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The Situation Room

Salvaging Costa Concordia; Interview with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan; Cash From Iran Helping Al-Assad Hold Power; Refloat Of Wrecked Cruise Ship Biggest Ever

Aired May 21, 2012 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: So there he is, the president of the United States, wrapping up the NATO summit here in Chicago, getting ready to head off to Joplin, Missouri to give a speech -- a commencement speech to high school graduates.

Complete coverage, complete analysis of what we just heard coming up right now.


Happening now, my exclusive and wide-ranging interview with the Afghan people, Hamid Karzai, at the close of this NATO summit. I'll press him about the dispute with Pakistan that's threatening the country's security right now and why he's refusing to allow an American congressman into Afghanistan. Stand by for the interview.

Plus, Syria's president could cling to power for months to come because of help from Iran. CNN has learned about the secret way that Bashar al-Assad is coping with the strain of international sanctions.

And the biggest ship salvage operation in history is about to get underway. We're taking a closer look at the challenges involved in raising a 50,000 ton floating city in one piece.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Chicago.


We heard President Obama talking about the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan over the next two-and-a-half years and a new agreement for Afghan troops to start taking the lead in combat operations beginning next year.

NATO leaders signed off on President Obama's timetable to end the war in 2014 during their summit here in Chicago. It wrapped up just minutes ago.

The president briefly appeared with the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan, after much anticipation about whether there would be a three-way meeting of these crucial players.

I asked the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, about that and much more in my exclusive interview with him here in Chicago.


BLITZER: President Karzai, welcome back to the United States.


Happy to be with you.

BLITZER: Let's talk about your meeting you just had moments ago. You met with the president of the United States and the president of Pakistan.


BLITZER: How did that go?

KARZAI: Both meetings went very well.

BLITZER: Did you have a three-way meeting, the three of you?

KARZAI: No, we didn't have a three-way meeting. We had a three-way photograph taking.

BLITZER: Just a photo opportunity?

KARZAI: Just a photo opportunity.

BLITZER: And why not a meeting?

KARZAI: What...

BLITZER: Why not have a three-way meeting and discuss the most important issues affecting Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States?

KARZAI: Well, it wasn't for us to decide on the three-way meeting. The United States was the host and perhaps they saw it fit for some other time.

BLITZER: Has Pakistan agreed to resume shipments, trucks, bringing supplies to NATO, U.S. Troops in Afghanistan?

KARZAI: I believe they are negotiating with the United States on that question.

BLITZER: They've been negotiating a long time.

But as far as you know, as of right now, there's no agreement?

KARZAI: Not to the extent that I know.

BLITZER: Have you...

KARZAI: Not yet.

BLITZER: -- but you would know, because this affects Afghanistan's security.

KARZAI: Exactly. But not yet.

BLITZER: You need -- you need those shipments.

KARZAI: Absolutely.

BLITZER: So why is Pakistan resisting?

KARZAI: Well, there was an incident on the border of Pakistan some months ago that has caused some anger there in the public. And subsequent to that, the NATO supplies were stopped.

I believe they are talking about it with the United States. And hopefully, they will resume.

BLITZER: But as far as you know, right now, there's still no agreement?

KARZAI: As to the extent that I know right now, it's not there.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, the Pakistanis, in addition to demanding a formal apology from the United States, they want to increase the fees for each container, each truck from a couple of hundred or $300 to thousands of dollars.

Is that reasonable?

KARZAI: Well, I can't pass judgment on -- on -- on the fee that Pakistan is asking for the transit of goods, but that is an issue, yes.

BLITZER: Because you met privately with President Zardari yesterday, right?


BLITZER: Did you raise this issue with the Pakistanis?

KARZAI: No, we didn't raise this issue.


KARZAI: We raised the issue in general, not in the specifics of it.

BLITZER: But this affects your security.

KARZAI: Not in the specifics of the amounts per -- per -- per truck.

BLITZER: But you told them you need these trucks to bring supplies in?

KARZAI: That -- that's -- that's (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: He understands your position?

KARZAI: Well, I -- absolutely.

BLITZER: Does he also know how concerned you are about the se -- the protection Pakistan is providing the Haqqani network in Pakistan, which is killing Afghans, Americans, NATO troops?

KARZAI: Well, Prime Minister Gilani will be visiting us in about a week's time in Kabul. And we are supposed to be discussing all the issues that are of importance to both countries.

