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Karzai on Firing Corrupt Officials: ‘We Have and We Will’

November 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In an exclusive interview with Margaret Warner, Afghan President Hamid Karzai discusses ending corruption in his country, his views on President Obama's rethinking of military strategy in the region, and more.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: Margaret Warner’s interview with President Karzai of Afghanistan. It took place yesterday at the presidential palace in Kabul.

MARGARET WARNER: 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?

HAMID KARZAI: It means the usual corruption in any government, especially in a Third World country, like Afghanistan, certain laws and procedures and management style that causes corruption, and that delays works, that causes corruption.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you mean people have to pay for government services under the table?

HAMID KARZAI: Yes, exactly, exactly, under the table.

And then we also mean corruption of a different kind, which is a lot more serious, which is new to Afghanistan. That is with the arrival of a lot of money to Afghanistan, the lack of transparency in the award of contracts, the serious corruption in implementing projects.

It’s the international community also that shares responsibility with us. And that’s what I hope we can correct together.


HAMID KARZAI: But the stigma falls mainly on Afghanistan, because that’s where it happens.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, ordinary Afghans tell us that they feel shaken down, 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: You’re absolutely right. This is happening. And this is because of corrupt practices and also because of the procedures that we have.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, international officials, foreign officials say there is also corruption at the 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: So, when we say corruption in highest government circles, we must mean something by that. What does that mean?

Does it mean awarding contracts to relatives? Does it mean corruption in implementing projects? 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.

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 even allow to be prosecuted?

HAMID KARZAI: We have let go.

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

HAMID KARZAI: We will definitely. We have and we will.

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 that, in your new cabinet, all these ministers are at the highest level of competence.

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: I have to make decisions that will bring more 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.

Western support wavering

President Hamid Karzai
The West is not here primarily for the sake of Afghanistan. It is here to fight the war on terror.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, President Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the U.N. special rep, Kai Eide, have spoken very bluntly and publicly in the past few days about the changes they want to see in your cabinet and in your administration on both corruption and competence. And they have even suggested that Western support will fade if you do not do this.

How do you regard those comments?

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 11.

Afghanistan was troubled like hell before that, too. Nobody bothered about us. So, they're here to fight terrorism. And that is an interest that we share.

Of course, they need to build Afghanistan in order for Afghanistan to be able to defend itself and 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.

MARGARET WARNER: Your Foreign Ministry yesterday issued -- on Saturday -- issued a statement saying that they considered the statements from some of these groups 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 of that, you know, it doesn't bother me.

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 definitely speaking on behalf of 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.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.N. did reluctantly withdraw about two-thirds of its foreign staff, at least temporarily, for safety's 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. I don't think Afghanistan will notice it. We wish them well, wherever they are.

MARGARET WARNER: One of your advisers said to me that they thought -- he thought, unfortunately, that a certain climate of distrust now existed between your government and the Obama administration.

Does it? And, if so, where does this come from?

HAMID KARZAI: No, I wouldn't describe it as distrust.

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.

U.S. troop levels

President Hamid Karzai
Afghanistan was abandoned after the war with the Soviet Union...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: President Obama is, of course, pondering a decision about whether to send more troops. Do you want 20,000 to 40,000 more American troops on Afghan soil?

HAMID KARZAI: If the objective of the forces is to enhance security for the Afghan people, to provide protection to the Afghan -- for the Afghan people, as General McChrystal has emphasized in his report to the president, and if that leads to providing more trainers for the Afghan army and police, and giving more protection to the Afghan countryside, to the population, why not? We will back it.

MARGARET WARNER: When General McChrystal assumed command, one of the directives he set out was to sharply reduce the number of air -- 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.

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: And, finally, I think you have said this would be your last term. What kind of Afghanistan would you like to leave?

HAMID KARZAI: A peaceful Afghanistan, a united Afghanistan, a democratic Afghanistan, and 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.

JIM LEHRER: The full transcript of the Karzai interview is on our Web site,