'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
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
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
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
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.