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photo of president hamid karzai
interview: president hamid karzai

... When did you then decide that you needed to go back into Afghanistan? How was that decision made?

The decision to go to Afghanistan was made long before [Sept. 11]. Long before that, I would go to the United States and other countries and ask them to help Afghans' freedom from this menace. A long time we were planning. ... Actually, during those days when the terrorist attack occurred in New York, I was planning anyway to move into Afghanistan, either through the northern parts of the country, or through central Afghanistan to the mountains there to begin the campaign against the Taliban. So it did not come suddenly. I was only quite advanced in the planning stages. That's why it was easy for me to move in so rapidly. ...

Sept. 11 caused a dramatic change -- it shook the whole world. So suddenly a process that was slow and yet moving began to acquire tremendous momentum. ...

Did [U.S. officials] tell you that they would support your efforts when you went in?

Absolutely, yes. I moved in. I moved into Afghanistan and I called them, and they came in with good support.

I want to go into that in some detail [about] the date you left Quetta to go into Afghanistan. Can you describe that scene? Here you are, something you've been thinking about for a long time. The day you left, did you kiss your wife goodbye and say, "I'm off to save Afghanistan?"

I did not tell anybody that I was leaving. I told only my brother, who was with me there. I told all of my commanders. Quite in the end of the day, very much just at the moment I was leaving, I told my wife that I am going to Afghanistan. I thought she might just panic and begin to cry, but no, she was very cool. "Well, OK," she said, "Will you be safe?" I said, "Well, I'll see. It's something I don't know."

Karzai is president of the transitional authority that was elected in June 2002 to rule Afghanistan for the next two years while it develops a constitution and prepares for nationwide elections. He also served as chairman of the interim authority that held power from December 2001 through June 2002. Karzai describes for FRONTLINE how he snuck back into Afghanistan from exile in Pakistan, hoping to spearhead a grassroots movement to overthrow the Taliban. He also details the assistance he got from U.S. Special Forces in battling the Taliban and Al Qaeda in southern Afghanistan. This interview was conducted on May 7, 2002. [For background on this interview, read FRONTLINE Associate Producer Chris Buchanan's reporter's notebook].

Then I went out and took my jeep together with some people -- they were going to a condolence ceremony for one of the elders -- and moved out of town, then took another direction and went towards the border with Afghanistan. I was trying to avoid that nobody should come to know, and tried to do it secretly. I spent the night at somebody's house. The next morning, that man was very frightened and said, "Please don't move into Afghanistan. The whole border territory is taken with the Taliban, and it's very dangerous." I said, "No, I've decided." So we went on two motorbikes.

Two motorbikes?

Yes.

You and who else?

Me and one of my friends that accompanied me, and another motorbike with one more man. That's it -- two motorbikes, four people.

Four people?

Yes, straight on the main highway, through the main entry point, just moved into Afghanistan. And camouflaged of course -- had turbans and all that so people wouldn't recognize us, and we went straight. Had a flat tire on the way. It was very frightening.

When I moved out of Tarin Kowt, every place that I would arrive, together with our people, that place would collapse an hour or two before our arrival, and the Taliban just flee.

Then the other motorbike that was ahead of us came back and left me on that motorbike and took me straight into a village near [Kandahar] that's called Shorandam village.

I went there, and the house that I wanted to go to, when I went there, there was nobody there. So we called somebody out from the village, and we were taken from the walls of the house into the house. The people were so frightened that the man, one of our friends, one of our relatives in whose house I was, he brought me tea through the roof with his little daughter. ...

When you left, had you been in contact with anyone in the United States to know the bombing was going to happen?

No, no.

You knew, obviously, that they were getting ready to begin?

Oh, clearly, yes, there were signs, of course.

The timing was just completely [coincidental]?

Exactly.

The date that you crossed the border was Oct. 6?

No, it was the Oct. 8 or Oct. 9.

And these people, when you show up at their house, they hadn't seen you?

Oh, they were frightened. They had seen me in Quetta. They would all visit me in Quetta, in Pakistan. But when they saw me there they were just frightened. They couldn't believe that I could be so crazy to go on motorbikes like that without any security, without any people, just leaving it completely to luck. They couldn't believe it. ...

