PARIS – “Trust me! There is no ethnic war in Afghanistan!” Interim government leader Hamid Karzai – impeccably dressed as usual and displaying his trademark esprit – was not exactly pleased by the question from Asia Times Online. “The war was imposed on us by outsiders. Our best strength is that all Afghans are in favor of unity. Every Afghan considers himself above all an Afghan.”

So, according to Karzai, any ethnic consideration is superfluous: “Our national identity is very strong. Any other country would have been destroyed by the civil war. Afghanistan is now probably more stable than the people around us.”

So much optimism does not conceal the fact that “Afghanistan needs a national army” – and needs the help of everybody: the US, the International Security Force, the European Union. But this is “not to suggest Afghanistan is insecure”, insists Karzai. He wants, in fact badly needs, “commitment from the international community.” Karzai assures that “the extension of the mandate of the Security Force is demanded by delegations from all the Afghan provinces.”

In five or six weeks’ time, the first soldiers of the national army will take their posts. Six-thousand to 7,000 men will be trained in the next 18 months – not exactly enough to secure a country as volatile as Afghanistan.

Globetrotting Karzai – with an entourage of around 20 – has been visiting a cluster of crucial latitudes lately – especially India, Pakistan and Iran. India has always supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. His visit to Pakistan was meant to pre-empt any possible moves instigated by Islamist sectors inside the Inter-Services Intelligence agency against his government.

In Iran, Karzai was royally received – as he is fond of remembering at every opportunity. Hard-line Iranian Shia clerics consider him a puppet of the US, while Washington has been accusing Tehran of turning a blind eye to the escape of Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders (it’s not true: they sneaked in via the southeast supported by anti-Tehran Sunni mujahideen).

Karzai is keen to emphasize that there is no “misunderstanding” regarding Iran. He mentions cultural agreements signed with Tehran and a common engagement in the fight against drug trafficking. He thanks both Iran and the US for their help, and stresses that “if we can work as mediators between the US and Iran , this would be a good thing … But they certainly must cooperate inside Afghanistan.” Afghanistan, stresses Karzai, now has “strategic freedom of choice: we are now a free country.”

Karzai is fond of singling out many examples of goodwill towards his government.

In Herat and Jalalabad, he’s been seeing many young people now proud of their “freedom and dignity”, who believe in the new political set-up and especially praise the fact that “national dignity has been restored.” The same kind of response was elicited when he attended a concert of Afghan music in Tehran. And at Georgetown University in Washington, he says, “all the girls wanted to be president of Afghanistan.”

There are no women in the Hamid Karzai travel party, though. That’s because his women ministers “prefered to stay, working in the countryside; they had more important things to do inside Afghanistan.” Karzai assures that “we will have a good representation of women in the Loya Jirga [grand council]” expected to be called in June.

During his Paris visit, he diplomatically exalted France’s “multidimensional role” in aiding Afghanistan and helping set up its national army and national police. France actually is not campaigning for an expansion of the International Security Force (ISAF): Paris considers “this is not necessary at the time.” But France would be in favor of a “longer mandate.” Karzai also said Afghanistan accepts a Turkish command of the ISAF in the near future.

Housed in style at the lush quarters of the Raphael Hotel in Paris, Karzai also visited the Guimet Museum – where he inaugurated a fabulous exhibition of Afghan art. He expects that most of the works – drawn from the Guimet Collection, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Museum fur Indische Kunst in Berlin and private collectors – “will be exhibited permanently in Kabul.” He said his government had already opened “the National Archives, galleries and music schools.”

Among the precious relics, visitors to the exhibition are able to follow the period when Indo-Greeks dominated the Indus basin as far as contemporary Lahore. The supreme masterpiece is a splendid 2nd century Apollonian Buddha marble head from Peshawar, bought in New York by a Swiss collector. Its power reminds one how the clumsy Taliban tried so hard to annihilate even memories of this crucial civilization.

The Taliban? Never again, says Karzai: “We are Muslims, and we are going to have our democracy, in the framework of our religion.”

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