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Interview with Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Aired January 14, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has never known what it's like to lead his country without the help of the United States and its NATO allies. He'll soon find out. Since Karzai came to power right after 9/11, the relationship between he (sic) and the United States has been one of the most important and the most vexing in the world.

But now that President Obama has told President Karzai that he's speeding up the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces, Afghanistan is about to find out what it means to stand on its own two feet. How will it impact all that has been achieved there in the last 11 years?

Throughout my reporting in that country, I've seen many significant gains, like this, for instance, where I watched a ribbon cutting at a school built by American soldiers in the countryside, a school for boys and girls. And their faces told the story. And there were many other stories like that across Afghanistan.

But there's another side, the side of so many Taliban truck bombings and attacks, this one two months ago that level a whole neighborhood and killed and wounded women and children.

In the only interview that he gave while here in the United States, President Karzai sat down with me for an unusually candid conversation about his relationship with the U.S. and the very survival of his country the day after all international forces leave.


AMANPOUR: President Karzai, you have been incredibly upbeat in public about the successes and about the achievements made in Afghanistan. Are you really that optimistic?

HAMID KARZAI, PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN: In terms of social change and education and development, yes. In terms of security, if you noticed, I did not particularly talk. And that's the area where we had troubles.

AMANPOUR: What is it that worries you right now?

KARZAI: Well, we -- as you have heard me say it before, the war on terror wasn't to be found in Afghanistan in the first place, and not in the Afghan villages. The sanctuaries were left unattended, and hence the consequences and the suffering to Afghanistan, to the U.S. and other international troops.

AMANPOUR: For these precise reasons I'm hearing from Afghan people that they are very afraid at the prospect of the United States leaving and leaving a very small force, if any, in 2014.

Do you understand that fear? Do you share that fear?

KARZAI: I understand it fully. I don't share it. I don't share it because Afghanistan is to be provided security by Afghans themselves. We can't be forever and without an end dependent on the international community, or a burden on the shoulders of the international community.

AMANPOUR: But so many people who I speak to, whether they are Afghan, whether they are my fellow reporters who have been on the ground, whether they're international organizations who have done studies, say that no matter the intentions, the Afghan forces are not up to the job yet.

They are not able to take over where the U.S. and NATO has left off.

KARZAI: Where it is a matter of a broader threat of a more sophisticated nature, that doesn't apply to us. There the United States and the rest of the international community are necessary to be involved, and are involved.

Where the Taliban as Afghans engage in armed conflict with their own country and government, it is exactly our job to deal with it. And we are capable of dealing with it.

AMANPOUR: You yourself and your people have said that one of the main reasons for coming here to the United States was to talk about a wish list for military hardware to bolster your own forces. So what is your wish- list at the Pentagon? What is it that you want for your army?

KARZAI: Already delivered to the United States some time back: train us well; educate the forces well; equip them properly. Properly means from our perspective one thing, and from the U.S. perspective another thing.

When we say train us and equip us well, we mean we need an air force. We need air mobility. We need proper mechanized forces. We need, you know, armored.


KARZAI: . vehicles and tanks and all that. The United States would tell us that at this stage we cannot manage some of the more sophisticated equipment.

AMANPOUR: In other words, they don't want to give it to you.

KARZAI: Yes. Some of the goods we will get, we will get, for example, C-130s in 2013.

AMANPOUR: Which are transport planes, necessary, but they're not...

KARZAI: Very, very necessary.

AMANPOUR: . military fighters.

KARZAI: We'll get helicopters. We'll get armored vehicles in thousands. We'll get all other tools, military tools that we require.

AMANPOUR: Do you think that freaks out your neighbors, Pakistan, Iran? Do you need them against your neighbors?

KARZAI: The -- a stronger, more better equipped army is not intended to cause fear in our neighbors or to be a source of intimidation beyond Afghan borders, no.

AMANPOUR: Do you envision, after 2014, there being no troops -- no U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

KARZAI: No, I don't envision that.

AMANPOUR: How many do you envision being there?

KARZAI: The United States will continue to have the use of facilities in Afghanistan. And in order to run those facilities well, for the purposes of continuing to fight al Qaeda and train and equip Afghan forces, the United States would need to have a limited number of forces in Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: But, look, you expected, the world expected there to be some 20,000 troops after 2014 to do the things that you wanted done: attacking al Qaeda or make sure it doesn't come back; training, assisting, getting your army up.

And they're not talking about all of the things they used to promise you: democracy; nation-building; defeating the Taliban. That's gone.

KARZAI: Democracy is there. We'll have an election a year-and-a-half from today. A new president will come to this country. A new government will come to this country. And I'll be a happily retired civil servant.

I think as far as the U.S. is concerned, the main task is accomplished.

AMANPOUR: Part of your solution and the U.S. solution to ending the fighting, since you've decided not to defeat the Taliban, is to try to bring them into the process.


AMANPOUR: And literally nothing has happened in that regard.


AMANPOUR: No talks. Nothing meaningful yet.

