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Interview: Afghan President Karzai Talks To RFE/RL

President Karzai in his office on April 5 (RFE/RL) In an exclusive interview on April 5, Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks about his choices for a new cabinet and the confirmation hearings under way in the Afghan parliament. From his office in Kabul, Karzai tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Breshna Nazari that his cabinet choices were based on qualifications rather than trying to reflect the ethnic composition of the country. Karzai also says that outgoing Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah refused an offer to head a new ministry. Karzai also defends his decision to have only one woman in his cabinet, saying that women have been politically empowered with a strong presence in the parliament.

RFE/RL: The important story these days in Afghanistan is the proposed cabinet that you have submitted to the lower chamber of parliament -- the Wolesi Jirga -- for approval. Are you following the details of this parliamentary process through the media?

President Hamid Karzai: Unfortunately, I don't really have time to follow all the details. However, I do receive reports from my media department. The other day, as I was on my way to the celebrations of the birth of the Prophet [Muhammad], I saw a short clip of the procedures on television. They were discussing the selection of the defense minister. It made me happy that we have representatives of the people and a good structure of political discourse. This is a great psychological source of strength.

"Every person in Afghanistan, regardless of their ethnicity, has a right to the ministries of Afghanistan. No ministry in Afghanistan belongs to any particular group and every ministry in Afghanistan belongs to all groups."

RFE/RL: How sure are you that the cabinet you have proposed will be approved by the parliament?

Karzai: According to Afghanistan's Constitution, it is the duty of the president to choose the members of his cabinet. It is the job of the parliament to accept or reject those choices. It has the full power for such decisions. My hope, as an ordinary person as well as the president, is that our deputies will accept or reject these choices according to professional standards, their patriotism, and their integrity; and that no other criteria should determine their decisions. I have also done the same as the president of Afghanistan. And those who have advised me on the matter also followed the same line without any regional or ethnic bias. And I would like to hear the reasons why they were accepted or rejected. If a minister is rejected, I hope that the reasons given for the rejection will be enunciated so that we know why our proposed ministers were not acceptable.

RFE/RL: If the parliament rejects some of your cabinet proposals for any reason, do you have alternative proposals in mind?

Karzai: Yes, of course I do. It is the right of the parliament to reject these names. If the reasons are acceptable to me -- and if the reasons are clear so that the people of Afghanistan can see where things stand -- then, of course, we will accept them. But I do hope to have clear reasons. The most important issue is that the reasons should be very clearly spelled out.

RFE/RL: Did you choose your proposed cabinet independently? That is, did you consult representatives of different ethnic groups? Or did you make these choices personally by yourself?

Karzai: Yes, yes. Of course I consulted. I consulted a lot. In the past four years of my [term in] office, I have been accused of consulting too much. But luckily it has been proven that this is very positive because it has yielded good results. I have talked to all of my advisers, my deputies, with other brothers. We have had some very difficult discussions, too. After a lot of discussion and consultations which have been -- at times -- very difficult, we came to these conclusions. And this is a very positive thing -- to be able to discuss issues as a part of the decision-making process. Yes, my decisions have passed through the different layers of consultations. In all democracies of the world, it is the same. People discuss the issues. People consult. And once they have made a decision, they stand by it. Yes we have made our decisions based on consultations.

RFE/RL: One of the most striking elements in your proposals is the fact that Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has been removed from the post of foreign minister and Dr. Rangin Dadfar Espanta has been nominated to replace him. This follows your earlier decision to remove Marshall [Mohammad Qasim] Fahim from the post of Afghan defense minister. And in some media and political circles, it is said that this is an open move to sideline a certain military-political group. What is your response to this?

Karzai: Marshal Fahim is one of the sons of our [mujahedin], a patriot and [a man who loves] his country. I have a great deal of respect for Marshall Fahim. He has been my close friend and confidant. He has his own unique place in Afghanistan. He has been a respectable military man. He is a five-star general. And he is a senator. I hope that officially as my adviser, he will continue to cooperate with me. He comes to all of the National Security Council meetings. His is my dear brother. No one can ever reduce the respect that Marshal Fahim has earned for himself.

Former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah (AFP)

Dr. Abdullah is a mujahedin of Afghanistan. He has served this nation and we have great respect for that. He is my friend and I have a great deal of respect for him. He has served the cabinet for four years. And I have been very happy with his service as foreign minister. He has not been dropped from the cabinet at all. I have suggested to him that since we are restructuring the cabinet and creating an important new ministry -- the Ministry of Trade and Industry -- he should be in charge of that. He did not accept that. When he was in America [in March], I phoned him personally three times and requested that he become the minister of trade and industry before I made the decision. But he turned down my offer every time, saying that he thought he was more qualified for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But I wanted to create changes in the cabinet.

I also did the same with Hannif Atmar, who was a very successful minister of rural development. I requested that he take up another ministry -- the Ministry of Education. But similarly, I have made changes which are based upon my wish to change the structure of the cabinet.

Reshuffling is quite a normal step taken with any cabinet. This helps change the approach. It is possible I will not be a candidate [in the next election]. And even if I am a candidate for the presidency in the next election and people don't choose me, I will be happy to leave office. No post should be considered as a permanent position in politics. None of the positions of the Afghan government are permanent.

RFE/RL: There is one more point being made about your proposed cabinet. It is the fact that there is only one woman on your list. Some say this is not sufficient.

