Interviews with Afghan. Pres. Karzai & Richard Holbrooke

Interviews with Afghan. Pres. Karzai & Richard Holbrooke

GPS - April 19, 2009

ZAKARIA: And now, President Hamid Karzai joins us from the presidential palace in Kabul.

President Karzai, thank you for agreeing to be on the program.

HAMID KARZAI, PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN: Most welcome. Happy to be with you.

ZAKARIA: You signed a law recently that put into place a kind of Muslim personal law for the Shia of Afghanistan.

This is a law that many regard as quite reactionary. It requires that a woman take permission from her husband before she leaves the house. It allows the husband to have sex forcibly with the woman, with his wife.

President Obama has called this law abhorrent.

You said you didn't want Westerners interfering in this, but now you have Afghan women marching in opposition to this.

Why did you sign this law?

KARZAI: This law was signed without the knowledge of the articles in it. This is a huge, you know -- huge in terms of the many articles. This law has so many articles. And I was...

ZAKARIA: And you hadn't focused on those ones?

KARZAI: I will come to that.

I was approached by our human rights commissioner, Dr. Sima Samar, about four months ago about two or three of the articles of that law that needed correction. Nobody knew that the law also included these details. And neither the minister of justice nor even some people who worked on this law did not find these articles in the law when they were working on it.

And once I came to know of this law and the details of it, I asked the minister of justice to come and inform me in detail as to what it is, and what should be done about this. Now I have instructed, in consultation with the clergy of the country, that the law be revised, and that any article that's not in keeping with the Afghan constitution and with Islamic Sharia must be removed from this law.

I assure you, my friend, that the Afghan people understand this, too. We do fully.

Fortunately enough, Afghanistan is today a country where there can be a demonstration of women in the city of Kabul, in other parts of the country, for or against a law, this law or any other law. So, that is great progress in this country.

And I assure you that the country is aware of this, and the country will deal with it appropriately and with satisfaction to Afghans and to the rest of the world.

ZAKARIA: The last time we spoke, Mr. President, it was mid- February, and you were a little concerned that the Obama administration had not really sorted out its Afghanistan policy. You said to me, once they settle down, we will see better judgment.

Since then, of course, we have had the announcement of the strategy. So, is it your sense now that the Obama administration is pursuing the right strategy in your country?

KARZAI: We agree with almost all the elements of this strategy. Now, we must see to it that it's implemented in cooperation with Afghanistan and Pakistan in a manner that will get us closer to success.

ZAKARIA: President Obama says that a core part of the strategy is to defeat, disrupt al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But you have often said to me, Afghanistan -- al Qaeda is no longer in Afghanistan.

So, who exactly are we fighting in Afghanistan?

KARZAI: Yes, indeed, al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan in 2001, by the combined forces of the United States, our other allies and the Afghan people.

Of course, there may be al Qaeda-sent terrorists to Afghanistan that we should fight and we should defeat. But as you know, as we all know, Afghanistan does not have any al Qaeda base or center or any such structural presence.

ZAKARIA: So you say we are fighting the Taliban. But you yourself have asked for the Taliban to be removed off the U.N. blacklist, because you want to try to make peace with elements of the Taliban.

So, the Taliban tends to be used as a very broad concept or entity.

You tell us. What do we mean when we talk about the Taliban in Afghanistan? What is it?

KARZAI: In 2001 -- and this is a very pertinent question, Mr. Zakaria -- in 2001, the Taliban and their destruction of Afghanistan and al Qaeda were driven out in less than a month-and-a-half.

And many of them, their senior commanders, their mid-level commanders and their foot soldiers, they went back to their villages and stayed in the country, and began to live their lives like other citizens of Afghanistan.

But the thousands of them who stayed in Afghanistan who were, because of circumstances, or because of the bad behavior of the Afghan forces or the international forces, driven away from Afghanistan and forced into exile and forced into taking up arms against us, are the ones that you are talking of peace with.

ZAKARIA: But many American troops on the ground report that when they try to make peace with elements of the Taliban, the problem is those people are often killed, they are intimidated, that the process is turning out to be quite difficult.

KARZAI: Well, peace cannot be made at tactical levels. So, when an American commander on the ground tries to make peace with a certain Taliban commander on the ground, that's not going to give us the results. That's an obscure activity.

ZAKARIA: Now, that's a big difference, though, with current U.S. policy. The current policy does have U.S. commanders at a local level trying a kind of bottom-up reconciliation process.

You're saying you want a top-down one, which is negotiated presumably by you and other members of your government.

KARZAI: That's tactical and parochial and local.

