Three years since he left office, the presence of former president Hamid Karzai still lingers in the corridors of Afghan politics. The fact that he continues to live on the same street as the presidential palace also ensures that he remains keenly involved in matters of a nation at war.
It is at this humble but traditional home in Kabul that Karzai extends the courtesy of his hospitality to scores of Afghan leaders, ministers, tribal elders and international diplomats, on a daily basis. He meets with hundreds of local and international stakeholders, making peace and relationships that can influence the turn of regional events in Afghanistan’s favor, a country that he helped put back together with the help of US allies after the fall of the extremist Taliban regime in 2001.
However, today, Karzai is among the few prominent Afghan voices against the occupying US forces. He has strongly condemned the new Afghan strategy put forth by US President Donald Trump in late August. “The neighborhood is no longer an ally of the US in their war against terror,” he told us on a warm September afternoon at his residence in the capital.
Karzai is confident that not only Afghans but also regional stakeholders support his crusade against the “American agenda” in Afghanistan, which he describes as an attempt to create disharmony among nations in the region, such as India, Pakistan, Iran and China.
“If they genuinely want to fight extremism and terrorism, they cannot do it by creating rivalry here in this region. They cannot take one ally and create rivalries — that’s adding to the conflicts in Afghanistan,” he said, referring to Trump’s statement calling out Pakistan for harboring insurgents, while encouraging India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan.
However, this is not to say that Karzai doesn’t value international powers trying to foster peace in his country. On September 4, leaders of the five BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — called on Pakistan to end terrorism in Afghanistan and the region following Trump’s statement.
Move to name terror groups was ‘important’
“BRICS was an important development,” Karzai said, hailing the statement by BRICS nations on terrorism emanating from Pakistan as a “significant development.”
“Naming terrorist organizations at BRICS was important for the countries that are really affected, like India, China and Russia. This is what we need — cooperating in this region against extremism and terrorism. Not the imaginations of the US played out in our region.”
Karzai dismissed Pakistan’s defensive reaction to the BRICS statement, saying that Islamabad lays some of the blame on Kabul. “Nobody believes Pakistan’s [excuse] blaming Afghanistan for providing terrorist sanctuaries,” he said.
“They know Afghanistan is not involved in that or has the capacity to do things like that. They must deal with this and not us,” he added, urging Pakistan to give up extremism. “We want Pakistan to recognize that playing with extremism is never going to help them.”
While Karzai remains critical of Pakistan’s role in regional security, he is also suspicious of Washington’s intention in condemning Pakistan. “President Trump’s strategy makes it look like [there are proxy wars in Afghanistan] and we don’t want that. We don’t want Afghanistan to become a battleground for rivalries, or a place where proxies fight,” he explained.
“India should not ally itself with America’s objectives in Afghanistan because those objectives are not good for this region. They are surely not going to be good for India eventually.”
As the conversation moved more towards regional politics, Karzai expressed appreciation of India’s role in the development of Afghanistan. Karzai’s relationship with India goes a long way back – to his days as a student in Himachal Pradesh, evidence of which can be seen in his library, which boasts of a copy of the Indian constitution, which he has read and referred to several times during his years as leader of a new nation.
Karzai urged India to not be swayed by Trump’s policies. “My advice to India is that it should have its independent policy towards Afghanistan and not be influenced by Americans,” he said. “India should not ally itself with America’s objectives in Afghanistan because those objectives are not good for this region. They are surely not going to be good for India eventually.”
Having presided over the new Afghanistan for more than a decade, Karzai is no stranger to the consequences of proxy wars. “These rivalries will be played out in Afghanistan. Why should we be the ground where larger powers with their own interests create a war in which we die?” he said, noting the drastic increase in civilian casualties over the last two years.
‘India never interfered in our ties with Pakistan’
The former leader also dismissed talk of an India-Pakistan proxy war being played out in his homeland.
“During my government, India never interfered with our relationship with Pakistan,” he revealed, adding that Indian leaders Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi had both been considerate about Afghanistan’s sensitive position in the region.
“We spoke about these issues with India and at one point they even refrained from helping Afghanistan militarily because they said Pakistan may get irritated,” he recalled. “They were trying to avoid too much irritation for Pakistan; that’s what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told me.”
Despite this, Pakistan still appears to be concerned about Afghanistan’s growing affinity to India. “Pakistan, of course, constantly kept talking about India, [and it] especially has issues with the number of Indian consulates in Afghanistan,” he revealed.
As Karzai bid us farewell, he repeated his warning. “Tell India to not fall for the strategic games that the US is playing in this region. We want an Afghanistan-India relationship that is not impacted by the strategic interests of another power [that is well] away from us.”