Talk a little bit about the recruiting that you then began doing. You're in Afghanistan now, everybody is scared, and you're trying to put together a force of opposition to the Taliban. How did you go about doing that?

... I had already done the work. I was engaged in the anti-Taliban activity for four or five years before Sept. 11, so I already had quite a bit of the infrastructure that I needed. These were the people that I already knew from the times of our war against the Soviet Union. It was nothing new or strange to the people that I went there. We had already lost so many lives in our struggle against the Taliban on our own, my father and our friends, some tribal elders. Some of us were in prison in Kandahar.

So when I went to Afghanistan, people knew what my purpose was. People had discussed it with me, but they did not agree with my method. They said, "It is extremely reckless to come and endanger your life like that, and through that kind of endangerment of your life, you also put at risk the whole population." They said, "You must come with strength. Go to the United States, come back with the resources and money and weapons, and all that, and begin from a point with strength and then we'll do that. But if you just take the population and march it on the cities, they will take the cities, but then they would also get killed. Why should the civilians suffer?"

They were very, very, very pragmatic. ... The more I met with people, the more it came to me that the people want a strong action. The people want the United States' presence and that they trust that. Then I did that, after about 20 days of going around and talking to people, meeting people all secretly, I knew that they would support me. I knew that they wanted change very much. I came to know that when they would visit me in Quetta and they would talk to me, they were real. Then I called the United States. I asked for support.

Wait a minute. "Then I called the United States and asked for support," makes it sound pretty easy.

It was that easy.

Who did you call? What did you say?

I called Rome and I called Islamabad and I told the embassy there and the consulate that I needed help. They said, "Where are you?" I said, "I'm in this area." ... Then they came and helped, dropped parachutes.

Describe that. So you said, "OK, the people I'm talking to have convinced me that I need U.S. support." ... [The U.S.] was happy to--

Oh, very much, very much and then just a day or two's delay. They said, "Look, we need some time, but we will do it shortly." Then I told the people that they will do it shortly. Then the people began to discuss where should the help come -- this area or that area. They chose an area quite away from the city -- about 18, 19 hours of walking -- because they say that the Taliban would attack it and kill civilians, so let's go to a far-off area where they cannot come easily. But we were attacked there as well, so the people were very right. The people are always right -- now I know.

Then we began to walk at night, about 50 of us for about -- we began at 8:00 in the evening and arrived the next morning at about 9 a.m. The whole night, through the mountains.

This is to go to the place where the Americans were?

No, they did not know that that was the place. We told them when we arrived. We described the area. ...

So describe the arrival of the Americans.

They told us on the telephone what to do. They said, "How can we find [you]?" I said, "I don't know, you have all this equipment, you will find out." So they said, "OK, we will think of something." Then they said, "Tell your people to light fires, that's the only way we can find out in the mountains." ... So we asked them to light fires, and people went on top of mountains -- we were in a very mountainous area -- and lit fires in four corners, in four hilltops. And they said, "We will come tomorrow evening."

We waited and it got quite late. People got disappointed, saying, "Oh, they are not going to help us, how will they help us?" Nobody could believe it, so just "Let's do things on our own," and people went to sleep. I also went to sleep, and then suddenly somebody rushed and said, "There are planes." ... So we came out and we saw the planes and they dropped parachutes. Half of them were exactly on the spot. The other half went just one mountain beyond.

What came down in the parachutes?

Everything. Food, supplies, weapons. Lots of things.

Any people?

No people, no. Just no people.

So from the sky is falling everything you asked for?

The people couldn't believe it.

When did the Americans show up?

It was quite later on, much later on.

How was that arranged then?

Let me go further, so that you know the secrets. When these supplies came, we took the supplies and people were clearing and more people kept driving into the place -- elders, senior clergy. The next morning the Taliban attacked us -- about 500 of them. We were 150 by that time. We began to fight them. Imagine, if they had attacked us just one day before that, we would have been finished, because we had no weapons at all. So the weapons came quite in time and we began to defend, but we had no communications. We just had weapons, no communications, so we did not know if we were defeated because [of the] mountains, its very steep valleys.

By evening, we came to know that the Taliban were defeated, that they could not push us away, that they had left back. But then, by that time, we had decided to vacate the area. ...

Now did you decide you wanted some Green Berets?

