ISTANBUL, Turkey — Over the past few years, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai has often lashed out at the US government in the news. He says the US has made mistakes in his country, and he's struck back at allegations that he's working behind the scenes to destabilise the government of his successor, Ashraf Ghani.
In April, he made the startling accusation that Daesh was a "tool" used by the US in Afghanistan.
TRT World's Imran Garda caught up with Karzai in Istanbul and asked him to explain his position on the US and his homeland. Here are some highlights from the interview:
When I read your comments on Daesh and America, where you said that you make no distinction between Daesh and America, I thought you were misquoted. That was to Voice of America in April.
HAMID KARZAI: I wasn't misquoted, no. That's what I felt.
But can you genuinely tell me, morally – in terms of intention, in terms of the very kind of organisational structure and chain of command, and how attacks happen, how politics plays out – can you genuinely tell me there is no difference between Daesh and America?
HK: Extremism, including Daesh, some increased under the US presence in Afghanistan – during the US presence in Afghanistan – and some were created in Afghanistan, in the US presence, during the US presence. Daesh was created there.
When it [Daesh] arrived it brutally went into villages, killed people – hurt our identity, tried to destroy our identity. Draw people away from their homes. They committed unbelievable atrocity against the Afghan people. The use was there. Daesh first emerged in Shinwar district of Nangarhar. The United States has a huge base in Jalalabad, in the central provincial capital of Nangarhar. They kept watching it. While the Afghan people kept coming to us and complaining of how Daesh was behaving and doing things.
So they knew but they did nothing?
HK: They not only knew, they watched.
At what point does watching become supporting?
HK: From the very beginning. When you're there with the intention to fight it, but then a deadly terrorist organisation like that emerges, and you watch it and do nothing. In addition to that, more than that, people reported that helicopters were coming and dropping supplies and bringing...
HK: To those groups emerging there, yes. So, it's the Afghan people that saw all that activity. Neglect, and support. Both.
So Americans dropped supplies to Daesh?
HK: They didn't say the Americans supplied to Daesh. They said helicopters came.
Who do you think had those helicopters?
HK: That's the question. Our airspace is in American hands. They have their radar, they have their airplanes, they have the entire airspace – we don't own our airspace, the Americans own the airspace. So if helicopters were coming I'm sure the American radar saw whose helicopters, from where they came. And if they were non-NATO non-American helicopters, it belonged to someone – how come the US allowed it? And if they didn't stop it that means they allowed it, and they supported it.
So they cannot tell the Afghan people that they didn't know. The airspace is in their hands. The communication is in their hands. The area is under their complete absolute surveillance. There is no way that they can excuse themselves or offer excuses in this regard. No, we don't believe it, and they are to blame.
To an American who would watch this, and say, we sacrificed thousands of our soldiers...
HK: Sorry for that...
To defend, Afghanistan
And to bring about a semblance of democracy to this shaky country. We helped bring you Mr Karzai to the presidency...
And now you're saying that we're just like ISIS. How dare you?
HK: Yes. Well, I dare very much. Because I'm right.
They came, they supported us, we welcomed them. A doctor comes to you and says I want to treat you, and then he gives you the wrong medicine. Do you continue with him? You don't. He gives you the wrong treatment, or he hurts you further, you don't. We are grateful to the American people for their taxpayers' money. They're a great people. They have helped Afghanistan in many ways. We are very very grateful. We commiserate with the American families who have lost their children – their young men and women – very much. They're not to blame, they've sacrificed. It is the American government and their policy that I stand against. Not the American people. Not their help to Afghanistan where it has been effective – we're grateful for that. It's the US government and their policies in Afghanistan that are counter-productive. Democracy was our own doing, not the American doing – we told them the Afghan people wanted it. The US government interfered in our democracy – look at the mess we have today.
Looking at your schedule over the past few months, you would forgive us for thinking [after your visits to China, Russia and Turkey] it sounds like a man who's re-injecting himself into the political sphere and, maybe, who wants to become the president of Afghanistan again.
HK: No, no no. No, I'm not in politics, I'm not re-injecting myself into the political sphere, and I don't want to become the president of Afghanistan again. I've done my time. I did what I could for my country. And I'd like the new generation of Afghans to come forward and take our country to peace and to the heights of progress and prosperity.
But a substantial portion of the country still has majestic, immense, respect for you, and they remember your time fondly.
HK: Well, I'm glad to know that. Of course, as a person – as an individual – we all want to be liked. It makes me happy to see that some people like me, but that doesn't mean that I should become the president, or that I should attend to the business of government of Afghans. Yes, as an Afghan national, as someone with experience of Afghanistan of all types – including 13 years of being in office as the president – the Afghan people would expect me to help when we have difficulties, when we have harder times. And it is also my job as a citizen of the country to do that, because it's our home and that's where we live. That's where our children are – that's where we want to be.
Therefore, every family, and the family of Afghans, want to be in a good hope in a good country, and that's what we're trying to achieve. And if I can do anything in this regard to further a happy life in Afghanistan, I will do it and I will be delighted and honoured.
How are you helping right now?
HK: I am working hard together with the rest of the Afghan people, by trying to reach our aspirations, our aspirations of peace, prosperity, a sovereign Afghanistan, where we don't depend on foreigners, where the American troops aren't there, where we don't need to be looking to outsiders for support. Where we can make, create, and earn our own. Where we can have a better life, a peaceful life. Where we can be as peaceful as here happily in Istanbul – as a nation, as a society, as a country. That's an aspiration – that's a human aspiration. And we need that as a people – we also deserve that as a people, that's what we are hoping to be useful towards.
