Hamid Karzai's Challenge

By Lally Weymouth
Monday, December 21, 2009; 9:00 AM

Will a surge of American soldiers turn the tide in Afghanistan? Or will the United States endure a defeat similar to the one suffered by the Russian Army not so long ago? In the wake of President Obama's decision to send an additional 30,000 young men and women to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, all eyes are on Afghan President Hamid Karzai--who now suggests America's withdrawal timeline might be flexible. The Obama administration has been blunt in making it clear that Karzai must do something about corruption, which reportedly has been allowed to flourish in his government. Karzai spoke by phone from Kabul with NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth about how he sees the situation in the coming year. Excerpts:

WEYMOUTH: What do you foresee for the coming year for your country?

KARZAI: I foresee a lot of hope, stability for Afghanistan--better than what we have today--progress toward institution building, and a better economic situation. And also [I hope] that the commitments of the international community to Afghanistan will be realized in the coming year, especially in the provision of security for the Afghan people. I hope we will be making some advances against terrorism ¿ [and in] the agricultural, energy, and mining sectors in Afghanistan.

WEYMOUTH: What did you think of President Obama's recent speech in which he said he would deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, but with an exit date?

KARZAI: We support the plan he presented. The most important aspect of that plan for us is the emphasis on the protection of Afghan civilians--reducing to an absolute minimum the civilian casualties. Also, we support President Obama's plan with regard to support of the Afghan economy, the agricultural sector, and making sure that Afghanistan has the ability two years from today to take more responsibilities for the protection of this country. Eventually, I hope, in accordance with this plan [which] we should do together, Afghanistan will be able to provide for its own security.

WEYMOUTH: What kind of a signal did Obama send to your extremist opponents by naming an exit date? Did he send a signal of weakness?

KARZAI: I don't think so. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, we must recognize that the international community is not going to be with us forever. One day, sooner or later, they are going to return to their homes. While we think of that, we must also make sure that Afghanistan works hard to ready itself to secure the country, to provide for its people and to have a level of good governance and an economy that can sustain our people. For us, it is rather a blessing that we are facing a date or a deadline. But for the terrorists, for the bad guys, it should not send a signal that withdrawal means that they can have their day a year and a half from now. No, we should complete the job and then say goodbye to our friends.

WEYMOUTH: Do you think the surge will work in the time frame that President Obama set?

KARZAI: That is something I hope we will accomplish. If that timeline is not met, in my opinion it won't matter. One can always adjust timelines. It is not an absolute, in my opinion.

WEYMOUTH: Do you and U.S. officials agree on that?

I have heard statements from U.S. officials that it is not an absolute timeline, that adjustments can be made.

WEYMOUTH: Have they told you this?

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