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Extended Interview with Karzai: ‘We Do What Is Right’ for Afghanistan

November 9, 2009 at 6:32 PM EDT


Watch the video of this interview here.

MARGARET WARNER, NewsHour senior correspondent: Mr. President, thank you for having us.

HAMID KARZAI, president of Afghanistan: Most welcome, ma’am.

MARGARET WARNER: You said in your acceptance speech last week that your government had been seriously undermined by corruption. What do you mean by that? What does this corruption consist of?

HAMID KARZAI: Well, when we say corruption, it means the usual corruption in any government, especially in a third world country like Afghanistan, with years of breakdowns and lack of governance, lack of institutions and lack of capacity. Certain laws and procedures and management style that causes corruption, that delays work that causes corruption.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you mean you have to pay for government services?


MARGARET WARNER: Under the table?

HAMID KARZAI: Under the table. And then we also mean corruption of a different kind which is a lot more serious, which is new to Afghanistan, which is with the arrival of a lot of money to Afghanistan, with the contractual mechanisms, the contracts that go from one to second to third to fourth, the lack of transparency in the award of contracts, the serious corruption in implementing projects, in buying bad quality material, a project that costs $10 million actually receives $3 million or $4 million or even less than that. For that sort of corruption, it’s the international community also that shares responsibility with us, and that’s what I hope we can correct together.

But the stigma falls mainly on Afghanistan because that’s where it happens, and that’s why we should address it first and also hopefully that our partners in the international community will also recognize problems on their side and try to correct them with us.

Addressing corruption

MARGARET WARNER: Ordinary Afghans tell us that they get shaken down even by police or by petty officials when they want a license to do anything. Are they right? Does this happen?

HAMID KARZAI: Yes, they’re absolutely right, this is happening, and this is because of corrupt practices and also the procedures that we have. For example, we have corrected some of the procedures, like allowing a license to a vehicle that would have taken three months in the past through almost 35 stages, now is done in five stages and takes two days. And naturally that will reduce corruption. I’ve been in contact with our partners in the international community on this question too for the past three years. We have not received assistance and I hope that now they will mean what they talk to us about and come forward and help.

MARGARET WARNER: Now international officials tell us there is also corruption at the highest levels of, very highest levels, including in your intimate circle of cabinet ministers and advisers. What concrete steps will you be taking to address that, and how soon would we see them?

HAMID KARZAI: Where we have found such corruption, we have addressed it. Where this is only talk, and nothing else, then of course that doesn’t get reduced. So when you say corruption in highest government circles, you must mean something by that. What does that mean? Does it mean awarding contracts to relatives? Does it mean corruption in implementing projects? Does it mean all sorts of others, you know, nepotism and cronies, what does that mean? We have been discussing this for the past four to five years in the Afghan cabinet and government circles, and with the international community.

Unfortunately, that is more a slogan. It doesn’t come to giving us the details. Where we have received details on issues like that, where we have found facts on corrupt practices by senior government officials, we have acted, they have gone to prison. If you have time to get in touch with the justice department or the chief justices department, the judiciary, they will give you details of what has gone in terms of arresting it.

MARGARET WARNER: But can you think of people, ministers, governors, close advisers to you, that you know now you will have to either let go, or allow to be prosecuted?

HAMID KARZAI: We have let go.

MARGARET WARNER: No, I'm asking in the future.

HAMID KARZAI: Definitely. We have and we will.

MARGARET WARNER: Now a few months ago, however, April or May, you pardoned five convicted drug traffickers, they’d all been sentenced to 14-16 years in prison.

HAMID KARZAI: Yes, I remember that.

MARGARET WARNER: One was the nephew of your campaign manager.


MARGARET WARNER: Now how does that square with your commitment to crack down on drug trafficking and corruption?

