As the teams representing the Taliban and Afghan government negotiate in Doha, Qatar, on the future of their country, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai sat down with VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem to discuss the impact of the U.S. elections on those negotiations, the venue, and whether the talks have a chance of success.
He also shared memories from 2001, when a Taliban delegation came to see him and offered to surrender.
“They brought this letter with them which recognized the emergence of the interim government and said they were transferring power to that government,” Karzai said.
A transcript of the complete interview is below. It has been edited for clarity and length.
VOA: How will the outcome of U.S. elections impact the Afghan peace process?
Karzai: I don’t think the outcome will have an impact that will deviate from the current process. There may be a difference in approaches or in the speed of things. But not on the overall objective of the United States for hopefully a settlement in Afghanistan and the reduction of their troops.
VOA: President Trump recently tweeted that the troops should be home by Christmas. Did it change anything in Doha or Kabul?
Karzai: It did not. We know President Trump’s views on the conflict in Afghanistan and the U.S. involvement. He has been speaking fairly clearly, rather very clearly on the withdrawal of troops, on the significant reduction of troops if not the complete withdrawal of troops, and on bringing a settlement and on allowing Afghans to determine their own future, which we respect. That’s exactly what we should be doing.
VOA: Do you think the deal the U.S. signed with Taliban was a good one?
Karzai: The deal as far as it envisages an end to conflict in Afghanistan, an end to conflict in Afghanistan, an end to fratricide and Afghan killing, is wonderful. We want, not now, we want it to end yesterday. Whether the intention of the U.S. in Afghanistan is durable peace and a settlement of Afghanistan is what we should see in the process.
We want to be friends with all our neighbors. We also want to be friends with the U.S. We want a civilized relationship, a friendly relationship. We don’t want a relationship based on the export of extremism or radicalism to us.
Having said this, the peace process that the U.S. is bringing, we see that it is in great coordination with Pakistan. We understand Pakistan’s role. But peace for us is one thing and a deal between the U.S. and Pakistan on us is a different issue. That we don’t want. That we will resist. It is these deals exactly, when the Soviet Union withdrew, between the U.S. and Pakistan that got us to the misery that we have today.
VOA: What about other regional countries? What is their role?
Karzai: We very much hope that all our neighbors will participate and support the Afghan peace process. And that all our neighbors will take this opportunity to work with the U.S. and other neighbors, and major powers, Russia, China, India to be part of it in a very significant way, so that no country is left wondering as to what is going on. There should be no behind the scenes deals or schemes there. We want transparency. We don’t want Afghanistan to be a place of conflict of interest between countries. We don’t want Afghanistan to be a place of rivalry (of regional powers). That is why we have suffered. We want Afghanistan to be a place of cooperation. This is not an Afghan war or a war for Afghan interests. It is Afghans being killed for larger foreign objectives.
VOA: How do you end it? And how do you break the current deadlock in Doha?
Karzai: When we went to Moscow last year, it was the same Taliban, the same delegation almost, the same leadership, and we had no issues. We sat down and we talked. If the intention in the U.S. is for peace in Afghanistan these talks will succeed, I have no doubt. And if the intention in Pakistan, together with the U.S. is for peace in Afghanistan, these talks will succeed. And we welcome it.
VOA: Have the Taliban changed? Are they different from the 90s (when they had a reputation for being harsh and uncompromising)?
Karzai: The Taliban are Afghans. They have suffered as much as the rest of Afghans have suffered. They’ve also lost their children, they’ve also lost their homes, they’ve also been bombed and bombarded, their homes raided. They’ve suffered like we have suffered. So, the suffering belongs to all the Afghan people, Taliban and others. It is this recognition that is there in all of us.
How to use this recognition of the tragedy that we have faced, part of it our own making, part of it someone else’s making, is the element that will bring us to peace and settlement. I’m sure that way will come. It’s already I think near us.
VOA: What could be a possible governance model that is acceptable to both sides?
Karzai: Right now, the priority for both sides should be to bring the violence against the Afghan people to an immediate end. As to the future form of government or the structure of the state, that is then the decision of the Afghan people, the collective decision of the Afghan people, the Taliban and other Afghans.
If your question is about some rights, the right of our women to educate and our society to progress, that is of course not compromise-able.
VOA: Is Doha the right venue?
Karzai: The venue is right if there is the required freedom of movement between the two sides. In Moscow we could call them any minute and just get together. Is that the case in Qatar? I don’t know. If that isn’t the case in Qatar then that is not the right venue.
A venue is the freedom to interact freely at any time you want. The place doesn’t matter.
VOA: Is the Afghan team right for these negotiations?
Karzai: Yes, we support them and we want them to produce results.
VOA: What do you see as your next role?
Karzai: Citizen Karzai, doing all he can to bring peace to Afghanistan and return Afghanistan to a dignified life.
VOA: As president you worked hard to get Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (senior Taliban leader). Now that he is out, do you talk to him?
Karzai: I don’t talk to him but there is an indirect exchange of information.
VOA: Do you have other backdoor channels to the Taliban? What feeling do you get from them?
Karzai: We do. [I get] a feeling that they very much want peace, just like we want peace. They’ve suffered as we have suffered, and they want the suffering of the Afghan people to end.
VOA: Let’s talk about some history. There was a letter sent to you in which Mullah Omar (the first leader of the Taliban) surrendered to you (in 2001). What happened to that letter?
Karzai: That was not a letter from late Mullah Omar. That was a letter from the council of ministers of the Taliban, the government of the Taliban. I was in a village north of Kandahar. That was the day when an American bomb had also wounded us all. I was being cleaned of the shrapnel when a Taliban delegation came to see me. They brought this letter with them which recognized the emergence of the interim government and said they were transferring power to that government.
But I was simplistic (at the time). So, I delivered the letter back to them and said good, you can announce it tonight on the radio so the Afghan people will hear it. I don’t know where that letter is now. I hope we find it some day and keep it in our historical archives.
VOA: Given your political acumen, are you hopeful the peace process will succeed?
Karzai: Absolutely. We are fully behind this process initiated by the U.S. and we very much hope that the U.S. will be conducting the process transparently and in full consultation with all the powers that have a stake in peace in Afghanistan and the region. That will be the way to succeed. Of course, the U.S. has to work with Pakistan. We welcome that. We recognize this necessity, but we also must warn of our fears. Peace is one thing and a deal between Pakistan and America on Afghanistan is another thing.
A good deal is welcome. We have love for our brothers and sisters in Pakistan. But for the establishment in Pakistan, I hope they have recognized that the future will be one of civilized relationship, not one of the use of extremism against our country.