Afghanistan historically is a traditional Muslim nation, steeped in centuries-old values and customs, a country whose troubles began with the Soviet invasion in 1979, said President Karzai. In struggling against the Soviets, he recounted, millions became refugees in Pakistan and Iran while much of the educated elite, more than 300,000 of them, became refugees in Europe and America. While the Soviets sought to impose communism, the resistance turned toward radical religious ideology.
"The society was sandwiched between two pressures...that really weakened us," he said. "Both tried to destroy our fabric." Then, a decade later, the Soviets withdrew but so did the West, despite repeated warnings of a growing radical wing in Afghanistan. "They began to kill Afghans," Karzai said. "They began to destroy our mosques. They began to close schools. They began to insert war."
Karzai recalled that a young madrassa student, maybe 15 years old, told his cousin back in 1998 that he wished he had "a skirt full of bombs to throw at New York." This particular student was a poor, uneducated Afghan refugee, said Karzai, who ordinarily should not have ever heard of New York, much less hate New York, unless someone was preaching this to him.
While many madrassas offer religion training, Karzai said some of them in Pakistan preach hatred and serve as training grounds for terrorism. Students there are told they will become martyrs. "To a boy of 7, keep preaching that [and once] he's 14, [he will be] a suicide bomber," said Karzai, who urged that such madrassas be shut down.
"You had your Twin Towers blown up because you in the United States failed to connect, as the world had become globalized, that the mindset in my part of the world, preaching hatred to the younger generation of our country, could hurt us in America." Meanwhile, Afghanistan was too weak to prevent the terrorism within its borders.
Karzai said the Afghan people repeatedly urged him to get the United States involved, which they believed to be the only way to liberate it from the Taliban and terrorists. Following 9/11, he said, the Afghan people supported U.S. military operations to liberate the country, which drove out the Taliban in less than six weeks. Democracy arrived, he said, millions of refugees returned, and the country has embarked on rebuilding.
But much needs to be done to guarantee security. "For all of us in this world to be safer, we must remove the need for groups, organizations, or state entities [to rely] on religious radicalism as instruments of policy," he said. "Military action in Afghanistan alone is not going to free us of terrorism. Going to the sources of terrorism, where they get trained, where they get motivated, where they get financed, where they get deployed, is necessary."
Summary of the Q&A, arranged by topic:
"Those who hate us, for whatever reason, [did so] before 2001 and we suffered because they hated us" adding that perhaps less casualties would have resulted had we taken action against "those people" prior to 2001.
Poppy and Opium Cultivation
He admitted the opium trade is an embarrassing problem that feeds terrorism but acknowledged it is an economic reality. After the Soviets left, he said, the Afghan people desperately searched for economic security and many found it in poppy cultivation, to the point where many replaced their vineyards and pomegranate fields with poppies. "It became a reality for 30 percent perhaps of the Afghan economy," he said, because poppies are easy to grow, requiring less water and maintenance than other crops, and easy to sell, with eager buyers. Eradicating this complex problem, he said, will require increased law enforcement, institution building, and help from the international community and may take a decade to achieve.
In a follow-up about the relation of agriculture subsidies to the poppy situation, he said developing Afghanistan's economic infrastructure would help to tackle the poppy problem. Before 1979, Afghanistan was a big exporter of raisins and grew delicious almonds and grapes, but roads are needed to connect the regions where they grow the produce so farmers can get their goods to market. The country once was agriculturally sufficient—wheat, corn, fruit, and he said they can return to that productivity. "The orchards, we'll build ourselves," he said. "You build us the roads, we'll give you the best grapes here in America."
Role of the mujahideen
"The Afghan mujahideen that fought the Soviets also were part of the struggle against terrorism, together with the international community." The ones engaged in terrorism were driven out. "We were the poorest of the Muslim world and the most sacrificed one for Islam...and yet these people, Osama and his associates and al-Qaeda and the Taliban, they killed us...They killed us first for so many years before they got to you here in America. They're not mujahideen; they're terrorists."
Many of these madrassas, which mainly are in Pakistan, are legitimate schools that teach religion but some of them are not madrassas but preach hatred and train terrorists and those are the ones we must close. "Those places have to be closed by action, by arresting the runners, the monsters of those madrassas, the organizers...arresting those and imprisoning those who preach hatred. And, of course, when money is needed, then President Bush can help us."
Warlords"No warlord is in control of any town in Afghanistan," he said. "That's four years ago." Now, president-appointed governors and district chiefs are in charge, though some of them may not be effective and, if so, can be replaced. There are thousands of Taliban who blend in with society, who are not a problem. The dangerous ones are "a limited number of them who are part of the circle of hate against all of us."
When coalition forces liberated Afghanistan, that paved the way for real progress: a government, a constitution, elections in which millions participated, a growing economy, and foreign reserves topping $1.9 billion, up for $180 million just four years ago. Though successful at training the army and building political institutions, "we did not concentrate on the police in time," he said. "So the districts around the country have a power vacuum, no law enforcement there the way it should be, that the terrorists from across the border are using to hurt us."
Americans recognize that Iran is a big, powerful neighbor that has a relationship with Afghanistan, he said, and Iran recognized that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was necessary for security. This understanding and cooperation has been good for Afghanistan and, to date, U.S.-Iranian tensions have had no impact on Afghanistan.
Economic Development and Reconstruction
Pledges from the international community have enabled progress in many sectors. He noted progress in road-building but was quick to qualify that he meant highways; Afghanistan still lacks a network of roads to connect villages and districts. Some 3,200 new and reconstructed schools exist. Some 80 percent of the population has access to basic health care, up from 9 percent five years ago, and there are more qualified doctors and new hospitals in cities. The telephone sector, including mobile phones, has grown. Thanks to private investment, construction projects have soared, particularly new housing. And trade has vastly improved with Pakistan, Iran, and other countries. "A lot has happened in Afghanistan and a lot more needs to be done in Afghanistan over the coming years."
Drafted by Dana Steinberg