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Newsmaker Hamid Karzai

January 28, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Prime Minister, welcome.

HAMID KARZAI: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: What do you plan to tell the President at your meeting today?

HAMID KARZAI: My first thing will be to we thank him for helping Afghanistan fight terrorism, for helping Afghanistan liberate itself from the clutches of terrorism. Terrorism was actually the power there. It was the government. It wasn’t an element there. It wasn’t somebody that was there and as a group or as a force.

It was the political authority in Afghanistan, and now I know that it would not have been possible without the help of the United States and the rest of the international community, to go take him.

JIM LEHRER: And in a way is it not a fact that if those terrorists who were headquartered in Afghanistan had not attacked the United States on September 11, the Taliban and those terrorists would still be in charge in your country?

HAMID KARZAI: Probably, yes. We kept telling the United States for the past five or six years of the presence of the terrorist forces in Afghanistan — of the dangers that, you know, make the world see through, of the dangers that they could pose to the world, of the dangers that they could pose to the United States.

We were in a dialogue with the United States for five years on this very question — and unfortunately the incident in New York happened with such a tremendous loss of life and that caused the reaction, which was right, which was on time. The only thing is that I’m sorry that it had to take that kind of a calamity for us to work against terrorism.

JIM LEHRER: Why did the people of Afghanistan tolerate the Taliban for so long?

HAMID KARZAI: They didn’t tolerate them; they had no way out. Only we did not know how deep that hand was in Afghanistan. Only we did not know how incapacitated Afghan people were.

When I used to call people from Afghanistan to come and meet with me, when they came to see me in Pakistan, I would tell them, go and fight against these guys, go and defeat them, and I’ll give them some help. They would say, Hamid, impossible — it’s a much larger force than you can imagine. I would say, no, you’ve lost hearts, you’ve lost depth, but when I moved into Afghanistan four months ago and I saw the real situation, they proved right. I was wrong. The depth of that problem was much wider, much deeper than I imagined.

They were the government with money, millions and millions and millions of dollars. You name it, they had it, so it was impossible for our people without money, without guns, without help, and with the kind of instability and the war that was going on for so many years in Afghanistan to be able to defend themselves against those people.

That did not mean that the Afghan people wanted them. The Afghan people were disgusted with what they were doing in Afghanistan. They just wanted an opportunity. So when the opportunity came in the form of the help of the United States, they struck, and you saw that they succeeded in a month.

JIM LEHRER: But that’s what so confusing. If they were so powerful that they could control this country, why were they put on the run so quickly, why were they destroyed so quickly?

HAMID KARZAI: They were powerful in terms of the materials that they had; they were not powerful in terms of the public support. The display of power was the display of material — not people’s wealth — the moment the people got the opportunity to work against it, they did.

And people always told me, travelers especially, all along for the past many years they kept saying — when I told them to go and fight against the Taliban troops – they kept saying, Hamid, bring us help from the United States — that will do it — and other major countries. If you do not, on our own we are not capable to do it – because the neighbors were somehow working and helping the Taliban – and they had a wider relationship in the world with radical elements everywhere, so we had to have backing and when we got the backing, we did it.

JIM LEHRER: Militarily, is it pretty much over?

HAMID KARZAI: Yes, they’re no longer, as I mentioned earlier, the government in Afghanistan. They’re over, they’re finished with the Taliban. They’re on the run and hiding and that’s difficult to do because we have to go and take them from caves and hideouts and homes, et cetera. It’s like you were looking for a criminal that’s hiding somewhere. Sometimes it takes you years to find a criminal; sometimes you may find it the next day. It’s a question of luck

JIM LEHRER: There are some Americans who believe that it will never really be over at least for the United States; it will never really be over until Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are either dead or in captivity. Do you share that feeling?

HAMID KARZAI: I think that it’s not that serious, not that strong. But I think they’re right in a way. We must finish the symbols of terrorism, and these two people are the symbols of that. We must find them and we must try them, and the world community should see their faces on trial on TVs.

JIM LEHRER: But from your point of view, that’s all they are now are symbols?

HAMID KARZAI: They’re just fugitives — not even symbols in that sense. They’re on the run; and we will catch them.

JIM LEHRER: But some people would suggest that there is something that has grown out of all of this called “Osama bin Ladenism.” And that there are still people — not maybe as many in Afghanistan — but in the rest of the various parts of the world of Islam, who support what this man stands for. How do you read that? You’ve been talking to an awful lot of people in the last few weeks.

HAMID KARZAI: Well, in Afghanistan, people hate him because he has caused so much suffering to Afghans. It’s unbelievable destruction when you go there and see it with your eyes — the loss of life, property, and all that. And because of what he did to innocent people here. The Afghan people really see the pain that the American people went through because they have experienced the same pain so they understand, there’s no sympathy there; there’s hatred for him there in Afghanistan.

In the rest of the Muslim world I think, no. I was talking in other countries, with people there, there isn’t a kind of sympathy that isn’t felt here for that man, he is considered a terrorist — a bad man. There are elements, there are people who are horrible and who may be with him It was not a legality; it was criminality that drove them, that drove them in Afghanistan and in America, and in the rest of the world, and criminals over there all the time.

These people were the political types. And that element must vanish — that criminals act in the name of politics and ideas — that should stop. We have to continue the struggle and it will take some time and we must go ahead and do it and not relax in it at all.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned the destruction that has happened in your country. Tom Friedman of the New York Times was on our program recently, and he compared rebuilding Afghanistan to building something on the Moon. He had gone there; he had seen what the ground looked like. How would you describe the task of making your country a nation again?

