In April—two weeks after the election to replace him and usher in the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history—Hamid Karzai sat down with Mujib Mashal for Mashal's “After Karzai” story in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. In his office at the presidential palace in Kabul, the Afghan leader reflected on how his vision of democracy conflicts with the West’s, what it’s like to be the pacifist president of a country at war, and whether power has changed him over the past 12 years.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
When was the moment you felt most vulnerable physically? That your life was seriously in danger?
Mmm … seriously in danger physically. I cannot think of such a moment.
I ask that because when I speak to people who have worked closely with you, they say you have been a tremendous tactician—political tactician—but not a visionary. And I ask a two-pronged question: If a leader is not confident of physical survival, or political survival, can he afford to be a visionary and think long-term?
Well, I had a vision for this country—of unity. That Afghanistan becomes the country for all Afghans—that, we have achieved. Afghans of all colors, all political thinking, of all parts of this country feel absolutely free in this country. I had a vision for a democratic Afghanistan, for human rights, and for the freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Those were visions, and the last elections a few days ago proved that was achievable and we achieved it. A vision of Afghanistan that had its presence around the world—that has been achieved. Of an Afghanistan that would not be under the thumb of a foreign power, that has been achieved. We showed our independence, which was one of my strongest desires—ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan this was my desire…. Today, we have independent foreign policy—with Iran we have great relations, with America we have, with China we have, with Russia we have.
A vision in the sense of a model to strive for—
Democracy is the model. This is the vision. Unity is the model—an Afghan nation is the model. The nation of Afghanistan, where all citizens of the country are equal partners of this country, and equal owners of this country.
Was there a country you had in mind in the region, or you wanted a completely new model?
Our own model, our own vision, our own form—that’s what I tried for.
In terms of your style of leadership, sir, a lot of people who have worked closely with you [and whom] I have spoken to over the past two or three months—they say you have been ruling more as a malik [a tribal chief], or a khan, than a statesman. I am wondering if you can explain a bit why [you have made] those choices, the resources you have relied on?
This is more a Western application of terminology to my style of leadership. When I was consulting with all the Afghan leaders eight years ago, nine years ago, seven years ago, they accused me of having a consultative government rather than a presidential, authoritarian government. Because they did not want me to be a president that brings people together—they wanted me weak, and in conflict with the rest of the leadership of this country. So they tried to attack my style in order to—they knew what I was doing, that I had the broadest contact with the people of Afghanistan. They knew that I was meeting with hundreds of people every day, and that’s exactly what they didn’t want. They wanted an isolated president, a president they could use. The more consultative I was, the more in contact with the country I was, the less they could use me. So they wanted the reverse of it. My style of leadership was not in the sense of a Western president, relying only on state institutions and government institutions—that is true. I relied the very least on government institutions. I was more in alliance [with], and relying upon, the Afghan people and the information they gave me. The Afghan government rarely provided me the information that I needed. All my decisions, all my statements, all were based on the information that I received from the country, rather than information from the institutions. So they didn’t want that—because the Americans could filter the information.
But Mr. President, doesn’t that go against one of the mandates that you had after 2001—[a mandate for] institution-building?
I did build institutions.
But if you are not relying on your government sources?
But I was right not to rely on government sources.
Doesn’t that undermine your own government?
No, the government has to be built up. The government doesn’t have to be fakely admired and kept weak. The government had to be built up, the government had to be forced to provide true information to the president. The government was told not to hide things. The government was told to reflect the truth. I sent a delegation once to Khas Uruzgan, about nine years ago. From the ministry of defense, interior, and other institutions—I don’t exactly remember now. The information that they brought to me was entirely different than the information that the people gave me from that area. And what the people had told me was true, what my own government had told me was not true. I am not the president of the government—I was the president of Afghanistan, of the Afghan people. The job of the president is to serve the people, and the job of the government is to serve the people, not to hide from the people and to hide atrocities on the people from the president.
And that mistrust in the government—
It was not a mistrust. It was realization of a fact—of a true situation, of the fact on the ground. The fact on the ground was that the Afghan government was weak, that it had no capacity, that it had no means of movement, that it could not provide the president of the country with the information that related to the facts on the ground, that related to what the people felt and knew. So for me, it was one of my greatest successes—one of my greatest victories, if you can call it that, was my contact with the people. I bring to the information of the government things that have happened in the country, I tell them in the security meetings that well, you know, this has happened.
That your own non-governmental sources tell you?
Exactly. Which are always, very often, true.
