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    South Asia
     Jan 29, 2008
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US, Britain stung by an Afghan temper
By M K Bhadrakumar

Admiral William Fallon, head of the US Central Command, traveled to Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, last Thursday. It was the first visit by a high-level US military officer since Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov evicted American troops from the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in Uzbekistan (used for ferrying supplies for Afghan operations) in retaliation for the covert American encouragement of the abortive Andizhan uprising in the Ferghana Valley in May 2005.

Central Asian leaders can be excessively polite. Karimov told Fallon, "We see your visit ... as a meaningful event in relations between the US and Uzbekistan." Karimov went on to say the

visit was a chance to discuss "issues of common interest, first of all in the military and arms sphere". To be sure, Karimov knew his strategic defiance of the George W Bush administration has paid off splendidly well.

He will be justified in estimating that Washington is desperately keen to regain influence in Tashkent so it can effectively counter Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia. He sizes up that the medium-term US objective will also be to consolidate a permanent North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) presence in Central Asia. In short, the Bush administration has learnt the hard way that Uzbekistan is a key country in Central Asia.

But in immediate terms, US Central Command is badly in need of Tashkent's cooperation for operating a second air corridor to Afghanistan so that the heavy dependence on Islamabad gets somewhat reduced.

Kabul rejects Washington's choice
What lends urgency to Fallon's mission to Tashkent is the criticality of the Afghan situation. Much thinking has gone into Fallon's mission and it was preceded by months of mediation by the European Union between Washington and Tashkent. Karimov took time to relent. Yet, ironically, the fragility of the overall situation in Afghanistan is such that the thaw in US-Uzbek relations was overtaken within 24 hours of Fallon's mission by dramatic developments in Kabul.

In a series of statements over the weekend, President Hamid Karzai's government rubbished a major decision taken by Washington and London on the appointment of Lord Paddy Ashdown as the United Nations' super envoy in Kabul.

Kabul knew for months about the impending appointment of Ashdown as a key step in a new NATO strategy spearheaded by the US and Britain, aimed at stabilizing the Afghan situation. Karzai knew detailed planning had gone into the move involving NATO, the EU and the United Nations Security Council. But Karzai waited patiently until the eleventh hour before shooting it down publicly on Saturday in a interview with the BBC while attending the World Economic Forum meet in the Swiss resort town of Davos. The move was pre-planned and carried out in a typical Afghan way with maximum effect.

Karzai insists there has been a serious misunderstanding of motives because Kabul had never taken a "decision" on Ashdown's appointment. He is perfectly right in saying so. But in actuality, Karzai has put on display his proud Afghan temper. He has taken umbrage that Washington and London took the decision on Ashdown's appointment in consultation with Brussels and thereupon got UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to execute it, all the time taking Kabul's agreement for granted.

Karzai had fired a warning shot recently by expelling two diplomats from the UN and European Union. But Washington failed to take notice. US commanders have routinely ignored Karzai in the conduct of the heavy-handed war. On a number of occasions, he cut a lonely figure, left to pick up the debris after coalition forces behaved like a marauding army in Afghan villages where three quarters of the people live. Each instance humiliated him and eroded his credibility, especially among Pashtuns. Now, by saying no to Ashdown's appointment, Karzai settles scores. Washington and London should have known Karzai's Afghan snub was long overdue.

At the same time, it is much more than a snub. An Afghan snub is never one-dimensional. Karzai knows his rejection of Ashdown's appointment is bound to go down well with the Afghan elite.

Second, Karzai anticipated that Ashdown, true to his reputation in the Balkans, would function like a colonial viceroy. Karzai knows that the Western agencies and organizations operating in Afghanistan lack coordination. But a "unified command" under Ashdown would create a counterpoint in Kabul to Karzai's own authority. Karzai didn't want that to happen.

The bottom line concerns Karzai's political future. He sizes up that Ashdown is part of a political package leading toward a post-Karzai era. There has been persistent chatter in recent weeks that Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador to the UN - an ethnic Afghan - is in the mix for a run as president of Afghanistan. According to Washington Post columnist Al Kamen, Karzai took the rumor seriously and point-blank asked Khalilzad about it when the two met in London in October, but Khalilzad "didn't give a Shermanesque response".

At any rate, no matter Karzai's own motive, his act of defiance will have serious consequences at different levels. The UN has certainly taken a beating. Ban made a last-minute personal intervention with Karzai. Evidently, Ban had no clue about Afghan character. The UN's capacity to spearhead the political process in Afghanistan now stands seriously impaired. This deprives Washington of a neutral international bridge - but under its control - leading toward the Taliban camp, which is a pre-requisite for commencement of any meaningful intra-Afghan dialogue.