HAMID KARZAI: Now I like to talk about this issue. I think this is going to be for the first time in a public forum, in the media. There was a young Afghan man who was convicted by Afghan courts for abusing religion, for having spoken or done things in the Internet that was insulting to Islam and to our Prophet. And this man was first given a death sentence, and then the Supreme Court reduced that to 20 years imprisonment. The international community, especially the Europeans, put a lot of pressure on us to release him, even outside of our judicial processes. It was impossible to do. The reasons they gave is that he’s a young man. At the same time there were these young men as well in prison for having engaged in drug dealing.

MARGARET WARNER: And they’d been convicted by your special drug court.

HAMID KARZAI: And both were convicted. This young man was convicted and that young man was convicted. Both were the same age. One was 18 years of age and the other was 20 years of age. Now, for a president of a country to decide because certain elements of the international community want a man released because of young age, convicted by the courts, for the same number of years, and not to release another young Afghan convicted by the same court for the same number of years, would sound an injustice rather than implementing justice or giving pardon.

And secondly, there was a lot of talk by the people around that family, and others, that this was a political case against these young people for reasons that I can’t go into at this point. Therefore I decided to pardon both of them, both that young man and this young man because of their young age.

MARGARET WARNER: There were five of these drug traffickers.

HAMID KARZAI: Yes, they were in one case.


HAMID KARZAI: The case was one case so you could not, you could not in one case pardon one of them and not the other one of them.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s just hard for a Western audience to understand, when you have the Afghan government, with the help of the international community, established this special drug court, with very strict rules of evidence, very strict procedures, they actually make an arrest, they make a prosecution, they sentence these drug traffickers to prison and they’re freed. And they’re connected to somebody close to you.

HAMID KARZAI: You put it very well. It is very hard for the Western audience to understand what I’ve done. It is equally hard for the Afghan audience to understand what some members of the international community are asking us to do against our judicial procedures, against our laws. So I guess that finds the answer to it. Therefore in that context of the West not understanding what we do and we not understanding what the West asks of us is the problem. That’s why we must sit down and settle some of the issues between us.

I think it will be good for the West, for our partners, not to interfere in our judicial process. For whatever reason, when there’s a verdict given by the lawful authorities of Afghanistan, that verdict must be respected, and the government must not come under pressure to release the man or reduce the sentences, or this or that. So when you engage in that, then there is no end in it. Then that gives us an opportunity to as well do things, to blame it on this or that. So I guess the right way for all of us is to respect the Afghan rule of law and to respect the Afghan judicial system and to strengthen it as it is required.

MARGARET WARNER: And are you saying the fact that these five convicted drug traffickers; they had a connection to your campaign manager that had nothing to do with it?

HAMID KARZAI: No, that had nothing to do with it. It was done way before that, way before that. This was a case; by the way, this was going on for almost a year and a half.

Competence in government

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you also…

HAMID KARZAI: … even perhaps two years.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you also about the other demand from the international community, and I think you said yourself; you want to make sure in your new cabinet, all these ministers are at the highest level of competence. This is not an unusual problem for any political leader. Will that mean that you will have to replace people who are important political allies, and how hard will that be for you?

HAMID KARZAI: You don’t have to...

MARGARET WARNER: Will you have to forfeit the support of members of your coalition that you have very painstakingly assembled?

HAMID KARZAI: I don’t have to replace anybody to annoy anybody or to please anybody. I have to make decisions that will bring the most stability to Afghanistan and more progress to Afghanistan. That will enable us to do better as a country, as a nation, that will give us an efficient government and everybody agrees on that. So if there is someone that is not good, if there is someone that is corrupt, if there is someone that’s just not up to the standard that we want, for whatever reason, everybody will agree that that person should not be there in the government but if there is someone that is good, that is capable, that is working hard, regardless of where he or she comes from, we must have him or her in the government.

MARGARET WARNER: And how important will political considerations be, let’s say in the appointment of governors. For example, several of the most prosperous and peaceful provinces in the north, those governors and provinces supported your chief rival Abdullah. Are their jobs safe or will they be replaced because they supported Abdullah?