Among those issues, on the top of those issues, of course, is the issue of terrorism and the damage that it does to both countries and the need for us to work together to find ways out.

BLITZER: But you believe elements of the Pakistani military intelligence and the Pakistani government are protecting terrorists from the Haqqani network?

KARZAI: Well, we are -- we are in -- in a -- in a -- in a dialogue with Pakistan. We hope that this di -- dialogue will move forward to result in -- in -- in the removal of the terrorists from Pakistan and the consequences that these terrorists have for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So we are working toward a constructive relationship with Pakistan in all these areas.

BLITZER: You know, Mr. President, you and I have known each other for many years. We go way back. You're being very diplomatic, aren't you?

KARZAI: Well, we -- Pakistan is a neighbor of ours and we -- we have begun a -- a dialogue with them. And the dialogue is quite ahead now in -- in -- in seeking solutions to the problems that we have. And it's in keeping with this dialogue that we are moving forward and hope that the end result of all this activity, of all this effort, the endeavor on the part of -- on the part of both of us, and the United States, will be the removal of the terrorists from the region.

BLITZER: Because -- I'm going to move on, but I know -- I'll say it. You don't have to say it, because I -- I know you're trying to be diplomatic -- there's no love lost right now between Afghanistan and Pakistan, because of the protection they're provide the -- the Haqqani network?

KARZAI: Well, there is no doubt that Haqqani network is in Miramshah, that the Pakistani government would not deny that there are other sanctuaries, as well, there across the border. The government of Pakistan will not deny it.

But the difference is today that we are talking about these issues more openly and in a friendlier environment than ever before.

And it's in keeping with this new environment that we hope we can find solutions.

BLITZER: One historic footnote. Do you believe they were protecting bin Laden in Abbottabad?

KARZAI: Well, he -- he -- he was killed in Abbottabad. Now, whether he had official protection is something I can't tell.

BLITZER: What do you think?

KARZAI: It's really difficult to say one way or the other. But where he was, how could he have been without some knowledge of him there?

BLITZER: That's what a lot of people suspect.

All right, let's talk about U.S.-Afghan relations. And right now, you've had some successful, I think, meetings with the president of the United States.

KARZAI: Um-hmm.

BLITZER: But a lot of Americans, as you know -- and you look at American public opinion polls -- they're concerned that they want the U.S. Out of Afghanistan. About 70 percent say it's time for the U.S. To come home. The U.S. Is spending, to keep 90,000 troops, $2 billion a week in Afghanistan, $100 billion a year.

Why is this money well spent?

KARZAI: We have already agreed on -- on a process of transition to Afghan authority, whereby Afghanistan will be looking after itself and after its security and of -- and the defense of the country almost entirely by 2014. And that's also the time that the American forces and other forces will withdraw from Afghanistan.

That transition and the eventual withdrawal in 2014 of the U.S. Forces and -- and other NATO forces from Afghanistan, is good for Afghanistan and good for our allied countries.

Today, we discussed that. We have finalized plans.

So 2014 will be a year in which the United States will not be spending as much money in Afghanistan as it is spending today. It will save money and we will be providing security ourselves.

BLITZER: But for another two-and-a-half years, until the end of 2014, there will be thousands of American troops in Afghanistan.

KARZAI: Yes. Yes.

BLITZER: And that will be expensive.

KARZAI: It will be expensive, like it was in the past 10 years. But this is a commitment that the world community has made to the war on terror, to the security of the United States, to the security of the world and also to the security of...

BLITZER: Are you satisfied...

KARZAI: -- Afghanistan.

BLITZER: -- with this withdrawal schedule or is it too fast, from your perspective?

KARZAI: No, we are satisfied (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: Are you ready to take over all of Afghanistan by the end of 2014?

KARZAI: Absolutely. We have already worked out a plan to have, in six months time, 75 percent of the country taken over with regard to security by the Afghan security forces. So...

BLITZER: You know, the new president of France, President Hollande, he wants all French troops out by the end of this year.

KARZAI: And we support that.

BLITZER: You're ready for that?

KARZAI: Absolutely. We're not only ready for it, we support it. It's a good move.

BLITZER: The chairmen of the U.S. House and Senate Intelligence Committees, they recently were in Afghanistan. They came back, Dianne Feinstein and Mike Rogers...


