Kabul, Asharq Al-Awsat- Afghanistan is currently going through a transitional period, marked by talk of reconciliation between President Hamid Karzai’s government, and elements of the Taliban. There are also allegations of government corruption, and growing Iranian influence in the region. Furthermore, NATO officials have reasserted that international forces will not leave the country, until their “mission ends well”. During a recent visit to Kabul, and several principal Afghan cities, Asharq al-Awsat met with several government figures, as well as leaders of the Afghan opposition and Taliban representatives. The newspaper also conducted visits to camps in Helmand and Lashkar, and met with several international officials.
Mohammad Karim Khalili, the vice president of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, is the leader of the Shiite Unity Organization. He is 59 years old, a veteran mujahid, and a former finance minister. He was also one of the strongest opponents of the Taliban government. Like other senior mujahidin commanders, he supervises a television station called “Najat”, or “The Outlook” in Arabic.
Vice President Karim Khalili recently performed the Umra [the small pilgrimage] and met with King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Khalili asked him personally, in the name of the Afghan people, to intercede in order to make peace with the Taliban, and end the suffering of the Afghan people. The Afghan Vice President believes that there will be no peace, or restoration of security in Afghanistan, unless Saudi Arabia can act as a mediator.
On the 18th of November, Asharq al-Awsat conducted an exclusive interview with the Afghan Vice President, in his government palace in central Kabul. The interview was conducted through the mediation of Abu-Yusuf Abdulrahman, an Afghan journalist and analyst, amidst heightened security concerns. On the morning of the interview, Taliban suicide bombers had carried out an armed attack on Jalalabad Airport. The previous day, militants had attacked the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters, located a short distance from Karzai’s government palace.
In the interview, Khalili admitted that corruption is rampant in government departments, the courts, and among public prosecutors. Although the courts are investigating such cases of corruption, Khalili claims western media outlets are exploiting the current atmosphere, to put political pressure on President Karzai’s government. The transcript of the interview is as follows:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where has the reconciliation efforts with the Taliban reached? Do you think that Saudi Arabia is playing a role in the reconciliation efforts that favor the Afghan people?
[Khalili] As you are aware, President Karzai formed a reconciliation council headed by Professor Borhanuddin Rabbani about two months ago. The efforts have been launched and they are making progress according to plan. Saudi Arabia plays an important role in the talks in view of the love, appreciation, and respect that all the Afghans harbor for it, specifically for the role that the custodian of the two holy shrines is playing in the interest of the Muslim world. I was recently on a visit to the holy lands where I performed the umra and met with the custodian of the two holy shrines after performing the holy rites of pilgrimage. I asked him to intercede in the issue of reconciliation and mediation with the Taliban. Moreover, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has asked the custodian of the two holy shrines on several occasions to intercede in order to solve the Afghan crisis and mediate with the armed groups in order to restore security and stability to Afghanistan, a country that has been suffering from wars for more than 30 years. We look forward to and we appreciate and value a role by Saudi Arabia that is influential in this regard. We are also certain that the intercession of the custodian of the two holy shrines will have a decisive role in solving the Afghan crisis. Without the intercession of the custodian of the two holy shrines, the issue will take long and the Afghan crisis will continue to exist endlessly. The Afghan crisis can only be solved through the intercession of the Muslim world, specifically that of Saudi Arabia and the custodian of the two holy shrines.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you assess the general security and political conditions in Afghanistan?
[Khalili] Naturally, we do not enjoy normal security conditions and the Afghan people are suffering because of these conditions. We believe that the international community that is helping in the domestic conditions is undertaking several projects in Kandahar and Helmand in southern Afghanistan. However, things are not progressing in accordance with the aspirations of the Afghan people. We hope that security and stability would prevail in the country. Nonstop efforts are being made to end the war and if the war ends, reconciliation will follow.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the US strategy in Afghanistan is succeeding?
