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    South Asia
     Nov 10, 2009
'Cronies and warlords' wait in the wings
By M K Bhadrakumar

For a fleeting hour or two, a question hung in the rapidly chilling autumn air in the Hindu Kush: did British Prime Minister Gordon Brown speak last weekend at the behest of United States President Barack Obama or did he speak out of turn, as even experienced politicians are wont to? Then it went away. It really does not matter either way.

The damage has been done. Brown's speech on Afghanistan at the Royal College of Defense Studies in London on Friday was appalling in its content, timing and context. Perhaps, the indiscretion was deliberate. Politicians all over need to ventilate frustrations once in a while. Whenever cornered, they instinctively look for a scapegoat.

Things are not going well for the British troops deployed in

  

Afghanistan. Ninety-three men have been killed this year - and, as Brown poignantly said, "That 93 is not just a number. Ninety-three families whose lives will never be the same again; 93 families without a dad, or a husband, a brother or son; 93 families this Christmas with a place at their table no one else will ever be able to fill."

A truly tragic situation, indeed. This tragedy was brought down on the British people by Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, who should not have so enthusiastically volunteered for the war in 2001 when the George W Bush administration was contemplating the invasion of Afghanistan as one of the options to mitigate the anguish and anger the American people felt after the September 11 attacks. Of all countries in Europe, Britain knows Afghanistan best, after all. It is not the Falklands.

The British government is under pressure to explain the meaning of this war to a baffled public opinion. At the same time, paradoxically, the British establishment is keeping its fingers crossed and hoping against hope that Obama doesn't waffle.

Hanging onto the American coat-tails and keeping an open-ended presence in the heart of Asia bordering Iran, Central Asia, Xinjiang and Kashmir is critically important for Britain strategically to sustain its residual standing as a "global power" at the present transformational period in the world order, when the US is increasingly turning its attention to the East.

However, all this play still does not justify Brown's speech. Simply put, Afghans do not like Britain's tutorial - not only on good governance but on any topic under the sun. There is a long history behind contemporary Anglo-Afghan relations, which Afghans haven't forgotten. Two, Brown could have avoided the use of undiplomatic language - "Cronies and warlords should have no place in the future of a democratic Afghanistan." That's old-fashioned imperial language.

Three, Brown went far too "personal" - finger-pointing at President Hamid Karzai repeatedly by name. You don't finger-point at the president of a sovereign country. Four, Brown butted into a "no-go" zone - Karzai's appointments of cabinet ministers and provincial governors in his new government, having been re-elected for a second five-year term.

These appointments are central to the political contract in Kabul and it is extremely doubtful if Karzai is in a position to oblige Britain or any foreign power. At any rate, it is a bad idea for outside powers to arbitrate between Afghan groups and personalities during a cabinet formation.

The efficiency bar is never applied to power brokers in this part of the world. Look at India, Bangladesh or Pakistan, the three biggest "democracies" in South Asia. Few technocrats or professionals hold ministerial posts in the governments in Delhi, Dhaka or Islamabad. There is a cultural context that cannot be overlooked. Ministerial positions are considered as sinecure positions in these countries. Often there is a need to ensure equilibrium between different interest groups by accommodating them in cabinet positions.

In this part of the world, no one asks uncomfortable questions as to whether the politicians holding ministerial posts are indeed worthy of their exalted status - whether they have had formal education or are intellectually endowed and can think through problems and issues or are professionally competent. It is simply assumed that they are where they are because of what they are as politicians.

Besides, according to the Afghan constitution, Karzai has to go to parliament and seek endorsements for his cabinet appointments - a criteria that is lacking in India or Bangladesh or Pakistan. There is a power calculus at work in Kabul, one that cannot be micromanaged by Karzai.

Therefore, what Karzai can be expected to do is to appoint efficient civil servants to assist the political figures - "cronies and warlords" - who sit in his cabinet. On the contrary, what Western countries are trying to do is to impose on Karzai an English-speaking cabinet. Such an approach can only have one outcome, that is, a government that pulls in a dozen or more directions with no one in charge. That will be a sure recipe for greater inefficiency and corruption.

Therefore, Britain seems to be needlessly muddying the waters in the Afghan leader's difficult equations with the West, and this right on the eve of Obama's announcement of his new war strategy. What the calculation behind this could be is hard to tell. If any North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member country is singularly responsible for the deterioration of Karzai's equations with the West, it is Britain. And it all began as a scuffle over the appointment of provincial governors in Helmand and over the creation of the post of a viceroy for Lord Paddy Ashdown to browbeat Karzai, and it progressively widened into a rift that inveigled third parties.

The Afghan Foreign Ministry didn't even take a full day to rebuff the British leader's "instructions on the composition of Afghan governmental organs and the political policy of Afghanistan".

Now, what does London do? Is the British contingent in Helmand going to be withdrawn, which was precisely what Brown threatened he would do? Clearly, Karzai should be allowed to have a team of his choice in Kabul. He is entitled to it, just as is any occupant of No 10 Downing Street in London.

For argument's sake, what are Britain's choices today? If Karzai chooses his ways and policies and doesn't follow London's guidelines, will Britain remove him from power? Even assuming that Britain had such profound influence or clout, who would replace him? The three Afghan leaders in the succession chain would be Karzai's first and second vice presidents and the speaker of parliament. From the current lineup, Britain will have to settle for Mohammed Fahim, Karim Khalili or Younus Qanooni.

Thereby hangs a tale. It is yet to sink in that Karzai's victory signifies a turning point in Afghan politics. He rubbished the shenanigans in the Western political armory. Karzai's appearance on the victory rostrum in front of the Western media, flanked by Fahim and Khalili, said it all. If the West has not grasped the meaning of it, then it has lost its way completely.

Secondly, a splendid occasion is at hand to gracefully "legitimize" Karzai II, as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested last week in an interview with the New York Times. Kouchner pointed out that Western political experts who knew nothing about Afghanistan detected fraud by sampling ballots. "This is science. But politics is not science. It's the common touch," he said.

Kouchner obviously desires a good working relationship with Karzai's government. France has deployed a 3,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan. That is a sensible approach. Of all Western statesmen today who articulate on Afghanistan, Kouchner has a special claim to offer advice. He knows Afghanistan. He was a participant in the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, living and working inside Afghanistan as a young doctor assisting the mujahideen.

Equally, Kouchner underlined that NATO is in a virtual quagmire in Afghanistan. He asked with biting sarcasm, "What is the goal? What is the road? And in the name of what? Where are the Americans? It begins to be a problem. We [NATO] need to talk to one another as allies."

The West should propose to Karzai to seek help from all available quarters, especially from regional powers and other regional security bodies that are wiling to cooperate. At the present stage, as a reconciliation process with the Taliban is about to commence, the attempt should be to lend credence to Karzai's standing as far as possible, but at any rate not to discredit it for whatever reason. Karzai is not the enemy. He still prefers to be on the side of the Western alliance. Allow him to continue to the extent he can while navigating his way in a political arena of immense complexity.

It is not in the interests of Afghanistan's stabilization that a cabal of foreign countries - the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - continues to hold the strings of conflict-resolution. Clearly, this is not the time for Britain's "great game" maneuverings in pursuit of its lost glory as a world power. The best bet for NATO is to get behind Karzai as quickly as possible.

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.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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