As India was preparing to shut down its embassy in Kabul on August 15 last year in the wake of the Taliban takeover, Hamid Karzai urged Indian Ambassador Rudrendra Tandon not to leave, the former President of Afghanistan said in an interview to The Indian Express.
“Well, of course, it was very clear that I advised him not to leave,” Karzai said, declining to give details of that conversation. “There was no reason for India to leave, I am glad they are coming back. I’ve been urging Indian government leaders to re-open the embassy. There’s so much relationship between Afghanistan and India that requires India’s presence here. Active full strength presence here. So I’m glad they are returning. And I want them to return full-fledged, full force.”
Karzai, who studied in India from 1979-1983, said Delhi must, “on priority”, reissue visas to Afghan students who were studying in India, and have not been able to return to their studies, and issue visas to those who wish to study in India. “The return of the (Afghan) students is important”, he said.
“We are talking about India, Afghanistan, people to people, civilisational links. It’s for that reason that India has a place in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a place in India. Therefore, this engagement is necessary with the Afghan people, and India must return,” he said.
Karzai, who led Afghanistan from 2002 to 2014, as head of a transitional administration for two years and following the 2004 elections, as President, lives in the Afghan capital. His home is near Zanbaq Square, an area whose fortifications have been taken over by the Taliban. An armoured car with a gun mounted on it, is stationed at the square. Armed Taliban cadres check for identity and papers every few metres.
Karzai’s home is next to the Arg, the presidential palace, and the foreign ministry, which is now run by the Taliban. His own security are deployed inside the compound.
Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, who served as former chief executive in the first Ashraf Ghani government, were the only two top political leaders who stayed on after the Taliban takeover. As panic spread at the news that Ghani had left, the statement by the two leaders that they would remain to manage a peaceful transition, served as a reassurance to Kabul residents.
Since then, Abdullah has travelled out of the country including to India earlier this year. Karzai is allowed to meet visitors at home, and within the city, but is not allowed to leave Kabul. The Taliban have turned down requests from him to travel abroad.
Asked if he was a prisoner of the Taliban he said: “No, I have just not been able to visit abroad. Whatever we describe that as, I wouldn’t call that a prisoner.”
Karzai’s son recently left to study in Germany. The former President said his son had an opportunity to study abroad in 2020, but both he and his wife wanted him to finish schooling in Afghanistan. “But then things changed, and education suffered, so there was no more an opportunity here for him to educate, and we, out of total compulsion, agreed to send him to Germany,” he said.
Karzai also has three young daughters, who attend school in Kabul. “I want my daughters to study here. And to study from Class 6 to 12, as well here. And the Taliban. I am urging them strongly, very strongly, to reopen girls school as a vital important issue for our country,” he said. The Taliban have banned education for girls beyond Class 6.
Karzai said he and Abdullah had urged the Taliban to reopen high schools for girls. “They have to, that must be the decision. It’s inevitable. The country cannot take steps towards towards dying. If we are not going to go to school, that means we’re killing ourselves and our future. Therefore, there simply is no other option. That’s an imperative. Is there a word beyond imperative, or that’s where it ends?” Karzai said.
The response from the Taliban to his and Abdullah’s entreaty “has been quite positive”, Karzai said. “We are waiting for action on all this,” he said.
As those running the country, the Taliban was now responsible to ensure “that Afghans don’t leave the country, that the educated ones are not only given an opportunity to stay in Afghanistan, but those who have left are attracted back to come back to their own country, and that the government represents the aspiration of all the Afghan people,” he said.
He said the one big change in the last year was that there was no large-scale “fighting” or casualties. “In that sense, there is a lot better security. The countryside is a lot better in this respect than what we had before,” he said.
“But in other aspects, in the economy, we have a serious deprivation, in terms of education, there is serious decline, the universities are not functioning to even half their strength, the schools are not functioning to half their strength. And the most important of all, girls are not going to school from grade 6 to 12. Plus a lot more. We lost the reserves of the country, $7 billion. For a country of poor means and resources, that’s a lot of money. There is a loss of institutions, the collapse of the state itself, we have at least 55 of our army helicopters in our neighbouring countries. Imagine if each one of those helicopters is calculated between at least 10 to $15 million, that that’s almost $700 million. So in those terms, we have lost a lot,” he said.
He said he had asked the Taliban to start a “national dialogue” with all Afghans. “You cannot govern a country without technocrats, without educated people, without professionals, you cannot govern the country effectively without the participation of women. So all aspects of good governance must be put in place. And that must begin with a dialogue with all Afghans. And that should lead to the expression of the will of Afghan people on the government and the future of the country,” he said.
The will of the people could be ascertained through the traditional Afghan assembly of loya jirga, or a referendum. “Whatever way is best at a given time, must be used,” he said.
He dismissed a recent loya jirga as not one at all. “That was a more a jirga of the Taliban themselves, a meeting of largely of the clergy of the religious scholars of the country, plus some others. So that wasn’t really representative in any sense,” he said.
Regarding the killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri in Kabul by the US, Karzai said the Taliban authorities had announced they were not aware of his presence and that they will investigate. “Let that investigation happen, let them come up with the results of the investigation and explain it to the world and to the Afghan people,” he said.