HAMID KARZAI: Well, support doesn’t matter. One governor in Balkh Province did that. And another governor in Panjshir did that. Those were the two governors. Afghanistan is a central government; it’s not a federal government. Afghanistan, the governors are appointed by the president, and the governors are not political entities. They are administrative entities. They are supposed to be apolitical. They are supposed to be delivering services. They are part of the civil service of the country. They are not part of the political structure of the country. The cabinet is political. The parliament is political.

But the rest of the administration, just like you have in Britain or in India -- I don’t know what it is in the U.S., it’s a bit more confused there -- but just like in those countries, Afghanistan must have a civil service. That is apolitical. Therefore, governors are appointed by the president for the term of his service to deliver services on his behalf. And that’s what should be the case.

MARGARET WARNER: So in the case of these governors, who might have supported your rival, are their jobs safe?

HAMID KARZAI: I didn’t dismiss them. I could have done it then. I didn’t do that.

MARGARET WARNER: And going forward?

HAMID KARZAI: I am known for inclusivity, ma’am, and I am glad to see the West is asking me to do more of that. In other words, I was infamously known for inclusivity, and that now that turns out to be a good thing.

MARGARET WARNER: But sometimes inclusivity and competence aren’t the same thing.

HAMID KARZAI: Definitely not. But then we must judge -- inclusivity and at what cost? And competence -- at what cost? After all, we have to put this country in mind and put this forward with all things considered.

MARGARET WARNER: Now a question that has to do with your brother Wali Karzai. When Sen. (John) Kerry (D-Mass.) was here a couple of weeks ago you asked him, and he said you asked him, for evidence. Have you received that evidence?

HAMID KARZAI: No, never. I asked not only him I’ve asked every other U.S. official and all the U.S. ambassadors in Afghanistan. And the intelligence station chiefs. And the military. And the Europeans. And we have written twice to the U.S. Embassy on this question.

MARGARET WARNER: And are you convinced...

HAMID KARZAI: Never an answer. Rather they told me that this was all speculation that this was all perhaps, I don’t know the word they used: perception generation by adversaries of mine. So it’s a sad thing. What really upsets me about this whole thing is the ease with which parts of the Western media can attack integrity and destroy images of people and to undermine them. It’s a fact that we have learned that is around us.

MARGARET WARNER: And the New York Times reported that Wali Karzai had been on the CIA payroll for years. Is that true?

HAMID KARZAI: Well, the CIA since 2002 is a fully present U.S. government department in Afghanistan. It’s like any other office here; it’s like the Afghan municipality. A lot of people are in contact with it, a lot of people visit it. All the tribal elders, all the government officials, the governors, the police chiefs the intelligence chiefs. It’s a working partner in very detailed day-to-day activity with the Afghan government.

Therefore the CIA is in contact with a lot of people. They’re funding our operations, they’re funding, supporting our intelligence services. They’re campaigning together with the Afghan government against terrorism. Therefore tribal elders, community leaders, influentials like government officials, parliamentarians are all in one way or the other in contact with U.S. government officials. Some of them are military, some are intelligence, and some are diplomatic. So it doesn’t surprise me at all. It certainly is no news to us.

International pressure

MARGARET WARNER: Now President Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the U.N. special representative Kai Eide have spoken very bluntly and publicly in the past few days about the changes they want to see in your cabinet and your administration, both on corruption and competence. And they’ve even suggested that Western support will fade if you do not do this. How do you regard those comments? Do you see them as helpful advice from friends, or do you find it unseemly pressure?

HAMID KARZAI: Well, the West is not here primarily for the sake of Afghanistan. It is here to fight the war on terror. The United States and its allies came to Afghanistan after September 11th. Afghanistan was troubled like hell before that too, nobody bothered about us. We were being killed by al-Qaida and the terrorists before September 11th for years, tortured and killed, our villages were destroyed, and we were living a miserable life. The West didn’t care nor did they ever come. Rather, they were asking us to make up with the Taliban and the terrorists and al-Qaida. That was the advice coming to us from the Western countries; personally to me, I’ve seen it from almost all the capitals that are now here working against the terrorists. So they’re here to fight terrorism, and that is an interest that we share.

