JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a Newsmaker interview with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Margaret Warner interviewed him this morning in his office in Kabul.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. President, thank you for having us. Let me start about the new American forces that are coming here, 17,000 troops. Do you welcome them? And did you give them your approval?
HAMID KARZAI, president, Afghanistan: In 2002, when we began our government -- helped by the United States and the rest of the world, after our liberation from terrorism, in the very room in which we are sitting, down there, I used to receive literally hundreds of delegations, from 10 to 20 to 100 to whatever number that this room could accommodate, from all over the country.
And all of them said, "President, ask for more ISAF troops. Send them to our villages; send them to our towns; provide us protection." We kept requesting. It didn't happen.
I wish these troops have arrived at that time. They're seven years too late. Even then, even then for them to come and provide better security to the Afghan people, protect the borders, prevent the crossing of terrorists into Afghanistan, they're welcome to do that.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think 17,000 is enough to reverse the tide we've seen in the last couple of years in which the Taliban is exercising more control over the countryside and major highways?
HAMID KARZAI: The Taliban are -- the number of the Taliban are not the problem. That is not our problem. It's the bombs. It's the terrorism. It's the killing of the influential, the elderly, the teachers, the community leaders that is the problem.
The presence of these troops in Afghanistan should provide a protection to the Afghan people by stopping the entry of terrorists into Afghanistan and by going after their hideouts and their sanctuaries, if there are any in Afghanistan.
So, in a sense, their presence will provide more of a psychological strength than the physical strength required. That actually will come by building the Afghan forces and by hitting them in their sanctuaries and training grounds.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, President Obama also is about to come out with his sort of new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. And reports are that one of the elements will be a doubling of the Afghan security forces, both the army and the police. Do you welcome that?
HAMID KARZAI: We very much welcome that. We welcome a re-evaluation of the strategy in the fight against terrorism.
We hope it will be one that will go with the reality on the ground. We hope that it will be one that will think of strengthening Afghanistan's own institutions and security forces. And we keep hearing that it may have an element of adding to the Afghan forces, both the police and the army. That's a good thing; we welcome it.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, last weekend, as you know, President Obama mentioned the prospect of reaching out to moderate elements, as he put it, of the Taliban-led insurgency. You applauded that.
HAMID KARZAI: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: My question is, is it possible to peel off moderate elements?
HAMID KARZAI: Yes, it is very much possible. The thousands of the Taliban who are now frightened into fighting us and their leaders after they surrendered the government to us went back and lived in their villages and their homes. A lot of them were intimidated and pushed away from their villages and homes unduly, wrongly.
They are not enemies of America. They're not enemies of the rest of the world or of the Afghan people. They're just countryside folks of a religious tendency that we have in Afghanistan. They're not ideologically against what we are doing, and we must bring them back in order for us to have peace in this country.
Now, I would not categorize them precisely as moderate and non-moderate. I would characterize them as Afghans and non-Afghans. The Afghan Taliban are welcome.
Now, I would draw a further category here. And in the Afghan Taliban, those who are not with al-Qaida, those who are not part of any terrorist network, those who are not in the pay or grip of a foreign intelligence agency, and those who accept the Afghan constitution and the way of life that the Afghan people have voted for.
MARGARET WARNER: And so where do you put Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader? Is he in the first category or the second?
HAMID KARZAI: Well, he has to show his colors.
MARGARET WARNER: Meaning?
HAMID KARZAI: Meaning that he must come up and speak for peace, accept the Afghan constitution, denounce violence, and say that he's not enemies with the rest of the world, that he wants to co-exist with the rest of the world.
And then for the United Nations to remove him, once he does that, if the United Nations wants to do that, to remove him off the list of banned Taliban leaders.
So it has to be a two-way thing. One is the announcement by President Obama; the next is the responsibility that falls on the Taliban leaders to take this opportunity.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, General McKiernan, who we spoke to a couple of days ago, and other American commanders say they consider Mullah Omar in the category of irreconcilable. Do you have a difference with Washington on that? Are you saying the U.S. and your government should explore negotiations with Mullah Omar?