BLITZER: -- they said the Taliban is stronger now than it was a year ago.

KARZAI: Well, I don't like to contradict Senator Feinstein, but if -- if that suggests that the Taliban will come and take over Afghanistan, no. Afghanistan has moved far enough not to be reversible to those days of the Taliban take over.

BLITZER: They had a major show of su -- of strength in April, when they launched that attack in Kabul.

KARZAI: That's a terrorist attack. That's not...

BLITZER: But that's the Taliban.

KARZAI: But that's not a show of strength. That's a terrorist attack.

BLITZER: So is the -- is the Taliban...

KARZAI: They will...

BLITZER: -- stronger now than it was a year ago?

KARZAI: To -- to -- to -- to -- to put it in answers, yes or no, you would not project the real scene in Afghanistan. Let me put it this way, that the Taliban may have the ability to launch attacks to explode IEDs, to send suicide bombers. But for them to come and take over the country and take it backward, no.

Afghanistan has moved forward and Afghanistan will defend itself. And the progress that we have achieved, the Afghan people will not allow it to be put back or reversed.

BLITZER: Are you ready to bring the Taliban into your government, to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban?

KARZAI: Absolutely. We have been working on the peace deal for a long time now and -- and -- with -- with quite a heavy dedication and -- and perseverance. We will continue the peace process with the Taliban and with the government of Pakistan, with our allies, as well. This is -- this is something that the Afghan people want and it is something that we have as an obligation toward the Afghan people to do.

BLITZER: But do you really believe the Taliban will ever accept equality for women, women's rights, education for girls in Afghanistan?

KARZAI: Well...

BLITZER: Do you believe the Taliban would accept that?

KARZAI: Well -- well -- well -- well, you see, we have to -- we have to divide the Taliban into categories. Those Taliban who are poor Afghans who have been forced out of their homes by circumstances or by events beyond their control, they are ready to come back to their own country and participate in the social life of Afghanistan...

BLITZER: And let girls go to school?

KARZAI: Absolutely. And they have not said to us so far -- we have been talking to them -- that they have a condition of girls not going to school or of the constitution not being democratic. No, that has not been said.

But those who are part of al Qaeda, part of terrorist networks, with those elements, or such elements, we are not talking (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: Where does -- where does the leader, the former leader, who's now in exile some place, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is -- are you ready to work with him?

KARZAI: If he wants to have peace in Afghanistan, if he renounces violence and if he accepts the Afghan constitution and embraces the Afghan people as his brothers and sisters and -- and well-being and -- and respect of their lives, we're most welcome to have peace with us.

BLITZER: So even Mullah Mohammed Omar, who was in total alliance with al Qaeda and bin Laden before 9/11, if he were to pop up some place...

KARZAI: Must...

BLITZER: -- and if your troops were to find him, let's say, would -- would they arrest him? Would they kill him or would you negotiate a deal with him?

KARZAI: Well, we are talking of peace. We are not talking of arrests or of killing.

BLITZER: Even Mullah Mohammed Omar?

KARZAI: Yes, we are not talking of that. We are talking of peace for Afghanistan. We are talking for stability and security for Afghanistan. And we would give all those Afghans -- let me repeat -- all those Afghans, whether Taliban or other groups, who are not part of al Qaeda, who are not part of any terrorist network, who are not inimical to their own country and people, they are welcome.

But if they are part of those categories of terrorists that I just mentioned, no.


BLITZER: And I challenged him on why he's banning a United States congressman from entering his country. Part two of my exclusive interview with the president of Afghanistan. That's coming up later this hour.

Also, we're learning just now that the Syrian president, Bashar al- Assad, is feeling the financial burden of sanctions big time. But Iran, yes, Iran, is helping to ease the pain.


BLITZER: More of my interview with Hamid Karzai coming up. Some other news we're watching, including the nation's top nuclear regulator stepping down. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now. Lisa, what's going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman, Gregory Jaczko, is resigning amid allegations that he created a hostile working environment for women. Something he denies. Industry experts say during his eight-year tenure, he pushed for tighter safety standards on the nuclear power industry.

In a statement issued today, Jaczko offers to remain at his post until a replacement is confirmed.

