Karzai: I'm No U.S. Puppet

Afghan President Hamd Karzai leaves a mosque in Kandahar prior to an assasination attempt on his life Thursday Sept. 5, 2002 in Kandahar. Karzai survived the assassination attempt Thursday when an Afghan security guard fired at his car as it was leaving the governor's mansion in Kandahar, witnesses said. He is in Kandahar for his brother's wedding celebrations.(
Afghan President Hamid Karzai met in New York with CBS News Anchor Dan Rather for an interview on dodging assassination attempts, religious wars, and Osama bin Laden.

It was just over a week ago that Karzai narrowly escaped when an Afghan body guard supposedly protecting the Governor of Kandahar suddenly turned into an assassin. Moments after the attack, U.S. special forces protecting the president blew the shooter away.

Hamid Karzai: The assassination on me was certainly the work of the Taliban. We have no doubt about that.

Rather: Is it your opinion, or not, that Osama bin Laden is dead?

Karzai: Initially, I thought he was alive. The more time passes and we do not hear from him, the perception that he could be dead gets stronger.

Rather: But of the elusive leader of the Taliban, there was no uncertainty whatsoever.

Karzai: Mullah Mohamed Omar is alive. He's a harder target because nobody recognizes him. If I came across him tomorrow in Washington City walking down Michigan Avenue, I wouldn't recognize him.

I also asked the president about what we at CBS News are hearing, that there is increased resentment of the American troops as an occupying army. Afghans, after all, have never tolerated foreign troops on their soil.

Karzai: The general population is overwhelmingly for the continuation of the U.S. troops because it has brought liberation to the country. Part of my security is American, they mingle perfectly well with the population.

Rather: Which obviously came in handy with this latest assassination attempt. But is this not a problem for you? Someone who knows Afghanistan, loves Afghanistan said, "Nothing speaks 'puppet' more than being guarded by U.S. bodyguards." Do you agree with that?

Karzai: No, I don't agree with that. Let me tell you when I received the offer from the United States to accept American security personnel, I rejected it and they kept coming for ten days to say "Hamid! We think you should have our people, they're better equipped, they're better trained." I said no, probably the Afghans won't like it. But when people came to know the Americans were offering and we were not accepting it they came to me and said, "You are mad! You should accept it straight away, it's good for us".

Rather: What's your biggest worry in terms of Afghanistan going on and realizing your dreams for it?

Karzai: I have no other worry in Afghanistan itself. I am worried about the neighborhood of Afghanistan.

Rather: To the East, the military dictatorship of Pakistan where the remnants of al Qaeda are believed to be hiding out. Just to the north, disputed Kashmir, possible site of a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan. But one neighbor with whom Karzai feels surprisingly comfortable is its neighbor to the west, the fundamentalist theocracy of Iran.

Karzai: I've had a good experience with Iran.

Rather: For many Americans this is confusing, because President Bush has described Iran as a part of the quote 'Axis of Evil'.

Karzai: Well, we have made of very clear to our neighbors that regardless of what sort of relations they have with the United States of America, that the United States has helped Afghanistan twice -- when the Soviets invaded and now, too, the fight against terrorism has been won with the help of the United States.

Rather: You have no problems with Iran?

Karzai: I have no problems with them, no.

Rather: Mr. President, lets talk about Iraq, as we sit here it seems inevitable that there's gonna be a new war with Iraq. You know the widespread theory that it's going to inflame the world of Islam and that there will be, in the American phrase "hell to pay."

Karzai: When we were beginning the operation against the Taliban, that's what was said by some people -- that the Muslims would be enraged, that Afghans would be enraged. But it was the opposite of that. If the people of Iraq are victims, if they are going through as difficult a life as the Afghans were going through. If there is a desire for them to have a better life, they deserve to have that and there will be support for that.

Rather: There's talk now of a war between civilizations, a religious war if you will, Islam against Christianity and Judaism. Do you see it in those terms?

Karzai: Absolutely not. I definitely don't see it in those terms Mr. Rather. There are issues of religion, issues of culture that of course at times clash with each other, but with regard to terrorist attack in New York, the common Muslim man condemns it like hell. I am a Muslim myself and a believing one and I pray 5 times a day, and I am grateful to the United States and the rest of the world for having helped Afghanistan free itself.

Rather: You've survived a long time against the odds, what are the chances that this will be the last time you and I meet?

Karzai: Well, God is our keeper, and as long as he wishes me alive, I will stay alive and when he decides I will go away and that's it.

By the way, various U.S. officials have expressed concern that Afghanistan's stability might be threatened by its western neighbor: Iran. Karzai told me, quite strongly, he has no such worries.