Page 1 of 2 The alienation of Hamid Karzai
By M K Bhadrakumar
It must have been the first time in the history of the United States that an
incumbent president had to undertake a 26-hour plane journey abroad with
repeated mid-air refueling to meet a foreign leader - all for a 30-minute
The staggering message that came out of US President Barack Obama's hurried
mission to the presidential palace in Kabul to meet Afghan President Hamid
Karzai last Sunday afternoon is that his own AfPak diplomats have let him down
The US president is left with not a single functionary in his star-studded
AfPak team on whom he can rely to hold meaningful interaction with the
Afghanistan president. Of course, AfPak
special representative Richard Holbrooke is not about to lose his job so long
as he enjoys the confidence of his mentor in Washington, Secretary of State
The Holbrooke factor
Why have things come to this impasse? The plain truth is that Karzai distrusts
Holbrooke. He shares the widespread opinion in the capitals of the region that
Holbrooke is under a Pakistani spell. On the other hand, Holbrooke's version is
that Karzai is corrupt and presides over a morally decrepit and decadent regime
that hangs around America's neck like an albatross.
But then, no one is asking Holbrooke since when is it that corruption became a
big issue in America's South Asia policies? Billions and billions of dollars
American taxpayers' dollars were funneled into the black hole that was military
dictator General Zia-ul-Haq's Pakistan during the Afghan jihad.
In today's Afghan war, history is repeating itself. There is no accountability
about where the money is going and it is the talk of the bazaars that vested
interests control disbursement of such vast sums of money. The US Congress
should perhaps begin an investigation starting with the so-called "experts" who
advise the Pentagon and Holbrooke's team.
If the local grapevine is to be believed, a gravy train runs through Rawalpindi
and Lahore to Kabul for civilian and military "experts" and "advisors" who are
having a whale of a time.
Obama has lived in Indonesia and can figure out how gravy trains run on and on.
For argument's sake, how much of the money that the international community
poured into Afghanistan has indeed passed through Karzai's hands?
If the report tabled by the United Nations secretary general that was tabled in
the Security Council in New York in March is to be believed, even after eight
years of engagement in Afghanistan, 80% of international community assistance
still bypasses the Afghan government and is not closely aligned with Kabul's
priorities. Therefore, the corruption in Afghanistan needs to be viewed in
Karzai makes a serious point when he says that those who talk about corruption
are obfuscating the real issues that aggravate the crisis of confidence between
him and Washington. Now that Obama has plunged into the cesspool of AfPak
diplomacy, he should perhaps get to the bottom of it and make it a point to try
to understand why Karzai feels so alienated.
Looking back, the turning point was the critical period leading to the Afghan
presidential election. Holbrooke should never have tried to exert blatant
strong-arm tactics aimed at expelling Karzai from the Afghan leadership.
Afghans are a proud people and will never tolerate such nonsense from a
ISI's fear of Karzai
Karzai believes that Holbrooke and his aides were heavily influenced by
Pakistani advice. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan hates Karzai and knows that as long
as a Popolzai chieftain remains in power in Kabul, it cannot have its way in
Karzai represents exactly the sort of Pashtun nationalism that the
Punjabi-dominated military establishment in Pakistan dreads. When the ISI
murdered former Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah in 1996, its calculations
were precisely the same; namely, that there should be no rival fountainhead
outside of its orbit of control with the potential stature to claim leadership
in the Pashtun constituency.
The ISI is well aware that Karzai, in crafting his national reconciliation
policy, is almost entirely emulating Najibullah. Like Najibullah, Karzai is at
ease with the political ethos of observant Muslims, though himself imbued with
staunchly secular beliefs. So, he cannot be pitted as alien to Afghan culture
or to Islam.
Like Najibullah, he is prepared to accommodate the Islamist elements in the
power structure within the framework of a broad-based government. He is also
well-educated and urbane, and yet he keeps closely in touch with the tribal
ethos and culture.
Karzai has direct contacts with the opposition Islamist camp and has no need of
ISI intermediaries to put him in touch with the Taliban. Most importantly, like
Najibullah - who was a blue-blooded Ahmedzai - Karzai too is a Pashtun
aristocrat who has a place and a name in Pashtun tribal society.
In Karzai, the ISI faces a formidable opponent. The Taliban leaders will always
appear to the ordinary Afghan as obscurant and medieval in comparison.