No, we did not want the Green Berets. The people came and said, "Hamid, life is difficult. The Taliban will come and get us one day." We did not know the strength that we had in the countryside. We did not know about the backing that we had in the countryside. We had no communication. The people could not find us, we could not talk to people, we could not be in touch with them. ...

It was a tough life. So we rarely used the telephone. In seconds, not even minutes, I would just call and speak for a second or two and then hang up -- just tell people that I am still alive and here I am. It wasn't an easy time. So people came to me, especially the people that are now here, to say, "Look, we must ask for American help."

How did you ask for that?

I asked. I said, "Look, we need help. Our people are here." So they said, "Fine, we can do that."

Who?

The U.S. government. I called the embassy and they said, "Fine, we can do that." And then helicopters arrived. Easy. Quite easy.

I loved your description of the all those parachute things falling out of the sky and people not believing until they see it. What was the similar sort of situation when the soldiers arrived?

Oh, it was the same scene. We were told to do the same thing as we did for the parachutes -- for them to know where we are to light fires. We lit fires and they just came very easy, exactly on the minute that they told the scout they would be there, on the very minute. Our people couldn't believe it. ...

Describe their arrival.

They arrived -- a lot of dust was created. I was sitting there. My colleagues rushed to the place. Then I went in and they came and we greeted them and that's how the whole thing began. Then we moved together to Tarin Kowt. ...

[When the U.S. troops arrived] you must have felt like a different sort of fighting force.

No, not really. No, not really. The bulk of the fighting force was anyway the Afghan force. When they arrived, they also did coordinate a better supply of weapons for us, so we got more weapons, another parachute drop was made there, much easier this time, with much easier coordination because they had the things to coordinate with the sky and all that. ...

Describe coming in to Tarin Kowt and what happened that night.

We arrived at Tarin Kowt in a convoy of about 20 vehicles after the tribal chiefs from Tarin Kowt came to pick us up. We went there and I was worried. I said, "What would people think about the American forces with us?" And when I went and they saw them they were, oh, very welcome. They said, "You are most welcome," and they were treated very nicely. We all went in and made friends with people, so we were completely separated immediately. I forgot about them, they were people already, and I was doing my own work, so I would go and see them, or they would come and see me. These were people with society. Even the clergy came in support of it very strongly. They came in to ask the U.S. forces to do this, do that, bomb that area, those are the bad people, that's were Al Qaeda is.

And then we got the news at night that night that about 100 or so vehicles of the Taliban were moving towards Tarin Kowt. Then the Afghan forces and the U.S. forces moved together to a spot from there, and they guided the planes to come and bomb them. That was a tremendous help, tremendous help. ...

You had heard that the Taliban was coming back.

Yes.

As I understand, they wanted essentially to teach the people of Tarin Kowt a lesson?

Yes. Exactly.

Can you explain that and then what happened?

It was at about 12 a.m. the night we arrived in Tarin Kowt. News came that they had crossed a certain gorge, certain valley, and that they were on their way to Tarin Kowt. By something like five in the morning, we were still awake the whole night. By five in the morning, we dispatched some of our forces, and some of the American forces that had come -- three or four of them -- to a point overlooking the highway, the road that leads to Tarin Kowt. They took positions there.

First they evacuated, because one of our guys simply thought that the force was too big. He ran away. Then, when they came, another Afghan group together with these two or three Americans went to that area and took the position and directed aircraft towards that force. Then we had a little skirmish on the other side of town that was arranged by the Taliban. There were some Taliban posts around there, following in the villagers' path, that we defeated. So we took one flank, and the U.S. aircraft took the other flank.

Sitting up on the highway, the soldier was able to direct the air attack. How does that work? Were you there with them?

No, I wasn't there. I stayed in the town. I kept putting people together, trying to find them supplies, and send them to the fronts all around the perimeters of town. They had some equipment; I don't know what they had. Jason [Amerine] was the man that led it from that area.

He said in The Washington Post that that was the proudest moment of all of his time with you. Why would that -- we are going ask him, too, but--

Because he lead a very successful operation, and because of the kind of cooperation he had together with the Afghans there with him.

Was that a turning point?

It was the turning point. ... I recognized there is a much wider legitimacy thing than I perceived we had. We actually underestimated the whole thing all along, the impact that this movement of ours had, the legitimacy that there was. That was our miscalculation -- which is good.