You say a sovereign Afghanistan, without American troops in Afghanistan. It appears as if General Mattis has been given the go-ahead by president Trump to develop a new Afghanistan strategy...They want to inject a few more thousand American troops. It sounds reasonable, doesn't it?
HK: When the Americans came in after September 11, many, many many – a great majority of the Afghan people – welcomed them. And we joined hands with them. And that brought the immediate success that we have, and in certain areas – in the improvement of the economy, in the improvement of education, of all sorts of improvements in our lives – the Americans, our neighbours, the rest of the world joined hands and we were successful and we are thankful for that.
But the fundamental area, which was the reason for the US to come to Afghanistan after September 11 – the fight against extremism and terrorism, and bringing security to Afghanistan – the American enterprise, the American action, failed. Failed because, in our view, of the mistakes that they made.
They ignored the sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan, beyond Afghanistan. They attacked Afghan villages, attacked Afghan people. They created prisons in Afghanistan. They did all sorts of wrong in Afghanistan, which led to their failure. Today, Afghanistan is much less secure, much more in trouble in terms of lack of security, than you could have ever imagined. And in the presence of the US forces in Afghanistan extremism increased, violence increased, even Daesh emerged under their wings, under the wings of the Americans in Afghanistan, of their presence in Afghanistan. So, I don't believe that any increase in US troops in Afghanistan is going to help end violence. They were there; violence kept increasing.
No, it is the US strategy that should change. It is the thinking if they are sincere in fighting extremism, I must underline this.
You think they're not sincere?
HK: No I don't think [so] at all. If they are sincere in fighting extremism, if that's really the reason they've come to Afghanistan for, then they must change their strategy.
They bombed and killed more than 90 Daesh fighters in Nangarhar very recently. Doesn't that show sincerity?
HK: That does not, that shows the opposite. They came to test their bomb. Why would they use [a bomb] on a cave that had no people in it? Even if they killed 90 people, that doesn't give them the right to come and use the biggest of their [non-nuclear bombs] on Afghanistan. They call it the "Mother of All Bombs," we don't like to call it the Mother of All Bombs – mother is a very kind being. Mother gives life, it doesn't take life away. And the Americans [call it that] – not the American people, the American government. So let's call it the biggest non-nuclear bomb, or the deadliest non-nuclear bomb.
They, in my view, used it to test it – which is wrong. They can't use a bomb against a country that they call ally. And it didn't help because within a few weeks Daesh was expanding, and they took the mountains of Tora Bora. So obviously, even if that was the purpose, even if they genuinely wanted to destroy Daesh, it didn't help. Therefore military action, bombs, detonating bombs, arresting people, creating prisons, interfering in our country, in our democracy, in our way of life will not help them advance any cause of theirs.
They better not send more troops, they better sit down with the Afghan people for a new compact on the manner of their presence, on the conduct of their presence. And they better also very much sit down with the global power and the countries in the region to recreate an environment of cooperation rather than one of confrontation, which is what we have now unfortunately. I mean with Russia, China, Iran, even Pakistan. The Americans should sit down with, and have a cooperative environment, rather than one of competition, and especially where they use Afghanistan as a glove for that competition. That is hurtful to us, and we don't want it.
Was there a moment for you when it changed? You were an ally, and then you're not now.
HK: There was a moment. There was a moment when they began to cause civilian casualties, and when they ignored the sanctuaries beyond Afghanistan in our neighbours of Pakistan. And we kept telling them repeatedly that though there are sanctuaries, that they are being trained and sent against us, they ignored it. And they kept bombing the Afghan people, causing civilian casualties – massive civilian casualties – to our people. Initially, I would very respectfully behind closed doors tell them that that's wrong, don't do that. Don't you go to the sanctuaries in Pakistan and stop killing our people. They would just not listen to us – they would consider as if we didn't matter as a nation, as a people. After a year of quietly telling them to change their behaviour, to change their politics, to change their policies in Afghanistan, then I had to stop publicly to speak and to criticise them and to go against them.
Do you believe the United States interfered to get Ashraf Ghani elected as president?
HK: The US interfered in the election. The US interfered in 2009 in the elections when I was a candidate. They then too blamed our election of being fraudulent, and through doing that using their media – the BBC, the CNN, and all of that.
But you won that time...
HK: Yes, but I won in spite of them trying to force me to agree to the office of the chief executive. In spite of them trying to weaken my win, because I did not agree to what they were asking me to do. They did exactly the same thing in 2014. So, 2014 is the repetition of 2009. In 2009 they failed to achieve what they wanted, in 2014 they got what they wanted. That's as far as I can talk about the elections.
If there was a large enough number of Afghans [who said] "we want president Karzai back", would you run?
HK: My wish is not to run. My wish is not to become the president of Afghanistan again. I can serve the country in lots of other ways. As a citizen, in many many different ways. But if the Afghan people go and ask that question they have that right – to ask that question and to seek whom they want to have. But as far as I'm concerned, as a citizen of this country, as one who's already been president for 13 years, I wouldn't want it. The Afghan people of course are sovereign, they can have their sovereign rights.