Therefore, it is a legitimate thing and we welcome them to do that. In the context of fighting against terrorism, or struggling against terrorism, of course they need to build Afghanistan in order for Afghanistan to be able to defend itself and for Afghanistan to be able to stand on its own feet, and to deliver goods to its people. That is an Afghan responsibility primarily, to get to where we want to be in terms of a better government, a better society, a developmental plan that delivers the services to the Afghan people.

And assistance for that coming to Afghanistan from the West is most welcome. The assistance must be now delivered in a manner that on our part sees proper governance in delivery, in lack of corruption that on the part of our Western donors sees as well proper delivery, transparency and effectiveness in the expenditure of money.

MARGERET WARNER: But how do you regard the public statements? Your foreign ministry yesterday issued, on Saturday, issued a statement saying that they considered these statements to be “interference and lack of respect for Afghan sovereignty.” Do you see it that way?

HAMID KARZAI: Well, we must all be very careful while we are partners with one another, while we work together, while we are traveling this journey together, that our partnership and our advice is a friendly one and with good intentions and not one that can be interpreted any other way.

MARGARET WARNER: And did you feel that President Obama and Gordon Brown and Kai Eide crossed that line?

HAMID KARZAI: Well I’m immune to that. I’ve heard so much, it doesn’t bother me. We do what is right for this country, for Afghanistan and we believe that partnership with the West is right for this country, which must continue. Partnership and relations with America is right and must continue. We also at the same time believe that Afghanistan is a country of its own, it has a history of its own, it has a distinct character and has an interest that must be safeguarded and protected.

MARGARET WARNER: And so was the Foreign Ministry just speaking for itself?

HAMID KARZAI: The Foreign Ministry was not speaking for itself. The Foreign Ministry was speaking for the Afghan government.

MARGARET WARNER: So you did see it as showing a little bit of lack of respect for Afghan sovereignty?

HAMID KARZAI: We like our partners to have a lot of respect for Afghan sovereignty. Afghanistan is extremely sensitive about that. Historically Afghanistan is known for that. That’s why we have suffered so much.


HAMID KARZAI: Through history I mean.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. Now the U.N. did reluctantly withdraw about two-thirds of its foreign staff, at least temporarily, for safety sake. What impact is that likely to have?

HAMID KARZAI: No impact. No impact.

MARGARET WARNER: So you don’t care if they return?

HAMID KARZAI: They may or may not return. Afghanistan won't notice it. We wish them well wherever they are.

Relationship with the U.S.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to go now to the relationship between your administration and the Obama administration or Afghanistan and the U.S. One of your advisers said to me that unfortunately a certain climate of distrust now existed between your government and the Obama administration. Does it? And if so, what does it come from?

HAMID KARZAI: No. I wouldn’t describe it as distrust. We are in a very difficult environment in this part of the world. And this environment is now shared by both Afghanistan and the U.S. and its allies. Therefore in the journey that we have undertaken in the war on terror there will be moments that will be very difficult for both of us. In those difficult moments will require of both sides a lot of patience and better analysis of the goings on.

Therefore, in the cultural environment that both of us work in, we have to respect the American cultural sensitivities. And the Americans must respect the Afghan cultural sensitivities. In which we have a lot of that, by the way. So it’s not a question of trust. It’s a question of better handling of things. On both sides. I guess we have to handle the Americans better, and the Americans have to handle us better. Therefore we have to work based on better knowledge and understanding. Sometimes that is not there.

MARGARET WARNER: For example, Ambassador Holbrooke, other U.S. officials, did encourage many people to run in the election. They said they wanted to make it clear they weren’t supporting any one candidate; they wanted to level the playing field. Did you see it that way or did you see it as them trying to unedermine you in some way?

HAMID KARZAI: Well, any foreign officials from any country supporting candidates for presidencies in another country is not the right thing to do. It’s just not wise, to do a thing like that. And then to encourage so many candidates in a poor country like Afghanistan with so many problems that it has with security, with institutional difficulties, to force a country to have 40 candidates can only be very troublesome to say the least. Therefore I hope it will not be repeated in the future. Therefore I hope that Afghanistan will be allowed to travel its own road towards strengthening democracy and the rule of law. Democratic rule of law.

