Earlier this month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai received widespread criticism for spreading news to ordinary Afghans that radical pastor Terry Jones had burned a Quran at his church in Florida a week previously. Protests erupted around the country that left dozens dead, including UN workers, and hundreds wounded. Karzai “provoked people to take such actions. Karzai should have called on people to be patient rather than making people more angry,” one Afghan political analyst said.
Today, ThinkProgress spoke with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s Foreign Minster from 2001-2005, and Karzai’s main challenger for President in the country’s 2009 national elections, which were widely considered to be fraudulent. During the interview, Abdullah said that Karzai has made it his policy to promote anti-Americanism in Afghanistan:
ABDULLAH: President Karzai believes that by promoting anti foreigner, anti-American feelings, he might find some constituency in parts of the country. … And this has started with one of the events and now it became a trend and now it has become a policy. In between, who misses the opportunities? The people of Afghanistan.
ThinkProgress also asked Abdullah if he thinks Karzai deliberately fueled Jones’ Quran burning stunt. “It was very obvious,” he said:
ABDULLAH: It was very obvious. It was very obvious and it is what I mentioned earlier it started one of a blame game yes? And then a trend and then a policy. [...]
TP: Do you think that he did it on purpose?
ABDULLAH: He did it, of course.
When asked if Karzai benefits in any way politically from making an issue of Jones’s Quran burning, Abdullah replied, “I don’t think it helps him but nevertheless it damages the situation.” Listen to the entire interview in two parts here:
TP: I wanted to start out with the news out of Pakistan that the intelligence services there had asked the US to stop drone strikes and reduce the CIA presence there. First of all I wanted to get your reaction to that – if you agree with that – and if that is indeed the case, if this happens, what you think that means for Afghanistan.
ABDULLAH: If the US stops drone strikes? We are looking at it from outside, yes?
ABDULLAH: From Afghanistan, and also from Afghanistan’s point of view but also to give it [inaudible] from Pakistan’s point of view. The drone strikes, the fall out, the negative side would be the collateral damages which is of course a concern everywhere. But at the same time, nevertheless, some of the most effective Taliban commanders, Pakistani Taliban commanders, Al Qaeda related leaders are being hit by these strikes. And which would have taken like in conventional warfare thousands of soldiers’ involvement in the battlefield in order to achieve something as such. So they might have their own political constraints about it, a domestic one but at the same time I have no doubt about the effectiveness of the drone strikes.
About the number of CIA agents and that and what’s the number and I think that … perhaps Pakistan believes that there are exaggerated numbers of agents out there and in that case of course they think they have the right to know about it and also to have some sort of –
TP: You don’t necessarily agree with the Pakistani intelligence service that the US should stop the drone strikes is what your saying.
ABDULLAH: I don’t. I don’t because that’s – these are the people who are hurting Pakistan to begin with and also these are part of the groups which are hurting our own region so part of the terrorist networks. So I would say that this has been effective. The issue of collateral damage should be taken care of of course which is unacceptable for any country, any nation. But at the same time I have no doubt about the effectiveness.
TP: That’s kind of where you differentiate yourself from President Karzai because he’s been very critical of the drone strikes.
ABUDLLAH: In one area I have no less sentiments and emotions when it comes to the civilian casualties or any Afghan or anyone or the ones that are in charge of those operations will be the worst news for them when they see but at the same time when we are dealing with the enemy which goes beyond any boundary. And if you are fighting against them yes? To hit them by any means because it’s – we have a saying in Farsi that in the warfare you don’t distribute sweets. It’s warfare, unfortunately we have to fight. When we have to fight our capabilities need to be used.
TP: So given
ABDULLAH: And also about the special operations it has been very effective, these special operations by NATO, more effective than the large scale operations after months and months of preparations and so on and so forth.
TP: So pivoting off that point, the US and NATO have been in Afghanistan for around 10 years now. A couple of recent polls here in the US show that a majority of Americans think the US should leave as soon as possible and another larger majority say that the US should not be involved in Afghanistan and I’m wondering why should the US stay any longer in Afghanistan?
ABDULLAH: First of all at the time there are these polls, there are these opinions growing opinions in the US and also the administration has to make a decision about the drawdown of the transition. At this stage, we need it to have best level of coordination between Afghanistan and the international community and the US. And if I may look into what is going on in real terms that’s the least level of understanding. And part of it, not all of it, but main part of it is because of the fact that President Karzai believes that by promoting anti foreigner, anti-American feelings, he might find some constituency in parts of the country. [Inaudible] And this has started with one of the events and now it became a trend and now it has become a policy. In between, who misses the opportunities? The people of Afghanistan.
IN the stabilization of Afghanistan there is a common interest and the American presence and the American support for Afghanistan, of course it was based on that threat emanating from that part of the world. And your enemies which had found a place in Afghanistan and in that region and then they did terrible things here. They have done much more terrible things to the Afghans. But then, the US, the international community had to react. And in theory, that’s in theory, I would have preferred after 10 years of American engagement to come out and say, “Oh thank you. You did a lot. Of course it has been sacrifices, contributions but the there was an aim to be achieved as a result of all these sacrifices.” I don’t think that that goal is being achieved. There have been a lot of progress but at the same time a lot has happened. At the same time we are not there –
TP: How long do you think?
