What Obama could learn from Karzai
By M K Bhadrakumar
In retrospect, United States President Barack Obama did a great favor to Afghan
President Hamid Karzai by excluding him from his charmed circle of movers and
shakers who would wield clout with the new administration in Washington. Obama
was uncharacteristically rude to Karzai by not even conversing with him by
telephone for weeks after he was sworn in, even though Afghanistan was the
number one foreign policy priority of his presidency.
Vice President Joseph Biden traveled to Kabul to let it be known to Karzai that
he was a fallen angel and unless Karzai mended his ways and did that soon
enough, the US would rather be rid of him once and for all. Biden made it
brutally plain that as a
surrogate the US had installed in power, it could as easily banish him from
The shrewd man that he is, with an eye and an ear trained constantly on
Washington, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Jaap de
Hoop Schaffer promptly pitched in and harshly chastised Karzai in an Op-Ed in
the Washington Post, as if the Afghan leader was a mere vassal of the Western
alliance. It was an appalling breach of protocol as Schaffer, a one-time
foreign minister himself, should have known.
But Karzai has had the last laugh as he travels to Washington from Kabul for an
"intense" trilateral summit meeting with Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali
Zardari on Thursday. Schaffer, Biden and Obama - indeed, they all have
something bitter to swallow this week. Karzai will be around for another five
years. The word coming out of Kabul is that Karzai is as of now all but certain
to win the Afghan presidential election on August 20.
The supreme irony is that what is probably helping Karzai more than anything
else to wrap up his re-election is that Western politicians like Schaffer and
Biden rubbished him and distanced themselves ostentatiously from him. Without
the opprobrium of their company, Karzai's political fortunes began looking up.
At once he began gaining a new credibility - even respectability - in Afghan
eyes. It reads like a morality play.
Sherzai hugs Karzai's little son
On Monday, Karzai formally registered his candidacy for the presidential
election. His vice presidential running mates will be two stalwarts of the
erstwhile anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Muhammad Fahim Qasim from Panjshir
and Muhammad Karim Khalili from Hazarajat. It is no doubt a dream ticket. Fahim
brings in Tajik support in good measure, while Khalili is the unquestioned
leader of the Hazara Shi'ites in Bamyan.
Karzai is the proud scion of a powerful Pashtun tribe. It seems likely that the
Karzai-Fahim-Khalili ticket may also be enjoying a back-to-back understanding
with Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum and Hazara commander Mohammad Mohaqiq
from northern Afghanistan.
The ticket has several engrossing features. It is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural
and inter-regional. Second, it has the potential to rally the mujahideen. Both
Fahim and Khalili were notable mujahideen leaders. They have extensive
networking with the mujahideen leaders who still form a significant
Third, their staunch opposition to the Taliban is too well known to be
reiterated. Their presence in the top echelons of the power structure will
underscore the imperative need of an inclusive, broad-based government as part
of any settlement with the Taliban.
Fourth, Fahim and Khalili are truly "sons of the soil". They may lack Karzai's
sartorial skill, English fluency, urbaneness and panache for diplomacy, but
they stuck it out in the tangled mountains of the Hindu Kush through the entire
30-year civil war. Also, they bring in something that Karzai lacks. They are
both able and experienced commanders with large followings and can
significantly contribute to the "Afghanization" of the war. Fahim also headed
the intelligence activities of the Northern shura under Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Besides, Karzai has in Fahim a running mate who is known to the Russians and in
Khalili as a top leader who enjoyed the respect and backing of the Iranians.
But more than anything else, with the choice of Fahim and Khalili, Karzai has
virtually ensured that there cannot be any unified opposition able to put up a
coherent challenge to his candidacy.
How Karzai succeeded in maneuvering into such a strong position offers some
salutary lessons about Afghan politics. In essence, he spent the past few weeks
in backroom negotiations - Afghan style - cutting deals with one-time
adversaries, compromising or bartering influence and power with political
bosses. The high point was reached on Saturday when Gul Agha Sherzai, the
popular governor of Nangarhar, who was widely regarded as Obama's favorite and
who was expected to announce his candidacy this week, dropped by to meet Karzai
in the presidential palace in Kabul.
