KABUL, Afghanistan — When the Taliban retook Kabul last August, the U.S.-backed government collapsed and hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled the country.
Former President Hamid Karzai was not one of them.
Karzai was in office from 2002 to 2014 and remained an important figure in the country even after he left office. A building at Kabul International Airport is still named after him, although the Taliban officially renamed it.
This is one of the many ways Afghanistan looks different under Taliban rule. Western aid has largely ended, and the US has frozen about $7 billion in funds from Afghanistan’s central bank to keep them out of the hands of the Taliban. The economy has collapsed and unemployment and food insecurity are widespread.
The Taliban have also tightened restrictions on women and girls, ordering them to wear head-to-toe clothing on the rare occasions they go out in public, and banning them from attending school after the 6th grade (despite earlier assurances to the contrary).
The team from Morning edition journalists visiting Afghanistan met with Karzai to hear his experiences and thoughts on the direction of the country’s development.
Karzai said he feared for his own safety, but not for the Taliban — although that would be understandable, since an earlier generation of the Taliban captured and executed President Mohammad Najibullah when they took Kabul in 1996.
“The Taliban are Afghans. They belong to this country. We know them, they know us. I felt outside forces and I was more afraid of it,” Karzai said, referring specifically to foreign countries and elements inside Pakistan.
He stayed and met with Taliban leaders, and said they all seemed to want the same thing: a peaceful, developing Afghanistan. A year from now, is he heading in that direction?
“From the point of view [an] put an end to mass fighting and conflicts, we are happy – there is more stability, there is more security,” said Karzai. [in], we still have a way to go. From the point of view of the country’s economy, this is a disaster. In terms of Afghans leaving their country, it is a great disaster and a shame for us. And that’s what the Taliban have to decide.”
Karzai wants the US to correct its mistakes in Afghanistan
According to Karzai, the Taliban admit there are problems. And, he says, the US is also guilty of making “huge mistakes” in Afghanistan.
He remains angry about the civilian casualties during the war, saying the US bombed the wrong people so often that he refuses to believe it was a mistake. Independent analysts say US-trained Afghan forces have been even more brutal. The atrocities they committed over the years further turned the Afghan civilian population against the Karzai-led republic, which was already discredited by corruption.
Karzai also does not contradict the way American troops left Afghanistan, calling the day of their withdrawal “very shameful.” Families were separated amid the chaos, and some Afghans desperate to evacuate clung to a military plane as it took off. At least two people were killed, which Karzai called “a shame for both of us.”
He said the US could do some things to help the Afghan people, including unfreezing the country’s financial reserves.
“I need the United States government to correct its mistakes in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people get back on their feet,” he said.
Karzai says the Taliban want America’s trust, but first they need the trust of the Afghan people
The US has vowed to provide humanitarian aid and advocate for human rights in Afghanistan — even after accusing the Taliban of violating its part of a peace deal by harboring al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed by a US drone strike in Kabul last week.
Karzai said all Taliban leaders he met with expressed a desire to improve relations with the United States, but he said they must do some things to gain trust and make progress in their country.
“We have to make sure that all the Afghan people feel that they belong to this country and that they are represented by the government, and that we take all the necessary steps to prove to the rest of the world that we have good intentions for Afghanistan,” he said.
One example is girls’ education. Karzai worries that the ban will set the country back, warning that “in ten years we will be worse than we are now.”
According to Karzai, there are many reasons why the Taliban should take steps to prove to the world that they are trying to improve the country.
“It will also make it easier for people like me to go out to the international community and say, ‘Well, now we’re on the right path to a better future and we deserve support,'” he said.
But Karzai cannot reach out to the international community even if he wanted to. He said he had asked the Taliban for permission to travel abroad to participate in several events and activities, but was always denied.
As they explained it to Karzai the first time, they are very proud that he is in Afghanistan and fear that everything will fall apart if he does not return. He said everyone knew he would be back.
So is he considered a free man?
“I am a free man in Kabul,” Karzai said.
And while some US officials said all may not be lost because the Taliban seemed less medieval than they did during their last rule, Karzai disagreed.
“We lost everything,” he said.