International efforts to help Afghan security forces regain control of territory taken by the Taliban are doing more harm than good, the former president of has warned.
Hamid Karzai spoke to the Guardian after a bloody week in Helmand, as the Taliban captured large swaths of territory where hundreds of British and American soldiers died.
As militants close in on the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, government forces have sustained heavy losses. Afghan commanders have pleaded with the to intensify airstrikes. But, Karzai said, they should not.
“They are very wrong – they are terribly wrong,” he said. “Those who ask foreign forces to bomb Afghanistan are not representing the Afghan people or their interests.”
The comments echo sentiments expressed by the ex-president during his 13-year tenure. Karzai vehemently opposed US airstrikes and night raids on Afghan villages, which he thinks undermined Afghan sovereignty, along with foreign “interference” in Afghan politics.
“This denial of self-determination causes a lot of frustration and anger for the Afghan people, and that helps fuel conflict,” Karzai said.
The US disagrees that its military is making things worse – as does the current Afghan government. Last month, Barack Obama until 2017, further delaying a long-planned drawdown.
A recent report showed the amount of territory controlled by the Afghan government has fallen this year, dropping from 70.5% of the country’s districts in early 2016 to 65.6%.
In the past week in Helmand, where British soldiers in Afghanistan died, Nad Ali district was almost entirely overrun, bringing the Taliban close to Lashkar Gah. The government is almost completely absent from northern districts such as Musa Qala, Sangin and Kajaki.
But Karzai said those losses should be accepted as the consequence of Afghan forces fighting alone.
“If we cannot fight it ourselves, then we cannot ask a foreign force to come take it for us,” he said. “Those who take it haev more ownership than we have.”
The former president said foreign forces should either leave Afghanistan to deal with its own internal conflict, or focus on the Taliban’s foreign backers in Pakistan, who Karzai blames equally for Afghanistan’s woes.
Karzai’s relationship with the US, who originally supported him as a spearhead for post-Taliban Afghanistan, soured so much that in 2013 Karzai allowing foreign troops to stay in the country.
His latest remarks are also a stab at current president Ashraf Ghani who after taking office in 2014, and who is nurturing a much closer relationship to US commanders.
“I have asked the Afghan government not to ask the US for aerial bombings of our country,” Karzai said. “This is chemicals thrown on the country every day. This is killing our fields, spreading disease, and not bringing an end to the war.”
Since his presidential retirement in 2014, Karzai never disappeared from political life. He remains influential, receiving throngs of visitors, including foreign ambassadors, at his central Kabul office. Some see his vocal presence in the fringes as .
Karzai himself denied exerting pressure on the government “yet”, without elaborating on what that implied.
Many think Karzai is hardly blameless himself. Corruption is arguably the biggest ill tormenting Afghanistan, undermining its security forces and spurring public support for the Taliban. The corruption, while bankrolled largely by the inflow of foreign funds, was allowed to flourish under Karzai, and has so far proven impossible to curtail.
But western corruption allegations are out of proportion, Karzai retorted. Daily corruption in Afghanistan is comparable to other weak states, while large scale corruption “is a direct result of the US approach to Afghanistan, and the way they issued contracts”, he said.
Though Karzai emphasised that he is not “anti-western”, and that he is “very, very sorry” for , he warned that if foreign forces don’t change approach, those soldiers may have died for nothing.
“Nato has been here for 14 years,” he said, adding that foreign forces are fighting for the same districts as they were when they had 150,000 troops. “Are we better off? Do we have more security? No.
“It means something is wrong. The way things are done, it has been in vain for us.”