Return to Transcripts main page


Afghanistan's Golden Age and How it Relates to Modern Times

Aired October 29, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: October is now the worst month of casualties for U.S. troops since they invaded Afghanistan eight years ago. Fractured, chaotic, corrupt and deadly, but it wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, Afghanistan did have a golden age. We'll look back to find lessons for the future.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

U.S.-led NATO forces swiftly dispatched the Taliban and Al Qaida after 9/11, but they failed to consolidate that victory, and the momentum now is with the Taliban. It's one of the longest wars in American history and one of the deadliest since World War II for its European allies.

As for the Afghan people, they have suffered death and destruction for the last 30 years, first, when the Soviet army invaded on Christmas Day in 1979. After a decade of heavy fighting, the Afghan Mujahideen forced them to retreat. That was 1989. And it brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But in Afghanistan, meantime, the political vacuum paved the way for another decade of war between Mujahideen factions, and that was followed by an era of oppression under the Taliban, until they were defeated by the United States in 2001.

But it has not always been this way. This is a home movie of Kabul that we found. It was taken in 1976. It shows cars that are actually intact. It shows streets that are orderly and buildings that are, in fact, standing. It's an Afghanistan that most of the world doesn't know and might find hard to believe these days. In other words, it was once a normal place.

To rewind history and fast-forward for a picture of the future, I'm joined by two people who have firsthand experience of living and working there. From Washington, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, who was born in Mazar-e Sharif and raised in Kabul. And here in our studio, author and journalist Tom Ricks, who lived in Afghanistan as a teenager and has written extensively about the war.

Welcome to you both.

Can I start first with you, Ambassador Khalilzad? Take us back. What was it like growing up in Afghanistan back then?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR: Well, it was a nice place. I remember my childhood very well. I was born in Mazar-e Sharif, which is a lovely small town, with one of Islam's best architectural monuments, the shrine for the Fourth Caliph, or the First Imam Ali. And the new year celebrations, I remember fondly of Nowruz, March 21st, the whole city looked -- looked red with red flowers, poppy flowers.

I used to go away from Mazar for a while to school, because my father moved around the northern part of Afghanistan on a horse to school, came back from school on a horse, never had any problems. There were different ethnic groups, Shia, Sunnis, living together.

It was poor, but it was relatively happy and -- and -- and harmonious and very different than -- than what...

AMANPOUR: Than what it is today.

KHALILZAD: ... what it is today, exactly.

AMANPOUR: And let me ask you, Tom. You were there when, I believe, your parents were working there...


AMANPOUR: ... in the late '60s, early '70s. What was it like, particularly for an American?

RICKS: I loved it. It's a beautiful country. I really found it more hospitable than almost any other country I've ever been in. Afghans knew that they had a unique place, a unique culture. They're very welcoming.

I was 13, 14, 15. I was knocking around the country by myself with friends, hopping on a bus to Herat or down to Peshawar.

AMANPOUR: So it was safe and stable?

RICKS: Yes, in fact, there's this whole myth that really bothers me. "Oh, these people have been fighting each other for thousands of years." Actually, Afghanistan was very peaceful for most of the 20th century, with the exception of 1928. They sat out World War II. They didn't have anything like a Vietnam War, until the Soviet invasion in 1979.

AMANPOUR: We're looking right now at still pictures from the archives showing a poor, traditional, but what we know, because what we learned and what you're telling us, is stable time back then.

Ambassador Khalilzad, everybody says now, "Oh, my goodness. It's ungovernable. It's fractured. You can't -- you can't get a grip with this country." First of all, is that true? And why do you think people say it?


KHALILZAD: Well, it's very difficult right now because what happened in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion, that the country was devastated, both in terms of its infrastructure, in terms of the psychological damage that it did, you know? About 1 million people died in that war, 4 million or 5 million people lost their homes. The Afghan elite became those who were there in the area, Afghani sort of neighborhood, had to survive by learning how to cope with intelligence agencies of the neighboring states.

They lost self-confidence and became very much of a short-term thinkers. And, therefore, to put it together after the Soviet war, the civil war, the fragmentation that has taken place, it's going to be -- it's going to be hard, it's going to take time.

AMANPOUR: But is it governable? It is governable?

