Page 1 of 2 A titanic power struggle in Kabul
By M K Bhadrakumar
The flurry of diplomatic activity in Kabul during the past week heralded the
opening shots of a titanic power struggle, the outcome of which will largely
determine the contours of an Afghan settlement.
In what is shaping up as a multi-layered power struggle, the principal
protagonists are the United States and Britain, Pakistan, Iran and Afghan
President Hamid Karzai.
The struggle is set to accelerate during the coming weeks and will lead all the
way to the Afghan loya jirga (the traditional tribal council), which by
present indications is expected to take place in Kabul on April 29.
Undoubtedly, the stakes are high for all protagonists and the battle lines are
The sudden dash by Pakistani army chief Pervez Kiani to Kabul
last Friday to discuss "matters of mutual interest" with Karzai, the two-day
unannounced mission on Monday by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (whose
primary intent was to check out on the intensifying exchanges between Kabul and
Tehran), Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinejad's consultations in Kabul on
Wednesday ostensibly to discuss the bright prospects for Afghan-Iranian
economic cooperation, and Karzai's own two-day trip to Islamabad from Wednesday
- all served to highlight the overlapping templates of the power struggle.
Karzai digs in ...
In a fashion, forming part of the mosaic was London's timely decision last week
to place Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's special representative for
Afghanistan and formerly ambassador in Kabul, in the Afghan capital as its
suave Man Friday in the crucial time until the loya jirga is safely home
and dry. Ideally, this role could and should have been US special
representative for AfPak Richard Holbrooke's by birthright, but then, his type
of muscular diplomacy may prove counterproductive in the sensitive times ahead.
Cowper-Coles, on the other hand, can be equally tough as Holbrooke, while
smiling all the way.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband's major speech at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT) on Wednesday, "The war in Afghanistan: How to end
it", assertively underscored that London intended to be very much in the
driving seat in steering Afghanistan politically to a new era.
Several templates are discernible in the power struggle. First and foremost,
Karzai insists on his legitimate leadership as elected president under the
Afghan constitution to lead national reconciliation which can bring the war to
This translates as his prerogative to convene the loya jirga, and decide
its composition. Karzai also holds a mandate from the January 28 international
conference in London to draw up the "reintegration" plan for the Taliban, which
he is expected to present and seek approval at the loya jirga. Karzai
has said his confidante, Ghulam Farooq Wardak will handle the "reintegration"
Karzai hand-picked Wardak for education minister in his new cabinet in
December. Having previously held the post at the ministry, a large recipient of
Western aid, Wardak was not one of the new faces that the US and Britain had
The choice of Wardak as mentor for the "reintegration" plan is significant. He
comes from an influential Pashtun family in Wardak province adjacent to Kabul
and Parwan, which forms the gateway to Bamiyan. Wardak is a base of Deobandis
and Hezb-i-Islami, and the Taliban have been strongly entrenched in the
Conceivably, Karzai would have considered while deciding on Wardak's
appointment that he was educated in Peshawar and lived and worked there for a
decade. Wardak should be acceptable to Pakistan. This is important as Karzai
needs maximum cooperation from Pakistan in ensuring that the loya jirga endorses
his road map for the reconciliation of the Taliban. There is always an inherent
risk that the assembly turns out to be "uncontrollable" once in session and
throws up nasty surprises.
Therefore, Karzai is making preparations with great circumspection, no matter
how the Americans and British attempt to force the pace. Washington and London
were originally not in favor of Karzai's plan to hold the loya jirga.
Now they are stuck with it - and are determined to influence its proceedings.
Their preference will be that the loya jirga leads to a consensus
favoring formation of an "interim government", which would force Karzai to step
down from the presidency.
... as Miliband baits Pakistan
Karzai, on the other hand, hopes to conduct the parliamentary elections soon
after the loya jirga, which would consolidate his power base for the
following four years. He has already decreed that no more will there be any US
or British proxies in the Afghan election commission.
