Hamid Karzai: Upbeat and Unwavering
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is noticeably and understandably tired. Recently returned from a challenging but very successful trip to the United States which took him from Washington to Nebraska, Afghanistan's president was upbeat and, characteristically optimistic, despite coming home to an all but overwhelming array of challenges.
President Karzai's opening comments in a recent exclusive interview reflected his positive nature. Focusing on two small but, to him, significant aspects of his U.S. trip, he enthused, "The second day of my trip, The Washington Times ran a color photo of me with [American] troops on the front page with the caption ‘Enduring Ties'. I liked that; it represents just what we have wanted to achieve in our relationship with the United States. It really made me happy.
"And I saw this wherever we traveled outside Washington. I was in Nebraska and there were children waving Afghan flags: not one, two or three but hundreds of them. This was not at the State Department, but in Nebraska ... something that could not have been organized. It made me so happy."
Leading Afghanistan requires world class optimism. The world's fourth poorest nation with the highest infant mortality rate, ranking first globally in opium and heroin production, Afghanistan presents a staggering series of challenges, more than enough for even the most positive personality. A longtime friend and supporter of the President put it this way when I mentioned the above proverb: "The Afghan rose has countless thorns. Karzai is the only man I know who could maintain his positive spirit and commitment in this complicated situation."
Complicated it is, but promising. For example, a senior resident diplomat considered last October's presidential elections "one of the most magnificent political events of the year, and it happened in this star-crossed, troubled country. We thought perhaps one million Afghans would register and half of them vote. In fact, 8 ½ million people, 40 percent of them female, voted with no significant disturbing incidents."
History has not been kind to Afghanistan. Longtime observers, in fact, marvel at the determination by virtually all segments of society to preserve the country, which is a mix of Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, four major ethnic groups -- Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, and numerous smaller communities. Often attacked, regularly overrun and frequently occupied, the land has experienced streams of Greeks, Mongols, Persians, British, Russians and now, Americans.
The American presence, unlike the others however, is supported by all but a relative few diehard extremists: "We welcome them!" President Karzai exclaims. "The Americans freed our country from the terrible Taliban dictatorship, and now they are working with us to rebuild our society." Indeed, the U.S. liberation freed Afghanistan from the terrible Taliban dictatorship, and, at the same time, eliminated Al Qaeda`s primary bases of operations.
[Outgoing CENTCOM chief of staff Colonel David Lamm, a veteran of highly challenging situations from Panama to Iraq, considers the Afghan National Army's development since liberation exemplary. "They have had a rigorous training program, and are handling a wide variety of missions, including combat, very capably." Coalition mentors sprinkled through ANA units mentor "but do not lead" the Afghans, according to Lamm.. He is enthusiastic about a similar program just being launched for the nation's police. Involving two years' training plus ongoing mentorship, the program will include specialized instruction, ranging from traffic to narcotics and border patrol.]
Although there have been several incidents in recent weeks, including a rare suicide bombing of an internet café, Karzai firmly rejects that there is a long term escalation of terrorism, calling the events "acts of desperation". According to the President, remnant Taliban hardliners and a few as yet un-regenerated warlords are acting up because they continuously lose power. "An increase in terrorist activities is to be expected the closer we get to the September parliamentary elections." he notes. "The former foreign minister is one of several ex-Taliban officials running, among 6,000 candidates running for provincial and national assemblies. I'm having a luncheon this week for 16 of them."
Moreover, supporters of the old regime "are against our strategic partnership with the United States" which Karzai sees as crucial to Afghanistan's progression on the road to stability and reconstruction. "Afghanistan was ruined by foreign money, reaching all the way to the twin towers in New York. The root cause of the troubles we have faced in Afghanistan has been the intervention of money from abroad, and the strategic relationship with the United States should disabuse foreign governments from intervening."
President Karzai was referring to broad concerns about foreign financial intervention in the all important parliamentary elections. Political leaders, businessmen and shopkeepers all worry that neighboring countries, including, particularly, Iran, Pakistan and Russia, will support candidates sympathetic to their respective interests in dominating Afghanistan, as well as their regional objectives. Such activity from abroad would be both illegal and, Karzai believes, counter-productive. "There is nothing the Afghan people hate more than that kind of money coming into the country," he asserts. "Any Afghan who takes that kind of money will lose support … equally so if narcotics money appears."
The unwelcome but deeply ingrained narcotics trade is unquestionably the country's most difficult challenge, the most painful thorn on the Afghan rose. Charge d'Affaires Dick Christiansen, currently the senior U.S. diplomat in Kabul, considers narcotics "the dark cloud on the horizon, which we must get right."