HAMID KARZAI: I have been asking for this exploratory attitude. I have asked upon Mullah Omar many, many times to come out and speak for peace and show his intentions. He has not done that; I hope he will do that.
And if he doesn't do that, if he continues not to do that, then, of course, we have the right to seek peace through other elements of the Taliban and by all other means.
MARGARET WARNER: We've been here three weeks, and we've talked to a lot of ordinary Afghans, and the big concern we've heard from them is, particularly women, they're very concerned that their rights might be bargained away here. Would their rights be on the table, the right of girls to go to school, in negotiations with the Taliban?
HAMID KARZAI: I sensed that myself last week when I attended the International Women's Day meeting, where there were hundreds of women, and they applauded me on several other issues, but on reconciliation, of bringing the Taliban back, they were quiet.
And then I engaged them on this. They have a concern, especially the urban women have a concern. The ones who are in politics and society and workplace, are concerned.
We have to absolutely make sure and we have to talk to the Taliban that the rights that women have in Afghanistan are absolutely in accordance to Islam, if that's their objection, second, that the rights that the Afghan women have are in accordance to the standards that Afghan people have set for themselves, and that is not reconcilable. That will be there, and it will continue to be our utmost priority.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, another thing we've heard from ordinary Afghans is great disappointment in what they see as growing corruption in your government. And they tell us they have to pay bribes to get anything done. They believe there are people in your government and governors, also, who've gotten very rich off insider deals.
What do you say to them, your own constituents, who are so disappointed?
HAMID KARZAI: That is a problem we have, no doubt. This is a concern of the Afghan people, and we are working on it. There are at least, every day, documents that I sign, especially the judiciary sends to me, on the suspension of judges temporarily when they're suspected of corruption or their removal, the imprisonment of government officials or others. Work is going on.
And from the perspective of Afghanistan, as the Afghan president, I can tell you that I know how far we have gone. I know the problems are still there. But we have done a lot better in the past few years, and we are in a better place today than we were last year, and we'll be better next year than we are this year.
MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that the U.S. officials who have been critical of you, including many senior people in the Obama administration, when they say you have just failed to act on this, that they're just wrong?
HAMID KARZAI: They're absolutely wrong. They're absolutely wrong. They know what's going on in Afghanistan. They know how much we have worked on this question. They know how much we have discussed this with them. They know how much in detail we have gone to discuss this with them. They know even the names that we have discussed that they have disagreed that we arrest. And for reasons of security, I'm not going to go beyond that.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you planning to run for president or are you thinking of stepping aside?
HAMID KARZAI: I will decide based on whether I'm the better person to run -- to continue to run for this country or whether there are other possibilities for Afghanistan to choose.
At the end of the day, I will choose on two grounds: one, to keep a legacy for myself and for this country; second, to make sure that, five years on, we are better off than what we are today.
And if it is done in my person, I will go ahead. If it is required of me, in order to keep that, to present someone else and back him, I will do that, as well.
MARGARET WARNER: And so as we enter this new phase between the United States and Afghanistan with greater U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, how comfortable are you with the relationship you have with this new Obama administration?
HAMID KARZAI: As far as the government-to-government relationship is concerned, I'm very, very satisfied. I've been asking for some changes; those changes have now, in some degree, have been agreed upon.
I'm not happy about some of the remarks made about Afghanistan's progress or how Afghanistan should be ruled. I've taken it very seriously upon myself to work against certain policy options floated around by elements in Washington, including supporting warlords or regional arrangements in the country. That's terribly wrong, and I will fight against it.
Those things were not right. Some of the statements were not right, not helpful to the relations between the two countries. Otherwise, it's a very good relationship, strong and shall continue.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. President, thank you so much.
HAMID KARZAI: Most welcome. Good to talk to you.
MARGARET WARNER: Good to talk to you.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret's next report looks at the role of women in Afghanistan.