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    South Asia
     Sep 12, 2009
Why the US is afraid of 'Afghanization'
By M K Bhadrakumar

The war in Afghanistan has not been lost yet, although a great deal has gone wrong. Fortunately, a turning point has come, as a new political dispensation is struggling to be born in Kabul.

The weakest link in the United States' Afghan strategy has been its handling of the calculus of power in Kabul. Prima facie, this may appear a matter of cultural mishap. During Zalmay Khalilzad's tenure as the American ambassador in Kabul, he conducted himself as viceroy and Washington made it a point to let it be generally understood that President Hamid Karzai played second fiddle.

However, after Khalilzad's departure in 2005, and as Karzai won his first election as president, he began coming into his own. But then, as the Afghan situation deteriorated in 2006, Washington

 
began casting Karzai as the fall guy responsible for the accumulated failures of the war ranging from the shoddy follow-up on Afghan reconstruction, failure to check poppy cultivation and drug trafficking, widespread corruption and flawed "capacity-building" by Afghan institutions. Allegations against Karzai were carried to an extreme.

So, where is the real Karzai? Who indeed is the real Karzai? How "strong" was he so that he could "fail"? What happens to Karzai now in the aftermath of the tumultuous presidential election? Is toppling Karzai necessarily a part of the US agenda?

From the exhaustive media briefing by the US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly on Tuesday, three things emerged as the broad US approach vis-a-vis the messy fallout of the Afghan election. One, Washington estimates that there is scope for avoiding any standoff ensuing from the Western-dominated Election Complaints Commission (ECC) setting aside the decisions by the Afghan-dominated Independent Election Commission (IEC) in Kabul. Kelly said, "everything we're seeing so far is that the process is working ... it needs to be given a chance to work itself out".

Two, "it's not going to be a matter of days or weeks; it could be a matter of months to sort out all of these allegations [about election fraud]."

Three, most important, it's "absolutely" the case that in the meanwhile, the US considers Karzai as "legitimate". "We work with President Karzai every day," Kelly said.

In sum, Washington may be ready to deal with Karzai as president for another 5-year term. But there will be caveats and until Karzai is duly harnessed, the government formation may have to wait. It could indeed be a matter of months. Meanwhile, a caretaker government continues, while General Stanley McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry will be in actual command.

Objectively speaking, any US strategy to salvage the war can only work if its central axis consists in a strong, authoritative government in Kabul. That is, "Afghanization" means putting Karzai and his team in the cockpit. Do not try to dictate who should be his co-pilot or his flight steward, as that will be recipe for confusion. There is no scope for a diarchy as that is alien to Afghan culture. Afghans expect a single, identifiable fountainhead of power. But Washington wants to introduce its nominees into Karzai's cabinet.

At the same time, running the state involves dealing with multiple local power centers. Karzai has displayed an extraordinary capacity for coalition-building, as his tie-ups with Gul Agha Sherzai or Ismail Khan or Rashid Dostum testify.

To put matters in perspective, the former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski recently voiced the fear that unless the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) very quickly transferred responsibility for the war into Afghan hands, the growing risk was that the Taliban will be viewed as a resistance movement and that will indeed be a crushing defeat for the overall US strategy.

To be sure, the most critical aspect of "Afghanization" ought to be that Karzai is allowed a free hand in reaching out to the Taliban. As an Afghan leader, he is best placed to take advantage of the traditional Afghan political realities. He only would know when to micromanage the point of departure for various local accommodations that are called for in response to the compulsions or characteristics of the ethnic and tribal society. He knows it is far from the case that every Taliban formation has entered into a Faustian deal with al-Qaeda.

However, does the US genuinely want Karzai to press ahead with his plan to engage the Taliban within the first 100 days of his new government?

There is sophistry in the current US debates on Afghanistan. Whereas American commentators are fixated on the dialectics involving domestic political compulsions and any need of further American troop deployments in Afghanistan, the narrative needs to be framed in terms of what constitutes the "Afghanistan" of the war.

The bottom line of the Afghan election is that the very sight of Karzai showing signs of "independence" from the US has gone down well in the Afghan bazaar. But this unnerves Washington.

The entire US approach is to make Karzai learn a hard lesson that he is vulnerable, insecure and dependent on them. The central issue, therefore, boils down to whether the US really wants a credible central government in Kabul, which is bound to act independently, lest that undermine Washington's hidden agenda in the war.

Kelly has been distinctly lukewarm about the German-British-French proposal to the United Nations Secretary General for holding an international conference on Afghanistan. A letter from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday said "benchmarks and timelines" should be agreed "to formulate a joint framework for our transition phase in Afghanistan ... to set out expectations of ownership and the clear view to hand over responsibility step-by-step to the Afghans".

Quintessentially, the European leaders called for "Afghanization" within a timeline. Their letter (which was released by Sarkozy's office on Wednesday) suggested that decisions over Afghanistan should not be left solely to the US.

Interestingly, when asked about the letter, Kelly parried that Washington was yet to be seized of its contents. But NATO's new secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen gave away the mood in Washington. He said, "The public discourse has started to go in the wrong direction ... We must stay in Afghanistan as long as necessary, and we will stay as long as necessary. Let no one think that a run for the exits is an option. It is not."

If Rasmussen is to be believed - and he spoke while actually on a visit to Washington on Wednesday - the NATO's continuance in Afghanistan is an objective in itself. Does that objective assume as much importance as "Afghanization" and a final victory over the Taliban? It seems so.

Washington's priority is that the Taliban are destabilizing Central Asia, the North Caucasus as well as China's Xinjiang province and subverting the eastern regions of Iran. A self-serving security paradigm has developed whereby regional instability is threatened by the war, which, in turn, serves to justify the prolonged, indefinite NATO presence in Afghanistan. Clearly, "Afghanization" doesn't fit into this paradigm.

The US's major NATO allies are beginning to catch up with the paradox, finally, that while the growing risk of the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban becoming a war by foreigners against Afghans must be reduced, "Afghanization" doesn't suit the US objectives.

Old Europeans see no reason why their youth should go and die in the Hindu Kush mountains to subserve the geopolitical agenda regarding NATO expansion. Rasmussen's outburst shows the hour of truth has come.

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.


Afghanistan by the numbers (Sep 10, '09)

Afghan war reaches a tipping point
(Sep 9, '09)

Washington's Afghan clock ticking (Sep 3, '09)

 

 
 



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