Hamid Karzai Lives In A 'World Of Paranoia And Conspiracy'

Steve Inskeep talks to William Dalrymple about his upcoming piece in The New York Times Magazine entitled: "How is Hamid Karzai Still Standing?" Dalrymple recently wrote the book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42.

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SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Let's try to better understand the thinking of President Karzai. One clue to his thoughts right now may be a book, a 19th century history of Afghanistan written by William Dalrymple. Dalrymple told us about it on this program, the tale of a disastrous British effort to install a king of Afghanistan in the 1800s. Apparently Hamid Karzai read that book and then invited the author to come meet him in Kabul. William Dalrymple ended up interviewing Karzai for eight hours over the course of several days for The New York Times Magazine.

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE: This is in the presidential palace, in the very center of Kabul. The president in Afghanistan lives in the incredible presidential palace, which the old kings of Afghanistan used to occupy. And it's modeled on the great Topkapi Palace of the Ottomans. And around the central citadel called the Og(ph), a whole quarter of Kabul has been shut off to outside traffic, and in order to get in to see the president, you have to pass through seven rings of security, which is like going through seven rings of airport security, seven times in a row. It's an incredible ordeal.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, the massive security is a reminder of the massive pressure this man is under, but in the description you've written, he didn't seem to act like a man under that much pressure.

DALRYMPLE: I saw him at a particular difficult time. (Unintelligible) there were seven rings of security. The first four were penetrated by a Taliban assassination unit that had somehow managed to procure a government vehicle, government IDs and government camouflaged outfits. Plus, there had been this fiasco of the Taliban negotiations in Qatar whereby Karzai and America thought they were going to meet the Taliban in very sort of modest circumstances in neutral territory in Qatar.

But instead the Taliban used this as a major publicity coup by opening what was, in effect, an embassy with a flag and a brass nameplate, and it was a huge humiliation for Karzai and played on his paranoia that America was reaching some sort of covert deal with the Taliban. He is terrified that a deal is being done behind his back to break up and effectively partition his country.

INSKEEP: This is a man who has repeatedly denounced the United States, even though the United States has supported him in power. It's presumed often that this is politics. This is cynical. He's trying to just prove his independence from the United States. But you actually asked him in this interview, do you really believe all that stuff you're saying? And he insists that, yes, he does. He has a reason to be paranoid.

DALRYMPLE: This is an interview on the record with a tape-recorder playing which he knows is going to be in the New York Times, so the remarks he made have to be seen in that context. On the other hand, you know, there's no question that far too many civilian deaths have taken place. There have been drone attacks and bombing raids and all manner of things which have left large numbers of innocent Afghan civilians dead.

So somewhere between the need to position himself apart from his American backers and his own genuine feelings of outrage at innocent deaths, there lies the explanation for these very extreme statements against American military (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Now, we're talking at a moment when the U.S. and Afghanistan are trying to finalize an agreement on how the United States military would be involved in Afghanistan in future years after 2014. Have you been surprised at all at how hard Karzai has negotiated, how much he's pushed the Americans here?

DALRYMPLE: Well, I had a long conversation with several people in the American negotiating team in the course of the last few weeks. And they're quite admiring of Karzai's negotiating tactics. By holding out and by threatening not to sign this deal until the very 12th hour, he has gotten the concessions he needed politically at home.

INSKEEP: We mentioned at the beginning that you came to talk with him because he'd read a book of history of yours. What is one lesson do you think he has drawn from Afghanistan's history?

DALRYMPLE: Very clearly to distance himself from the occupiers, to be his own man, to be a sovereign ruler of a sovereign country. He believes that his forbearer Shah Shuja failed to draw sufficient, clear, blue water between himself and those who put him in power and did not do enough to establish his own sovereignty in his own country.

INSKEEP: William Dalrymple interviewed Afghan President Hamid Karzai for many hours and is the author of a forthcoming New York Times Magazine story headlined "How Is Hamid Karzai Still Standing?" Thanks very much.

DALRYMPLE: Thanks, Steve.

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