HAMID KARZAI: Monumental, huge, big — but it will be an honor for anybody to build Afghanistan — to help.

JIM LEHRER: It can be done?

HAMID KARZAI: Yes, why not, sure. We will do it. We have to.

JIM LEHRER: How long is it going to take?

HAMID KARZAI: How long is it going to take. We will not stop, and if we stop, we will be bringing back these bad people to Afghanistan — so we should go on, we should begin — today — begin tomorrow, and we should go on for a number of years. And if you help us, the United States of America and other major countries, we will do the physical part of the country very well, very soon — reconstruct roads, reconstruct schools, reconstruct hospitals and all that, but politically we must continue forward to stabilize the country, to make it stand back on its own feet as a nation state, to make it have a defense force, to make it have police force, to make it have institutions, to make it collect its own revenues so it begins to raise its own funds, its own money. And to regain —

JIM LEHRER: What it does not do now —

HAMID KARZAI: What it does not do now because there’s nothing to build on.

JIM LEHRER: There’s no industry –

HAMID KARZAI: When we went to Kabul — not only that — when you come to Kabul, there is a huge industrial park with hundreds of factories all ruined. When you come to Kabul, you see that the central bank does not have a penny in it, would you believe that?

And this is a country that just prior to the invasion by the Soviet Union had in its bank, if I’m not very much mistaken — at least $700 million of reserves. That’s way back in 1970s. But if we had that kind of resources and reserves, and lots of gold and other things, and by the time we arrived in Kabul a month ago the central bank did not have a penny to pay even for the minor repairs. The Taliban minister of finance and others when they were running away went to the bank, broke it, and ran away with five point something million dollars, twenty-two million Pakistani rupees.

Now, no Afghan ever that has run away from Kabul — has gone to the bank. So these guys that would were basically, as I mentioned earlier, criminals. They used Islam as a cover for criminality, for drugs, for, you know, smuggling, for all horrible things. They were neither representatives of the Muslims, nor of the Arabs, definitely not of Afghans, because they killed us.

JIM LEHRER: A couple of specific things, there are now about to be 5000 international troops in Kabul for peacekeeping security purposes, and you have said now that you want more troops to go outside of Kabul. Where does that stand? How many troops do you need? And what’s the situation that needs to be fixed?

HAMID KARZAI: The idea of having the peacekeepers in other parts of the country basically is something that came from the Afghan people. It did not come from the international community; it did not come from us in the government.

It came from the people that visit us every day — the day we took office and last week when I began to visit the front. The people of Afghanistan are asking for the presence of the international security force in other parts of the country because this force brings a sense of guarantee to them, because this force gives them the sense that the international community is with us now, that we will not be left alone in the region to the neighbors around us. It is not for internal stability; it’s not for use against internal enemies. There’s no such thing as an internal opposition to Afghanistan. It’s the measure of the international guarantee of staying and commitment to Afghanistan that the Afghan people want, therefore, they asked for it, and I think they’re right.

JIM LEHRER: Finally on a personal, personal level. You and I now are sitting and talking at Blair House across the street from the White House. Tomorrow night you are going to be a special honored guest of the President of the United States at his State of the Union, which is a really big deal here in the United States. Could you imagine anything like this happening to you just a few weeks ago?

HAMID KARZAI: Well, to be in America, to be the guest of the United States people and the President is an honor, it is a great thing. Afghanistan is a country that has suffered a lot. Afghanistan is a country also that has somehow contributed to the world community by fighting for certain basic things.

First we fought against communism and we defeated the Soviet Union, and our sacrifice in a way liberated a lot in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. We are a deserving people. The recognition that America has now given to Afghanistan is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

The recognition of that the international community has given to Afghanistan is a wonderful, wonderful thing, and if I can represent my people in the right way, I will be very honored and I am glad and pleased that I’m in America because of the American people, and we like it.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much.

HAMID KARZAI: Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: Then after our formal interview ended, Karzai talked about how he first sneaked into Afghanistan from his exile in Pakistan, as the U.S. campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida began.

JIM LEHRER: It is amazing.

HAMID KARZAI: It is amazing.

JIM LEHRER: To sit here and be talking to you like this.

HAMID KARZAI: It is amazing. When I went inside the country four months ago on two motor bikes and four people, I took a chance. Before I moved on the border I took a chance with my friends that were sitting with me in that room, in a little hut in the village on the borders. I said, guys, we are going to take a chance. Sixty percent dead; 40 percent alive. You must make sure that you make the right decision. Those who don’t —

JIM LEHRER: In other words, there was a 60 percent chance you would die.

HAMID KARZAI: I would die and 40 percent chance that we would live. It was actually 80 percent chance that we would die. And 20 percent chance that we would be living but I told the people there 60 and 40 in order to not scare them too much. In my own mind I thought I was going to be 80 percent dead.

JIM LEHRER: That was when? Four months ago.

HAMID KARZAI: Four months ago when I first —

JIM LEHRER: When you first went back in.

HAMID KARZAI: When we first moved into Afghanistan because we went right through the main highway which was controlled by the Taliban and the borders and all that. Within one month, we were a force there in the central part of Afghanistan in the mountains with guns and people and clergy, mullahs, everybody. People wanted change. They wanted it so badly.

JIM LEHRER: As he went into Afghanistan Karzai was accompanied by a small unit of American Green Beret advisors who helped him elude the Taliban.