Read U.S. soldiers' description of the battle of Tarin Kowt.

Did you spend much time talking with Captain Amerine?

Yes.

Can you just tell me a little bit about your relationship with him.

Very good, Jason. It was very good. We would discuss everything. They would come and brief me about things, and the Afghan commanders would come together to brief me about things. They would just go on their projects. They would only come to ask me for approval of an activity that they perceived needed permission, because we had told them specifically that they should be extremely careful not to mistakenly engage civilians. We made very, very sure that civilians should not be targeted -- very, very sure. ...

[Tell me about when you heard of Abdul Haq's assassination.]

On Oct. 26, when he was assassinated, I was still in Tarin Kowt, in a little village, sitting in a tailor's house, and in his room when I heard that. Everybody got extremely demoralized -- my friends, my colleagues, the village elders. They began to talk much more about me leaving that area and not causing damage to myself, or that the Taliban would come and attack, and we would lose you -- things like that.

You talked with Abdul Haq before then?

Yes..

Did you talk about the need for support from the United States? I know he was trying to get it.

Yes, we did discuss this a lot of times. A lot of times.

To what end?

That we that we went together a lot of times to the U.S. government and spoke to the U.S. government. We discussed this. We would discuss every detail. ...

How did you become aware of the Bonn Conference? And when did you become aware that there was the political--

Very late. I hardly spoke to my colleagues from Rome and others with the Bonn conference -- three times during the whole exercise. I wasn't aware of anything.

But your brother went for you?

Yes. He went in the middle of the conference somewhere, not as a participant, just as someone like many other Afghans, just hanging around there.

Did you go and check it out?

No. No. No. No. I guess he called me one day, He said that people want me to go there, shall I go? I said, "Well, it's up to you if you go there." I didn't see the significance of the Bonn Conference. ...

You addressed the conference [via telephone]. How was that arranged, and why?

... I spoke to them on satellite telephone from a very, very cold room. I had a bad, bad cold and I had no speech written. I just spoke from my mind. Later on, Mr. Brahimi told me that it turned out to be very good. ...

I was sitting with some of the poorest members of the Afghan community at that time when I was making that speech on the telephone. I wasn't aware of the significance of it, nor were the people sitting around me. I was very angry, it was fasting time, and I was fasting. ...

We talked two days ago with Professor Rabbani. He said that during the conference, he had called you, and was concerned that you were being made the head of the government, but you didn't have any say-so. Do you recall that conversation?

Yes. Yes. ... I received a call from President Rabbani. He told me that he likes to endorse me as the next president. I said, "Thank you very much." He called me again. I had one or two or three conversations with him.

Do you recall him talking about his concerns about the government that you were being--

He did mention something like that, yes.

What was your response?

Oh, I didn't have any information. I throughout just listened to him.

Well, the president was calling and saying he is backing you for president. And you are in this old room, far, far away from any center of power.

Well, I had some feeling that that was being discussed. There was one thing. There was population. There were people. I was sure that the people were there. So when he called, there was a big gathering of the tribal chiefs, and I told them this is what President Rabbani is saying. They said, "Oh, very good." I actually asked him, I said, "Shall I do this? What does this mean?" They said, "Oh, of course, are you crazy? Why not? Go ahead."

Whatever way I arrived, that's where I also recognized that there was a tremendous momentum in what we were doing. When I moved out of Tarin Kowt, every place that I would arrive, together with our people, that place would collapse an hour or two before our arrival, and the Taliban just flee. That, too, was an example that things were different. ...

[Did you get the sense that you had the backing of the U.S. at the Bonn Conference?]

Oh, yes. The United States backed my being chairman very much. So did Britain, so did Germany, so did the Europeans, so did everybody else. ...

Did Jason Amerine realize at that point that he might be, in a sense, the guardian of the next leader of Afghanistan?

Well, he surely realized it the day we received the accidental bomb.

I want to then go to that, because there were three big things that happened that day -- a day that you will always remember, I am sure.

Yes.