KHALILZAD: It is governable. It is governable, but state institutions have to be built, rebuilt. The Afghan army, the Afghan police, government institutions have to be built. It has to be on a new basis, however, because -- because of the changes that took place, the balance of power between different communities in Afghanistan is not the same as it was in the 1970s. And, therefore, a new national compact that their constitution embodies needs to be embraced by more and more Afghans.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, Tom Ricks. There was a period when there was that monarchy, 40 years before the Soviet invasion, and there was an era of stability, there was progress for women, there was also, towards the end, some reform and modernity introduced into Afghanistan. That collapsed.

RICKS: Kabul was a very cosmopolitan city in the late '60s, early '70s, when I was there. I remember Benazir Bhutto told me once that, when she was a teenager, she'd go to Kabul to party.

AMANPOUR: The late prime minister of -- of Pakistan.

RICKS: Yes. And she knew -- she knew how to party, but she'd go up to the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul when it opened, I think about 1970, and would throw parties for her friends there. It struck me, because I recently saw a terrific documentary movie, "Afghan Star," about the...

AMANPOUR: Of course. We just covered it.

RICKS: ... the Afghan -- and its concluding scene is in the ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel, which is where my high school junior prom was held.

AMANPOUR: Well, listen, that's a very good place to talk about people and different ethnicities. "Afghan Star," which is the version of "American Idol," was really about people from all over Afghanistan, all sorts of different ethnicities and tribes, coming to compete for this one prize, to win most popular singer.

Zalmay Khalilzad, many people told us that this today, in 2008, 2009, was a real lesson. If those people could get together across warring factions and accept the results, then it is actually a signal of hope.

KHALILZAD: It is a -- a signal of hope. I think the Afghan people -- and I traveled a lot during my ambassadorship there -- are ready to go back to a normal situation, but the Afghan elite, the political elite, remains very divided, some of them under the influence of regional players or others. It is the difficulty of the elite at this point to come together, to turn a new page, to forget and forgive and work to restore what Afghanistan was at one time and to improve it on what it was that -- that is a problem.

But I think the ordinary people are yearning for normalcy. They have heard about what Afghanistan was through word of mouth. Afghanistan is a very oral society. History is passed from one generation to another through stories that they tell. But it is very much the people's desire to -- to -- to move forward.

RICKS: Zal, given those divisions -- this is Tom Ricks here...


RICKS: Hi. Given those divisions, is there any chance of you becoming the interim president while these divisions among the elites are sorted out?

KHALILZAD: Well, that -- thank you, Tom. I think it'd be inappropriate for me, since I was the American ambassador, to put myself forward as a candidate to lead Afghanistan. There are a lot of very qualified people who could personify this desire for normalcy, you know. Other countries that have gone through difficult periods have had a leadership then come to bridge -- to -- to this new successful era. And Afghanistan, unfortunately, still is searching for that sort of leadership.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you -- you were just there. Tom and I and everybody have been watching this whole political dilemma and drama unfold. You met both with President Karzai and his challenger, Dr. Abdullah. Do you think that, despite a run-off, there will be power-sharing or not?


KHALILZAD: I think there will be power-sharing. Both want power- sharing. The difference is that Karzai wanted to be first declared the winner or win the election and then offer something from a position of strength, while Abdullah Abdullah wanted to go to a second round, but have a power-sharing agreement without the vote. And I believe that ultimately there will be a power-sharing.

There are very few very capable Afghans, and they need to come together in a power-sharing arrangement, because whatever the decision is here in the United States, this will be one last chance to push for success in Afghanistan, and that cannot happen without the Afghan leaders doing their part.

AMANPOUR: All right. You say one last chance to push for success. We're going to discuss that when we come back from a break, so stay with us.


RICKS: Zal, this is Tom Ricks. Can you hear me?

KHALILZAD: Hey, Tom. Yes, yes.

RICKS: So I think you should go in and say, "I'll be here for one year exactly. I'm leaving in 365 days. I'm just trying to do my best to help the Afghan people sort this out, and then I'm gone."


RICKS: You're the neutral umpire, the referee of sort of the elites.

KHALILZAD: Yes, well, I -- I think -- that's a germ of a bad idea.


I think they would think that the U.S. has come to take over. And unless it comes from them, I think this will be seen as an effort to -- to run Afghanistan by the United States.

RICKS: Well, at least somebody would be doing it.

KHALILZAD: Yes, well, that -- that is true. I mean, when I was there as ambassador, as you know, I -- I was quite interventionist to push the elites in -- in -- in a particular direction to -- to achieve progress, but there was a hope that Karzai would rise to the occasion after I left and do the job, but he hasn't done that, unfortunately.

RICKS: What do you think Karzai's basic problem is? Does he not understand the situation or does he feel unable to change it?