Karzai: That's a very good question. In the past three or four years, the cabinet has been the main representative of the people from various segments of Afghan society. It has operated as a cabinet. It has operated as the law-making power of the country. It also had executive roles. After the National Assembly was formed -- with lower and upper chambers of a legislative branch of government -- then the separation of powers became possible. There we saw that women had a lot of support in society. Some 27 or 28 percent of the parliamentary seats are held by women. So as you can see, their place is secured. Now that the cabinet is being proposed, it has more of an executive function. We have one woman in the cabinet. And it is possible that in the future there will be more women. Perhaps there will be three or four women.

[But] the cabinet is formed for practical reasons. This is not for political reasons. Today there may be one woman. Tomorrow there may be more. Likewise, today we may have so many representatives from Herat or Jalalabad and tomorrow that may change. Change is always possible in a cabinet. But one thing has been proven. That the place of women in Afghanistan has been secured and women have the support of the people.

RFE/RL: There has been commentary in the media -- and also within political circles in Kabul -- about ethnic representation within your proposed cabinet. The claim being made is that your proposals are based on ethnic preferences [that are not representative of the nation]. Some say you have been persuaded by advisers. What is your reaction to such remarks?

Karzai: Well, every ethnic group has a right to have a place in the government of Afghanistan. But no official position belongs to any one ethnic group. Today I am the president. And I am from Kandahar. In the past, we had my brother (eds. Not his biological brother), the honorable Ustad Rabbani, who is from Badkhshan Province. Tomorrow we may have someone from Parvan, Panjshir, Faryab, Nuristan, and so on. We must strive for a system in which any person in Afghanistan would feel they could reach the highest office. The government of Afghanistan is not just for the main large ethnic groups or main provinces of Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan is a place for all people of Afghanistan. We cannot have four or five main ethnic groups -- Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, or Hazara -- claiming a right to all posts. We cannot have the Pashtuns say we are a large ethnic group and must have the Ministry of Defense or Foreign Affairs, and the Tajiks saying we must have the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Education. [We cannot have] Hazara claiming this ministry and Uzbek brothers claiming something else. Every person in Afghanistan, regardless of their ethnicity, has a right to the ministries of Afghanistan. No ministry in Afghanistan belongs to any particular group and every ministry in Afghanistan belongs to all groups.

RFE/RL: Mr. President, the insurgency has increased in the south and government officials are increasingly being targeted. Do you believe the situation is dire?

Karzai: These attacks have been occurring for one or two years. Teachers, religious figures, engineers, and those involved in reconstruction work are being killed. The day before yesterday, a Turkish engineer who had come to work to make a road was murdered. People going under the name of the Taliban killed him. I want to differentiate between the Taliban and terrorists. We shouldn't use the word Taliban in such cases. The Taliban are those who study in madrasahs [religious schools]. They are like you and me. They have families, they are in Kabul, Badakhshan, Bamiyan, and in every province. Those people who come and kill a Turkish engineer or a teacher or any other foreigner who has come to Afghanistan to work on reconstruction are undoubtedly enemies of the Afghan people. These people -- whether they be Taliban in madrasahs or students, whether they be from Afghanistan or from outside -- they are terrorists. They are working against this country and against Islam. We call them terrorists. Afghanistan will struggle against them. We ask the world community to give us money to build clinics and then somebody comes and destroys the clinic or burns a school or kills a teacher. These are enemies of Afghanistan. Those who want Afghanistan not to prosper are training them outside the country. We are focusing on this. We know the internal and external factors. There are internal factors as well. The battle against poppy [cultivation] could help our struggle against our enemies. The international mafia and terrorists are working together.

RFE/RL: Most of these incidents happen near the border with Pakistan and in Pashtun areas. Why do you think that is? Traditionally in these areas problems are solved through jirgas -- assemblies of local elders -- and in peaceful ways. What have you done to solve issues through peaceful ways?

Karzai: It is a fact that most of the attacks are in the south. But we also see similar attacks on the other side of the Durand Line [a line drawn by the British Empire that is now the disputed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan]. There, schools are being destroyed. There, teachers are being killed and almost 80 tribal or religious leaders have been murdered. There is a question why this is happening on both sides of the Durand Line in areas where Pashtuns live. There are terrorist attacks on both side of the Durand Line. These people are deprived of opportunities to grow and to develop. Unfortunately, that is the case. Who is the enemy preventing people on both two sides of the Durand Line from developing? The answer to that is for discussion some other time. But we have our own ideas.

A great deal of attention should be paid to the welfare of these people. Our government should try hard to improve the situation of these people. You see, about 200 schools have been burned, most of them in these areas. One hundred thousand children cannot go to schools, mostly in these areas. So it is clear that they are working against the people of these areas. But the people of Afghanistan will not allow that to happen.

RFE/RL: Another issue is that of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who faced the death penalty for converting to Christianity before being released in the midst of an international controversy. How would you describe the state of religious tolerance in Afghanistan?

Karzai: Afghanistan is a very conservative Islamic country. We have made many sacrifices for Islam. We have given our blood and we are proud of that. We are a true Islamic country. Our nation is a Muslim nation. There is a great deal of tolerance in our country. True Islam is tolerant. The history of Abdul Rahman shows he was ill. He had a number of mental problems. He had received treatment in Pakistan and Germany. In such cases, Islamic law clearly states that such a person cannot be put on trial or punished. The decision our court took was based on the Shari'ah and on Islamic law.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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