If you want to accomplish a local deal with a certain Taliban commander at a tactical level, good enough. But even that has to be done in agreement with the Afghan administration at the local, provincial level.

Without that knowledge...

ZAKARIA: Do you...

KARZAI: ... in the Afghan administration, this peace process will not go anywhere.

So it has to be at a bigger, national level, backed by the international community, in full knowledge of the Afghan people and the international community and at the local level for peace-building. Tactically at the local level, it's good enough, but it has to be in full view and knowledge and participation of the Afghan authority there.

ZAKARIA: In order to make peace at the national level, do you need that Mullah Omar be taken off the U.N. blacklist?

KARZAI: I have spoken about this issue very openly in the past. I have mentioned that, if he wants to come and participate in the peace process, if he wants to return to the country and give up violence against the Afghan people, against the international community, and declare that intention very, very clearly, we should be willing to consider.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you how your relations with the Obama administration are going, specifically with one person, Richard Holbrooke, who is the special representative. He's a tough negotiator. People in Washington call him "the bulldozer." Are you working well with him?

KARZAI: Well, relations with the U.S. government, with President Obama's administration are very, very good. We have a good relationship, especially with the announcement of the strategy on Afghanistan. We now know where we are leading. So, that is a great plus.

With Ambassador Holbrooke, the relationship is very good, and a working relationship. As far as bulldozing is concerned, Afghanistan is known to be a bulldozer, so that's what we do.

ZAKARIA: On that note, President Karzai, you're very kind to have joined us. Thank you again.

KARZAI: Good to talk to you. All the best.

ZAKARIA: And we will be back with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.


RICHARD HOLBROOKE: You have people who committed 9/11, who attacked Mumbai, who attacked Islamabad, who killed Benazir Bhutto, and without any doubt at all are planning attacks on the United States and our allies, as well as the government of Pakistan, as we speak.



ZAKARIA: Richard Holbrooke is the man at the center of American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the U.S. special representative to those two countries, he is responsible for negotiating the difficult path to peace.

He joins us now from Tokyo, where he is attending an international aid conference aimed at stabilizing Pakistan's precarious finances.

Ambassador Holbrooke, thank you for joining us.


ZAKARIA: Let me ask you, ambassador, about a personality. When you were a private citizen, you often expressed some misgivings and, in fact, criticized President Karzai of Afghanistan.

Have you found it easier to get along with him? Do you think he's doing a good job now?

HOLBROOKE: I want to be very clear on this point. First of all, whatever I wrote in the past, I stand by. My current job is to help strengthen the government of Afghanistan under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The number one issue in Afghanistan this year politically is the election. The candidates are not declared yet. But if there is a candidacy by any one individual, whether it's President Karzai or anyone else, the U.S. is not going to support or oppose whoever is running, and that includes President Karzai.

ZAKARIA: Do you feel, ambassador, that it is possible in Afghanistan to have local reconciliation or reconciliation of any kind with some elements of what is sometimes called the Taliban?

HOLBROOKE: This is a work in progress, quite frankly, Fareed.

The Obama administration came into office only nine weeks ago, 10 weeks ago, without having inherited a clear policy on this from the previous administration. We are examining it at every level. It is an extremely important and interesting issue

But at this point -- and I'm being very honest with you, Fareed -- we don't really know how this program or project might work.

But the importance of reaching out and making clear to those people fighting with the Taliban, who are not committed to its values, but are there because they misunderstand why NATO is present, that's a very important thing.

ZAKARIA: And let me read to you something President Karzai said when I asked him about the local efforts being made, because some of them have already begun, as you know.

He said, "Well, peace cannot be made at tactical levels. So when an American commander on the ground tries to make peace with a certain Taliban commander on the ground, that is not going to give us results. That's an obscure activity that neither the Afghan government nor Afghan society knows about, and sometimes never finds out about."

So what's he's suggesting is, don't do a bottom-up process. Basically let me, President Karzai, negotiate with the Taliban.

HOLBROOKE: Yes. And your question is?

ZAKARIA: Your reaction to that, Ambassador Holbrooke?


HOLBROOKE: Well, I'm very interested in the quote. I hadn't heard him put it that way before. I'd like to ask him exactly what he's talking about.

If local units wish to stop fighting, that would be welcome, and I'm sure President Karzai and I would agree on that.

ZAKARIA: All right, let me ask you then about the other country in your gambit, which is Pakistan.

Who is running the national security policy of Pakistan, President Zardari or General Kayani? HOLBROOKE: I think the clear answer is that President Zardari is the president, and General Kayani is the chief of staff of the army. In Pakistan's tradition and its complex arrangements of power, like any government, the power is distributed under the president. And the army has played a very powerful role.

