Amid efforts by the US and Russia to reach out to the Taliban for a reconciliation process in Afghanistan, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai supported Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat's controversial statement regarding initiating talks with the Taliban fighters, who have been designated as global terrorists. In an exclusive interview with WION, Karzai said Taliban after all are Afghans and asked New Delhi to build contacts with them.
"India should be in contact with the people of Afghanistan. And the Taliban are a constituency there," he said.
Asked, that they are also a terrorist group and India's official policy has been not to have any truck with armed groups, till they disarm, former Afghan president said since India is a strategic friend of Afghanistan, it should not only remain in touch with the government of the day, but also build contact with the opposition groups that is Taliban, especially when it wants to contribute to peace in the country. While admitting that they (Taliban) control 60 percent of the country, he argued that it means they have that population base. He stressed that these perspectives need to be taken into account.
Former president said he wanted Iran and China also on board to ensure peace. He said even though he had been a critic of American policy in Kabul and had refused to sign the bilateral security agreement, he believed that the US had no intentions of completely leaving Afghanistan. "If you (the US) want to be in Afghanistan, in the form of bases with some permanence or long term then you must make sure Afghanistan becomes peaceful and Afghan people live in dignity of peace and sovereignty," he pleaded.
Distancing from President Trump's remarks, where he sarcastically mentioned about India building a library in Kabul, Karzai said in terms of investment and support to reconstruction activity, India had been a frontline country. "So on that we disagree with President Trump. We believe India has played a role and will continue to play a role," he said. But in same breath, he added that if the US President meant India should do more, then he was in agreement with him. "Of course I think to ask India can do more," he maintained.
Former president also asked the US to differentiate between their dealing with Pakistan and to ensure peace in Afghanistan. He said the Trump Administration must make sure that their dealings with Pakistan are not at the cost of Afghanistan. "In other words, we support peace, we want peace, but we see a difference, we differentiate between peace in Afghanistan and America's dealings with Pakistan. That's how we must move forward, that's how we must work with US, with that differentiation," he said.
PALKI SHARMA: Afghanistan has been in news. Donald Trump has decided to pull out troops. Do you welcome the decision, how do you see it?
HAMID KARZAI: We welcome an end to war in Aghanistan and fighting in Afghanistan. We are desperate as people for peace and rightly so. Therefore we welcome the American initiative for peace in Afghanistan and the appointment of Ambassador Khalilzad, we can say it's a very good appointment. In that sense, Yes.
PALKI SHARMA: Do you believe pulling out of American troops is going to bring peace?
HAMID KARZAI: Not only that. Not only pulling out of troops alone will bring peace. A combination of political activity with it inside Afghanistan and around Afghanistan, that' what will lead us to peace, and that's what has been demanded. Of course we have our own views on that. The US push for peace must not only bring peace in Afghanistan, which is what we very much desire, but also strengthen Afghanistan as a sovereign country, this must be in tandem and relations and engaging with neighbours of Afghanistan. Pakistan is a major factor there, we have to engage with Pakistan. But also is India, Iran Russia and China. It has to be an exercise that involves everybody. That would mean peace and a durable one.
PALKI SHARMA: Of course it's a larger process, but if we focus on one decision observers of Afghanistan and the situation there have said that the timing couldn't have been worse because we are in the middle of a political process, talks have been going on and there has been no concession from the Taliban. Many have called it a propaganda win for the Taliban because they've not given on anything and you've said you'll withdraw troops.
HAMID KARZAI: I was a critic of the American policy in Afghanistan. I've had intense differences on the military activity in Afghanistan and their heavy handedness in Afghanistan over their policy in Pakistan, lack of clarity there. And it was because of this reason I did not sign the bilateral security agreement. So for me the announcement made by the US govt to withdraw troops in Afghanistan was not so negative. It's a positive. But a positive that has to have other qualifications with it. Meaning a proper and serious and wholesome peace process for stability in Afghanistan.
PALKI SHARMA: Do you think he's even looking at that. Because he keeps saying we are not the world's cop. If you need security it's your own business and we've done enough and we've spent enough money and the others need to step up.
