Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part VI

Well, we’re in the middle of a journal, a chronicle: notes from the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, held in the glorious Alpine village of Davos, Switzerland. The previous installments of this journal can be found as follows: I, II, III, IV, and V.

Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, joins a group of journalists for coffee. He is wearing neither hat nor cape. It is the first time I have seen him capeless. When he greets you, shaking your hand, he is warm and direct. And one of the journos makes a comment: “Your country is so full of troubles, and your job is so difficult. Yet you seem so calm and happy — almost like a Buddhist monk or something.”

Karzai smiles and says, “Well, there’s a lot of good in Buddhism.” (I paraphrase.) He goes on to say that Afghan people, as a rule, are happy. If we go there, we will see. Yes, there are horrific problems — but there are wedding celebrations, birthday celebrations, many happy events. For the past six years, says Karzai, “there has been more happiness for us than sorrow.” How’s that?

Afghanistan was reborn. Our flag is now flying all over the world. Six years ago, we had to be represented by Pakistan, in international forums. Think what we have now: a constitution, a parliament, a government, a free press — “very critical,” Karzai says, with a friendly growl. Once again, Afghanistan is the home of all Afghans. Before, they were at each other’s throats; now they sit in parliament together, debating bills and so on.

Women have been returned to communal and civic life. There are 5.8 million kids in school, and 40 percent of them are girls. There are more universities, and, of course, more university students: about 50,000 of them. Some 1,500 of those go abroad, mainly to India. Medical facilities are spreading throughout the country, meaning that people don’t have to travel as far for such help. Electrification is proceeding apace. Afghanistan has rebuilt its army, and is rebuilding its police.

And the people are conducting elections — “with full vigor and zeal,” says Karzai.

But best of all? Karzai says something I have heard him say before. It obviously means a lot to him. Six years ago, Afghanistan was one of the worst countries in the world for childhood and maternal mortality. Not any longer.

So, those are the good things — the fruits of the liberation wrought by the United States and its allies.

And the sorrow, the failures? An inability to tackle terrorism; an inability — thus far — to tackle drugs. Those are the twin problems. And then Karzai says something striking: If Afghanistan can overcome those problems, “we will be a normal poor country, trying to get a little better.” A normal poor country: That is a striking aspiration.

Karzai discourses a bit on the Taliban. Such people in their “native form” are not extremists, he says; they are orthodox. A talib is simply a student in a religious school — someone who wants to become a priest, or a learned man in matters religious. A talib is not necessarily a radical. Thousands of them are “common citizens like the rest of us,” who only want to make a decent living and have a good life. Thousands of others are “used” — by political malefactors.

A British journalist asks a question: “America’s power is waning, and no one is in charge in America. So where does that leave you?”

Karzai is somewhat nonplussed by this question (as you might imagine). He says that, without America, Afghanistan would still be occupied by al-Qaeda and other extremists. The Americans are “helping us,” says Karzai, with billions of dollars, and with troops. And the country is sending more troops. Karzai says that the “bulwark” in the effort for Afghanistan is America. And “its power is not diminished.”

Time and again, this has happened at Davos: A journalist (usually British or American) will ask a question loaded with anti-American bias. And the leader being questioned will say something defensive about America. I will briefly recapitulate a most memorable instance: Americans had just conducted a strike on a target in Pakistan; the Pakistani leadership had not been told in advance about this strike. Someone asked Pervez Musharraf, “How can you tolerate such arrogance and cowboyism from the Americans?” (Again, I am paraphrasing.) “They did not inform you; they violated your precious Pakistani sovereignty. And you are quite rightly a proud people. How can you stand these Americans?”

Musharraf answered essentially as follows: “Yes, it is true that we would have liked to know about the strike. And it is true that we are a proud people, jealous of our sovereignty. But what about al-Qaeda? They are all foreigners — from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Chechnya, and all over. They have no right to be on our territory. They are violating our sovereignty. How come no one ever mentions that? And the Americans are helping us get rid of these foreigners.”

I think that the room was actually shamed.

Back with Karzai now (in the same room, as it happens — in the Rinaldi Hotel): He is asked whether he controls the whole of Afghanistan. Karzai answers that he controls the whole of Afghanistan in one sense; and the greater part of the country in another sense. What he means is this: He controls all of Afghanistan in that he is the legitimate leader of all Afghans — this comes through elections, a constitution, democracy. But he does not exercise direct, practical control over the whole country — not now.

He tells a story, meant to illustrate the importance of the central government to all Afghans. One day, the chairman of the senate called Karzai. He said, “Mr. President, there is a man who has been in Kabul five months, waiting to see you. The coalition bombed his home, killing 19 members of his family. The man will not leave the capital until he has seen you.” Karzai said, “Tell him to come tomorrow.”