Tell me about Dec. 5, and where were you when--

Well, Dec. 5, we had arrived at the gates of Kandahar. We were in the Shawali Kowt district, in the district headquarters that we had taken maybe two or three days before that, or two days before that. I had a meeting one day before with some of the Taliban, and they said they would come the next day. Came to bring me the text of the preparations, that they were going to make an agreement with us to surrender. I said, fine. So it began like any normal day, with hundreds of people around, troops and civilians.

What was the district headquarters like?

In a shambles. Very nice tall buildings like typical Afghan countryside buildings that government makes. They are made of stone, very nice black stone and gray stone, but of course much abused, much misused. The day began, and it was about 9:00. I just went out to eat with some people, and then came back to talk to another group of tribal chiefs that had come from a nearby village. I was just chatting with them and saying there and there was an American colleague of Jason's called Greg. He came at that time to the room, and he just sat there waiting for me to finish my conversation with the tribal chiefs.

And a big bang. The doors and windows flew out of their places. I got injured on my face and my head, and I saw this very good fellow, a very nice man, Greg, jump out of his place and just throw himself on me. It was very remarkable, very remarkable. And the tribal chiefs followed; they all covered me from all around. They thought that the town was being attacked. They thought that this room was being attacked by the Arabs, that they had recognized where I was. So they pulled me out of the room, and took me out to the outside.

There we saw it was a hilly area, a mountainous area. There we saw there were bodies all around. They were recognizing that it was not a rocket attack on our room or an RPG attack on our room. It was something else. But the dust, and chaos of the moment-- I was led away from that spot, far, far away from that spot to another place. Some Afghan nurses came. They began to attend me, and to try to clean my wounds and apply some medicine. I was still bleeding in a way, and the nurse was still tending me, when my vehicle came. They parked it next to me, in case there would be need for immediate evacuation.

Then I received a call from Lyse Doucet from the BBC. She is a good old friend of mine from the time of jihad, I guess, of the service. She said, "Hamid, we just got the news that you are being chosen as the chairman of the interim administration." I said, "OK." I could not concentrate. My mind was all towards the evacuation of the dead and the wounded and the identification of bodies, and all that.

Just within a few minutes of that call, I received a call from [Mullah Naqib Ullah], a good commander in Kandahar, saying that he is on his way to that place together with the seniormost Taliban officials -- the minister of defense, the minister of the interior and this and that to deliver their surrender. I told them OK, come by. So all those things happened within 9 a.m. and 12 p.m.

That's astonishing.

Unbelievable. ...

And there were several people killed in this [bombing]?

A lot of people.

People who had been with you for--

Good people. Very good people. Very, very good people.

When did you find out what it was?

Oh, very soon, within an hour or two.

Did you have conversations with Jason about that?

Jason left that day. He was wounded. He was evacuated that day along with the other Afghan and American wounded.

Did you have a chance to say goodbye to him?

Yes.

How badly wounded was he?

He was wounded in the leg.

Describe your wounds. Were they--

Superficial. Just one spot is still here a little bit. That's not seen, under the head. That's still there, I mean the scar is still there.

So then, that day was when all these Taliban came and--

They presented to me the letter of surrender, the statement that they should have read. It was good. They said now that Afghanistan has a government, that the world has recognized that the Afghans have accepted. They no longer see that we two continue to resist, and that the cabinet of the Taliban announced his resignation and surrender. I said fine. They announced the surrender. I stayed for another day in that place. The next day, in other words, after two days, I moved to Kandahar.

What was that like? The last time you had entered Kandahar you were on a motorcycle--

On a motorcycle. This time I went in a convoy of 200-300 vehicles with Afghan flags. The first time this black, red and green flag was raised was over the rooftops of Tarin Kowt. So we took that flag with us to Kandahar.

One last question. When you came to Washington for the State of the Union and to see President Bush, did you also see the U.S. soldiers who had been with you?

Yes, I saw Jason at that State of the Union address, and other soldiers that were there, that were wounded.

Did you have a little reunion?

Very much, very much. They are very, very good people. Tremendously nice people.

I don't want this to sound too American, [too] self-serving. But I guess the question is, could you have done it without the help of the United States?

[Laughs] No way. Absolutely no way. ...

I knew it couldn't be done without the United States help for all the time. But I did not know that the Afghan people believed in it so strongly, and that it was so effective. I did not know that the Afghan people would welcome American troops to their sides so wholeheartedly and see them as saviors, as helpers. That was great. ...

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