For years, former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has been outspoken in his criticism of U.S. action in the war on terror. But in the aftermath of American forces dropping a massive 22,000-tonne ‘MOAB’ — its biggest non-nuclear bomb — in the country on April 13, he has criticised the Ashraf Ghani government too, the first time he has been this vocally critical of his successor. In an interview to The Hindu during a visit to Delhi, he explains his comments, as well as his hopes for Indian engagement in Afghanistan in the future. Excerpts:
You have come out very strongly against the U.S. bombing in Nangarhar province. Given that the GBU/43B MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) was claimed to have been used to target ISIS Khorasan, that everyone seems to agree is a major threat to Afghanistan, why are you objecting?
I am objecting for two reasons. One, that the Americans waited two and a half to three years for Daesh (the Islamic State) to entrench itself in Nangarhar province’s Shinwar district, and to use those caves, and to abuse our people, to evacuate villages of their inhabitants, and basically allowed Daesh to do all of this, without stopping them. They had all the means to stop Daesh from infiltrating into Afghanistan across the Durand Line all this time. They monitor this line at all times. So, having allowed them to cross into Afghanistan, to allow them to carry supplies and ammunition in… that is a very mountainous area and those passes could have been easily stopped with just a few people. None of that was done. And then when the local people rose against Daesh, instead of helping local people there, the U.S. Air Force planes targeted their village defence lines against Daesh.
By mistake, they said…
Yes, but we don’t know about this. It looks like a mistake, but how do they keep making mistakes like this? Should they not know who is the enemy? And then, hundreds of thousands of people were driven away from their villages; almost all the tribal chiefs I knew had been driven out of their villages with their people. Then the U.S. comes and hits Afghanistan in the name of Daesh, and that too with the deadliest bomb they have short of a nuclear weapon. This isn’t hurting Daesh. The motive for the U.S. is clearly to test its bomb in Afghanistan, and to send tough signals to its rivals at the same time. So I condemn it in the strongest possible terms, and I see it as a violation of Afghan sovereignty and an attack on our soil, on Afghan lives and on Afghan environment.
You’ve even accused President Ghani’s government of “treason” for allowing the bombing. Won’t such allegations weaken the National Unity Government at this time?
I don’t want to weaken the National Unity Government, but at the same time I want the government to defend Afghanistan. The American bomb was a violation of Afghanistan, it was an attack on Afghanistan. And the U.S. is supposed to be our ally. They have signed a bilateral security agreement with us. According to the agreement, they are supposed to strengthen Afghanistan, defeat terrorism, and protect our borders. After the signing of the BSA [U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement, signed in 2014], the Pakistani Air Force has violated our borders several times, their troops have entered Afghanistan, and the U.S. has done nothing. The country has become more insecure than ever before. And to now bomb an ally like us with the excuse of Daesh is simply not acceptable, and in my view the Afghan government should have stood up to the U.S. on this. Where was the need to support it anyway, when it appears they were not consulted before? And within hours, the Health Ministry put out a notification saying there were no unhealthy side effects to the [MOAB] bomb. How do they know?
In the past few weeks, U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defence Secretary James Mattis have both visited the region, travelling to Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi, and the Trump administration seems to be considering its options on its future course in Afghanistan. What do you think the U.S.’s priorities should be, and how do you think India can be a part of its plans?
We have heard of the U.S.’s to-and-fro diplomacy since 2002. They come one day and say that terrorists are being kept and trained inside sanctuaries inside Pakistan. And then they provide Pakistan with hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid. You heard, about five years ago, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral [Mike] Mullen called the Haqqani network a “veritable arm of the ISI”. They made a statement that was so strong five years ago, and subsequently continued to supply Pakistan with weapons, aircraft and money. Just recently, they have announced another $350 million to Pakistan [under the Coalition Support Fund]. They can’t talk one way and walk another way. So for me, U.S. NSA McMaster’s visit is just a repetition of what I saw during my government, and all that has followed with the next government.
