countries of NATO. But we are happy for all the contributions the NATO members are making to Afghanistan. We don't get involved in the details of operations. That's the business of NATO.

Do you plan to have more Afghan troops in the future?

We are training them. We so far have trained 57,000 of our troops. We hope that this training will grow to a larger number and to a higher quality. We are satisfied so far with the training of our Afghan army and with the equipment that we have received from the United States. We hope there will be more. We just got the first consignment of our air wing in the Afghan Ministry of Defense -- that's helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. So that is something that we'd like to push forward.

Are there other things that you're asking the U.S. for?

We're asking for the United States to help us in training and equipping a proper army.

And do you feel that the United States is being responsive to your requests?

Quite. Yes, yes.

People talk a lot about opium and opium eradication, and some people have stronger methods of eradicating opium.

Yes, aerial spray and all that.

Which I gather you're opposed to.

Very strongly, yes, very strongly. Opium is a problem for Afghanistan, opium is a problem for the region, and opium is a problem for the international community. It affects our lives all around the world. It is wrong. From any perspective, and for all of us. Therefore we have to in Afghanistan get rid of this menace.

What is the strategy?

The overall strategy is to try to get rid of poppies by improving the overall Afghan economy, by bringing better prosperity to the Afghan people, by eradicating poppies and by replacing it with other alternatives. But how to bring this about is something that we have all to agree about. In short, opium came to Afghanistan because of the desperation of the Afghan people. Thirty years ago, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, when we began to fight them, no Afghan family was sure if they were going to stay in their own house the next day or not, if they were going to be in their country the next day or not -- if they were going to be alive the next day or not. So for them the easiest way was to have a cash crop. And opium was promoted from outside the Afghan borders. The mafia came in and told the people that this is a cash crop: "Grow it, and we'll pay you."

I know people -- men -- who have destroyed their pomegranate orchards to replace them with poppies. Now no family would do that -- ever -- unless they are absolutely in limbo about the future. And I know people, families, who have destroyed their vineyards in order to replace them with poppies because they were not sure of their tomorrow. The more Afghanistan is sure of its tomorrow, the more the people have hope for the future of the country and its prosperity and stability, the higher will be our achievement in eradicating poppies, as has already been demonstrated in parts of the country.

But don't people need a substitute?

When there is stability and prosperity, then that is the substitute.

But how do you get there?

By what we are already doing. Fighting terrorism, bringing the rule of law, improving governance and having a better economy. Whatever it takes to have a society that is governed by the rule of law and is at peace.

How do you think you're doing with that ambition?

Well, we've taken magnificently strong steps. We have children going to school, we have our highways being rebuilt, we have our health services improving, we have our economy improving, we have everything right. The only thing that we have to get right is an effective fight against terrorism. With that achievement, when it comes, Afghanistan will move much faster in the direction of a proper economy, away from a criminal economy, into a legitimate livelihood.

When you talked to President Musharraf, did you say, "Okay, what are you going to do about the terrorist bases in Pakistan?"

We do see eye-to-eye more than before on this question.

Why is that?

Because of the glaring blow that we have.

Because of the death of Bhutto?

Because of her death, because of the bomb blasts, because of the suicide bombs killing people in mosques. It's unbelievable. It is impossible for us -- even if you want to ignore this in Pakistan -- to ignore it any more. How can we deny it?

So the president agreed with you that it is impossible.

To deny? Oh, he absolutely agrees that there is a problem and that we have to fix it.

There are a lot of complaints about corruption in Afghanistan.

There is, there is, yes.

What can you do to combat corruption, even in official circles?

Corruption is in official circles. Corruption is in governments or in industry.

Can you fire people? What can you do?

We do fire people. We do a lot of those things, but that is not the only answer to corruption. You see, corruption is the consequence of the weakness of the overall Afghan system and the arrival of a lot of money and the arrival of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and international partners. Now, we cannot correct corruption by action against corruption in a criminal way only. We have to improve standards in Afghanistan by having better, more properly equipped administration, better human capital, better human resources, better skills. And police. And law enforcement. And relevant laws. In other words, the society has to grow -- all aspects of it -- from the present base, which is weak, to a stronger base into the future. Then we'll be able to end corruption.

How much influence does Iran have in your country right now, Mr. President?

We have had a particularly good relationship with Iran the past six years. It's a relationship that I hope will continue. We have opened our doors to them. They have been helping us in Afghanistan. The United States very wisely understood that it is our neighbor and encouraged that relationship. I hope Iran would also understand that the United States is a great ally of ours and that we value that alliance with the United States. So that is the foundation of our relations with them, and I hope that it will continue as it is.

So in other words, you don't agree with President Bush's assessment of Iran.

On which question?

He called it part of the "axis of evil." And there's been a lot of discussion about a nuclear program.

We don't like a nuclear region, of course. Nobody wants nuclear weapons. Who wants to have weapons of destruction around their homes? Nobody. But the United States has been very understanding and supportive that Afghanistan should have a relationship with Iran.

Are you going to run for another term in 2009?

Well, I have things to accomplish. Who was it who wrote -- Robert Frost? -- "The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep."

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