[Khalili] The Americans should answer this question but, in general, the US strategy needs to be studied and reviewed every now and then. A US congressional delegation is currently visiting Kabul to study the current situation in Afghanistan. What the Afghan people are looking forward is an end to the war and the achievement of reconciliation in Afghanistan. This will not be accomplished except through the formation of reconciliation committees.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you satisfied with the course of the parliamentary elections the final results of which have not yet been announced?
[Khalili] We are happy with the success of the election process in the country, which is accomplishes the democratic track in Afghanistan. The election committee sought to make progress in this regard. We also look forward to entrenching the principles and concepts of democracy in Afghanistan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Regarding the scheduled withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in the beginning of 2014, will the situation become stable, in your opinion? Will the Afghan forces be able to restore security and stability when they assume the tasks of safeguarding security?
[Khalili] One of the demands of the Afghan people is for the Afghan government to assume the security functions in the country. Plans have been drawn up in the ministry of defense and the ministry of interior to strengthen the security forces and establish national cadres that can assume the future tasks. This is a legitimate request for the Afghans. Our worry in the Afghan government and departments is that the response of the international community has not been as required. We expect 2014 to be a decisive year for the Afghans who will assume the security functions in their country. Prior to that, we hope that the Afghan forces in the police and the defense ministry would first be trained to replace the foreign forces. On the other hand, we also expect the reconciliation committees would achieve some progress in order to end the violence in Afghanistan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are in charge of the file to reconstruct Afghanistan. Are you satisfied with what has been accomplished?
[Khalili] The ministries that are involved in the economy and reconstruction are under my supervision. A lot has been accomplished in the field of reconstruction. However, the devastation of the country over the past 30 years and the destruction of the infrastructure require much more. We have received only a small amount of the foreign aid from the international community. The international community is also responsible for the reconstruction. Big steps have been made in this regard but they are not as much as the people aspire for. I cannot say that there are definite figures for the successes on the grounds that have been made in the past nine years, but I can say that there were no roads between the major cities. Now there are roads between the major provinces, such as the Kabul-Heart highway in northern Afghanistan, the Spin Boldak Road on the border with Pakistan, and the Kabul-Torkham Highway near the Pakistani border. This network of roads makes trade, imports, and exports with the neighboring countries easier. In addition to the private schools, there are now seven million male and female students in the government schools. Nine ago, the number of students that went to school was very few. Progress has also been made in the field of health care. We can say that about 70 percent of the Afghan people now enjoy health care services in government hospitals and state nursing clinics. There was nothing worth mentioning about higher education nine years ago. At present, however, there are universities in the major Afghan cities with arts and sciences colleges and engineering and medical schools in order to contribute to the development of the Afghan people. In the past, there was the Kabul University in the capital and in Jalalabad; now, there are universities in most of the major cities and provinces. There are also private universities that students attend.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A lot has been said in the western capitals about corruption in Afghanistan. In your opinion, what is the cause of the spread of corruption in the government departments?
[Khalili] First of all, I have to admit that corruption exists in the government. Nine years ago, there were no government departments throughout Afghanistan. We admit that there is corruption in the prosecution, the courts, and the ministries. It is also present in the international institutions that operate in Afghanistan. But always focusing on government corruption as a pressure card against the government of President Karzai will not solve the problem or eradicate the corruption. The international community also should fight against corruption because corruption has existed for decades in the contracts that are concluded between international organizations and Afghan institutions. We admit that corruption exists and is prevalent, but it needs to be uprooted by the government as well as by the international organizations. We can also say that the courts are looking into cases of corruption and bribery but these courts are also suspected of corruption. The corruption has reached the prosecution departments and we look forward to fighting against corruption and ending it forever.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The office of President Karzai has admitted that Iranian money has been offered to this office to restore security and stability in the country. Have you received money from the Arab Gulf, for instance? Why are you sensitive about Iranian money?
[Khalili] (He smiles and shakes his head left and right) Please address this question on this subject to President Karzai’s office.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you optimistic regarding the political process in Afghanistan?
[Khalili] A Muslim should always be optimistic about the future. The common saying is “hope for the best”. However, it is natural for the political process in Afghanistan to face difficulties and many hardships.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You belong to the Hazara ethnic group but there are no Hazara ministers in the government at present. Does this harm the political process in Afghanistan?