You’re accusing the U.S. of doublespeak, yet some may say Russia is doing the same thing. Its latest initiative on Afghanistan, bringing together what you have called a “strategic arc” of Iran, China, India and Central Asia, also includes reaching out to the Taliban and Pakistan. Given that you are visiting Delhi after visits to Beijing and Moscow, what do you see as the purpose of this initiative, and how do you justify its decision to protect the Taliban in particular?
Yes, well, Russia, India, China, even Iran, all supported U.S. presence and its actions in Afghanistan from 2002 onwards.
They were all part of the Bonn Conference [in 2001] and continued to support the U.S. aims in Afghanistan: fight terrorism, bring stability to Afghanistan, and address the issues in Pakistan as well. But look what happened. After all these years, that cooperation has given way to competition between them. I remember in 2008, for the first time at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation conference, I complained to Russian President [Vladimir] Putin about American actions in Afghanistan.
I said that the way the U.S. forces were implementing their war on terror, carrying out operations — the manner of the operations, the aerial bombardment, arrests, torture, and the lack of action against sanctuaries on the Pakistani side — was causing more extremism and violence in Afghanistan and adding to the ranks of the Taliban. At that time President Putin told me he had many differences with the U.S.’s conduct in the world, but on Afghanistan they saw “eye to eye”. This Russian stand continued from 2002 to 2012, when finally they began to ask questions. For example, how come the U.S. keeps announcing more and more aid for the war in Afghanistan, there’s more fighting, more casualties, more terrorism there?
Why was the war moving in a negative way, as if its purpose was to create more terrorists? So I ask, how come, compared to the solidarity from the world in 2002, the U.S. lost all its allies on Afghanistan?
Russia’s move to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan is certainly a welcome step. The Taliban are Afghans. Those who are Afghans and want to give up violence must be encouraged and supported to do so. The Russians aren’t the only ones to talk to the Taliban. The U.S. held talks with the Taliban, both directly and through Pakistan. They met them in Qatar, I know that, and so have other countries. The Germans have held talks. The Norwegians conducted meetings between Taliban and Afghan civil society representatives in Oslo. So why single out only Russia?
India hasn’t stopped others from talking to the Taliban, but believes this will not lead to peace, as the latest April 21 attack in Mazar-e-Sharif has shown, in which over 140 soldiers were killed by the Taliban. Do you still feel including the Taliban will work?
I have made it very clear that I can no longer call the Taliban my brothers. Their outrages against the Afghan people are horrendous, and I say every attack they commit now is helping continue the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. If they truly want the U.S. to leave, they must engage in a peace process with the Afghan government and people.
India is a stronger partner of the U.S. today, and the U.S. has publicly called for it to have a greater role in Afghan security. What is your view on what India should do?
The U.S. has done the right thing in asking India to do more in Afghanistan. This is something I had asked the Indian leadership when I was President, and I know President Ghani has done the same. My view is that while it is okay for the U.S. to ask this of India, India should do more on its own initiative, have its own foreign policy on Afghanistan.
Today, the U.S. may ask India to do more, tomorrow it may ask India not to do more. Will India pull back then? India should have its own policy on Afghanistan, based on its own view of the region, its own interests in the region, and the interests of peace and stability in Afghanistan. Yes, India should do more on Afghanistan, but it should do more on its own terms, not on requests from America.
What does this “do more” mean? Does it mean boots on the ground?
No, it doesn’t mean boots on the ground, we don’t need that. The “do more” means provide Afghanistan what it needs to stand on its own feet, to enable Afghanistan [Army] to defend the country, to enable Afghanistan to fight extremism and the violation of our sovereignty from across the Durand Line, to help Afghanistan back to normalcy as a strong state. And do it all as an India-Afghanistan initiative, not because any third country requests India. I am sure it already has such a policy, and I hope we will see more of it.