HAMID KARZAI: 'THERE HAS TO BE PROGRESS'

Eight million Afghan men and women braved Taliban threats and bad weather to cast their ballots during Afghanistan's first free presidential election this fall. A solid 55.4 percent voted for Hamid Karzai. Last week Karzai was inaugurated in the company of top U.S. officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Will Karzai now be able to impose his will on a country that continues to be plagued by warlords and militants, where the biggest money earner is opium? In an exclusive interview at the presidential palace in Kabul, the 46-year-old Karzai spoke with NEWSWEEK's Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai about his plans for the next five years. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Will your priority be to dramatically improve security? Ron Moreau and Sami YousafzaiKARZAI: Today I met an elderly village man who had tears in his eyes. He pleaded: "Mr. President, I want a clean government." That was exactly what the Afghan people voted for. That's what I'm going to deliver. This means security; this means reconstruction, and an honest, accountable, austere government.

Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai But how can you suddenly bring about good government, especially in the countryside where the Taliban and warlords are present?

There's no Taliban in the countryside. Forget about that. The countryside is even more ready for good government than the urban centers. For that we need a capable administration that will be able to deliver services, including justice, to the people.

Will your new administration feature a dramatically new look to accomplish these tasks?

Mostly a new look. It will reflect Afghanistan and the desires of Afghans to combat corruption, warlords and terrorism. There will be [an ethnic] balance of very capable people.

Can the Taliban be defeated militarily?

The Taliban are not there. Otherwise how could we have had elections? The elections succeeded thanks to the force of the people. The Taliban can only succeed if they are accepted by or have a presence among the people. The Afghan people proved that this country is inherently democratic.

Will this election lead to defections from Mullah Mohammed Omar's forces?

The Taliban have been talking to us for a long time. Those who are not part of Al Qaeda, who are not linked to terrorism, who have not committed crimes against our people, and those who have a desire to come back and be a part of this country again, are welcome. Thousands of them are just ordinary people, like the rest of combatant forces in Afghanistan. But there are about 50 to 100 people, not more than that, who have visible records of criminal activity, who are visibly part of Al Qaeda, who are visibly part of terrorism. We cannot accept them. We will fight them.

Is there an official amnesty policy to welcome back these so-called good Taliban?

The Taliban are welcome to join us. It's their country, too.

Would hard-line elements in your new government be open to dealing with the Taliban?

Yes, of course. Everyone in the government is open to it. We have discussed it already. Everyone wants them to come back.

Why don't you organize your own political party?

Many people have asked me to, but I'm not that kind of person. I can work for a cause [but] I can't work for a purpose that serves me [personally]. Now, this country needs national political parties. I would back that. But I don't have the skills to organize a political party. I'll simply continue working for a broad national movement.

Is the international community sufficiently engaged in Afghanistan?

Even during the operations in Iraq, the U.S. in particular stayed very much committed and increased its help to Afghanistan. We would not have achieved what we have without its generous support. If you recognize that this country has the human potential to absorb more help and to do better if given more, we would be very grateful. The Afghan people came forward to voice their support for change in this country [and] for a better future and that voice has to be respected.

Will your new administration be capable of reining in and disarming the warlords, whom many Afghans think are a greater threat to security than the Taliban?

We will get it done. There has to be significant progress. Afghanistan has no option but to fight private military forces. Afghanistan has no option but to fight corruption. Afghanistan has no option but to fight drugs. Without a major fight on these three fronts Afghanistan will not see permanent stability. Then the moment the international community leaves us we will fall back into disaster. We are not going to allow that.