U.S. Special Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke completed a four-day trip to Kabul today, pitching the administration's new Afghanistan policy and hearing subtle suggestions that President Hamid Karzai's support was weakening ahead of next month's election.
Holbrooke brings an aggressive approach to altering U.S. policy in Afghanistan, unafraid to blame the Bush administration for contributing to the country's woes.
ABC News interviewed Holbrooke in Kabul - here is the transcript of the interview.
ABC News: There are people who think this is a stalemate right now. Do you agree?
Holbrooke: It's been a stalemate. Neither side was going to win. And that is not where you want American troops and those of our allies so we're changing it.
Holbrooke: If you're asking what we've inherited… the U.S. strategy was to eradicate the poppy crops and all that did was punish the poppy farmers and didn't cut the Taliban finances…. The U.S. spent hundreds of millions of dollars that weren't worth it…. This is an agriculture country. Afghanistan used to export grapes, raisins, pomegranates, even wheat. All that was destroyed when the Soviets invaded…. We're going to refocus on that. Give jobs to rural young men which will take them away from the Taliban….
We're going to help the government get strengthened. [Only] 10 percent of foreign aid [under the Bush administration] went through the government. The United States was in effect weakening the government it was trying to help….
We've sent 21,000 troops – 4,000 trainers, 17,000 combat – into the south to retake the south from the Taliban. The early indications of those operations are very positive, though it's too early to declare victory.
'Elections Have a Cleansing Effect'
ABC News: Many commanders believe there still aren't enough troops to spread a lasting peace.
Holbrooke: Most military commanders most of the time want more resources. [Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the commander in southern Afghanistan] has enough troops to do what he needs to do right now – in the clear phase. But in order to succeed, he's going to need a lot more Afghan troops, and we all know that. So one of the biggest things we're going to do is build up the Afghan security forces.
ABC News: Have you seen evidence that the Afghan National Army is capable of doing what U.S. soldiers do, without corruption?
Holbrooke: I think the Afghan army is one of the most respected institutions in this country. My concern is much greater with the police.
ABC News: Why?
Holbrooke: Police training has been inadequate. A lot of the police were involved with drugs themselves. Corruption is very high and has to be fixed and will be fixed.
ABC News: The U.S. can't turn the war around solely through kinetic means, can it?
Holbrooke: Military operations are an indispensible part of this process, essential part. But stamping out every last person supporting the Taliban through military means is not a rational or viable option, and everybody knows it. And nobody would ask American soldiers to risk their lives for that objective. Our objective is to help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet. To help it develop its own security forces, and then to phase out our own combat troops.
ABC News: According to an ABC News/BBC poll, fewer than half of Afghans feel their country is headed in the right direction. If President Karzai wins, do you fear those Afghans will continue their pessimism and not believe their lives will improve?
Holbrooke: I don't know what people believe after the elections. But elections have a cleansing effect. They have a reaffirmation of legitimacy if they are free, fair, transparent, and inclusive. So the election… will have a great deal to do with whether people think their country is headed in the right direction.
Afghans 'Want to Work With Us'
ABC News: What do you say to those Afghans who believe their country is headed in the wrong direction?
Holbrooke: Even people who are discouraged with the direction of the country tell the United States and our international allies – 40 nations in all -- not to leave. To stick with us, they want to work with us. So the key thing is to help strengthen the government so the government can take care of its own problems and we can gradually phase out our combat troops.
ABC News: Can you hold fair elections in this country during this war?
Holbrooke: Holding a fair election during any war is an extraordinary challenge, but based on what I've seen in the last few days, this country is doing a hell of a job… But let's not hold this election to standards that not even the United States always lives up to. There's a war going on, there's a dangerous enemy out there, certain areas will have difficulty getting to polling booths.
ABC News: What will be the U.S. standard to determine whether the election is a success?
Holbrooke: An election which is accepted by the people of Afghanistan and the people of the world that is free, fair, and legitimate.
ABC News: The main opposition candidates accuse President Hamid Karzai of using state machinery to ensure his reelection. Have you seen evidence of that?
Holbrooke: I think that some of the things that the opposition is saying have merit, and I would caution your viewers to remember that those charges are made in every election as well. Media bias, use of government resources. That's, in effect, that's part of the democracy that's going on here.
ABC News: Have you seen evidence of the widespread corruption within the Karzai administration decrease?
Holbrooke: I have long maintained that corruption is a malignant tumor that could destroy everything else. And it's so closely linked to the drug trade and to international contracts, that perhaps the international community including the US unintentionally contribute to. After the election, this will be one of the most important issues the United States will turn its attention to.
'If Taliban Renounce al Qaeda...They're Welcome'
ABC News: You've said you will also turn your attention after the election to negotiating with certain elements of the Taliban. Why?
Holbrooke: The United States supports the reintegration of people who have fought with the Taliban into Afghan society provided they one, renounce al Qaeda, two, lay down their arms and renounce violence, and three, participate in the public political life of the country in accordance with the constitution. The vast majority of the people fighting with the Taliban are misguided rural youths without jobs. That's why we're increasing our agricultural effort.
ABC News: In the UK we've seen a lot of public concern, even outrage, over a spike in deaths. How long do you think the U.S. population will remain patient before questioning the war?
Holbrooke: I think Americans understand that in Afghanistan, unlike in Iraq and Vietnam, we are fighting an enemy allied with the people who attacked us on 9/11.
ABC News: But most of the Taliban are local villagers, fighting for a paycheck. Are we really fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan?
Holbrooke: We're fighting the Taliban because they are part of an integrated relationship with al Qaeda, the people who attacked us on 9/11 and who have said they want to do it again. If Taliban renounce al Qaeda and wish to participate in the political life of the country, either as individuals or as groups… they're welcome.