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    South Asia
     Jun 21, 2011

Why Karzai lashed out at the US
By M K Bhadrakumar

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai sprang a surprise on Saturday by affirming for the first time publicly that the "United States is involved in peace talks with the Taliban". The statement comes against the backdrop of growing tensions over Washington's efforts to get him to agree to a strategic partnership agreement allowing permanent American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military bases.

United States and Afghan drafts of the agreement are sharply diverging. Karzai on Saturday spelt out tough preconditions for concluding a strategic partnership agreement: "Foreign forces must become lawful, unilateral operations must end, detentions of Afghans, foreign forces must be conducted under Afghan laws,

foreign assistance must be channeled through [the] Afghan government."

Furthermore, as part of any deal, he said: "Afghanistan wants a fully-equipped army to include F-16 planes in return for strategic ties with the US."

Karzai was speaking just ahead of US President Barack Obama's announcement on the drawdown of American troops in July, with reports suggesting that the Pentagon seeks a mere notional withdrawal at this stage so that the "surge" can effectively continue through 2012.

Karzai's interests are at odds with the Pentagon's priorities. He has refrained from explicitly condemning the "surge" but instead harps on the excesses by the troops under the command of General David Petraeus, the US's top man in Afghanistan. He sees the "surge" as leading to nowhere but more bloodshed and destruction, and Afghan alienation.

Karzai exposed the US's maneuver to hold direct talks with the Taliban while finding an alibi to continue the "surge". The United Nations Security Council on Friday decided to split the sanctions regime of the Taliban from al-Qaeda and made a provision to remove sanctions on some Taliban leaders. The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice said, "The US believes that the new sanctions regime for Afghanistan will serve as an important tool to promote reconciliation ... [It] sent a clear message to the Taliban that there is a future ..."

But Karzai made it clear that it is America's show and he has no role in the US-Taliban talks. "The foreign forces [NATO], especially America, are carrying out the talks by themselves. From the government side, we don't have any negotiations with them." Evidently, he feels irritated that the US has undercut him.

Blackmail boomeranged
Karzai is today in the unhappy position of learning from the Americans how things are going on the peace front. On the other hand, non-Pashtun elements belonging to the erstwhile Northern Alliance are training their guns on him, accusing him of a "sell out" to the Taliban. Karzai knows well enough that some of these self-styled opposition figures, such as former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh or former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, enjoy US patronage. Karzai feels frustrated about overall US intentions.

The Americans lately began spreading the news that Karzai intends to retire from politics when his term ends in 2014. Indeed, direct US-Taliban deals will eventually make Karzai expendable in Afghan politics by 2014. But he is determined not to be a pushover and may not hesitate to work on shared interests with even Pakistan, which is also out of the loop on the Anglo-American enterprise to engage the Taliban. Karzai pointedly said that the role of Pakistan in the reconciliation process was "very important".

Karzai is digging in with the preconditions for concluding the strategic partnership agreement with the US. The nearest he came so far was at a press conference held in the presidential palace in Kabul on April 11:
We have put across to them our several preconditions and we have tied up their hands and feet ... Conditions regarding US assistance, flawed military operations and others which [presently] have been preventing the Afghan government from strengthening as well as legalizing the presence of the foreign forces are mentioned in the draft sent to the US officials. If America wants relations with us, it should accept our conditions, which are logical.
Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration is furious. The strategic partnership agreement is today the most important aspect of the US's relationship with Karzai. It will determine the US's political, military and economic ties with Afghanistan for decades to come and it is integral to the US's regional strategies in Central Asia against Russia and China.

The Obama administration's expectation was that the agreement could be signed by July and that Karzai's preconditions amounted to mere grandstanding to extract financial concessions. (Karzai insists that the US's future assistance should be routed through his government. The volume of money could run into billions of dollars). The Obama administration is testing Karzai's resilience.

Investigations into fraudulent practices by Kabul Bank have provided a timely handle for Washington to corner Karzai, since influential Afghan politicians aligned with him have been implicated in the scandal. Karzai maintains that the crisis arose in the first instance because of bad advice from the West about international banking practices. Anyway, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped into the case and brusquely rejected the Karzai government's plan to salvage the bank.

This means a freeze on the disbursal of funds from the World-Bank administered Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), as an IMF support package is a seal of approval that most donors expect before pledging aid. Karzai's government is heading for a cash crunch and may find it difficult to disburse salaries of government employees.

The ARTF was expected to funnel US$200 million this year for payment of salaries. Britain stopped aid disbursal in March. Amid all this, Obama initiated a video conference with Karzai last week during which he apparently expressed concern over the banking crisis and explicitly linked it to the long-term relationship between the US and Afghanistan. But Karzai is resisting US pressure. He deputed Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal on a 12-day visit to Moscow to find some debt relief from Russia.

Regional networking
Clearly, the fault lines are widening even as negotiations over the status of forces agreement resumed in Kabul on Saturday with a visiting American delegation.

The Americans may be misreading that the discord with Karzai boils down to his perceived "rentier" mentality, and that through IMF pressure and offers of money, he could be persuaded. Washington may be making a grave miscalculation about the Afghan sense of honor.

It overlooks that slowly, steadily, the US is losing its monopoly of conflict resolution in Afghanistan and Karzai can no longer be kept away from networking with regional powers. Karzai's defiant stance on Saturday comes soon after his return to Kabul from attending the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Astana.

The SCO summit adopted a statement on Wednesday calling for an "independent, neutral" Afghanistan (read: free of foreign occupation). Nurusultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, who hosted Karzai, put it on record, "It is possible that the SCO will assume responsibility for many issues in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014."

Saturday also happened to be an extraordinary day with Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi arriving in Kabul - an unprecedented visit in the history of Afghan-Iranian relations - "to explore ways for the further expansion of ties between the two neighboring states". Vahidi's visit unmistakably represents a big snub to the Obama administration.

Vahidi waded straight into the post-2014 status of the US occupation of Afghanistan. He told Karzai, "Ensuring regional stability will be possible only by the collective efforts of regional countries and the withdrawal of foreign forces."

Meanwhile, Karzai has already initiated moves to hold a loya jirga (grand council) soon after Eid. As things stand, the likelihood of such a traditional tribal council approving permanent US/NATO military bases is remote. The Afghan people militate against foreign occupation of their country.

The American game plan was to muster enough support in the Afghan parliament for the strategic agreement. But a loya jirga is a different ball game altogether. In his remarks on Saturday, which were nationally telecast, Karzai said, "They [US-led NATO forces] are here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they are using our soil for that." He is appealing to Afghan nationalism.

In sum, the Obama administration sees the conclusion of the strategic agreement with Karzai, direct US-Taliban talks and the drawdown of troops in July as inter-related vectors of a wholesome process where Washington will be in total command - ably assisted by London. Obama will find it a bitter pill to swallow to accept that Afghan laws will prevail over the conduct of his troops.
Karzai defiantly claims it is his prerogative to decide on the "surge" operations by NATO and US foreign forces. Karzai insists that reconciliation of the Taliban should be "Afghan-led" so that his leadership is not in jeopardy and he links the US long-term troop presence to preconditions so that the Americans will have to depend on him and learn to work under his leadership rather than vice versa.

He threatens to go to the Afghan people unless the US meets the preconditions. Karzai counts on a balancing role by the regional powers in the Afghan endgame. Interestingly, on Saturday, he slammed NATO's military intervention in Libya.

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 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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