Former Afghan president says U.S. leaving country ‘in total disgrace and disaster’

KATHY GANNON 

A closeup of Hamid Karzai, gesturing as he speaks.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai is interviewed Sunday.
(Rahmat Gul / Associated Press)

Afghanistan’s former president said Sunday the United States came to his country to fight extremism and bring stability to his war-tortured nation and was leaving nearly 20 years later having failed at both.

In an interview with the Associated Press just weeks before the last U.S. and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, ending their “forever war,” Hamid Karzai said extremism was at its “highest point” and the departing troops were leaving behind a disaster.

“The international community came here 20 years ago with this clear objective of fighting extremism and bringing stability … but extremism is at the highest point today. So they have failed,” he said.

Their legacy is a war-ravaged nation in “total disgrace and disaster.”

“We recognize as Afghans all our failures, but what about the bigger forces and powers who came here for exactly that purpose? Where are they leaving us now?” he asked and answered: “In total disgrace and disaster.”

Still, Karzai, who had a conflicted relationship with the United States during his 13-year rule, wanted the troops to leave, saying Afghans were united behind an overwhelming desire for peace and needed now to take responsibility for their future.

“We will be better off without their military presence,” he said. “I think we should defend our own country and look after our own lives. … Their presence [has given us] what we have now. … We don’t want to continue with this misery and indignity that we are facing. It is better for Afghanistan that they leave.”

Karzai’s rule followed the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition that launched its invasion to hunt down and destroy the Al Qaeda network and its leader, Osama bin Laden, blamed for the 9/11 attacks on America.

During Karzai’s rule, women reemerged, girls again attended school, a vibrant, young civil society emerged, new high-rises went up in the capital of Kabul, and roads and infrastructure were built. But his rule was also characterized by allegations of widespread corruption, a flourishing drug trade and, in the final years, relentless quarrels with Washington, which continue today.

The military campaign by the U.S. and NATO “was not against extremism or terrorism,” he said. “The campaign was more against Afghan villages and hopes — putting Afghan people in prisons, creating prisons in our own country … and bombing all villages. That was very wrong.”

In April, when President Biden announced the final withdrawal of the remaining 2,500-3,500 troops, he said America was leaving having achieved its goals. Al Qaeda had been greatly diminished and Bin Laden was dead. America no longer needed boots on the ground to fight the terrorist threats that might emanate from Afghanistan, he said.

Still, the U.S. attempts to bring about a political end to the decades of war have been elusive. The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 to withdraw its troops in exchange for a Taliban promise to denounce terrorist groups and keep Afghanistan from again being a staging arena for attacks on America.

There is little evidence the Taliban is fulfilling its part of the bargain. The United Nations claims the Taliban and Al Qaeda are still linked. The architect of the U.S. deal and current U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad says some progress has been made but hasn’t offered details.

Karzai has had harsh words and uncompromising criticism of U.S. war tactics over the past two decades in Afghanistan. Yet he has become a linchpin of sorts in a joint effort being launched by the United States and Britain to unite the quarrelsome Afghan leadership in Kabul enough to talk peace with the Taliban. The insurgent group has shown little interest in negotiating and instead has stepped up its assaults on government positions.

The Taliban has made considerable strides since the May 1 start of the U.S. and NATO withdrawal. Members of the group have overrun dozens of districts, often negotiating their surrender from Afghan national security forces.

But in many instances the fighting has been intense. Just last week a brutal assault by the Taliban in northern Faryab province killed 22 of Afghanistan’s elite commandos, led by local hero Col. Sohrab Azimi, who was also killed and widely mourned.

“The desire of the Afghan people, overwhelmingly, all over the country is for peace,” said Karzai, who despite being out of power since 2014 has lost little of his political influence and is most often at the center of the country’s political machinations.

Diplomats, Western officials, generals, tribal elders and politicians throughout Afghanistan’s political spectrum regularly beat a path to Karzai’s door in the heart of the Afghan capital.

As the final military withdrawal is already more than 50% complete, the need for a political settlement — or even a visible path to an eventual settlement — would seem to be a matter of urgency even as Afghans by the thousands are seeking an exit. They say they are frustrated by relentless corruption, marauding criminal gangs — some linked to the powerful warlords in Kabul —and worsening insecurity. Few see a future that is not violent.

Karzai had a message for both sides in the conflict: “The two Afghan sides, none of them should be fighting.” While accusing both Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership is headquartered, and the United States of stoking the fighting, Karzai said it was up to Afghans to end decades of war.

In a message to Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership, Karzai said Afghanistan wanted “a civilized relationship. … If Pakistan adopts an attitude away from the use of extremism against Afghanistan, this relationship can grow into a beautiful relationship, into a very fruitful relationship for both sides.”

To the warring sides in Afghanistan, Karzai said: “I’m very emphatic and clear about this: Both sides should think of the lives of the Afghan people and the property. … Fighting is destruction.

“The only answer is Afghans getting together. … We must recognize that this is our country, and we must stop killing each other.”

Former Afghan president says U.S. leaving country ‘in total disgrace and disaster’