MARGARET WARNER: And speaking of your election, without rehashing the whole past, do you think the fact that the international monitors did find massive fraud in their view, in any way undermined the legitimacy of your reelection?

HAMID KARZAI: The monitors began to speak of fraud before even the votes were counted. The monitors, the observers, the U.N. officials, began to delegitimize the election before even the audit of the vote had taken place. Therefore we saw that as entirely political. And with an intention other than friendly. The Afghan election is part of the massive sacrifice of the Afghan people gave was undermined and delegitimized. Even if I were elected winner at that election, it would have been of no use to Afghanistan. That election had been damaged so much that even I began to believe that really that much of fraud was committed. I began to suspect the election.

Till it was proven during Senator Kerry’s visit from which I was very pleased. He was a great help while he was here. During that visit I was then convinced by the discussions that we had between the election commission and the ECC, the Election Complaints Commission, I was convinced that the election that was not that bad after all, as bad as the media had spoken about. That it was a lot more legitimate. That the winners or losers were known, were clear. So without going into the past two months, that election could have been treated better for sure.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the fact that in the end you were awarded or certified the winner without the runoff has in any way undermined your legitimacy or standing?

HAMID KARZAI: Well, going to the second round was a good thing for democracy in Afghanistan, for constitutional order in Afghanistan and I wish the second round had actually taken place. That would have been even better for Afghanistan’s democracy and institutional strength. I wish a second round would have taken place. I’m not happy that I was declared winner without an election. I wish that to not be repeated in the future of Afghanistan. Elections are always better.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, President Obama is of course, pondering a decision about whether to send more troops. Do you want 20-40,000 more American troops on Afghan soil?

HAMID KARZAI: Yes, before I come this, though, the law did take its course on election. I’m not trying to undermine any decisions. I’m just speaking of my preference for an election.

We must see what the objective is. If the objective of the forces is to enhance security for the Afghan people, to provide protection for the Afghan people as General (Stanley) McChrystal emphasized in his report to the president. And, if that leads to providing more trainers for the Afghan army and police, giving more protection to the Afghan countryside, to the population, why not? We will back it. But if those things are not addressed entirely and correctly and the objectives not known, then it will become other than what the U.S. government wishes for or what we wish for in Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think his delay in making this decision has in any way been damaging in any way, or appropriate?

HAMID KARZAI: It has not damaged anything. I think President Obama and his team are doing the right thing to weighs the pros and cons of a decision important like that. We must take time and we must do finally the right thing on making a decision of that importance.

MARGARET WARNER: When General McChrystal assumed command one of the directives he set out was to sharply reduce the number of air attacks, attacks from the air, when civilians would be involved.

HAMID KARZAI: Very important.

MARGARET WARNER: Have you seen a reduction in those civilian casualties?

HAMID KARZAI: I have seen definitely a reduction but I would like to see a lot more reduction. I would like to see the air raids go away completely. They are of no help to anybody. Neither to the U.S. nor of course to the Afghan people.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you have any doubts about the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan?

HAMID KARZAI: Afghanistan was abandoned after the war with the Soviet Union. Not only abandoned but left to the mercy of the neighbors in a very cruel way. We keep hearing assurances from the United States but we are like, “once bitten, twice shy.” We have to watch and be careful while we trust.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, I think you have said this would be your last term. When five years is up…

HAMID KARZAI: It is my last term, the constitution doesn’t allow any more.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you like your legacy to be? I mean if you could just sum it up, briefly, what kind of Afghanistan would you like to leave?

HAMID KARZAI: A peaceful Afghanistan, a united Afghanistan, a democratic Afghanistan. An Afghanistan with the rule of law, an Afghanistan that defends itself, an Afghanistan that’s well off. An educated, and good with the neighbors and a great friend with America.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s a tall order.

HAMID KARZAI: A desirable one.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. President, thank you so much.

HAMID KARZAI: Good to talk to you.

This transcript was updated at 2:35pm ET.