KARZAI: No. The Taliban are very much conveying to us that they want to have peace talks. They're also people. They're also families. They also suffer, like the rest of Afghans are suffering.

AMANPOUR: What can you live with, then, if those people, whose goal was a total Islamic caliphate -- no women in school, no women in public, limited activity for boys -- what can the Afghan people expect if these people are brought back into civil society?

If, God forbid, they get back into government, what can the women of Afghanistan expect?

KARZAI: Had you asked me this three years ago, I would have been hesitating in giving you a confident answer towards yes.

Today, in having experienced the growth of Afghanistan, the creation of a critical mass in Afghanistan that is necessary for turning the corner from bad towards better, I think we have turned the corner.

I think there is now a critical mass in Afghanistan of the educated, of the Afghan people who want a future of progress and stability. And I think also that the Taliban recognize that this corner has been turned, the majority of them.

Some may be there among them who would not -- who would remain, you know, in the darkest of the mindset possible. But those are a few. The majority will go by -- with a better Afghanistan, of course, within the context of our culture, of our religion, of our traditions.

AMANPOUR: Your religion and your tradition obviously does not call for women to be assassinated, as they are being doing -- as is happening to them now in Afghanistan, various officials.



AMANPOUR: Nor does it call for girls to have acid thrown in their faces.


AMANPOUR: Nor does it call for schools to be burnt down.

KARZAI: Yes. Well, that is criminal activity.

AMANPOUR: So what do you say -- do you believe these Taliban who are going to come back are going to allow schools to be opened.


KARZAI: We will not allow them to do that. That's not -- is -- the question isn't whether they will allow schools to be run. It's the other way around. Schools will be run. And those who try schools not to run will be stopped from not having schools run.

AMANPOUR: Just a quick question on the U.S. partnership: are you ready to agree to immunity for U.S. forces?

The president, in his press conference with you, made it very clear: no immunity, no U.S. troops.

KARZAI: Afghanistan's sovereignty, as you referred to earlier, is, for us, the, you know, untouchable. That cannot be compromised. That cannot be touched.

And that's the reason at times we were so intensely at loggerheads with the U.S. government, civilian casualties and questions of our sovereignty, or interference or lack of full respect to that sovereignty.

Within the context of sovereignty of Afghanistan and the laws of Afghanistan, I can go to the Afghan people and tell them that, well, if we are to ask for a U.S. presence in Afghanistan for that broader security and stability, there are things that they want in return.

And immunity is the principle thing that they want. So I will argue for it. And I can tell you with relatively good confidence that they will say, all right, let's do it.

AMANPOUR: And you think that that's a likelihood?

KARZAI: It is quite a likelihood.

AMANPOUR: A certainty?

KARZAI: The certainty is for the Afghan to tell us.

AMANPOUR: But you're the president, and you'll tell them what to tell you.

KARZAI: But -- you know our country, Christiane, it's a country where the people have formats of decision-making. The loya jirga is one such format. And it has to be taken to them -- to the loya jirga, and let them tell us.

AMANPOUR: So you believe the loya jirga -- you could sell it?

KARZAI: I could argue for it. I could sell it. And I'm sure they would understand.


AMANPOUR: An important point. And when we return, I'll turn to the personal side of Hamid Karzai and what a toll 11 years of the presidency have taken on him.

But before we take a break, take a look at this picture. That's the Kajaki Dam on the Helmand River in southern Afghanistan, a symbol of everything that's gone right and wrong in that country. Built by America in the 1950s, it survived the Soviet invasion and the Taliban to provide electricity to the region.

But unless Afghans are willing and able to keep it going, the lights and the hopes of the people may be extinguished.

For more on this endangered project, head to and we'll be right back.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program and continuing my conversation with Hamid Karzai, we now turn to the personal side of the president.

The American military operation that began so many years ago just after the trauma of 9/11 thrust him into what he calls an intense relationship with the United States. At first, he was admired and then derided by some. Hamid Karzai finally tells me how it looked and how it felt through his eyes.


AMANPOUR: Mr. President, you look very tired. And you look like these 12 years have taken a huge toll on you personally.


AMANPOUR: Tell me about that.

KARZAI: Well, when you're in the middle of it, you don't feel it. It's the strong current that takes you forward and you swim along. But I do feel exhausted, yes, I do feel tired. It has been a momentous time in our history and I had a major part of it. You're right.

AMANPOUR: Is it time to go?

KARZAI: Absolutely. Absolutely it's time to go. I believe the country needs fresh blood to come in. And democracy has to function.

AMANPOUR: And are you prepared to see any able-bodied person take your place and be elected or do you think you need to select a proxy? People are afraid that, yes, now you've agreed that you will not run again, and you will abide by the constitution, but you might go out and, you know, select somebody and make sure they win.

KARZAI: Well, even if I select someone, the people will have to vote for him or her.

AMANPOUR: But they're afraid of the system being manipulated.

KARZAI: No. No, not that. No. Look, there was a lot talk in 2009 of fraud in the Afghan elections.

AMANPOUR: Do you think it's important that this time.

KARZAI: The Afghans.

AMANPOUR: . it's not tainted?