ABDULLAH: it will depend on quite a few factors. How long. The Afghans are also not less desirous to see their affairs of their country run by their own people, their institutions taking responsibility, that’s obvious. And for the first time the people of Afghanistan welcomed foreign troops on their soil. This is for the first time that this has happened and nobody would have believed it had it – and for 10 years a lot has happened and lives have changed for the people of Afghanistan but at the same time, a sort of premature withdrawal would mean that the same enemies can take root. That’s an obvious fact. And one can shorten this period of time that your presence will be needed. There are two factors. Mainly. In Afghanistan the presence of effective government, which can deliver to its own people and will isolate the enemies which we’ll be fighting forever, yes? From the people, winning the people. Winning the people is not just for the international forces hearts and minds; it’s for the government of Afghanistan. There we have a shortcoming a big deficit and that has prolonged that. So we have not been able to utilize the opportunity which is there. Next to that is the cooperation from Pakistan in sanctuaries which are very much there and are very much alive presently and active. So these two factors, without addressing these two factors it’s difficult to set a timetable.
TP: Ok for the first factor, getting the trust of the Afghan people. Obviously President Karzai has not particularly done that very well. There’s a lot of corruption.
ABDULLAH: Political process is a mess –
TP: So my question is, what would you do differently to get that first factor coming together faster?
ADBULLAH: To unite the people of Afghanistan around a common vision … which they can associate themselves doesn’t require American – it’s just common sense. The people of Afghanistan would like to see their country stabilized. They want to have a moderate Islamic regime. Democracy as they understand it. They don’t understand all the – they do understand that there needs to be free and fair elections. They do understand that the issues of governance should be transparent – issues of justice, accountability, these values of a democratic system are well understood. Certain freedoms certain rights, freedom of speech, which are the things that has happened. So these are the things and also unify Afghanistan, yes? A functioning government. The delivery of services. The betterment of life. So on this, the people of Afghanistan are united. But we need to create a system which delivers this and support the process which achieves this.
And my earlier point was that President Karzai, rather than building on what has been formed, what has been established, he is damaging the foundation of a democratic state. So in a broad political process, he is failing. But whenever it is talked about in Afghanistan, the political process, the minds goes toward talking to the Taliban. In my opinion, that is a very small part of that political process – an important part of it but a small part. The bigger part is all those issues which I mentioned earlier. Fighting against corruption, the accountability of the government. The transparency of the process as a whole democratic process as well as accountability, justice, rule of law, all of these things, this forms the broad political process. So he is failing in that.
And also, he wants to give an impression that democracy doesn’t work in Afghanistan, we should go back to the tribal codes and so on and so forth. That’s to evade responsibility and by not doing this and taking views of the people of Afghanistan into account and having the people along with you, then of course, Taliban will be an isolated group, which because Taliban were rejected. Taliban as an organization were rejected by the people of Afghanistan. In 2001 and 2002, it took a few months and a few hundred Special Forces, later on a few thousand to get rid of Taliban and Al Qaeda all together from Afghanistan. So those hopes of the people turned into disappointment because of bad politics.
TP: So is Afghanistan a democracy now?
ABDULLAH: Afghanistan is in the path towards democracy. A few stones are being laid and it is –
TP: How long do you think it will take?
ABDULLAH: I will come to that. And also the challenge of Afghanistan is that in the first phase of nation building and state building there are leaders who don’t believe in those values or principles in charge. That’s difficult to achieve the aspirations of the people. But nevertheless, it has been, people, socioeconomics are difficult, literacy, access to information I mean in the wider country not in cities like Kabul, things have changed. We’re talking about blogs and facebook and twitter, this is now part of the daily life for the youngsters in Afghanistan. But in the rest of the country, there are all these circumstances but there has been an awareness about the rights. That’s the important thing. Of course building a vibrant civil society which are the foundations of a democratic system or political parties which is rather than being individual oriented movements but platform oriented movements. This will take time but the main challenge towards it apart from every other conditions that is there which will change in the course of time, is the leadership there doesn’t believe it. So
TP: I wanted to get your reaction to charges that president Karzai fueled this issue of the pastor burning the Quran and I’m wondering if you think that that’s what he did or and if so –
ABDULLAH: It was very obvious. It was very obvious and it is what I mentioned earlier it started one of a blame game yes? And then a trend and then a policy. And as the president of the country, he represents Afghanistan worldwide, yes? Whether how much legitimacy is there or how representative his government is. That’s a different issue but at the same time, he fueled it.
TP: Do you think that he did it on purpose?
ABDULLAH: He did it, of course. And then, not only that but when it happened his reaction to the violence was very muted. Like issuing a statement, I went out to … and said, look someone has done a terrible thing somewhere else, but why should we kill innocent people? Why should we burn our own schools or own mosques our own shops? […]
TP: Does it help him?
ABDULLAH: I don’t think it helps him but nevertheless it damages the situation.