KHALILZAD: He understands -- he -- he understands it. He cannot change it, because everywhere he looks, there are problems if he pushes this way, he upsets this person, and he has associated himself with a group, in my view, that has a stake in the current situation. They benefit from it.


KHALILZAD: If there was a rule of law, they would not do well. If the government was stronger and cleaner, they wouldn't do very well. And the question is how to rescue him, if he gets re-elected, or Afghanistan from this corrupt, divided elite that's now running the place.

AMANPOUR: And we are on the record, although we're not on the program right now. Was Ahmed Wali Karzai on the U.S. CIA or Pentagon payroll?

KHALILZAD: I cannot comment on that.

AMANPOUR: Yes, you can. You were the ambassador. Do you know?

KHALILZAD: Well, no -- well, I know, but I cannot comment on intelligence matters. Still I'm -- I'm bound by my responsibilities of that time.

AMANPOUR: OK, forget the CIA. What about the Pentagon?

KHALILZAD: I -- I -- I do not believe that he was on the payroll of the Pentagon. I'm not aware of that. He may have done some specific tasks for the Pentagon on contract, but was not on a regular payroll as an agent or as -- as an employee or as a contractor full time for the Pentagon.

AMANPOUR: But he might have been for the CIA?

KHALILZAD: Cannot comment on that.

RICKS: Hold up one finger if you think it's true...


KHALILZAD: Thank you, Tom.

RICKS: Do you expect Karzai will win the run-off?

KHALILZAD: Oh, yes. I think Abdullah may not -- may not stay in the race.

AMANPOUR: That means there will be no run-off.

KHALILZAD: Well, he could be on his own or the number-three guy could take...


AMANPOUR: Why would -- why would Abdullah not?

KHALILZAD: Because I think he's -- first, he doesn't have much money left.


KHALILZAD: Second, I think that he thinks that, given the situation, he's likely to lose, and maybe he'll get less votes than he did in the first round, so that would be embarrassing.

AMANPOUR: Yes, but, listen, they can't monkey with the fate of the Afghan people. If the number-two guy is not going to be running, then they can't have a run-off.

KHALILZAD: Well, what -- what could happen constitutionality, some tell me, is that number-three then would become number-two, if he was to pull out. And if he...

AMANPOUR: But you wrote the constitution. Is that true?

KHALILZAD: That is true. You could interpret it that way, that the number-three will become number-two then. And Bashardost, this gentleman from central Afghanistan, will then become the competitor.


RICKS: Where's he from?

AMANPOUR: Central Afghanistan.

KHALILZAD: He's from -- from Hazarajat.

RICKS: Oh. From...


KHALILZAD: He got 10 percent of the votes, yes.


KHALILZAD: He -- he got -- he got his PhD...

AMANPOUR: That's a -- I think that's...

KHALILZAD: ... from Paris.

AMANPOUR: Well, I'm going to ask you that towards the end, "Do you think there will be a run-off?"


AMANPOUR: And yes.


AMANPOUR: Then we should continue. Yes, and if she comes, she comes. We should continue.

RICKS: Zal, are you going to write your memoirs?

AMANPOUR: Let's -- let's put the pictures up anyway.

KHALILZAD: I will -- I'm -- I'm looking for, you know, for a publisher and so on. Yes.

RICKS: Send me an e-mail. I'll hook you up.

KHALILZAD: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: OK (OFF-MIKE) continue, because our other guest, Tahera Shairzay, is not here yet, so we need to continue so that we get this on the air.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, will forever be a testament to the folly of war. Block after block was blasted to rubble six years ago when the warlords fought over this city. Thousands of years of history and 50,000 lives were obliterated in a hail of rockets and bombs.

But now, almost miraculously, Kabul is springing back to life. Hundreds of small businesses have popped up. And for the first time ever, the country even has a fledgling mobile phone system. Dollar bills are rapidly changing hands as people rush to get connected.

But many here worry Kabul's boomlet won't last without a long-term commitment from America.


AMANPOUR: That was back in 2002, one year after the U.S. invasion. You could see life springing back then, and even then we were all talking about what it would take to really win. And you heard us talk about a long-term American commitment.

So joining me again is Zalmay Khalilzad and Tom Ricks, and also we've been joined now by Tahera Shairzay, the former general director of information in the Afghan national assembly and who also was born in Afghanistan, has been through such a lot there.

Welcome, all of you, back to this program.

I will get to you in just one second, but I want to ask you, Ambassador Khalilzad, a long-term American commitment, even in 2002 people were talking about that. Isn't that what it's going to take?