When Karzai was returning from either a meeting or his prayers — he can’t remember which — he saw this man, sitting in the hallway. The man was waiting for their appointment. And, on seeing the president, he started to weep. Karzai embraced him, saying, “Don’t cry.” The man responded that he was not crying because 19 members of his family had been killed; rather, he was crying because he himself had been spared, and was now left alone.

At least that is the story as I understand it.

And Karzai’s point, again, is: The central government means something to all Afghans; the government in Kabul is the sole legitimate authority. It meant everything to the man in this story to tell the president of the country of his extreme personal pain.

No, says Karzai, I cannot provide services to the entire country. And I cannot go wherever I like in the country. But I am the president. And, in time, I will be able to go wherever I like in Afghanistan. The entire country will be able to experience a decent order.

A journalist asks why in the world Western countries are bombing innocent people. Karzai answers with perfect composure: Such bombings are happening much less often now; the coalition is making a big effort to be careful. One reason they have bombed from the air is that ground forces have been too few. And mistakes are made all the time, in war. Just last night — as recently as last night — the coalition killed nine members of the Afghan armed forces. (By accident, of course.)

But you know? The coalition has suffered too: Americans, Canadians, others. Men and women from many countries have died in accidents. It’s not just Afghans who are paying a price.

I have seldom seen a leader so cool, so unhistrionic, so un-demagogic — so mature.

Another question arises: Do the Afghan people want Americans off their territory? Karzai smiles. When he was first elected, people would come up to him and say two things. First, they would say, “Congratulations.” Second, they would say, “Can you send international forces to our village?” Not much has changed. Afghans do not feel themselves under occupation, says Karzai. They know that, without the coalition, “we’d go back to the terrible period of six years ago.”

And then there is the question of narcotics. Yes, Afghans are growing poppies — where they used to cultivate vineyards, and orchards of pomegranates. But those things are hard, agriculturally; they take time, care, diligence. By comparison, poppies are easy, seductive. Karzai says that there is no short-term solution to this problem; and the long-term solution is: stability in the region, relative economic prosperity among Afghans.

One of the journos asks about global warming: Has it affected Afghanistan? And Karzai says that it has, very much! From 1996 to 2005, there was a terrible drought — a drought unprecedented in Afghan history. Yes, oppression and war made miserable; but this drought made miserable, too — killing off trees, and vastly increasing poverty. And this, President Karzai seems to attribute to global warming.

Not for the first time, he says that extremism is not growing in the Islamic world; moreover, extremism does not emanate from society — it was imposed as policy. “By whom?” I ask. Karzai answers: This was true in the Soviet period (by which he means, I take it, that much of the world backed and armed the mujahideen); and it was true about “our neighbors” (i.e., the Pakistanis — as I understand the president).

Someone asks, “Where is bin Laden?” Karzai says, confidently, “Not in Afghanistan.” And how can he be so sure? Because “he can’t be there, he cannot hide there — he should be where he can hide.” Karzai vows that, “someday, we’ll get him.” He has killed so many innocent people, in Afghanistan, at the World Trade Center, and elsewhere. He used innocent passengers on planes as bombs. He is “the number-one criminal of the world.” And think of those people who jumped off the highest floors in New York, says Karzai.

Funny, but I have not heard anyone mention this — the horrors, or the particular horrors, of 9/11 — in a long, long time. It seems almost verboten in the United States.

A journalist wants to know about religious leaders in Afghanistan and popular culture. They went to see Karzai, complaining about the quality of television, etc. Movies from Bollywood (that is, the Indian Hollywood) were considered de trop. Karzai answers thoughtfully, saying that such concerns are not peculiar to Afghans — religious leaders in the West would have the same concerns. It is the role of religious leaders, he says, to think about morality, and the moral atmosphere.

The Afghan leaders, he says, “did not ask me to ban anything.” Rather, they said, “This is not good, Mr. President — you should look into it.” So Karzai appointed a commission, composed of those representing various segments of society, and they came up with a compromise. But do not think, says Karzai, that some dark night of fundamentalism is falling over New Afghanistan.

At least, that is the message I hear.

Not long before we depart, Karzai is asked whether he has seen Charlie Wilson’s War, a movie about the Soviet-Afghan war, and other things. He says no. When he has some free time — an hour in the evening — he likes to spend it with his son. And his son likes to watch Last of the Summer Wine — a British television comedy.

So that’s what’s playing in the presidential palace in Kabul.

As he leaves the room, Karzai spies some figs in a bowl, laid out for this gathering. He takes a fig, commenting, “We don’t have these in Afghanistan.” He seems amazingly cheerful as he leaves. In my experience, he is always amazingly cheerful. And, in the course of our hour, he has been genial, engaging, articulate. He has seemed a combination of strength — firmness, purpose — and human feeling.

I may be mistaken (hard as that will be for you to imagine (!)): but Hamid Karzai seems the right man to occupy his extraordinarily difficult office.

Thanks for joining me, friends. And I’ll be back tomorrow with Emma Thompson, Yo-Yo Ma, the prime minister of Japan, and more fun-lovers.

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