Delayed defiance

Print edition : May 07, 2010

President Hamid Karzai with visiting U.S. President Barack Obama in the Presidential Palace in Kabul on March 28.-JIM WATSON/AFP

UNTIL early last year, President Hamid Karzai was the man most trusted by the West in Afghanistan. Though sections of the Western media derided him as the glorified mayor of Kabul, he was the man Western leaders preferred to do business with. But the relationship started changing after the election of President Barack Obama to the White House. The new United States Presidents stated goal was to escalate the war in Afghanistan, but he later set a date for the withdrawal of American troops. All this did not go down well with Kabul. However, it was the disputed elections held last year that really soured the relations between Karzai and those who had installed him in power.

Holding free and fair elections as demanded by the West and the international donor community was anyway a tough task in a war-torn country like Afghanistan. With the Taliban and warlords holding sway over most of Afghanistan, elections were bound to be a farce. The West did not complain when the first general elections took place five years ago. At that time, Karzai was their blue-eyed boy.

President Karzai is now reassessing his relations with the West and even with friendly countries such as India owing to the open and harsh criticisms heaped on him by key American and United Nations officials. The Obama administrations decision to open separate negotiations with the good Taliban and the Hezb-i-Islami has also not gone down well with Karzai.

Meanwhile, New Delhi is wary of Karzais new-found bonhomie with Islamabad. During his visit to Pakistan in March, Karzai stressed that the two countries had to play a collaborative role to bring stability to the region. He described Afghanistan and Pakistan as conjoined twins. Karzai also emphasised the need for both countries to coordinate their strategies while trying to get the Taliban to negotiate an end to the fighting.

Karzais independent efforts to talk to sections of the Taliban have been sought to be undercut by the Obama administration, with a little bit of help from the Pakistan Army. The arrest of Mullah Baradar in Pakistan, the number two in the Taliban hierarchy, when he was engaged in sensitive talks with the Afghan government, is an illustration. The U.S. is against Karzais plans to engage the entire Taliban leadership, including Mullah Omar, in peace talks. It is keener at this juncture to buy off individual Taliban commanders.

The decision by both Karzai and the Obama administration to start negotiating with the Taliban, albeit at different levels, has left New Delhi in a cleft stick. After crying hoarse that the entire Afghan Taliban is evil personified and has to be eliminated, the Indian government has now been forced to change tack. It has reluctantly admitted that it, too, is not averse to opening communications with the good Taliban. Having been left adrift by its closest strategic ally, the U.S., and its close friend, Hamid Karzai, the Indian government now finds its Afghan policy in tatters. India had invested heavily in Afghanistan in the hope that the U.S. would stay the course. It had pumped economic aid worth more than $1.2 billion into the country.

But Washington seems to have taken Islamabads security concerns more seriously. In lieu of the Pakistan Armys crackdown on the local Taliban and increased intelligence-sharing, the Obama administration has implicitly acknowledged Islamabads primacy in its so-called strategic backyard.

Relations between Karzai and the West have taken a sharp nosedive in recent months. In a speech delivered to the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan in the last week of March, President Karzai compared Afghanistan to other occupied countries. In countries like Afghanistan, where there are more than 100,000 foreign troops, they [foreigners] also pursue their own interests a very thin curtain distinguishes between cooperation and assistance with the invasion. Karzai even hinted at the possibility of all Afghans uniting to wage a battle of national resistance. He also accused Western governments of abetting electoral malpractices in the August 2009 elections. The U.N.-led Electoral Complaints Commission had disqualified more than a million votes cast in Karzais favour, thus depriving him of an outright win in the first round.

In another speech, delivered to a tribal shura (traditional council meeting) in the city of Kandahar, Karzai told the Afghan people not to view their leaders as puppets. He said that the problems the country faced could only be solved when the people started believing that their government is independent and not a puppet. The Afghan President had said earlier that the U.S. was planning to build permanent military bases in the country to secure the oil and gas pipeline routes from Central Asia. Karzai should know of such activities. Before he was installed as President, he was an employee of the American company Unocal, which was in advanced talks with the Taliban government for the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) pipeline. Karzai now says that the American plans constitute a threat to Afghanistans sovereignty.

In March, despite the evident displeasure of Washington, Karzai rolled out the red carpet for his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Kabul. Ahmadinejad, at a joint press conference with Karzai, criticised the U.S. for playing a double game in Afghanistan. The U.S. says that it is fighting terrorists in Afghanistan after it created them, he said. Karzai, on his part, reiterated that Iran had an important role to play in any Afghan peace agreement.