KHALILZAD: It will take that, but it also will take for the Afghan leadership to make the right decisions to reconcile among themselves, to commit themselves to a successful Afghanistan, and for Afghan-Pakistan relationship, which has been affected, that has threatened Afghanistan for the past 50 years, those relations have been bad, it was because of -- that relationship that Afghanistan went close to the Soviets and did not move close to the United States during the Cold War, that needs to be straightened out, as well, and -- but as strong as a national commitment led by the United States is a necessary condition for success in Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: All right. Tahera, let -- let me talk to you now about women. We've been seeing these wonderful pictures from Afghanistan's golden age, for instance, the 40 years under Zahir Shah. We've got pictures of you from -- from that period and beyond. What was it like for you then and for women?

TAHERA SHAIRZAY, WOMEN FOR AFGHAN WOMEN: Well, it was the time I was growing up, and I was a student in high school and in college. It was very safe. We had everything that we could -- I mean, at that time that we knew was possible in Afghanistan. We had good education. We were involved in sports. We were involved in music, in entertainment.

AMANPOUR: Women had a lot of liberties then.

SHAIRZAY: Yes, we had a lot...


AMANPOUR: But it still was traditional. I think -- and Tom knows this very well -- American viewers, for instance, when the U.S. dispatched the Taliban, people were shocked that some Afghan women were still wearing the burqa, but that, in fact, is what traditional women do, right, Tom, even back then?

RICKS: Even back in Kabul back then, you'd see a lot of people -- actually, what we called it a chadri. I mean, a burqa is more of a Pakistani term. But you'd see a lot of women wearing the chadris, but also I had a feeling it was seen as somewhat country bumpkin-ish, maybe a little lower class.

Our next-door neighbors were the governor of a province. He was very proud that his daughters didn't wear any veil when they went to school every day.

AMANPOUR: And university was co-ed, even if its schools were single- sex, right?

SHAIRZAY: Right. Right. Even at that time, the elementary school was co-ed. After the secondary school, then they were separated, girls and boys were separated.

AMANPOUR: And then, when you came back and helped in the parliament after the 2001 invasion by the U.S., was there a sense that things would continue to get better for women?

SHAIRZAY: Well, everybody was hoping that. I was one of them -- myself, I was hoping that things will get better. And it did get better compared to Taliban time or Mujahideen time.

But slowly it appeared that women were not really -- directly involved in everything. They were like secondary citizens still. They would -- they were not taken very seriously in decision-making things.

AMANPOUR: And what will it take to cement women's gains there or just their rights?

SHAIRZAY: Mostly, educating women themselves, and also united them together, because the problem that I noticed there, there isn't much unity among women in the decision-making areas.

AMANPOUR: And if the Taliban comes back?

SHAIRZAY: Oh, I hope not. Well, it will be worse again for women in general.

AMANPOUR: Zalmay Khalilzad, what about the idea of a centralized Afghanistan? We've talked a little bit about whether it's governable or not, but there are people who criticize the constitution for relying too much on a -- what they believe is a fictitious idea of a centralized Afghanistan, whereas more should be done to empower the provinces and the constitution might need to be rewritten.

KHALILZAD: Well, of course, the constitution in that regard replicates what was in the constitution under the king, which was regarded as a golden era. But constitutions are manmade. They can be adjusted. This time, however, the problem of Afghanistan is not that the central government, in fact, is very strong, domineering. Even by any normal standard of even a federal state, the government of Afghanistan is weaker, cannot perform some of the basic functions.

But over time, as the situation normalizes, there's no reason why adjustments could not be made in the constitution, but that is -- this is not an issue that is a cause of any problem right now in Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: Tom, in terms of what you and I covered, the military in Afghanistan, I just want to play a little sound bite from Colonel John Spiszer, who was in Jalalabad when I visited. This is what he had to say about how there could be some progress there.


COL. JOHN SPISZER, U.S. ARMY: If we leave when we've made enough progress, that people will see hope, and they'll say, "Yes, it was -- it was hard, but the Americans left here, and we have hope for the future, we have faith in our government, we have stability we're not immediately going into a civil war," like what happened when the Russians left.

When the Russians left, you know, there was no hope for the -- you know, for the future. There was no faith in the government, and they started fighting immediately again. So if -- if we can leave here with it being stable and they don't start fighting immediately, I don't think we have a real problem.