And just over a week after President Obama's ground breaking announcement supporting same-sex marriage, the NAACP is following suit. The organization reiterated its mission to, quote, "ensure the political, social and economic equality of all people." Some in the Black evangelical community have opposed the president's decision.

And the U.S. Supreme Court says it will tackle a major privacy dispute involving the government's foreign surveillance program. The government monitors search in foreign people, but the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the law. The key issue, how do you challenge the law without proof that you're being spied on? The ACLU calls that a Catch-22.

And Facebook is having a rough start on Wall Street just days after one of the most highly anticipated initial public offerings in history. The stock closed slightly over $34 per share today. That's about 10 percent below its IPO price of $38. And other social media stocks have also fallen sharply over that period. I think some people surprised. So, $34 is where it's at right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Maybe that initial IPO number was a little bit too high for investors. We'll see what the market does the rest of this week. Thanks very much, Lisa.

All right. Stand by for more of my exclusive interview with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.


BLITZER: What do you think of President Obama.


BLITZER: How is your relationship with him?

KARZAI: Very good.

BLITZER: What about with Mitt Romney?


BLITZER: All right. The Afghan president and the man who could potentially be the next U.S. president. You'll hear what he has to say when we return.


BLITZER: We're getting new information here in the SITUATION ROOM about how long the government of Syria may be able to hold on to power in the face of a popular uprising, and it all comes down to finances. It could have some serious, troubling implications for the security of Syria's chemical and biological weapons at the same time.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is in neighboring Jordan where she's following the story.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, here in Jordan, there is a reality that Bashar al Assad may remain in power in Syria for months to come. One key reason, Assad's finances. The assessment is that he started the war with about $30 billion in cash reserves. Down now to about $6 billion to $9 billion.

And the war's costing him about a billion dollars a month. All of that would have put him out of business by the end of the year. But now, sources are telling us that he is getting a cash infusion from Iran through Lebanese banks. It's all causing a lot of worry here.

Jordanian and U.S. forces are now training on what they think is the worst case scenario, how to maintain control of Assad's chemical and biological weapons. If it came down to it, the belief is, some troops from some country would have to move within 18 hours to keep control of that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr in Jordan for us, thank you.

Coming up, part two of my exclusive interview with the afghan president, Hamid Karzai. You're going to hear what he says should happen to that American soldier who authorities say massacred Afghan villagers this year. Stand by.


BLITZER: All right. More of my interview with Hamid Karzai coming up, but I want to check this other story we're watching right now. First, the biggest and most expensive ship salvage operation in history is about to get under way off the coast of Italy. New information coming into the SITUATION ROOM.

We're told it will take workers months to pull the Costa Concordia out of the water and off the jagged reef where the cruise ship ran aground in January. We now know, we now know how they plan to do it. Brian Todd is getting the story for us, getting the information. Brian, this is an incredibly huge and complicated project. Update our viewers.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Huge, complicated, and experts say there are dangers involved, Wolf. While the investigation into the captain's conduct is ongoing, the salvaging of the Costa Concordia will likely begin this week. We're told it's going to take between 30 and 200 workers at a time to get the ship off that reef.


TODD: Nearly a thousand feet long, weighing close to 50,000 tons, every day on its side is a looming environmental disaster. Experts now say they'll salvage the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship in one piece off the coast of Italy. One marine expert says it's like raising a floating city. A Salvage leader calls it the largest ship removal by weight in history.

RICH HABIB, PRESIDENT, TITAN SALVAGE: We feel confident that we can do it. And we feel confident that with our partners, we will do it safely and with the least disturbance to the environment and the least disturbance to the economy of Giglio.

TODD: American owned Titan Salvage, its Italian partner and the cruise line provided journalists with footage and animation of their plan. They'll attach heavy cables from poles to keep the Concordia from slipping hundreds of feet into greater depth. Then steel plated slings to support the hull.

(on camera): Then under water platforms 40 meters by 40 meters will be anchored to the seabed by the hull to support the entire vessel. Then tanks filled with water called casons (ph) will be affixed to the side of the ship that's above water to help with leverage. (voice-over): At that point possibly the most crucial part of the operation. It's called harbuckling (ph), massive cranes fixed to the platform will pull the Concordia upright. The casons (ph) will be emptied of their water replaced by air, which will life the ship from the seabed. Then Concordia will be towed to a nearby port and demolished.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) outside of the hull --

TODD: We recently skirted around Port Everglades, Florida, with officials from Resolve Marine Group which bid on the Concordia salvage job. Officials at Resolve say one of the options discussed, cutting the Concordia into pieces where it sits, would have been easier but environmentally harmful. As for the personnel involved --

(on camera): How dangerous is it to dispose of a ship like this, whether you're cutting it up, floating it away?

