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Karzai Opponent Abdullah Looks to Bolster Afghan Opposition Movement

May 21, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Margaret Warner interviews Afghan opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah about President Karzai's leadership and the ongoing war in Afghanistan, more than six months after Abdullah dropped out of the runoff election against the current president.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: a conversation with one of the leaders of the peaceful political opposition in Afghanistan.

And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Just days before the Afghan presidential election runoff last November, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah told supporters he was withdrawing. The initial vote had been riddled with fraud, and Abdullah charged, the runoff was rigged as well. Any talk of a unity government with President Karzai was dismissed.

So, you’re saying that there’s no shared vision at all between you and Mr. Karzai?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH, Former Afghan Presidential Candidate: I think it’s, it’s very difficult to find one.

MARGARET WARNER: The men had once been allies. Abdullah fought with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban until it fell in 2001. He served as Karzai’s foreign minister until 2006. But, by 2009, the men were campaign rivals.

After a rocky few months, Karzai was welcomed at the White House last week, as the U.S., with nearly 100,000 troops committed, prepares to take on the Taliban’s hub, Kandahar. Abdullah is here this week, touting his new opposition alliance, planning to field candidates in parliamentary elections this fall.

I spoke with him yesterday at his Washington hotel.

Dr. Abdullah, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s been more than a year since President Obama started reinvesting U.S. resources in Afghanistan, militarily and otherwise. How is the effort going?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: It’s a mixed picture.

Perhaps the right strategy is in place, as far as the U.S. administration is concerned. But because of the shortcomings of the partner to the U.S. administration, which is the government of Afghanistan, unfortunately, things are not doing that well, as it was expected or anticipated.

MARGARET WARNER: When you say shortcomings, what do you mean?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: Many things, lack of political will in dealing with the very critical issues of the country, including corruption and issues of governance and upholding the rule of law.

MARGARET WARNER: So, are you saying that, despite what President Karzai said at his inauguration, at the London conference, he’s really made no progress on curbing, say, corruption?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: None at all, no.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s your evidence for that?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: Because…

MARGARET WARNER: I know it’s hard to prove a negative, but…

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: Because there — there is no evidence otherwise.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, President Karzai was in Washington recently, and it seemed to be basically a love-fest. I mean, you heard no public criticism of him from the president or any of his senior officials, which was a definite change. What do you make of that approach?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: The surface of it, I’m not that much concerned, whether it is public criticism or red carpet treatment.

I hope that this was an opportunity to engage him seriously, privately. If that wasn’t the case, then I think I should consider it a missed opportunity. A situation where your partner is failing in delivering its own mission to its own people, and you are trying to make it work, it’s a very difficult situation.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re here for more than a week. You’re meeting with members of Congress. You’re leading an opposition bloc, a movement. Yet, you’re not meeting with anyone in the Obama administration. Why not?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: I had put a request for meetings. And the meetings with the Congress and Senate and all the speaking events are scheduled. The administration has not come back with an answer. Perhaps they are busy. I’m OK.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s talk about the security situation. General McChrystal, the head of the U.S. and Western forces there, said during the Karzai visit on the “NewsHour” that he thought at least the Taliban’s momentum had been stalled. I think he said, at this point, neither side is winning.

What do you think, since the U.S. doubled its forces? Has the security situation improved?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: If you’re talking about the perception or feeling of the people of Afghanistan, no, it has not, because security is in the mind of the people. Do they feel secure, more secure today than it was, like, six months ago in different parts of the country? I don’t think so.

MARGARET WARNER: So, would you say the Taliban is still gaining ground, or simply not losing ground?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: The issue with the Taliban is that, when they say, we are doing this, then they deliver. They said that they were going to start their offensives. And, in two days’ time, they started.

And what we promised to our people, altogether, Afghans and the international community, it doesn’t seem to be perceived in that way. So…

MARGARET WARNER: So, you mean the Taliban can deliver, and the combined Afghan government and its Western backers can’t?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: Yourself referred to General McChrystal’s comment that neither side is winning, so that’s not sufficient.

But from — in one side, 46 countries and billions of dollars and tens of thousands of soldiers and the most — the — the strongest military allies of the world — from the other side, it is the tiny group of 20,000, 30,000 extremist elements. So, and you have the backing of the population of Afghanistan.

So, the question has to be, why is it that neither side is winning? I think losing the people because of the failures of the current government in Afghanistan is one main factor. We cannot ignore this fact.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the — President Karzai is pursuing negotiations with the Taliban. Do you think it offers much prospect for bringing the Taliban over?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: In a situation that we are losing like-minded people because of corruption, injustice, absence of rule of law, to think that we can bring the people which are against the process fundamentally, they want to return Afghanistan back to the old days, where — where it was the hub for al-Qaida and its population was degraded to subhuman level, so that’s unrealistic.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the place that U.S. hopes to be able to both suppress the Taliban militarily but also demonstrate to the population that this — the Afghan government can govern is Kandahar. What do you think the prospects are for success there?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: I’m sure that with the way that General McChrystal has looked into that and has put the people at the center of its strategy, and protecting the people and helping the people as the centerpiece of his military strategy, the one side of it, which is the military security aspect, will be covered well.

At the same time, if the political situation, if the power structure in Kandahar, if that remains the same, then I’m not that optimistic.

MARGARET WARNER: So, to sum it all up, if the effort that the U.S. is making continues at its current pace, how long do you think the U.S. would have to stay engaged in every way, including militarily, to make Afghanistan the relatively peaceful, secure place that the U.S. feels it needs to be to prevent al-Qaida from reestablishing there?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: We are not there. And it’s very difficult to — to give you a timetable that, when it is?

The success in this strategy will depend largely on the civilian aspects of it as well and on the — on the political aspect of the situation as well. Can the goodwill, generosity and sacrifices of the Afghan people, as well as your people and your government, is matched with the political will, foresight, vision, and competence of the Afghan government, so that time frame is shortened, rather than an endless turn — being turned into an endless engagement?

MARGARET WARNER: And you think that’s a very tall order?

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: That’s a very tall order.

MARGARET WARNER: Dr. Abdullah, thank you so much.

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: You’re welcome.