General Kayani has said repeatedly -- and I take him completely at his word. He's a sincere and intelligent and decent person. He has said repeatedly that he does not wish his military forces to get involved in political issues. And as I said, I really take him at his word on that.

ZAKARIA: Is the democratically-elected government -- does the president, though, have the kind of power and legitimacy that would allow him to act?

In a "Wall Street Journal" article that was largely an interview with you, there was a quote from President Zardari saying, "I am losing my country. I am losing support in my country."

Is it possible for this government to deliver in Pakistan?

HOLBROOKE: You've raised a critical issue. I'm not sure what was implied by the phrase "losing Pakistan." I think he gave that interview at a time right after this intense political confrontation, which came to a climax on the weekend of March 15, 16.

That was a near-run thing, Fareed, as you know. There were over a million people on the streets of Lahore and Islamabad. There was a threat of violence. There was a threat of assassination. There was -- some people thought there might be military intervention.

And I think the important thing to point out is that that particular crisis, that confrontation between President Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, who is the senior political figure in the Punjab, was resolved peacefully. Had it not been resolved peacefully, you and I would be having this conversation today under very different circumstances. It was very dangerous thing, and I think passing it was a positive step.

But I'm not going to pretend that the situation in Pakistan is not difficult. It is very difficult. I can think of no other place in the world where history hangs more heavily over the situation, and current economic conditions makes it more difficult in Pakistan.

And I would say one other thing. Pakistan really matters to the national security of the United States.

In its western areas along the border, the so-called Tribal Areas, you have people who committed 9/11, who attacked Mumbai, who attacked Islamabad, who killed Benazir Bhutto, and without any doubt at all are planning attacks on the United States and our allies, as well as the government of Pakistan, as we speak.

ZAKARIA: You noted a recent deal that the Pakistani military made in the Swat Valley. In the Swat Valley the Pakistani military signed an agreement with the militants, and the Pakistani government also signed it, which seemed to allow the militants free rein to institute Sharia law and things like that.

You said you were puzzled by that deal.

Over the last three or four weeks, what is your sense? Was that deal a good peace deal, or was it a kind of panic surrender that hasn't worked?

HOLBROOKE: I have expressed my concern and confusion about what happened, publicly, and I'm happy to express it again today. I have expressed it openly to our friends in Pakistan.

The Pakistani response is that they had no choice, given the stretched -- how stretched thin their military resources are.

But I would draw your attention to the fact that the day before yesterday the chief spokesman of the Taliban in the Swat area publicly renounced the part of the deal in which they're supposed to lay down their arms.

And it seems to me that that ought to be a wakeup call to everybody in Pakistan that you can't deal with these people by giving away territory as they creep closer and closer to the populated centers of the Punjab and Islamabad. They're less than 100 miles from Islamabad after this deal.

And I am concerned at the growing risk that you'll have more terrorist attacks in Lahore and Islamabad, perhaps in Karachi. So we are very concerned about this.

ZAKARIA: And we will be back with Richard Holbrooke right after this.


HOLBROOKE: It is hard. I mean, the truth is, it is the hardest thing I've ever attempted.



ZAKARIA: And we are back with President Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.

Let me first ask you about these reports of the Taliban moving into parts of Punjab. The people on the ground in Pakistan seem very disturbed and seem to see this as a new and potentially very dangerous phenomenon. How do you read it?

HOLBROOKE: Well, I agree with that assessment. So does everyone in the U.S. government.

Our focus is equally on Pakistan and Afghanistan. No matter how good the government in Kabul, no matter how well we do in Afghanistan, if the situation in western Pakistan continues to deteriorate, success will be elusive and very difficult to achieve.

So our focus, which is symbolized by my participating as America's representative in this conference in Tokyo, is very strong.

This is a really dangerous situation in Pakistan today. And we are focused on it very heavily.

ZAKARIA: What do you see as the worst case, ambassador? And is the U.S. government planning for this? I mean, can you imagine a situation where Pakistan just spins out of control?

David Kilcullen, adviser to General Petraeus, says Pakistan could collapse and that the U.S. government should be making contingency plans for something like that.

HOLBROOKE: Well, I respect David Kilcullen enormously, but I'll let him speak for himself.

Are we concerned about Pakistan? You bet.

President Zardari himself, as you quoted a moment ago, is concerned about his country. Everyone I have met in recent trips to Pakistan is concerned.

What's happened in Swat is a huge wakeup call. That is not in the Tribal Areas. That is 100 miles from Islamabad.