HAMID KARZAI: Generally his views are known to us as to what he feels about United States and how does he feels relations the rest of the world should be with the United States of America. But on Afghanistan they have a more strategic objective in our country. That there are purpose in that purpose in name is fighting extremism. But look at where Afghanistan is. We are at a very very strategic location. We have all the other super powers in our neighbourhood. Russia is there, China is there, India is there. Therefore our location is surely of interest to the United States and surely that is one of the reasons why United States is there. So looking at it from that perspective the US would be interested in Afghanistan and they would want to stay in Afghanistan, that brings us to a question. If you want to be in Afghanistan, the United States in the form of bases with some permanence or long term then you must make sure Afghanistan becomes peaceful and Afghan people live in dignity of peace and sovereignty.
HAMID KARZAI: Yes I have said that and I completely believe that.
HAMID KARZAI: Well maybe, I don't think his intention was to mock India.
PALKI SHARMA: Did you hear him speak?
HAMID KARZAI: I didn't hear him, I read it. I don't think that was his intention. I think it just didn't occur to him at the time that it was not a library but a Parliament house.
HAMID KARZAI: (Laughing) People make mistakes and they say things. But coming to India and his remarks on India from Afghan perspective India is one of the most strategic allies of Afghanistan, in the terms of bilateral relationship between the 2 countries, in terms of the help that India has given to Afghanistan. In 2002, when India began to help Afghanistan on a large scale, India wasn't at that time a traditionally donor country. But India became a frontline country with regard to investment and support and reconstruction activity in Afghanistan. Roads, power transmission lines, massive programmes of educating Afghans in India, thousands of Afghans came to India, military assistance and political assistance. So on that we disagree with President Trump. We believe India has played a role and will continue to play a role. Well if he meant India should do more, Ofcourse I think to ask India can do more.
PALKI SHARMA: Depended on that he's called India Afghanistan's most reliable regional partner
HAMID KARZAI: It is.
HAMID KARZAI: That is largely increasingly the sentiment for the mistakes they made in Afghanistan. And it is for this reason we believe that we must back the US initiative of peace in Afghanistan. But we must also be very clear with them too that the finisher of peace in Afghanistan and their consequences of dealing with neighbours of Afghanistan specially Pakistan. We want to be friends with Pakistan. Pakistan is a neighbour, Pakistani people are brothers and sisters for us and we recognise very much that Pakistan has a very important role to play in bringing peace to Afghanistan because they are one of the countries causing war in Afghanistan. So naturally they have a role to play. But for the United States to work for peace in Afghanistan, it must make sure that their dealings with Pakistan are not at the pillars of Afghanistan. In other words, we support peace, we want peace, but we see a difference, we differentiate between peace in Afghanistan and America's dealings with Pakistan. That's how we must move forward, that's how we must work with US, with that differentiation.
PALKI SHARMA: Let me quote from a UNICEF report that says five thousand children were maimed or killed in the first three months of 2018 in Afghanistan and in all more than one lakh Afghans have been killed in this conflict. And yet the Americans come and test the mother of all bombs. Have they turned your country into a war laboratory?
HAMID KARZAI: Oh terrible!! This is one of the worst things they could have done to Afghanistan and they did it. For that reason they have lost the support of Afghan people and this is something that I at that time condemned very very strongly and I will do it again and again and I will raise my condemnation, my voice against that atrocity on Afghanistan again through your television. Thanks for raising that question and reminding us.
HAMID KARZAI: Well the army chief is right to say that. The Taliban are the part of Afghan people. They are afghans. India should be in contact with the with the people of Afghanistan. And the Taliban are a constituency there.
HAMID KARZAI: We are seeking peace in Afghanistan. And peace has to be made with sides that are fighting in Afghanistan. Now, if India is looking for peace in Afghanistan and since India is a strategic friend of Afghanistan, India is not only in contact with the govt of the day in Afghanistan. India was not only in contact with my govt in Afghanistan. India is also in contact with the people of Afghanistan, and as the Taliban are a part of Afghanistan, India has to be in touch with them. And especially if one wants to contribute to peace in Afghanistan, that contact must be done. So we hope India would go onboard with peace process in Afghanistan and help the Afghan people reach peace with other objectives of a sovereign and independent and stable Afghanistan. India has immense capacity in leading the peace talks together with United States in that direction.
HAMID KARZAI: Well they are Afghans, they have children , they have families like all Afghans do. They also want to settle down and have peaceful lives and participate in decision making with the rest of the afghan people. And that can only be done through processes. Democratic processes of election of means similar. So that's the only option.
