The Greater Game: In Dialogue With President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan

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Interviewing Hamid Karzai in his heavily fortified Presidential Palace in Kabul on October 2, 2013 could not have been more different than my first encounter with an Afghan head of state a quarter of a century earlier. Where Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, the Soviet backed president, who was overthrown and killed in 1996, dwelt on his great interest in Bollywood cinema, Karzai spoke of the influence of Mahatma Gandhi in his life. Najib was earthy and interested in the immediate, while Karzai, refined and articulate, spoke of the future. Dressed in traditional Afghan robes, the slim, bearded Karzai was the antithesis of the Najib, dressed in a suit straining under the bulge of heavy muscles, that I met in Belgrade in 1989.

MM:Afghanistan was once home to what was called the Great Game. Today, its old players remain and new ones have emerged, but the result has been even greater violence. Are you hopeful of a smooth transition as the Presidential election and the drawdown of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) approach in 2014? Is it still a game?

HK:As far as the Afghan people are concerned, transition is welcome. It is what they are looking forward to, they do not want foreign forces in their country. They want to live with dignity, without NATO (North American Treaty Organisation) or American forces intruding into their homes and beating their male family members, taking them away or hurting children. They want to have their government, their life within the framework of our society and our means. So, as far as Afghanistan itself is concerned, we don’t see a problem. As far as the foreign players in Afghanistan are concerned, and the pursuits that they have, which you have very rightly called the Greater Game, it is indeed a greater game; and in this greater game, there are some significant players. Afghanistan is not as a game player or a member of a team that is playing, but someone on whose ground the game is being played.

So if this game or this struggle is genuinely against terrorism, there are victims of this in this region. The afghan people are victims. The people of Pakistan are victims, especially in the Pashtun territories of Pakistan, especially such other groups of people as the Hazaras in Pakistan; India is definitely a victim of this for so many years and in so many different manifestations. Then, it necessitates on behalf of the international community where the United States and NATO are involved, to engage in a struggle against terrorism with the approval and participation of all. Russia is a victim. So you must have the involvement of Russia, China, India, Iran, Turkey; the countries that matter. We will succeed. But if the war on terror is a means to other objectives, we will continue to suffer as we have suffered. So that clarity is not yet there.

MM: So what has changed?

HK:The question here is did the West show sincerity in the war on terror or did they have parallel pursuits?

MM:And what could be these parallel pursuits?

HK:The parallel pursuits could be larger regional interests. If that is it, then the way they are doing it is wrong. We are willing to accommodate their interests. We are willing to accommodate US interests.

MM:If the aim is acceptable…

HK:The aim is acceptable if it is done through a consultative process, not through marginalizing, undermining, weakening us.

MM:You talked about it at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Kyrgyzstan and again I think you have repeated this; that there must be sincere cooperation from Pakistan?

HK: Pakistan wanted to have a strategic depth in Afghanistan, apparently vis-à-vis India. And that strategic depth they miscalculated by designing it to be one achieved through the promotion of radicalism and military adventure in Afghanistan. It didn’t help. The consequences of that are disastrous for Pakistan right now unfortunately. They are also people like us; they are also families and children. We do not want them to suffer. Just like we don’t want our children to suffer in both India and Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been suggesting to our friends and brothers in Pakistan that Afghanistan would be your strategic depth through friendship.

Afghanistan would have its own relations with India and those relations with India would not be at the cost of Pakistan. Never. But, Afghanistan would never cease its relations with India because of Pakistan. Afghanistan will have its own relations with Pakistan and its own relations with India, not one at the cost of the other. India is a great friend. It is not traditionally a donor country but it went beyond its way to provide (USD) $2.0 billion and gave us thousands of scholarships. The Afghan people would never forget that. And we will hold that very dearly. So if Pakistan is expecting that by force or by use of radicalism, we will subcontract our foreign policy to them, no way. Or we will submit our foreign policy to them, no way. We will be friends with India, we will continue with India, and we will also be friends with Pakistan in the best possible manner two neighbors can be.

(For the complete story, see the inaugural issue of Global Dialogue Review)

– Moses Manoharan

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