The fact of the matter is that while both the US and Britain may have
grudgingly accepted Karzai's re-election as president, they estimate that he
has long since ceased to be anything other than an obstacle to the kind of
Afghan settlement that fits their geopolitical agenda towards Central Asia.
Miliband's lecture at the MIT on Wednesday was, in fact, intended to send a
loaded "message" to Karzai. "The international community will judge him
[Karzai] by his actions, not his words ... The Afghans themselves must own,
lead and drive such political engagement [with the Taliban]," Miliband pointed
Miliband's speech stopped short of calling for an interim government. He urged
Karzai to consider bringing Taliban supporters into the political system and
argued that "now is the time for the Afghans to pursue a political settlement
with as much vigor and energy as we are pursuing the military and civilian
The Western countries view Karzai's idea of holding a loya jirga as a
move by the astute leader to extract legitimacy for continuing as president by
heading off the need for an interim government that would require he step down.
They anticipate that if Karzai has his way with the loya jirga, he will
set the political calendar for the coming years, which would in turn devolve on
his presidency till 2013 at a minimum and block any chance of "regime change".
Miliband in his speech literally appealed over the head of Karzai to the
participants of the loya jirga when he underlined the framework of a
"political outreach", which he saw in terms of a sustainable Afghan government
with more inclusive ethnic Pashtun participation, primacy on regional governors
and governing councils, a pronounced shift of the locus of constitutional power
away from the president to the parliament and a political leadership in Kabul
that will forcefully address the "pervasive problem of corruption" in the
Miliband made an undisguised pitch for rallying Islamabad's support by
stressing that Pakistan "holds many of the keys ... [and] clearly has to be a
partner in finding solutions to Afghanistan". Interestingly, he also called on
countries with "vested interests" in Afghanistan - including India, Russia,
Turkey and China - to recognize the basic fact that "the status quo in
Afghanistan hurts all".
With Miliband's speech, the US and Britain have literally prompted the loya
jirga to dictate the peace terms to Karzai.
Iran stands by Karzai ...
As the Afghan leader sizes up the challenge ahead. so too is Tehran, which is
extremely concerned that if the US-British game plan succeeds, it will lead to
an open-ended presence of American troops in the region bordering eastern Iran,
which Washington can always put to use to pressure Iran.
Ahmedinejad's visit to Kabul on Wednesday was primarily intended to make a big
statement of solidarity with Karzai, urging the latter to stand up to the
challenge and conveying Tehran's willingness to stand shoulder-to-shoulder by
his side .
In essence, Tehran abhors the idea of a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan and wants
a settlement that duly reflects Afghanistan's plural society. Tehran shares
Karzai's thinking that while the Taliban can participate in any inclusive
settlement, that has to be on the basis of a willingness to lay down arms and
accept the Afghan constitution, which provides for a democratic plural society
safeguarding the interests of all religious and linguistic groups.
The US and Britain have been trying to tarnish Karzai by caricaturing him as an
appeaser of the Taliban, but Tehran sees through the Western ploy.
Thus, Karzai can hope to tap into Iran's influence with various Afghan groups,
which traditionally focused on the Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazara Shi'ites
but today also extends to segments of the Pashtun population. Significantly,
Ahmedinejad was received on Wednesday at Kabul airport by the Northern Alliance
leader Mohammed Fahim, who has become the first vice president in Karzai's new
government despite strong opposition from the US and Britain.
On the other hand, the US and Britain can count on Afghanistan's former foreign
minister Abdullah Abdullah to raise the banner of revolt against Karzai in the loya
jirga. They can also count on sundry disgruntled old war horses like
Sibgatullah Mojaddidi and Burhanuddin Rabbani to criticize and isolate Karzai.
Some circles have already floated the name of Mustafa Zahir Shah, a grandson of
the late Afghan king, as the head of an interim political dispensation in Kabul
to succeed Karzai.