HAMID KARZAI: Not in the April elections, it would maybe be too soon for them to participate. What I meant was, as we reach peace, as settlement arise, of course then they would do what other Afghans do in accordance with the Afghan constitution.
PALKI SHARMA: This is where the tricky portion begins, because terrorist outfits after a point want to turn into political outfits like the Jamat-ud-Dawa or the Hamas or like the Taliban. So is that okay, the price that you have to pay for peace or the form of peace that you are trying to look at?
HAMID KARZAI: Peace has to have a price of course. How else can you make peace but to make those who are fighting part of the polity, the part of the society that they are already part of. Especially if they control 60 percent of the country, that means they have that population base. That is the perspective that we should offer, that is the foundation that we should forward.
PALKI SHARMA: Do you see that as a failure of the govt of the day?
HAMID KARZAI: I see that as a failure of the entire exercise. The entire ambit of this campaign against the terrorism that was pursued wrongly. It was the first time in 2002 in Afghan history that the Afghan people welcomed a foreign force in the form of United States and its allies and ofcourse the foreign force that was backed and legitimised vy the United Nations Security Council decision and backed by the entire international community. And it paid off immediately. That people got together, got rid of the creeping invasion and established a new Afghanistan and life began very very well, we gained a lot; education, eceonomy, the return of women back to the Afghan society and politics and economy and education for girls and boys and all of those achievements. Then when it came to stability and fight against extremism, the Americans concentrated on bombing Afghan villages and Afghan homes. Began alienating the Afghan people with immense intensity. We were bewildered as to why would they do that. And I kept telling them why? They do not focus on the sanctuaries beyond Afghan borders. They would admit to us of the presence of the sanctuaries, but they do nothing about it and hurt us. So today is the consequence of that.
PALKI SHARMA: You just spoke about how Afghanistan is strategically located.
HAMID KARZAI: The heart of Asia.
HAMID KARZAI: It's a blessing and a curse, no doubt.
PALKI SHARMA: So now regional and global powers are trying to make kinmakers in Kabul, as they always have, there's Pakistan and America, there's Russia, China, there's Iran looking at talks, India is already engaged, how tough is it to balance these, sometimes, conflicting powers for a country that can do with all the help that it can get?
HAMID KARZAI: Well we should be smart enough to take the assistance that comes, take the help that comes in all forms, political, economic and other but must also be able to manage peace competing forces in Afghanistan. Fortunately during my govt, that management was done. So we should be seeking an Afghanistan that should be a place of co-operation of competing forces, not a place of conflict of these forces. And that's a job that has been done in the past and we'll do it again.
HAMID KARZAI: We wish Imran Khan very well for his aspiration for a Naya Pakistan. A Naya Pakistan for us would be one that walks away from the use of religious extremism against their neighbours and within their own country. A Pakistan that has several relationships with his neighbours, A Pakistan that's prosperous, and a nation that's doing very very well and that is in friendship with neighbours, we would very much want a pakistan and we would love a Pakistan like that.
PALKI SHARMA: Also A Pakistan that respects minorities including the Pashtuns who've been protesting out on the streets.
HAMID KARZAI: Ofcourse!! When I say religious extremism, the rest flows from that.
PALKI SHARMA: China is very keem on extending CPEC from Pakistan into Afghanistan. And China is also engaged. China has held trilateral talks with Pakistan, Afghanistan and China for the past 2 years. Are you wary of what's coming, given the fact that many countries are waking up to the fact that CPEC or the OBOR in general is a death trap?
HAMID KARZAI: There are three countries in our region with major infrastructure aspirations and projects. China's is the biggest. The One Belt One Road project, an offspring or part of that is the CPEC, India has its connectivity project meaning linking India all over.
PALKI SHARMA: (interrupts in between) I'm not sure it's fair to compare the two?
HAMID KARZAI: (Continues sentence) Especially to Central Asia. Russia has the Eurasian concept, Kazakhstan, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran. These are extermely important projects, vitally important projects for us to see succeed. These mean the upliftment of the populations of this vast region that form the borders of Russia all the way from East Asia, South, West and Central Asia. If only we can manage to settle our relationships with Pakistan in this regard, Pakistan through the ofice and thinking of Imran Khan begins to devise a different concept of relationship with this region. Opening borders with India, opening borders with Afghanistan, allowing transit and transportation. There would be a region of massive unleashing of energy and resources and power and riches to come to the population. So we much want that. And I believe Pakistan can be a tremendous contributor to this and I hope they do.