To underline that he had other cards to play, Karzai made a trip to China and received a warm welcome there. Chinese companies have invested heavily in Afghanistans lucrative mining sector. This was Karzais fourth visit to China as President.

The U.S. militarys Camp Wilderness in Khost province. The U.S. administrations decision to expand the military surge in Kandahar and other Taliban-dominated areas has not gone down well with Karzai government.-MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP

Karzai seems to be still bitter about the role Washington and London played in the presidential elections held in August last year. There is no doubt that his international stature was diminished after the elections. Senior American officials visiting Kabul had started lecturing him publicly about the need for good governance and an end to the rampant corruption. U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden let the international media know that he gave the Afghan President a piece of his mind on these issues during an official dinner meeting in the course of his visit to Kabul late last year.

Washington wants Karzais brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, who is the Governor of Kandahar, stripped of his post since it believes that he has profited from drug trafficking. The New York Times has alleged that Ahmad Karzai was on the Central Intelligence Agencys (CIA) payroll for a long time.

The Afghan President feels that the West is unfairly targeting his family and adopting double standards. Much of the corruption in Afghanistan can be traced to the unscrupulous behaviour of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and aid agencies. The failure of the occupation forces to clamp down on opium production is the root cause of corruption in Afghanistan. Besides, the U.S. has always looked the other away at equally corrupt and authoritarian pro-Western governments.

Kai Ede, who recently retired as the chief U.N. envoy to Kabul, has been critical of the overt American interference in the internal affairs of the country. He was particularly critical of the behaviour of Senator John Kerry and Richard Holbrooke when they visited Afghanistan around the time of the controversial elections last year. Kerry had tried to arm-twist President Karzai into holding a second round despite the Afghan Election Commission declaring him the winner.

Holbrooke, who successfully bullied recalcitrant politicians of the former Yugoslavia to the negotiating table, is trying to do the same with the Karzai government. Kerry has virtually become persona non grata with the Afghan President. The American Ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, was quoted as describing Karzai as an inadequate strategic partner.

President Obama told a television channel that the Karzai government was very detached from the Afghan people. Obama, during his hurried visit to Kabul in late March, is also said to have lectured Karzai on issues ranging from corruption to drug trafficking. The Obama administrations decision to expand the military surge to Kandahar and other parts of Taliban-dominated Afghanistan has not gone down well with the government in Kabul. In his speech to the shura in early April, Karzai promised the tribal elders that he would block the planned U.S./North Atlantic Treaty Organisation military offensive in Kandahar. NATO officials, however, are insisting that the Afghan President is on board as far as the contemplated military offensive in southern Afghanistan is concerned.

The much-hyped Marja offensive launched by the U.S. Army in February has not been able to meet its goals. The New York Times reported that the U.S. forces did not have control over the area outside their own bases. The Afghan government feels that the military surge will only hamper the chances of a speedy reconciliation among Afghans. The military surge, along with the rampant use of aeroplanes, helicopters and drones, has dramatically increased civilian casualties. In the second week of April, the U.S. military belatedly admitted that its special forces were responsible for the killing of civilians in Gardez in the first week of February. A U.S. Special Forces operation in Ozurgan, also in February, killed 27 civilians who were part of a marriage party and were travelling in a vehicle. A Special Forces operation in Azizabad in 2008 killed more than 80 civilians.

The U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, recently confessed to The New York Times that we have shot an astounding number of people in Afghanistan. Karzais latest outburst came immediately after the Obama visit. He said in his speech that the West had wanted to instal a puppet government after last years election.

The Afghan President is all set to convene a loya jirga (grand assembly) in the first week of May to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. The Afghan Constitution states that the loya jirga is the highest manifestation of the will of the people. Karzai has offered an honourable place in society to all those who are prepared to renounce violence. The Taliban is being encouraged to attend the loya jirga.

Karzais plan is to offer jobs to militants along with guarantees that they will not be arrested by the occupation forces. There has not been any formal response from the Taliban to Karzais latest initiative, but leading Afghan clerics have criticised the holding of a loya jirga in a country still under occupation. The Taliban leadership has also said that genuine peace talks can only be held after the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country. Washington has signalled that it is against the idea of holding a loya jirga at this juncture, but the Afghan President, in his current defiant mood, seems determined to go ahead with it.

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