JOSEPH FARRELL, III, SALVAGE ENGINEER, RESOLVE MARINE GROUP: Anybody doing any work is going to be you know in a weird position, so you're going to have to have safety harnesses and you're going to have training and equipment that can deal with that kind of environment because nothing's straight. I mean your bulkheads are your floor and your floor is your bulkhead or walls.


TODD: Salvage and cruise line officials say this recovery operation could take up to a year and could cost around $300 million. Joseph Farrell says cutting the vessel up to sell the metal and other parts for scrap could recoup some of the money lost. When I asked whether they will sell off parts of the Concordia, an official at the cruise line said no decision on that has been announced -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Brian, they haven't recovered everyone from inside that vessel still, have they?

TODD: No, that's right. They have not, Wolf. Thirty bodies have been recovered, but two are still missing. And the search for those two is going to continue while the salvaging operation goes on. So that could get a little dicey. You've got people inside that vessel looking for bodies while they're trying to right this thing.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. Thanks very much for that report; Brian Todd working the story.

Coming up, more of my exclusive interview with Hamid Karzai; up next, he explains why he's banning a United States congressman from entering Afghanistan. Stand by for that. And the Afghan leader also talks about his history with Mitt Romney.


BLITZER: At the NATO summit hearing in Chicago, U.S. allies insist they are on board for plans to end the war in Afghanistan in 2014. But some political leaders here at home have very serious concerns about what's ahead after that. The 10-year period in that joint strategic partnership agreement. I spoke with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai about some of those concerns in my exclusive interview.


BLITZER: John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you met with him recently. He just came back. He said one of the biggest issues is going to be after 2014. After all U.S. and NATO troops are out. He told the "National Journal", he said the basic issue will be do our troops have the immunities they need to operate. You don't want them subject to Afghan law. Will U.S. troops who are helping you after 2014 be subject to Afghan law?

PRES. HAMID KARZAI, AFGHANISTAN: This is, I know, a very important issue for the United States. But this is also a very important issue for the Afghan people. If a U.S. soldier, like the one who went into a village and killed 17 people, including a pregnant woman with her baby, a killing like that, do you think is immutable? Can you give immunity to someone like that? But if there's an accident along the way and if it's not intentional and by way of a mishap, that's a different issue. So this a difficult issue. I understand the U.S. position on this. But I hope the United States, its Congress, its government, would also understand the Afghan position and the Afghan view on violations of this nature.

BLITZER: Tell you (ph) the U.S. military won't stay in Afghanistan to help you if they're subject to Afghan law.

KARZAI: Well we will talk to them about all these issues. We'll go across the Afghan sensitivities and reasons for that. And I'm sure we'll also hear the U.S. side as to what it is that they're seeking. We will try our best to reach a compromise where Afghanistan's lives and loss are respected. Where also the United States finds it easy to work in Afghanistan.

BLITZER: Because there's a 10-year tragic partnership agreement from 2015 to 2024. And this is going to be a sensitive issue. But I hear you saying there's no agreement yet.

KARZAI: There is no agreement on this yet.

BLITZER: On this sensitive subject.

KARZAI: This is going to be discussed in the security agreement.

BLITZER: Here's what's very alarming. American troops, they go into the Ministry of Interior in Kabul, and Afghan troops assassinate them in the back of their heads wearing Afghan military uniforms. And this is happening. It's happened on several occasions now. And this is something that shocks Americans because they're there to help you.

KARZAI: Yes, these are incidents. You have them within the U.S. troops as well, incidents like that take place --

BLITZER: But they're very alarming and they seem to be -- they seem to be increasing -- KARZAI: Soldier taking against another fellow soldier that is something that can happen anywhere. It happens in Afghanistan. It can happen in the United States or elsewhere.

BLITZER: Should you apologize for this to the American people, the American government?