KARZAI: The Afghans didn't do that. It was tainted because there was a decision in Washington to taint that election, because there was a decision in London to taint that election and because there was a decision in Paris to taint that election -- especially these three countries -- because they wanted to weaken me as the president who was, you know, standing up to certain policies that we disagreed with.

And they wanted me to be weaker so they could, you know, compromise me into policies that they wanted in Afghanistan.

That didn't happen. And I've spoken with the leaders of these countries about the 2009 elections, and I've asked them not to repeat that practice again in Afghanistan. They have all promised that they will not do that.

So, yes, the elections shall have no interference from abroad. And it should be free, fair and done well by Afghans. What would I want, say, at the end of 2014 or the beginning of 2015, as the ex-president of Afghanistan?

One, that the Afghan people will say that the elections were conducted well and proper and, you know, have a good word about me on that or one of complaints and accusation?

What is good for my legacy?

AMANPOUR: Legacy is important.

KARZAI: Very much.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you to cast your mind back. I conducted the first interview with you after 9/11. We sat on the ground in Kandahar. There was gaslight and you were a young man and I was a younger person.

And you were very popular. And you were very optimistic. And you came here to the United States. And you were the toast of the town here in Washington, addressed a Joint Session of Congress. One of the greatest fashion designers called you "the best-dressed man in the world," precisely for your clothes, Tom Ford.

And now Democrats and Republicans are running away from Afghanistan, running away from even perhaps giving money to Afghanistan. The people of America are fed up.

Do you understand that.


AMANPOUR: . by and large you've lost America?

KARZAI: We haven't lost America. And America hasn't lost us.

This was an intense relationship. This relationship was bound to face, you know, difficulties.

I was the president of Afghanistan. My job was to protect the Afghan people from terrorism and from the war against terrorism, where it affected the Afghan people.

And this was difficult for the audience in America to understand. The feeling here was that the United States is in Afghanistan helping the Afghan people, and that the Afghan president is not grateful.

Well, I am. The Afghan people are grateful where the United States has provided help to the Afghan people for a better life.

AMANPOUR: I just interviewed General McChrystal, and he had very warm things to say about you.

KARZAI: He was a good military officer and a good person, one who respected Afghan lives and the Afghan people, one who was honest and truthful with us. And he really worked hard to protect Afghan civilians.

I respected him particularly because one night he gave me a call. And he said, Mr. President, I promised you that there will be no more civilian casualties, but unfortunately there was a casualty some hours ago, and I must confess that we have made a mistake.

I said, well, in this case I will go to the Afghan people and tell them that this was a mistake, and that they will forgive you. And that's exactly what happened.

AMANPOUR: And, finally, the plan is to reduce forces, to train and stand up the Afghan forces, to reconcile with the Taliban enough to stop them fighting on the battlefield.

What happens if it doesn't work? What's plan B?

KARZAI: Well, it has to work. It may not work exactly as we plan it. But it will work. And Afghanistan will find more peaceful days. And Afghanistan will have to bring the Taliban who are Afghans in the soil -- the sons of the Afghan soil back to the country.

It will be fine. And if it doesn't work, I don't think we can have a plan B. I think we can have a modification of the current plan, and continue. As we go along, there will be changes.

AMANPOUR: President Karzai, thank you very much for joining me.

KARZAI: Good to talk to you. Very good to talk to you.


AMANPOUR: Many changes ahead for Afghanistan, not just trying to bolster and maintain security but try to reconcile with the Taliban, if that's possible, bring them in around the table so that when these U.S. and international forces do leave, there is a political and military stability in Afghanistan. It is a tall order.

And as well, the fight goes on for human rights, especially, as we said, the rights of women.

For inspiration, Afghans might take a page out of the American South. Fifty years ago, a fire-breathing politician named George Wallace led the forces of segregation here in the United States. They seemed unassailable. But as we shall see, the walls of discrimination came tumbling down.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, President Karzai's visit to Washington included a joint press conference at the White House, a moment that might seem unremarkable.

But imagine a very different world not that long ago, where Barack Obama could not have been elected or even allowed to go to school with whites or sit with them in a movie theater. That was the harsh reality for blacks in the segregated South of these United States back in 1963.

Exactly 50 years ago today, George Wallace, a fire-breathing Southerner sounded the battle cry of segregation when he took the oath of office as governor of the state of Alabama in the heart of the Old South.


GEORGE WALLACE, FORMER GOVERNOR OF ALABAMA: I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.


AMANPOUR: And with those chilling and defiant words, a second civil war began from Montgomery, Alabama, to the march on Washington. The Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King waged its non-violent struggle to change the South and the United States forever.

Fifty years later, America has an African-American president. But Afghanistan has its own civil rights struggle for the rights of women and all people who believe in democratic and moderate country, a free people to live in peace with religious tolerance. That battle is far from over and those are the stakes as Afghans and the world confront the withdrawal of international forces.

And before we go, why is China's most famous artist, Ai Weiwei, wearing a gas mask? That toxic story tomorrow.

And that's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us on our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.