A shrewd tactician and coalition-builder like Karzai can be expected to
frustrate the best-laid plans of the ISI to project power into Afghanistan. The
ISI desperately tried to woo non-Pashtun ethnic groups during recent years, but
Karzai frustrated these attempts and they eventually opted to rally behind him.
In short, no other Pashtun today on the Afghan political landscape has Karzai's
ability to assemble such a diverse coalition comprising powerful non-Pashtun
leaders such as Mohammed Fahim, Rashid Dostum and Karim Khalili (who often
don't enjoy good relations amongst themselves), former Mujahideen commanders
and tribal leaders, and even erstwhile communists and technocrats.
Karzai's game plan
Now, the big question for Obama is whether US interests necessarily coincide
with those of the ISI. If they do not, Obama needs to ask Holbrooke for a
coherent explanation as to why he used all his skill and the power of US muscle
to try to oust Karzai.
Having failed to unseat Karzai, a furious media campaign has been launched to
settle scores by humiliating him on the one hand and to establish that he must
somehow be removed from power. Karzai's family members have been dragged into
the controversy. Does the US think the Pakistani generals it deals with are
Karzai, of course, proved to be no cakewalk for Holbrooke. He brusquely showed
Holbrooke the door after a famous showdown in the presidential palace. Since
then Karzai is a changed man. He is constantly on guard against American
schemes aimed at trapping him.
Therefore, Obama did the right thing by deciding to deal with Karzai, warts and
all, personally. In fact, he should have undertaken this mission to Kabul at
least six months ago.
Karzai is a deeply disillusioned man today. The responsibility for almost all
that has gone wrong in the war is placed on his doorstep. The whole world knows
that the Afghan governmental machinery simply lacks the "capacity" to govern.
There just aren't enough Afghans with the requisite skill to be administrators
at the central or local level. There is no such thing as a state structure on
the ground in Afghanistan. The people are so desperately poor that they go to
any extent to eke out day-to-day living. Indeed, Karzai has to make do with
what he has got, which is pitiably little.
Then, there is the acute security situation, which all but precludes effective
governance. Karzai is invariably held responsible by the Afghan people for the
excessive use of force by the US military and North Atlantic Treaty
Organization allies during their operations that result in large-scale
"collateral killings". Every time wanton killings take place, he cuts a sorry
figure when it transpires that Americans coolly ignore his protestations.
To compound everything, Karzai is aghast that the ISI, which promotes the
insurgency, is today far closer to the AfPak team than he could ever imagine
himself to be. It is literally a situation where it's his word against the
Thus, Karzai has turned to various groups to tap into the vast reservoir of
resentment in the Afghan opinion about Pakistan's half-a-century-long
interference in their country's internal affairs. In order to isolate Karzai, a
campaign has been built up regarding these groups - "warlordism".
Gullible Western opinion gets carried away by the campaign over "warlordism",
which militates against human rights and norms of civilized life. But no one
ponders as to when is it in its entire history Afghanistan could do away with
local strongmen, sodomy, tribalism or gun culture?
Besides, is "warlordism" typical of Afghanistan? Is it alien to Pakistan's
feudal society? Famous books have been written about the "feudal lords" in the
Punjab. According to authoritative estimates, not less than 8,000 Pakistanis
have simply disappeared from the face of the earth after being nabbed by
Pakistani security agencies since September 2001. Richard Falk, a renowned
British journalist who is currently on a visit to Pakistan, has written
harrowing accounts of what he has heard about these "disappeared".
Aren't the Taliban commanders "warlords"? The politics behind the highly
selective invocation of "warlordism" in Afghanistan must be properly
understood. It aims at discrediting Karzai's allies like Fahim, Dostum and
Khalili, who would resist to the last minute another Taliban takeover of their
Taliban are fair game
The ISI's biggest worry is that some day Karzai might get through to Taliban
leader Mullah Omar himself. Karzai has made no bones about it, either. As
things stand, the ISI has to keep one eye over its shoulders all the time to
see that outsiders do not poach in the Taliban camp. Keeping the Quetta Shura
together as a single flock has always been a tough job that it is only going to
The ISI dreads to think that all sorts of poachers are stalking the Taliban
today - Iranians, Indians, Saudis, Russians, British, the Central Asians, and
indeed the Americans themselves. The intelligence services of the world are no
longer prepared to accept that the Taliban should remain the ISI's sole