KARZAI: These are -- these are incidents. And as far as the Afghans are concerned, if something wrong is committed by an Afghan and we believe that that is wrong and has negatively affected our U.S. allies, definitely. But in the same vein (ph) we would also expect that the United States would apologize for mistakes that are made in Afghanistan --

BLITZER: The U.S. has apologized.

KARZAI: -- for civilian casualties, for the killing of the innocent in Afghanistan. So reciprocity is very important. That shows respect both sides.

BLITZER: Corruption. The Department of Defense in Washington recently issued a statement saying that corruption was among the long- term and acute challenges facing Afghanistan right now. We see these reports of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars disappearing. What's going on? How bad is the corruption? You're familiar with this.

KARZAI: Well, well, if it's hundreds of millions of it, it's not ours.

BLITZER: Who's stealing all this --

KARZAI: We don't have hundreds of millions. It's the -- it's the contractual mechanism that the U.S. applies in Afghanistan. And we don't give those contracts. Those contracts are awarded by the United States government.

BLITZER: But you acknowledge there is corruption --

KARZAI: Sure, sure, sure. I'm not saying there isn't. I'm saying who is party to what in this whole affair. The part of corruption that is that of the Afghan government, we fully take responsibility for. And we must work with immense dedication, especially after 2014, to have it eradicated. Because that's going to affect our future livelihood and well-being. But the part of corruption that is not ours, that we have nothing to do with, but that we are affected by is the responsibility of our international friends, including the United States, to address and to work together with us to find ways out of.

BLITZER: I was shocked recently when I heard that you denied permission to an American Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a member of the House -- the House Foreign Affairs Committee, subcommittee chairman. He was with a congressional delegation about to fly from Dubai into Kabul. And you said you're not going to let this Democratically-elected congressman into your country. Why? KARZAI: A Democratically-elected congressman of the United States of America should not be talking of an ethnic divide in Afghanistan. Should not be interfering in Afghanistan's internal affairs. Should not be asking the Afghan people to have a federal structure against what the Afghan constitution has asked for. Should not be speaking disrespectfully about the Afghan people or the -- various ethnic groups in Afghanistan. If an Afghan did that from Afghanistan, how would you react to him in America?

BLITZER: So you're not going to let him back into your country, Dana Rohrabacher?

KARZAI: Definitely not --

BLITZER: Ever, ever?

KARZAI: Until he changes his tongue (ph), until he shows respect to the Afghan people, to our way of life and to our constitution. No foreigner has a place asking another people, another country, to change their constitution. Have we ever asked the United States to change --

BLITZER: Even after all that America has done for Afghanistan?

KARZAI: But that doesn't give you the right to -- to play with our lives.

BLITZER: And you think he's that dangerous to you?

KARZAI: Not dangerous. It's a matter of principle. International relations are based on certain principles. We are not America. We are Afghanistan.

BLITZER: But there is a concept known as freedom of speech.

KARZAI: The freedom of speech is good. We respect that. But the freedom of speech with regard to other countries is another issue. He has freedom of speech within the United States. And we have freedom of speech within Afghanistan. But if an Afghan member of parliament stood up and said the United States should be divided in five different regions, would you accept that?


BLITZER: All right. We're not done with President Karzai. Up next, we'll get his take on President Obama and Mitt Romney.


BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now including a deadly suicide blast in Yemen. Lisa, what's going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, at least 100 people are dead and more than 200 wounded in what appears to be the deadliest attack ever against Yemeni troops. A suicide bomber dressed in military uniform infiltrated the heavily secured area which is only about 200 yards from the presidential palace. A security official at the facility has since been fired. It comes one day after an American service member was wounded in a separate shooting.

And the University of Notre Dame is filing one of 12 lawsuits challenging the federal mandate that religious employers must provide contraception and birth control. Over all, 43 Catholic institutions are suing the White House, arguing that it violates the First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty. A White House spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuits.

And a 24-year-old correctional officer is dead after a violent riot at a Mississippi prison.




SYLVESTER: The riot lasted about 12 hours before authorities were able to regain control. The guard died from head wounds, while another 19 people were treated for other injuries. No inmates escaped. Authorities say that at one point, as many as two dozen people were held hostage -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Lisa. Thank you.

Up next, the last part of my interview with President Karzai. We'll get his take on President Obama and Mitt Romney.


BLITZER: Back to my exclusive interview right now. I asked the Afghan President Hamid Karzai for his take on President Obama and the man running for his job, Mitt Romney.


