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Hamid Karzai stays on in Afghanistan — hoping for the best, but unable to leave

When the Taliban reclaimed Kabul last August, the U.S.-backed government collapsed and hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled the country. Former president Hamid Karzai was not one of them.

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Former president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai says the Taliban have to correct their mistakes in the country, as does the United States.
Former president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai says the Taliban have to correct their mistakes in the country, as does the United States. Claire Harbage | NPR

KABUL, Afghanistan — When the Taliban reclaimed Kabul last August, the U.S.-backed government collapsed and hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled the country.

Former president Hamid Karzai was not one of them.

Karzai served from 2002 to 2014 and has remained a major figure in the country even after leaving office. His name still marks one of the buildings at Kabul's international airport, although the Taliban have formally renamed it.

It's one of many ways in which Afghanistan looks different under Taliban rule. Western aid has largely dried up, and the U.S. froze some $7 billion of funds from Afghanistan's central bank to keep it out of the Taliban's hands. The economy has collapsed, and unemployment and food insecurity are widespread.

The Taliban have also tightened restrictions on women and girls, ordering them to wear head-to-toe clothing on the rare occasions they venture out in public, and banning them from attending school beyond 6th grade (despite earlier reassurances otherwise).

A team of Morning Edition journalists visiting Afghanistan met with Karzai to hear his experience and thoughts on the direction of the country.

Karzai said he feared for his safety, but not because of the Taliban — though that would have been understandable, since the earlier generation of the Taliban captured and executed president Mohammad Najibullah when they took Kabul in 1996.

"The Taliban are Afghans. They belong to this country. We know them, they know us. I felt external forces, and feared that more," Karzai said, mentioning foreign countries and elements within Pakistan, in particular.

He stayed and met with Taliban leaders, and said that they all seemed to want the same thing: a peaceful and progressing Afghanistan. One year in, is it heading in that direction?

"In terms of [an] end to widespread fighting and conflict, we are happy — there's more stability, there's more security," Karzai said. "But in terms of Afghanistan having a government that all Afghan people find themselves [in], we still have a way to go. In terms of the economy of the country, it's a disaster. In terms of Afghans leaving their own country, it's a huge disaster and a shame upon us. And this is something that the Taliban have to address."

Karzai wants the U.S. to correct its mistakes in Afghanistan

Karzai said he feared for his safety, but not because of the Taliban.
Karzai said he feared for his safety, but not because of the Taliban. Claire Harbage | NPR

The Taliban acknowledges that there are problems, according to Karzai. And, as he puts it, the U.S. is guilty of making "immense mistakes" in Afghanistan, too.

He is still angry about civilian casualties during the war, saying the U.S. bombed the wrong people so often that he refuses to believe it was a mistake. Independent analysts say the U.S.-trained Afghan troops were even more brutal. The atrocities they committed over the years further turned Afghan civilians against the republic that Karzai led, which was already discredited by corruption.

Karzai also takes issue with the way U.S. troops left Afghanistan, calling the day of their withdrawal "very dishonorable." Families were separated amidst the chaos, and some Afghans desperate to evacuate clung to a military plane as it took off. At least two people fell to their deaths, which Karzai called a "disgrace to both of us."

He said there were things the U.S. could do to help the Afghan people now, including unfreezing the country's financial reserves.

"I need for the United States government to correct its mistakes in Afghanistan, to help the Afghan people stand back on their feet," he said.

Karzai says the Taliban want America's trust, but need the Afghan peoples' first

The U.S. has pledged to provide humanitarian assistance and advocate for human rights protections in Afghanistan — even after accusing the Taliban of violating its side of the peace agreement by sheltering al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed by in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul last week.

Karzai said all of the Taliban leaders he had met had expressed a desire for better relations with the U.S. But he said there were things they must do first to gain trust and make progress within their own country.

"We must make sure that all the Afghan people see themselves belonging to this country and represented by the government, and that we take all the necessary steps to prove to the rest of the world that we mean well for Afghanistan," he said.

Girls' education is one example. Karzai worries the ban sets the whole country back, warning that "a decade from now we'll be worse than what we are now."

To Karzai, there are many reasons why the Taliban should take steps to prove to the world that they are trying to better the country.

