Kabul's rift with the US widens
By M K Bhadrakumar
NEW DELHI - The floodgates have opened in the simmering tussle between the
international community represented in Afghanistan and the Kabul government
headed by President Hamid Karzai. The rift may be reaching a point of no
return. There may be no way out for either side unless better sense prevails
On Tuesday, Karzai utilized the opening of the Afghan parliament's winter
session in Kabul to criticize the United States-led coalition for its conduct
of the war, its manner of bypassing his government as if it was inconsequential
as a source of Afghan authority, its patronage of "warlords", the corruption
and waste in
its aid programs and its condoning of drug trafficking.
Karzai has good reasons to suspect that the Pentagon is urging that the war
cannot be effectively fought as long as he remains at the helm of affairs in
Kabul. The Pakistani military also has viewed with suspicion Karzai's close
ties with New Delhi as well as his blunt criticism of Pakistan for its covert
support and sponsorship of the Taliban.
With Afghan presidential elections due later in the year, Washington might have
concluded that Karzai must be stopped from gaining a fresh mandate for another
five-year term. At the same time, it suits US interests to create a new power
equation in Kabul at the present juncture that would ensure that the new war
strategy taking shape by April would be carried out by a solidly united team
involving the coalition and the Afghan government.
Kabul appeals to UN
Significantly, amid the heightened political tensions, Indian Foreign Minister
Pranab Mukherjee paid a hurried visit to Kabul for a few hours on Wednesday
evening. Karzai, who has kept close ties with India, visited New Delhi less
than 10 days ago.
The factors that prompted the urgent consultations in Kabul between Karzai and
Mukherjee remain a matter of speculation. The Indian side has been reticent
about Mukherjee's visit, although it cannot escape notice that the intense
India-Afghan dialogue at the top political level is taking place against the
backdrop of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. New Delhi, no
doubt, will be firmly against any US thinking regarding a "regime change" in
Kabul. But the question is what New Delhi can substantially do to prevent it if
Washington is bent on one.
Meanwhile, Karzai is making it clear to Washington that he will be no easy
walkover. In an extraordinary statement last Wednesday at a specially convened
United Nations Security Council debate on the "Protection of Civilians in Armed
Conflicts", Afghan ambassador Zahir Tanin expressed "grave concern" over the
killings of civilians by the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan and called
for drawing up a "workable framework" to address the issue in "a spirit of open
dialogue and cooperation".
Zahir put forth three specific measures in terms of which the US should: one,
avoid taking recourse to air strikes as part of its anti-Taliban operations;
two, conduct operations only in consultation with the Afghan government; and,
three, operate with "cultural sensitivity", that is, "in conducting searches
and arrests, avoid heavy handed tactics and operate with respect and minimal
force. And where civilian casualties do occur, there should be apologies and
In real terms, what Kabul has done is raise with the UN its differences with
the coalition forces which ostensibly operate under a UN Security Council
mandate. Washington and Brussels would have preferred that such sensitive
issues were not even brought before the UN Security Council, which may now
demand accountability if it chooses.
Prior to the UN Security Council debate, Karzai had reportedly dispatched to
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels a draft
agreement which stipulates that Kabul should have control over the alliance's
deployments in Afghanistan. Apart from detailing the ground rules of operation
for NATO troops, the draft agreement demands that any additional deployments of
NATO troops and their location should have clearance from Kabul. It
specifically forbids the US-led forces from conducting searches of Afghan
Without doubt, Washington is now left with no option but to factor Karzai's
opposition to the "surge" strategy. Karzai has demanded in particular that it
is on Afghanistan's porous border with Pakistan that any additional troops
should be deployed, whereas the US intention is to spread out the forces in the
provinces within Afghanistan which have come under the shadow of the Taliban.
Ironically, Karzai's case may have received a boost from an unexpected quarter,
thanks to the stance taken by Paris and Berlin. France and Germany have
publicly broken ranks with the US's so-called "surge' strategy in Afghanistan.
They have carefully chosen the week of Barrack Obama's inauguration as US
president to put their cards on the table. It is becoming all but clear that
any call by Obama for an increase in NATO troop levels will largely fall on
deaf years in the major European capitals unless he brings to bear his
considerable personal charisma on the European leadership.
French Defense Minister Herve Morin said in an interview on Wednesday that
France had no intentions of dispatching additional troops to Afghanistan to
supplement its 2,600-strong contingent. "As far as France is concerned, we have
made the necessary efforts and there is no question, for now, of considering
extra reinforcements," he said.
Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Party presented a package of proposals
this week to the Bundestag calling for a new "political strategy" to end the
conflict in Afghanistan. It calls for constituting a "contact group" on
Afghanistan comprising the five permanent members of the UN Security Council
plus the European Union, Iran and Pakistan, which will be mandated by the UN to
work out a settlement.
The German proposal essentially recommends an alternate political route to US
military strategy. According to a Deutsche Welle report, German Chancellor
Angela Merkel indicated on Tuesday that Obama might draw a blank if he pressed
Berlin to send more troops to Afghanistan. Also, the German proposal on the
"contact group" will pose a serious dilemma for the US.
That proposal appears at first glance to be a resuscitation of the move by
former French president Jacques Chirac at the NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, in
November 2006, which took the US by surprise. Former US secretary of state
Condoleezza Rice had a tough time in Riga battling the French idea, which
appeared exceptionally reasonable. True, Washington eventually did succeed in
emasculating Chirac's dangerous initiative that could have loosened the US's
monopoly on conflict resolution in the Hindu Kush and even brought in the
Russians as a major player.
All things taken into account, therefore, Karzai has made some smart
calculations. First, he knows he is on the right side of Afghan public opinion,
which could, in turn, only brighten his prospects at the presidential
elections, which he intends to contest. Second, he is leading a highly emotive
issue over the Afghan nation's perceived honor and traditions which will
resonate in the Pashtun heartlands and help create a nationalistic fervor that
he could tap into.
Third, Karzai will be seizing the political initiative from his Afghan
detractors by co-opting their agenda as his own. Fourth, Karzai rightly senses
that the US's "surge" strategy is bound to intensify the war and will run up
huge losses in human lives. The prudent course for him politically is not to
identify with the strategy.
Finally, Karzai is, in a manner of speaking, calling for Obama's attention.
Like any close observers of the bureaucratic alignments in Washington, Karzai
would be aware that the Pentagon is in many ways attempting to shepherd Obama
into its own pre-determined war agenda in Afghanistan.
Ideally, Karzai would have liked if Obama consulted him, though he doesn't
expect the affability or the elaborate courtesies and personal charm with which
former US president George W Bush invariably received him and ostentatiously
heard him out in the White House at all times.
Being a consummate politician who has kept a close tab on the Washington scene
over the past seven years, Karzai is well aware of the vested interests that
have been spawned in Washington. After all, there is enormous money in the war.
And there is a real danger that Obama may not easily get to know the stench in
the trenches of the "war on terror" in Afghanistan unless someone cries out
loudly and draws his attention to it.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.