BLITZER: We're out of time but I have a couple of very quick questions with very quick answers from you. What do you think of President Obama?

KARZAI: Good man.

BLITZER: How is your relationship with --

KARZAI: Very good.

BLITZER: What about with Mitt Romney?

KARZAI: Mr. Romney I know for quite some time now that he was the governor of Massachusetts. He was very kind to receive us in Boston and we together attended a university program, so I know him very, very well and quite a capable person and he was in Kabul two years ago. We met with him there, too. It's for the American people to elect their president.

BLITZER: So you like them both.

KARZAI: I like them both. I have worked well with both.

BLITZER: Do you ever think about a movie starring Ben Kingsley (ph) as Hamid Karzai?

KARZAI: Ben Kingsley (ph) the person that played Gandhi (ph), he is a great actor, and I would be very happy and honored if he took that role.

BLITZER: Mr. President thanks very much for joining us.

KARZAI: Thank you very much.

BLITZER: And good luck to you. Good luck to the people of Afghanistan.

KARZAI: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're counting on you.

KARZAI: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: Thank you.


BLITZER: All right. Up next we're going to go live to Afghanistan. We'll get a little reality check on what President Karzai has just said. Stand by.


BLITZER: -- here at the close of the NATO summit in Chicago with a live news conference by the president of the United States, President Obama and my exclusive interview with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Let's bring in our own Nick Paton Walsh. He is on the ground for us in Kabul. Nick, I've got to tell you, President Karzai was pretty upbeat that things are definitely moving in the right direction. He thinks by next year the Afghan security forces will be ready to take charge. What does it look like on the ground where you are?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well to be honest Hamid Karzai doesn't really much more choice. As you heard from Barack Obama they are very keen of pushing this narrative forward. We heard in very plain language from Barack Obama today saying that ISAP (ph) will have shifted from combat to a support role by the middle of next year. That timetable dictated by domestic politics. (INAUDIBLE) matching the vocabulary you hear from his top American commander here in Afghanistan General John Allen (ph) who emphasizes the potential for further combat operations because obviously John Allen (ph) has to appeal to Afghans and NATO allies that America is not walking out on this war. But in terms of how ready the Afghan security forces are to take up that job, I have seen them regularly (INAUDIBLE) American trainers or partners on the ground. I've seen great Afghan commandoes in training but there's definite bounce (ph) that this military here has been created very quickly and soon to reach its peak size of 352,000 soldiers, but will end suddenly in the next couple of years be shrunk to 230,000 soldiers because simply there isn't enough money to keep a force that size that long.

At the same time it's taking over operations in the entire country as the lead security force, so massive challenges for that force alone, but President Hamid Karzai today very much the salesman of positivity (ph). He's got about 18 months (INAUDIBLE) left and the job that he faces an election where nobody knows who the successor will be, but you saw today I think a man very much keen to suggest stability, control and that he can help push this effort through the next year -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What about the Taliban, Nick? You heard President Karzai think -- say that he is doing serious damage to the Taliban but U.S. intelligence officials think the opposite. The Taliban is stronger now than they were a year ago. What's your sense?

WALSH: I don't think anybody really doubts Taliban I'm afraid. I mean you know we have seen reports of (INAUDIBLE) schools (INAUDIBLE) significant sways in the country where they're considered to be the dominant force where locals regard them in higher esteem sometimes even than the Afghan government so there is no real doubt the Taliban is not a broken force. It may be confused after failed peace talks. It may be not necessarily sure how much to fight this year and how much to wait until NATO is a reduced force next summer, but there is no doubt it is still very much a force in play here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And they still want to negotiate with the Taliban. Clearly he is ready for a deal even with Mullah Mohammed Omar (ph), the former leader of the Taliban, who worked with al Qaeda.

WALSH: And that was the most remarkable part, I think, about interview. This direct almost open appeal on an international quorum talking to you to speak to the man who used to harbor bin Laden. (INAUDIBLE) came with the usual caveat that it may be impossible for Omar to agree to respecting the Afghan constitution and things like that but at the end of the day we're talking about a president here making a warm embrace for negotiations at a crucial time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Significant moment. All right Nick Paton Walsh on the ground in Kabul, thanks very much. And to our viewers, thanks very much for joining us. I am Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. The news continues next on CNN.