And does that make your job much more exhausting, sir, that you have to run a government but also—
Tremendously, tremendously. The next president will not be in the situation I was in. The next president will have better institutions to rely on, but I will advise him, again, that he must also be connected to the people and get information from the people. See, the Western opinion is trying to promote a model of governance here where the government is working for itself rather than for the people. We are not anything else but the servants of the people.
That realization was always there—that a Western model was not going to work?
The Western model itself is trying to be more connected to the people—they themselves are not doing what they are asking us to do. The Americans and the Western media were trying to create a situation here whereby the Afghan government will be alien to its people, reliant on the West.
While the modern ideals of—it’s no longer modern … the established ideals, I should say—of political parties and interests and functions as the West is doing has merits of its own, a strong foundation for such a system can only be found in a political system more reliant on communities rather than political parties.
Mr. President, you wrote an essay in the 1980s called “Attitude of the Leadership of Afghan Tribes Towards the Regime” [in which] you explored how the tribes remained loyal to the king Zahir Shah. And you mentioned a phrase—that the tribes served as a link between the periphery and the center.
The one criticism, sir, is that that may have been very true in the 1960s, but that the tribal structures, the social structures that you inherited in 2001 were heavily disrupted by three decades of war. So one criticism is that you revitalized these structures again based on a 1960s analysis, whereas the reality was different—that people’s mentality was ready for formal institutions.
Why is there a conflict between formal institutions and the social structure? Why should there be this conflict? After all, what is the purpose of governance? How do we best describe democracy? My vision for democracy is exactly taken from our own traditions and social order—a democracy based not on representation, but a democracy based on participation. So my philosophy, political philosophy, here is different from the Western thinking—and the West itself is beginning to arrive at this point, of whether representative democracy is suitable to the environment, and to the needs of the Western world anymore. The way the people didn’t vote in France a few years ago for the European constitution was the lack of faith in the representative democracy. They wanted more participation. There is a difference between representation and participation. In our system, in the Afghan social system, there is an immense amount of egalitarianism—and egalitarianism brings participation. That is my model. And if I have, ever have, complete authority of my own, a complete way of my own, to bring an order to governance—not only to Afghanistan, but around the world—it will be one of participation. This is exactly what India tried, through the panchayat system in India. The panchayat system is inherent to Afghan society. Where people from the smallest communities—from the village level, to the province level, are best governed by participation rather than by representation or dictation.
When you took over the government, sir, was your analysis that the social structures were heavily disrupted—that you had to revitalize [them] to meet this vision of participation—or were they there?
This is a very important subject—a subject that Afghan scholars should study in detail. When we began to fight the Soviets, and when we began to receive funds from abroad as mujahideen, we faced a dual calamity. That dual calamity was an effort by the former Soviet Union, through their communist allies in Afghanistan, to superimpose a structure on the Afghan people. The other part of it was in the form of the supporters of the Afghan mujahideen—U.S., some Western countries, Pakistan especially—trying to superimpose another model on the Afghan people, in which both of them tried to undermine the traditional Afghan social structure, which was a great guarantor of stability and security. And the consequence of that for Afghanistan: massive tragedy, one unseen in the 20th and 21st [centuries]. What we describe as civil society, in our sense of it—the Afghan sense of it—in the countryside, the modes of adjudications of disputes … we don’t have words for them in English—meeraw, kalantar-e-kocha, malik, and various elements, the clergy and the spiritual elements—a combination of these forces bringing a cohesion and the resolution of disputes to the country. There was an effort to uproot this and destroy this. That is why, along the political imposition of these two alien models on Afghan society, there was also an effort to physically eliminate Afghan community leaders—the traditional khans, the maliks, the mullahs. Even in the past 10 years, this has happened on a massive scale. It happened in Afghanistan, it happened in Pakistan especially on the Pashtuns. So both the Soviets and the Western backers of our jihad tried to do this—and Pakistan did this in particular … to undermine the Pashtuns, to weaken their society, and to render them in the name of religion helpless in their own country, and usable by the Pakistanis for their own purposes.
What you inherited, was it resilient enough, after having so many blows—
Look! We still survived. Very resilient, centuries old. Two things proved resilient in Afghanistan—the traditional social structures, and the unity of the Afghan people. No other country would have survived such massive blows to its unity and to its social structures, but Afghanistan did survive it. The moment we got together in 2001, it was once again a united country. The jirgas came back, the people came back, and the unity came back.