"That will also make it easier for someone like me to go into the international community and say, 'Well, we're now on the right path towards a better future and deserve support,'" he said.

'We must make sure that all the Afghan people see themselves belonging to this country and represented by the government, and that we take all the necessary steps to prove to the rest of the world that we mean well for Afghanistan,' he said.
"We must make sure that all the Afghan people see themselves belonging to this country and represented by the government, and that we take all the necessary steps to prove to the rest of the world that we mean well for Afghanistan," he said. Claire Harbage | NPR

But Karzai can't go out into the international community, even if he wanted to. He said he had asked the Taliban for permission to travel abroad for several functions and events, but had always been denied.

As they explained it to Karzai the first time, they are honored that he is in Afghanistan and fear that things will fall apart if he doesn't come back. He said they all knew that he would come back.

So does he count as a free man?

"Within Kabul I'm a free man," Karzai said.

And while some U.S. officials have said all might not be lost because these Taliban seemed less medieval than they were in their last rule, Karzai disagreed.

"We lost everything," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One year ago this month, this was the news out of Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The government of Afghanistan has fallen. The Taliban are now in control.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: The airport in Kabul is a mob scene. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of Afghans are trying to get out from there.

INSKEEP: A U.S.-backed government collapsed. The U.S. military airlifted out more than 100,000 Afghans. Now, a year later, we came to Kabul to meet people who stayed. We're asking, who's included in the Taliban's Afghanistan? And that is why we visited former President Hamid Karzai.

Thank you for taking the time. I'm Steve.

HAMID KARZAI: Good to see you. Good to see you.

INSKEEP: This is Taylor...

TAYLOR: Hello.

KARZAI: Ladies...

INSKEEP: ...Arezou and Claire.

KARZAI: Welcome. Pleased to meet you. How are you doing?

INSKEEP: Karzai once personified a new, U.S.-backed, free Afghanistan. Visitors arrived at Hamid Karzai International Airport. His name is still on one of the airport buildings even though the Taliban formally renamed it. He was in power 12 years, sometimes working with U.S. officials and other times infuriating them by saying they did not understand his country at all. He remained a major figure even after leaving office in 2014. During our visit, Karzai led us to his library, where a book caught my eye.

I see that you have a copy of "Don Quixote" there.

KARZAI: Fantastic book. I got the idea from - about this book from Peter O'Toole's film that's called "The Man From La Mancha." To dream the impossible dream. To bear the unbearable sorrow.

INSKEEP: Wow. Were you dreaming an impossible dream?

KARZAI: No.

INSKEEP: He says a democratic Afghanistan was a possible dream that even came true for a while. And then the republic collapsed. And the Taliban took Kabul, proclaiming theocratic rule for the second time. People panicked because the Taliban were known for brutality. When they took power in 1996, they executed a former president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: He was seized from there by Taliban troops during the night, shot and then hanged without ceremony from a traffic police control point on a roundabout. His brother's body hangs beside him.

INSKEEP: Did it cross your mind that the Taliban might do to you what they did to the former President Najibullah in the 1990s when they captured Kabul?

KARZAI: Not the Taliban. Certain foreign countries? Yes.

INSKEEP: You feared foreign countries more than the Taliban?

KARZAI: The Taliban are Afghans. They belong to this country. We know them. They know us. I felt external forces and feared that more.

INSKEEP: What were the external forces?

KARZAI: I felt very much that probably elements within Pakistan may want to do that, which has happened in Afghanistan in the past.

INSKEEP: Assassinations blamed on Pakistan?

KARZAI: Yes, all sorts of things. All sorts of things.

INSKEEP: So you stayed. And you met with Taliban leaders almost as soon as they came to the capital. What did they want? And what did you want?

KARZAI: In conversations, I think we all wanted the same thing - a good Afghanistan, a peaceful Afghanistan, a progressing Afghanistan, a sovereign Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: An inclusive government?

KARZAI: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: How do you feel the Taliban leaders have done over the past year in establishing a legitimate government and being inclusive?

KARZAI: In terms of end to widespread fighting and conflict, we are happy. There's more stability. There's more security. But in terms of Afghanistan having a government that all Afghan people find themselves, we still have a way to go. In terms of the economy of the country, it's a disaster. In terms of Afghans leaving their own country, it's a huge disaster and a shame upon us. And this is something that the Taliban have to address.