PALKI SHARMA: I appreciate your optimism, but do you really see the Belt and Road project as just a project of connectivity and not one for political ambition?
HAMID KARZAI: Well definitely it can be for political ambition as well. We all have political ambitions, Afghanistan has political ambitions, India has political ambitions. Economic power brings you to political ambitions, so why not? It's legitimate, there's nothing wrong in that, as long as you do it not at the cost to others. As long as you do it in a win-win situation as is the Chinese terminology.
PALKI SHARMA: But it's not happening in a win-win situation. Do you think it is?
HAMID KARZAI: I hope it does.
PALKI SHARMA: Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Bangladesh
HAMID KARZAI: I hope it does. You see, we have to be aspirational and that's what we should work for. And for Afghanistan the best option is aregional option of these three super powers. All our neighbours joining hands together and bringing themselves and us in this region towards upliftment and towards better prosperity.
PALKI SHARMA: Isn't China doing what once America did? It has very very heavily invested in Pakistan.
HAMID KARZAI: It is. They are very very close friends
PALKI SHARMA: Yes. And you are to believe that if Chinese projects were to roll at a bigger scale in Afghanistan, that will not compromise?
HAMID KARZAI: If we wish to imagine Chinese projects coming to Afghanistan but we also want that the Chinese projects in Pakistan and we wish those Chinese projects to come to Afghanistan that they should recognise that we also have a strategic relationship with India and that we also want those projects to come to us. There's a lot more connectivity here, it's because of the reason I mention Pakistan again as a hindrance to this connectivity that must be allowed. Unless that happens, no other project would work well. So Pakistan must recognise to allow Afghanistan and India get linked, and get linked to Central Asia and vice versa.
PALKI SHARMA: We spoke about the April election. Do you fear more violence? Do you think the people of Pakistan are ready to participate in the process?
HAMID KARZAI: The Afghan people do want to participate in the elections. In an election that we own, that we run, that we count. And that kind of an election we do want to participate in. But rigt now the situation in Pakistan is not ready for an election that we own, that we can run, and that Afghan people can freely and out of their own will participate in. Lack of security, lack of institutional order, all of that. For that reason the priority for us is peace. And once that comes, with sovereignty and stability then Afghanistan can go towards election and own it and implement it.
PALKI SHARMA: At the same time, India will also be going to the polls, you said India could do more for the region. What more would you want India to do because India has made its position very clear that we are not going to send troops, but we will continue our efforts towards re-building.
HAMID KARZAI: India is age-old strategic partner with Afghanistan. Our relation is not new. Our relation goes back centuries and centuries. It's the same people, the same civilization, everything if I can put it in simple words. Therefore India has no option but to be in Afghanistan and Afghanistan has no option but to seek India's engagement with Afghanistan, and in the deepest and the broadest sense of it.
PALKI SHARMA: And the current Prime Minister believes in the "Neighbour First" Policy. How do you see India's position on the global map?
HAMID KARZAI: We would very much want Prime Minister Modi to do more of that, and do more of that in Afghanistan.
PALKI SHARMA: How do you see his moves in the region in general?
HAMID KARZAI: We support him, we encourage him seek more. I've told him that by all my meanings.
PALKI SHARMA: Where is India in this peace process? Ambassador Khalilzad visited this region twice and did not come to India and he's come only now.
HAMID KARZAI: Ambassador Khalilzad is here, he met Indian officials . India can do two things: India can help the peace process
PALKI SHARMA: (interrupts in between) Which has been stalled I think
HAMID KARZAI: But they will go on eventually. India can help the Russia Peace Initiative, the Moscow format, which is a significant format for Afghanistan and this region. We very much want India to be a part of that format and support that format. India can do on its own independently in Afghanistan as well. So India has the ability, the stature, the presence in Afghanistan in the minds and hearts of the Afghani people to be able to do all that.
HAMID KARZAI: In the form of the govt, No! I think I've grown beyond that. I would rather be doing as a citizen of the country and the region. That suits me better and that would be profitable for myself and my country in much more ways.