One criticism of you, sir, is that you never became a commander in chief. You were never comfortable using force.
Does this come from what you told The Washington Post—that you are an inherently pacifist person?
Definitely, definitely. For two reasons. One, I am a pacifist in my heart, in my core beliefs. Two, I didn’t see a war in Afghanistan we should have fought, I saw a conspiracy. And my effort was to repel the conspiracy in which the Afghan blood was shed. So my purposes were different from those of the Americans or NATO.
But in the initial years you did see a war?
No, I never saw a war. The Taliban left without a fight. But then the Americans—I was in Kabul, without access to the country in the initial days, and without the tools of governance, which are still very weak—they went around with thugs from our own country, the militias they employed and themselves, and forced the Taliban back into taking guns. And Pakistan was willing, and ready to use the opportunity. So a war was created in Afghanistan—there was no war, there is no war, and I would never agree to be at war in my own country. I would never be a commander in chief fighting a war among my own people. No. I am happy I wasn’t, and I will not be.
But whether you see the war as a conspiracy or as a war, your soldiers—more professional than … the thugs in the past—those soldiers are giving blood. And when they give blood, the idea is that the commander in chief could at least stand with them and appreciate their sacrifices.
I do, I do—I appreciate their sacrifices.
That perception is not among the people, sir.
But I do. I have done it very often—that’s Western propaganda…. I stand with our soldiers, I stand with our army, I defend them very much. They are the sons of this soil, they are giving their life. But that life is gone in a war that’s not ours, in a conspiracy in which we fall victim.
The one idea, the pacifism that I have difficulty reconciling is your support for certain characters emerging in Afghanistan—say General Abdul Raziq in Kandahar—[who are] not even close to being pacifists. [Raziq] takes pride in killing Taliban.
But he is a police chief.
He is a police chief, yet he emerged with the support of a pacifist president.
Well, he is a police chief. He is appointed by the Ministry of Interior, he is doing his job. It goes back against the first remark that you made—the soldiers giving their blood to defend this country against terrorism—in that he is active, and Kandahar is a lot more peaceful. What do we want: peace, or the continuation of instability and conflict? If he’s done a good job, that I appreciate. What I don’t appreciate is perpetuating conflict in the name of fighting the Taliban—that I don’t see as real. What I see is a conspiracy where both the Taliban as Afghans are dying and our soldiers as Afghans are dying and I want to end that.
And on the question of the commander in chief and the war, in the past 30 years or more—unfortunately—our military forces and security forces have been busy within the borders of the country, not beyond it. I don’t want to be the commander in chief of conflict within our borders. If it ever comes to the promotion of Afghan interest and security beyond our borders, then the job of the commander in chief is clear and visible, and that I want.
Does that conflict with your idea of pacifism, though?
Pacifism is a different issue here. I would never go to war with anybody. But I will never ever be involved in an internal conflict, in particular. Right now it’s Afghans dying on both sides, and that should end. Therefore I never wanted to be a commander in chief where [an] Afghan kills another Afghan. I saw that war as a conspiracy. Afghan-wazhena (Afghan-killing), they call [it] in Pashto. It can’t be translated into English. Afghan-kushi, they call it in Farsi. Here, it is Afghan-wazhena since the Soviet invasion until now. And our own forces, our own soldiers, are busy with themselves. Which planes of ours bombed foreigners? Which tank of ours went and defended our borders? All of them were used on our own, inside our own territory—we were ruined with our own hands. This is what I am standing against. And the Americans and Westerners promote this—that we be busy with each other and they implement their designs, on us and on the region. They can implement their designs, but not at our cost, not at the cost of our ruins, at the cost of conquering us—but in our progress, in our friendship.
One thing I have heard from people who have worked closely with you is that the Hamid Karzai of 2002 is very different from the Hamid Karazai of 2014, except for some strong principles you did not compromise on. In terms of soliciting advice, in terms of taking counsel—you were much more open to that in 2002. Now, in 2014, the criticism is that you think your word is the ultimate truth.
No, I still consult with the people—massively. But with the government, yes I keep my word. I keep my vision, and I keep my principle intact. When the people advise me, I do what they advise me. But then I put across the meeting of the government and if they cannot convince me, I keep my way and I implement it and I have been right.
Do you think power has changed you in 12 years?
No, not at all.
Your principles are the same?
My principles are the same, my way of life is the same, my thinking is the same. I don’t see power—I see … working.
Thank you, sir.
I don’t like power. I don’t even think of it as power.