As I like to say to my friends in New York, it's the same distance as East Hampton is from Manhattan. And it has the same psychological relationship to the leaders in Islamabad. They vacation there. And for it to fall under the realm of such murderous people preaching such hateful philosophies is really extraordinary. And we are concerned about it.

ZAKARIA: What is the strategy you would advocate? What would you urge the Pakistani government, to go after them militarily and hit them hard?

HOLBROOKE: First of all, I think you have to go at the economic and social roots of the instability in western Pakistan with more economic aid. The literacy rate is about -- is in the single digits there. For women it's half of what it is for men. It's a breeding ground for the kind of rebellions which are now springing up.

There's always been a lot of rebellions in that area historically, but this is the first time they've been tied to an international terror movement as opposed to local tribes. And for the first time since partition over 60 years ago, India, Pakistan and the United States face a common threat, a common challenge and a common task because of this.

So, we need more resources. Senator Kerry and Senator Lugar in the Senate, Congressman Berman, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, have put in a bill for $1.5 billion of aid for the next five years, each year, to deal with the economic and social issues in the Tribal Areas. In Tokyo we are pledging $1 billion in quick aid for the same problem. This is just the American pledge. Congressional approval, of course, is required. So, we've got a lot to do.

On the military side -- back to your question -- the necessity, in my view, is for the Pakistan Army to strengthen the Frontier Corps, to train its troops in guerrilla warfare and counter-guerrilla warfare, to win the propaganda battle -- which, as I said a moment ago, they are not even in the game on.

It's a tremendous set of problems. And I want to underscore again, that if these problems are not addressed, success in neighboring Afghanistan is going to be virtually impossible, no matter how good the government is or how effective our troops are.

So the issue you're raising is at the center of our current concerns in the Obama administration.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about General Kayani. You had very nice things to say about him.

But there are many who feel that he and the Pakistan military still don't get it. They don't think that the real threat they face is from these groups within Pakistan, these militant groups, and instead are still focused on a kind of a strategy, a military strategy, that is focused on India, an enemy they are comfortable with, they have planned and prepared for for decades.

In your opinion, has the Pakistani military shifted its focus? And does it see the problem of the Taliban as the existential threat to Pakistan?

HOLBROOKE: I hope they do.

And when you say Taliban, I think your viewers around the world should understand that you're not just talking about Taliban. The word "Taliban" in this case embraces al Qaeda and really dangerous other groups in the same area, loosely affiliated.

The question you ask about the Pakistani military and its chief of staff is one that I hear constantly. And therefore, as everyone is very well aware of all the allegations, all I can say is that we work with General Kayani, particularly our chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

We work with General Kayani and his colleagues on the basis of a reasonable assumption that they are absolutely sincere in their efforts to take on the militants.

However, all of us have said -- and I don't think there is anything improper about saying it -- that the Pakistani Army has traditionally been arrayed in a conventional deployment in the east, against its historic adversary and neighbor, India.

And that I believe -- and I think my colleagues in the military would agree, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen -- that they need more resources in the West.

One of the things we think the Pakistanis ought to do is strengthen the famous Frontier Corps, a group that was set up by the British in the colonial era and is now part of the Pakistani military structure, but has not been equipped with modern weapons and needs training for what is called counterinsurgency. It's a different kind of war against a different kind of enemy.

ZAKARIA: Ambassador, you brought peace to the Balkans by ending the war there. Does this seem a lot harder than what you did at Dayton, Ohio?

HOLBROOKE: Yes, it does. It does, Fareed. It's almost as difficult as enduring an interview with you, actually.


ZAKARIA: Well, I won't make you endure it any longer.

HOLBROOKE: I was just kidding, Fareed. Just kidding.

But I do want to say that, what we did in the Balkans was a thrilling thing to be part of. And it is relevant in one key sense to what we're doing today.

This was a Muslim country in the heart of Europe, and American intervention under President Clinton ended that war and saved that community, and four years later did the same thing in Kosovo, a predominantly Muslim society.

I say this with great passion to you and your international audience, because I am tired of people saying that the United States is anti-Islam or is fighting a religion.

That is certainly not true. Quite the contrary. We are helping the Afghan people restore themselves in history.

People don't remember that 30 years ago, before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Afghanistan was a food exporter. It was a poor but emerging country with ethnic harmony. We want to help Afghanistan get back to that.

And people who are genuinely bad, and backed up by al Qaeda itself, are trying to destroy that dream for the Afghan people.

It is hard. I mean, the truth is, it is the hardest thing I've ever attempted. But I see no alternative for the United States in its own national security interests but to continue to try to do the best we can in this extremely difficult situation.

ZAKARIA: Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, thank you so much for joining us.

HOLBROOKE: Thank you, Fareed.


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