[Khalili] We faced a problem in the former parliament when we tried to promote several names as ministers. However, we look forward to rectifying this situation in the future and we hope that the next parliament will not repeat the same problem. The prime minister opposed this phenomenon. He appointed several Hazara figures that the parliament had declined to ratify in government posts such as acting directors in some ministries like the ministries of justice, transportation, and higher education.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have a special message you wish to convey to the Arab and Muslim worlds?
[Khalili] I always say that the countries of the Muslim world, especially the Arab countries, should have an important role to play in sharing in solving the Afghan crisis. My message to the Arab world is to come and participate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and to invest in Afghanistan. M any mines of minerals have been recently discovered here that bring good tidings to the Afghan people. The arena is wide open and the western firms are increasing; they want to monopolize these mines. We tell the Arab countries and businessmen come to our country. The economic arena is wide open for your contributions and investments in many fields. I can affirm that the Afghan people want to build their homeland and wish to have strong and warm relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. It can also be said that the Muslim world, of which we are a part, is preoccupied with problems and setbacks. We urge them to unite and to rally together against the circumstances surrounding them. If we unite and rally our ranks we can solve many problems that face us on the international arena. As for the Arab countries, I urge them to pay attention to what is happening in Afghanistan. We are satisfied with their assistance to their coreligionists but we still need more in the fields of health care, the economy, education, and other fields. There is a lot of poverty in most of the Afghan provinces. The prime minister’s council has issued a report on the suffering of 13 provinces from problems related to daily life and the rise in the rate of poverty, such as in Oruzgan, Badakhshan, Bamyan, Faryab, Badghis, Zabul, and Samangan. At the same time, we eagerly wish to have stronger relations with our Arab brothers for many reasons. We have the same faith and same values; we are brothers and our aspirations and hopes are identical. There is a special appreciation in Afghanistan for the Arabs in general and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in particular as the heart of Islam. Thus, the love for and the sentiments of the Afghan people toward their brother Muslims and Arabs, especially their brothers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, are feelings that date back to centuries of the same faith and values.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are the representative of the Shias in the state leadership. What have you offered the central regions of the Shias?
[Khalili] Afghanistan is an extremely poor country and has endured through three decades of continuous wars. It is one of the poorest countries of the world and the poorest in the Muslim world. Afghanistan was devastated in the past 30 years. It lacks strong government institutions and needs a huge reconstruction process. These things take time. The areas where there are Shias, such as Mazar-I Sharif and Bamyan, have been suffering from poverty and disenfranchisement for years. According to official statistics, there are about six million Afghans living under the poverty line. We seek to raise the living conditions of everyone. Praise be to God, the Afghan people have succeeded despite the pressures of expelling the Russians and overthrowing the former Soviet Union. The Afghan people have also succeeded in destroying the Taliban. At present, the Shias enjoy political assets that they did not have in the past. I stand before you as a vice president. Many efforts have been exerted to improve the living conditions of the Shias. A road has been built from Kabul to Bamyan and work will soon begin on a second road from Mazar-I Sharif to Bamyan. We have renovated schools, hospitals, and health clinics in villages and towns that suffer from poverty and disenfranchisement. We hope for more and better for the sons of our people and not just for the Shias.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the foreign troops will one day leave Afghanistan?
[Khalili] After security and stability are restored and the fires of war and sedition by the terrorists are extinguished, the foreign forces will have no excuse to remain on our soil.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you satisfied with the situation in the Afghan street?
[Khalili] I am not fully satisfied but efforts are being made thanks to aid from the international community that has not abandoned Afghanistan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are any of your children involved in politics or marching in your footsteps?
[Khalili] I have given them the right to choose; I have given them even the right to choose who they marry. Some of them may think that the first victim of involvement in politics may be the family, but others may wish to be involved, especially in the sacrifices we made during the jihad against the Russians and against the Taliban. My eldest son Mohammad Taqiy is employed in the Afghan embassy in Washington and my daughter Safiyyah lives in Germany.