INSKEEP: Do they accept that there's a problem that they need to address?

KARZAI: They do accept it. Yes, of course. And in terms of the Afghan girls banned from schools, it's a huge, huge disaster. And we're seeing that the country's practically denied progress. How can we be a prosperous country? How can we be a country on our own feet and not in need of the outside world if we don't allow our children to get educated? That means, decade from now, we'll be worse than what we are now.

INSKEEP: What does this country need from the United States?

KARZAI: Look; the United States made immense mistakes in Afghanistan. And then the day they left Afghanistan was very dishonorable, the way they left. No nation would like a picture showing one of its citizens falling off a plane.

INSKEEP: Who climbed onto the side of an airplane trying to get out in the evacuation.

KARZAI: And the plane flew, was in the air. And the man fell from it. It's a disgrace to both of us. And then the way they went about and bombed Afghan villages...

INSKEEP: Karzai says he is still angry about civilian casualties in Afghanistan. He says the U.S. bombed the wrong people so often, he refuses to believe it was a mistake. Outside analysts say U.S.-trained Afghan troops were even more brutal. And all those atrocities over many years turned civilians against a government already discredited by corruption. Now he wants the U.S. to take responsibility.

KARZAI: I need from the United States government to correct its mistakes in Afghanistan, to help the Afghan people stand back on their feet.

INSKEEP: He wants the U.S. to return Afghan central bank funds, which it froze to keep the money away from the Taliban.

KARZAI: Americans should return Afghanistan's reserves.

INSKEEP: The $7 billion or so?

KARZAI: The $7 billion. That does not belong to any government. They belong to the Afghan people.

INSKEEP: Help me understand the dilemma as the United States government might see it. The U.S. has said it wants to be helpful to Afghanistan. But the de facto rulers at the moment are the Taliban, which the U.S. regards as an extremist group. A number of the leaders are on U.S. terror lists, even have bounties on their heads. And the United States needs some assurance that they will not harbor or support extremist activity that could target the United States. If the president of the United States called you up and asked you for advice about this, would you tell him to trust the Taliban?

KARZAI: Without a doubt, all the Taliban leaders that I have met have expressed their desire for improved relations with America. But for us and for the Taliban here in Afghanistan, before they go to America asking for good relations, there are things that we must do inside Afghanistan. We must make sure that all the Afghan people see themselves as belonging to this country and represented by the government, and that we take all the necessary steps to prove to the rest of the world that we mean well for Afghanistan. Girls' school is one such issue.

INSKEEP: This would make the leadership seem more trustworthy, I think you're saying.

KARZAI: For any government. For any government. And that will also make it easier for someone like me to go into the international community saying, well, we're now on the right path towards a better future and deserve support. And let's do it.

INSKEEP: We had this conversation in Kabul in late July. We didn't know then that the leader of al-Qaida was living in a house just a few blocks away from us. Days later, the United States said a drone strike killed him, likely setting back Afghanistan's efforts to engage with the world. For the moment, Hamid Karzai can't easily engage the world anyway. Can you leave this country if you want to?

KARZAI: No. I have not been able to leave the country. There were a few occasions where I was invited to various functions and events. I could not do that.

INSKEEP: Why not?

KARZAI: I don't know.

INSKEEP: You asked permission, and they said...

KARZAI: They said, no. Well, they came and explained to me the first time I asked, saying that they are extremely honored that I'm here in the country and that it's a great blessing, but that they fear if I don't come back, things will fall apart. But I will come back. They know that. So let's say we're working on it. It's not a major issue.

INSKEEP: So do you count as a free man, then?

KARZAI: Within Kabul, within - I'm a free man.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, it's been a great pleasure. Thank you for taking the time.

KARZAI: Pleasure's mine, sir - most welcome and good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: After Hamid Karzai spoke, we walked through his grassy courtyard. He's cheerful, a raconteur. But when I mentioned what I'd heard some officials say, that all might not be lost because the Taliban seem less medieval than they were in their last rule, Karzai disagreed. We lost everything, he said. We lost everything. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.