The two Pashtun leaders were closeted for over four hours, after which Sherzai
emerged with a gem of a statement. He told the media, "I visited the president,
and hugged his little son and decided to withdraw my candidacy. I will neither
lead this [opposition] alliance nor announce my candidacy for the presidential
Sherzai wouldn't say more about this sudden change of heart. Mum's the word.
Needless to say, a deal is not for sharing in Afghanistan. Instead, in a
flamboyant show of utter indifference to all power, Sherzai said he would also
resign as governor. Whereupon, the presidential spokesman in Kabul came up with
a statement, "The president of Afghanistan appreciated Gul Agha Sherzai's
announcement he will not run in the presidential election, and called it a
positive step towards improving the government and unity of the people of
He added, "Hamid Karzai sees Gul Agha Sherzai as a very fine and hardworking
governor and a good advisor, and rejects his resignation." The confusion
ensuing from Sherzai's change of heart has forced a re-think on the other
potential contenders in the election on August 20, who included Zalmay
Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Afghanistan who was popularly seen by
Afghans as the "American candidate", Ashraf Ghani, yet another US-based
contender who was also a former finance minister, Ali Jalali, a former interior
minister, and Dr Abdullah, the dapper former foreign minister who used to be
It doesn't take much ingenuity to comprehend that Karzai has brought into his
candidacy a solid axis of two powerful Pashtun tribes from the Kandahar and
Nangarhar regions, the heartland of Pashtun nationalism.
The Afghan experience with democracy offers a good lesson for Obama: it is best
to keep a discreet distance and leave the Afghans to broker power-sharing on
their own terms according to their own ethos and traditions. Conceivably,
unlike in 2001 when Karzai was first foisted upon Afghanistan as the US's
choice, or in 2004 when the US choreographed and then stage-managed an election
to catapult him into the presidential palace as a "democratically elected"
leader of the Afghan people, this time around, if he indeed manages to win a
mandate in the August 20 election purely through his own efforts, he will enjoy
a degree of legitimacy in Afghan perceptions that Obama could never dream of
winning for him. Arguably, he graduates to the league of Iraq's Prime Minister
However, Obama has a long way to go in imbibing the lessons of democracy in the
Hindu Kush, which has a fierce history of independence, as is evident from his
press conference last Wednesday when he publicly berated the elected government
Obama said, "I am gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan, not
because I think they are immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would
take over in Pakistan. I'm more concerned that the civilian government there
right now is very fragile and don't seem to have the capacity to deliver basic
services: schools, healthcare, rule of law, a judicial system that works for
the majority of the people. As a consequence, it is very difficult for them
[government] to gain the support and the loyalty of the people."
Obama then proceeded to applaud the Pakistani military in comparison with the
civilian government. Highly placed American officials have since begun leaking
to the press reports that the Obama administration is "reaching out more
directly than before to [Pakistani opposition leader] Nawaz Sharif, the chief
rival of Asif Ali Zardari". The reports (which have a "Holbrookean" ring)
further claim that Washington and London have been holding consultations about
Sharif but "no conclusions were reached ... The idea here is to tie Sharif's
popularity to things we [US] think need to be done, like dealing with
But these faceless senior officials in Washington don't seem to care that if
today Sharif's popularity is coasting over 83% among the Pakistani public, it
is precisely because he is seen - rightly or wrongly - as a politician credited
with the spunk to tell the Americans off. The Lahore establishment daily Nation
acidly commented that the leaks by the US officials were "likely to prove a
kiss of death for Mian Nawaz, as an endorsement by Washington would reduce the
public image of any political leader in Pakistan". Ask Karzai if that isn't
True, as Biden took leave of Kabul, Karzai cut a sorry figure in the Afghan
bazaar. Divested of the all-important American support, the impression gained
ground that Karzai's days were numbered, especially as the so-called
international community (read Western capitals) took the cue from Washington
and promptly added their own voice to blame him for all that had gone so
horribly wrong with the Afghan war. If a marker is to be put on the reversal of
Karzai's political fortunes, it could be dated January 20, when Obama ignored
Karzai and invited four other Afghan politicians to attend his inaugural in
Those four Afghans included Sherzai and Abdullah, who figured as presidential
hopefuls until last Saturday when Sherzai - the formerly drug-tainted warlord
who resembles a rotund, feudal king and once enjoyed a close relationship with
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence - traveled to Kabul, hugged Karzai's
two-year-old son and decided it was simply not worthwhile to contest an
election against the little boy's father.
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.