[NOTE: This is a news brief of a September 21, 2006, meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations.]
NEW YORK — Afghan President Hamid Karzai says his country needs beefed-up security and a more sophisticated approach to fighting terrorism to overcome the Taliban resurgence and sustain some of the genuine gains of the last five years.
Addressing a chamber packed with foreign policy experts at the Council on Foreign Relations, he noted that achieving the two objectives simultaneously was difficult. “On one hand, everyone wants security,” he says, “but on the other hand, no one wants to be bombed.”
Karzai reemphasized the need for strong ties with Pakistan, which have been strained in recent years. “Afghanistan cannot be peaceful and prosperous without the best of relations with Pakistan,” said the Afghan leader. Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf are due to meet jointly with President George W. Bush next week on tackling the new Taliban threat.
Karzai stressed the importance of tackling the root sources of terrorism—the madrassas [Muslim religious schools] and training camps, many of which lie outside Afghanistan’s borders in Pakistan and other neighboring states—rather than simply targeting young Taliban fighters. “Bombings are not the solution,” he says. “You do not destroy terrorism by destroying villages.”
“Terrorism,” he continued, “has only enemies and knows no boundaries. The only course is to kill it. You cannot train a snake to bite someone else.” His comments appeared to be directed at Musharraf, with whom he has exchanged veiled barbs all week over the growing violence in Afghanistan.
The Afghan leader said tremendous progress has been made in reconstruction since the U.S.-led invasion five years ago. “We had no schools, no press, no television, no radio [under the Taliban],” he says. “Now we have five or six private television channels—all of them critical of me.”
He added that four-and-half million Afghan refugees have returned home since 2001, that the Afghan flag now flies all over the world, and that sixty foreign embassies can be found in Afghanistan.
“We even have the Russians back,” Karzai said with a smile.
He admitted a resurgent Taliban, particularly along the Afghan-Pakistani border, threatened to derail many of these achievements. “They are killers of teachers, killers of clergymen, destroyers of schools, destroyers of clinics,” he says. “Why can they do it? Because we are not able to provide better protection.”
He recounted Afghanistan’s pre-9/11 history, when much of the world ignored the country’s plight. “It did not matter to the world because we were so poor,” he said. However, during this time he said many of Afghanistan’s neighbors imported radical elements like al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
“The symptoms [of terrorism] are inside Afghanistan but the roots are outside,” he says. “I’m getting more fixated on this.”
Securing Afghanistan, Karzai said, requires proper policing and putting an end to Afghanistan’s booming poppy trade, which comprises 30 percent of Afghanistan’s economy. In addition to eradicating poppy fields, he stressed, the Afghan government must cut off outside links and markets as well as provide alternative livelihoods for farmers. He said raisins and other indigenous fruits, if properly marketed, could supplant opium as Afghanistan’s chief export.
Interviewed by Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, Karzai said U.S. troops should remain “until Afghanistan is finally on its feet, has its own army and police…even if it takes five to ten years.” He added that additional coalition forces were not necessary but would not be turned away.
In crisp English, he punctuated his answers with a number of humorous asides. Asked the whereabouts of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, he answered that he was hiding in the hills of northwest Pakistan. “We have his GPS number, his telephone number,” Karzai quipped, drawing loud laughs.
“[Musharraf] says the phone numbers don’t work,” Zakaria answered. On Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, Karzai said, “If I said he was in Pakistan, my friend Musharraf would be mad at us, but if I said he’s in Afghanistan, it would not be true.”