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?
KARZAI: I can't say specifically that they have told us this, but that is what we heard through the statements in the media.
WEYMOUTH: Do you think 18 months from now--in July 2011--the Afghan police and Army will be able to deal with the Taliban and Al Qaeda on their own?
KARZAI: In many parts of the country, we are already responsible for our own security. We are doing it in Kabul as well. In the next two years, we will be able to take responsibility for security in more areas of the country, especially areas that are threatened right now. I hope by the completion of my term in five years, Afghanistan will be able to lead the entire security system.
WEYMOUTH: Your border with Pakistan is a problem for you.
KARZAI: That is a key factor. Our success--I mean Afghanistan and its allies, including Pakistan--will depend on our ability to deal with extremism and terrorism on both sides of the border equally. If we have that sort of constructive engagement from our brothers in Pakistan, which we are beginning to see, then I am sure we will find success easier.
WEYMOUTH: You mean if the Pakistani Army takes responsibility for their side of the border, is that correct?
KARZAI: Exactly. Which they are doing in certain parts of the country. I hope that will be extended to other parts of the country bordering Afghanistan.
WEYMOUTH: Do you believe they are serious about this?
KARZAI: They showed a lot of seriousness in the past year.
WEYMOUTH: You have said before that Pakistan is a center of terror?
WEYMOUTH: Yet President Obama talks about long-term interests in Pakistan. How do you see the situation in Pakistan?
KARZAI: Afghanistan and Pakistan have to work together. We have seen a satisfactory relationship between the two countries in the past year. We hope there will be more developments in Pakistan with regard to the war on terror. They have begun operations against [terrorists], for which the Pakistani civilians and the Pakistani military have paid a very heavy price. We appreciate what they have done and we are also very sorry for the suffering the Pakistani civilians incurred because of this. We will continue to make sure this cooperation is taken to a higher level whereby the two countries can see security and safety.
WEYMOUTH: But reportedly, the Pakistani Army will only take on the Pakistani Taliban, not the extremists in Pakistan who are the enemies of the United States.
KARZAI: There is speculation [to this effect], but I think we should give Pakistan time to show that it will go in that direction as well. At this point we have no reason to be negative.
WEYMOUTH: You hinted that the Taliban leadership might be talked into reconciling with your government. You said something about [talking to] Taliban who give up violence. Do you believe such talks are possible?
KARZAI: It is necessary to have a peace process along with a military campaign, by which we attract back to the country those Taliban who are not part of Al Qaeda or of other terrorist networks--who don't have an ideological problem with their own country or with its constitution. We must do all we can to make sure they are reintegrated.
WEYMOUTH: Have you made progress on this front?
KARZAI: We have been working on this for a long time. I hope that with the new strategy announced by President Obama that we will receive considerable support in implementing the reintegration.
WEYMOUTH: Obama said that the United States would support efforts to open the door to those who abandon violence. You said recently that the U.S. had not given you enough support to do this. What kind of support would you like from the United States?
KARZAI: On reintegration and the peace process, we have not received much support in the past. But with the new strategy there is a clear reference to reintegration and the peace process and that is a hopeful sign.
WEYMOUTH: What kind of support?
KARZAI: All sorts of support. It means providing the ability to actually reintegrate the Taliban, to find them jobs and provide us the environment where they would not be harassed or intimidated, so that they can go to their homes and villages. That involves a whole range of issues.
WEYMOUTH: The U.S. is saying you absolutely have to do something about corruption. What do you plan to do?
KARZAI: Definitely we have to do something about that here in Afghanistan. It is extremely important. If it is an Afghan problem, we will take full responsibility for it and we will work on it. We have already begun. Also, [we want] our allies to take responsibility on their side and do all that they can.
WEYMOUTH: Is a lot of what is going in Afghanistan a Pashtun rebellion, in the sense that the Pashtun, who used to rule Afghanistan, feel left out as power has been ceded to the Tajiks and other groups?
KARZAI: It is not that. The Pashtuns have been victims of terrorism all along for the past 30 years--just like the rest of Afghanistan and the rest of Pakistan. What we must do is provide the Pashtuns with protection, with resources, with reconstruction, and an environment in which they can send their children to school and educate them. They are actually victims.