AMANPOUR: So what happened and what he is talking about is, again, this idea of a long-term commitment. And you've been covering the troops. What are you finding in terms of what -- I mean, I get -- I get the sense that they're all fighting in one-year rotations, that it's really like eight one-year wars. What are they saying about that, some of them?

RICKS: You do see this. The 101st Airborne recently did a very good summary of its lessons. The number-one lesson was: You better get fit, because Afghanistan is the hardest place in the world to fight. But another lesson was: You need more continuity.

We -- we have been fighting one-year wars, one-year rotations. You really need to get Afghan forces and American forces in the same place, with the lessons passed on from Americans to Americans, presumably the local Afghan forces get better and better.

AMANPOUR: And also, every time another American unit has to come in, it's like starting from scratch again. It's many mistakes that previous units made are made again, and it alienates the Afghans, doesn't it?

RICKS: It does. And this is actually a key part of the McChrystal plan that's been overlooked. He wants to keep key people in Afghanistan for a long time. A friend of mine was told, "Don't agree to come unless you're willing to stay for three to five years." The McChrystal plan is a three- to five-year plan.


The other aspect of it is it clearly envisages two enemies in Afghanistan. One is Taliban and Islamic extremists. The other is the Afghan government. The role of the American troops is to protect them from both.

AMANPOUR: And, Tahera, do you believe that the Afghan people want to see a continued U.S. international presence there?

SHAIRZAY: Depends. Some people do; some people don't. We cannot say that the whole country wants the presence of the United States there. But at the same time, security-wise, it is needed to be there.

AMANPOUR: And, Zalmay Khalilzad, do you believe that it is in the U.S. interests -- or, rather, that vital interests are at stake there in Afghanistan?

KHALILZAD: Oh, yes, I do. I think it's not only about extremism and terror, but is also about the future of that region. At any one point, there is one issue that geopolitically is more important than all others, and right now, the future of this region, including extremism and terror, is the most important, the most difficult issue facing the world. And success or failure in Afghanistan would have the most serious consequence for the United States and for the world.

AMANPOUR: Do you think, as everybody looks to next week, the run-off election, do you think that it's going to be a run-off between President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah?

KHALILZAD: It's uncertain whether Dr. Abdullah will stay in the race or not. He has put some conditions forward that President Karzai has rejected. And if he does not contest, there is a possibility that the third runner-up, Mr. Bashardost, might take his place in the second round. There is some uncertainty still associated with the second round.

AMANPOUR: OK. So potentially a run-off without Dr. Abdullah. What do you see? We've just got a couple of seconds left. What do you see as the immediate future there? What do you think is going to happen, in terms of troops on the ground, Tom?

RICKS: I think you will see an escalation by the Obama administration. The key question is whether the president can sell it to the American people, I think.

AMANPOUR: And, Tahera, what do you see as the lessons from the golden age for -- for -- for the future there?

SHAIRZAY: I didn't get it very...

AMANPOUR: What do you see as the lessons from, let's say, the era between of Zahir Shah, the lessons of that time for what -- what could happen in Afghanistan in the future?

SHAIRZAY: Well, I hope -- I don't know at this time what I could say -- but I hope that it at least goes back to the normal life for Afghan women in general and education-wise and politically get involved in the decision-making of the policies of the government.

AMANPOUR: Thank you very much, indeed. Tahera Shairzay, Thomas Ricks, and Ambassador Khalilzad, thank you so much for joining us.

And we will have much more about Afghanistan's golden age on our Web site,, where you can see more home videos and photographs from Afghanistan. And next, how hope can overcome hostility after some conflict. A Palestinian doctor tells me how he's learned not to hate amid the ruins and the pain of war. We'll be right back.


AMANPOUR: And now, our "Post-Script." As we've heard, hatred and enmity are hard to overcome, but everywhere I go, just about everywhere, I find people who are ready to forgive, to shift their mindset, and to move on. Take a Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, for instance. He lost three of his daughters during the Israeli shelling in the Gaza war last January. I met him at his ruined home in Gaza in March.



AMANPOUR: And when we're standing here, where your children were killed, how do you teach your surviving children, your friends, your family not to hate?

DR. IZZELDIN ABUELAISH, PEACE ADVOCATE: I teach them to learn from what's happened and how can this tragedy be translated into positive action and to achieve the dreams of their lost beloved sisters.


AMANPOUR: And tonight, Dr. Abuelaish is being awarded this year's Common Ground Award in Washington for his unwavering commitment to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

That's it for now. We'll be back tomorrow, when I'll be talking to two remarkable women who are taking a stand against war in Africa. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.