Meanwhile, the war hangs perilously on the edge of an abyss. Almost everyone is talking to the Taliban one way or another. Confusion is near-total. All this is happening at an awkward time when NATO lacks a counterinsurgency strategy. In particular, Britain, which lately assumed a lead role within NATO, has been embarrassed.

Karzai singled out British operations in Afghanistan for criticism in an interview with the Times newspaper of London on the eve of his meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Davos on Friday. Karzai alleged that Afghan people "suffered" from the coming of the British. He had little praise for the 7,800 British troops deployed in Afghanistan. He said, "Both the American and British forces guaranteed to me they knew what they were doing and I made the mistake of listening to them. And, when they came in, the Taliban came."

There was an angry rejoinder from No 10 Downing Street. The very next day, Karzai went public with his rejection of Ashdown's appointment. This spectacular Afghan-British falling-out goes beyond a mere blame-game. At the root lies Karzai's insistence that it will be his sole prerogative to decide on the appointment of key provincial officials and that he will not brook top-level requests from NATO commanders and diplomats. (But Karzai also knows in the Afghan bazaar, any snub to Britain will enhance his stature, given the complicated history of Afghan-British relations.)

As The Times commented, "British forces believe that, in many respects, their Afghan allies pose more of a challenge to their mission than the Taliban ... It is the Afghan government that is now proving more of an obstacle to stability in an area where a mixture of official corruption, ineptitude and paranoia are stymying British efforts." There is bound to be questioning in Britain about the government's policy. After all, a total of 87 British troops have died in Afghanistan since 2001 and Britain has spent US$3.2 billion on its military campaign there.

The setback to Britain's leadership role will impair Washington's effort to drum up greater NATO involvement in southern Afghanistan. Hardly 10 weeks lie between now and the NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania. Again, Washington's monopoly over the political process in Afghanistan itself has got frayed at the edges. How long more will the monopoly be sustainable when the war has been almost lost already? Reports indicate Russia has been pressing for Turkey's Hikmet Cetin in place of Ashdown.

On a broader geopolitical plane, it remains to be seen how long Washington can keep Karzai away from the reach of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Russia and China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization. From the Ashdown saga, Karzai must have realized his capacity to shake up US strategy in the region. In an interview with CNN in Davos on Thursday, Karzai said, "We have opened our doors to them [Iran]. They have been helping us in Afghanistan." Karzai then insisted that the Bush administration has "wisely understood that Iran is Afghanistan's neighbor". Karzai was speaking hardly two days after the latest attempt by Washington to isolate Iran over its nuclear program at the meeting of the "Five plus One" (US, UK, France, Russia and China plus Germany) in Berlin on Tuesday.

Musharraf wards off US pressure
But it is in Islamabad that the reverberations of Karzai's mini-revolt will be most keenly felt. The impasse in the "war on terror" weakens Washington's capacity to further undermine President Pervez Musharraf or to pressure the Pakistani military. Conversely, Musharraf will know that his own defiance of Washington's recent attempts to dictate the nature of the political set-up in Islamabad now enters a conclusive phase. He will know that with such a first-rate mess-up in the war in Afghanistan, Washington is hardly in a position to be intrusive, let alone dictate terms of engagement to him. In a curious way, Karzai has considerably smoothened for him the passage from now until the elections in Pakistan on February 8.

In all probability, Pakistan, which has excellent intelligence outfits in Kabul, knew in advance that Karzai was about to give shock-and-awe treatment to Washington. Clearly, Musharraf has begun finger-pointing at anyone who will even remotely suggest the need of deploying US troops on Pakistani soil.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates virtually challenged Islamabad in his sensational press conference in Washington last Thursday where he made the unsolicited offer - despite Islamabad's repeated rejection of the idea - that "we [US] remain ready, willing and able to assist the Pakistanis and to partner with

Continued 1 2 

Black turbans rebound (Jan 26, '08)

Taliban wield the ax ahead of new battle
(Jan 24, '08)

NATO hears 'noise before defeat' (Jan 19, '08)

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2. Xposed! Norman Podhoretz's boobs

3. Iran sanctions hit the wrong target

4. A salvo at the White House

5. Envoy's belly dancer bares all

6. Troops felled by a 'trust gap'

7. Lies, lies and more lies

8. Crying (Iranian) wolf in Argentina

9. Taliban wield the ax ahead of new battle

10. China: Partner or predator
in Africa?

11. A $4.4bn drop in the bucket

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Jan 24, 2008)


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