America, condoms and the Taliban
By M K Bhadrakumar
The Pakistanis use an earthy metaphor when they want to put their American
interlocutors on the defensive. They complain that the United States used
Pakistan like a condom, simply discarded it when it is no longer useful, as has
happened time and again in the Cold War era. By saying so, they urge the
Americans to be constant in friendship.
The Afghans will be feeling the same way about the Americans. One look at CNN
on Tuesday afternoon was sufficient to see the misery on the face of Afghan
President Hamid Karzai as he lined up for a photo-op announcing that he had
been stripped of the votes that would have given him victory in the
presidential election, and a runoff against Abdullah Abdullah will be held on
A cultural mishap has taken place. The Americans didn't seem to care it was
unprecedented for a Popolzai chief to be made to
admit defeat in front of his people.
Karzai insisted until last weekend he would not accept interference by
foreigners in deciding the outcome of the election, which he claimed he won in
August's first round. On Tuesday, he retracted in public view without offering
an explanation. Karzai caved in, realizing he had irretrievably lost that
gravitas without which he cannot hope to be a ruler in Afghanistan.
John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reportedly
sat in the presidential palace and pressured Karzai for a total of 72 hours not
to insist he won the election. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a
40-minute phone conversation with Karzai on Friday; British Prime Minister
Gordon Brown called from London three times; French Foreign Minister Bernard
Kouchner came all the way to Kabul to participate in the arm-twisting (and to
explore a future role for Abdullah, one of France's blue-eyed "Panjshiri
boys"); and dutifully enough, United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon and
North Atlantic Treaty Organization secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen,
made their own contributions from New York and Brussels to the campaign to get
Karzai to sign his political obituary.
In their triumphalism, however, the Western capitals haven't quite grasped that
Afghans will not respect those incapable of giving steadfast friendship,
either. Whether Karzai was efficient or corrupt is no more the issue. The issue
is the Afghan perception that Westerners use their friends like condoms - to be
discarded after use.
This will have implications for the much-touted "Afghanization" strategy.
Surely, any "Afghanization" of the war in the Hindu Kush needed to be built
around the phallic power of an alpha male - figuratively put, of course - and
that has become impossible now. No matter who wins the November 7 runoff, he
will carry the cross of being an American puppet, which undercuts the
Arguably, the only feasible way of "Afghanization" was the route Karzai took -
via coalitions with local commanders, warlords, mujahideen, tribal maliks
(chiefs) and the mullahs. "Afghanization" depended on a key Pashtun figure with
the capacity to network. Between Karzai and Abdullah, the choice is limited as
that figure can only be Karzai.
The theatrics in Kabul over the weekend (which US President Barack Obama has,
astonishingly, commended) underline that the US is actually not looking for a
strong Afghan power structure. All the talk of the Afghan election being
fraudulent and the United Nations-supported electoral watchdog ruled a new
round is baloney. As the Pakistani author Tariq Ali wrote, "The Hindu Kush
mountains must have resounded to the sound of Pashtun laughter."
Make no mistake about it, the runoff, too, will be largely fraudulent. Ban told
the BBC the UN wanted 200 poll fraud officials "fired" (out of a total
contingent of 380) so that the runoff could be made "credible". Pray, who will
replace them and also vet the credentials of the few thousand hands
additionally required to man the polling booths? And all this to be worked out
within the next fortnight, which is all the time left for the UN to hold the
Such being the facts of life, why should there have been the brouhaha about
Karzai having lost a clear-cut win by 0.3% of the total votes cast in the first
round? The fact is that the US feared Karzai might become a thorn in the flesh
if he got elected on his own steam with the help of his coalition partners by
hook or crook. This might appear a contradiction when the war itself is all but
lost. However, there is a logical explanation.
The US can be expected to kickstart in the very near future a determined effort
to co-opt the Taliban. The foreplay has begun. What is on the cards is that the
Taliban elements will be allowed in to fill the void in the local power
The gateway opens when the local elections are held next year. Significantly,
Japan has been approached by the US to establish a military presence in
southern Afghanistan. (Japan had kept a line open to the Taliban regime in
The Obama administration is adopting a revisionist approach towards the
Taliban. To be fair, Obama has no reason to be on a revenge act in the Hindu
Kush, as was the case with his predecessor eight years ago. Bob Woodward
detailed in his book Bush At War that it was precisely this issue as to
whether the Taliban was to be regarded as America's enemy, which dominated the
war cabinet's discussions in the White House and Camp David in the critical
weeks since September 11, 2001, before the US special forces sneaked into
Afghanistan in late October, 2001.
The eight-year old discussion has come full circle. True, the Taliban aren't
necessarily America's enemies. Nor should they be kept out of their country's
national life. Arguably, too, the Taliban were driven to take help from
al-Qaeda after a long, patient wait for US recognition that never came. So, if
the Taliban pose no threat to the US security and if only the Taliban sever
links with the al-Qaeda, Obama would be inclined to take a fresh look at them.
It appears Obama's gatekeeper, Rahm Emanuel, in his CNN interview on Sunday
threw a hint:
You have literally got into a situation, is there another
way you can do this? And the president is asking the questions that have never
been asked ... And before you commit troops, which is not irreversible but puts
you down a certain path, before you make that decision, there's a set of
questions that have to have answers that have never been asked. And it's clear
after eight years of war, that's basically starting from the beginning, and
those questions never got asked ... What is the relationship between the
Taliban? Are there different grades of Taliban? That is what the analysis is
going on in the situation room.
In sum, Obama had two options
by way of "Afghanization" of the war. One was the road taken by Karzai in
league with the "warlords", which made him a key figure. But Washington may
choose an exit strategy built around incremental "Talibanization" of the Afghan
local power structure. Karzai II may have just realized he isn't indispensable
to the Americans after all.
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.