Karzai gives Hagel a tour d'horizon
By M K Bhadrakumar
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's weekend remarks critical of the United States easily lend themselves to an interpretation that the mutual equations of the squabbling protagonists are lurching toward a dangerous flashpoint. But Karzai is a shrewd politician, and he has essentially aired his frustrations as the critical phase of the withdrawal of US troops approaches.
In a manner of speaking, he seized the rare opportunity of the visit of an American dignitary to give vent to the frustration. However, the strong likelihood is that the Barack Obama administration won't get Karzai right since much pride and prejudice is involved here, and Washington would be inclined to view them as
Karzai made the serious allegation that the bombings on Saturday in Kabul and in the eastern city of Khost, which killed 17 people, were the result of collusion between the US and the Taliban to underscore the importance of continued presence of the foreign forces beyond 2014.
The general impression could be that these incidents were in the nature of a political message from the Taliban to the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel who was on his first visit to Afghanistan on Sunday after assuming office. But Karzai maintained:
Those bombs that went off in Kabul and Khost were not a show of force to America. They were in service of America. It was in the service of the 2014 slogan to warn us if they [Americans] are not here then Taliban will come. In fact those bombs, set off yesterday in the name of the Taliban, were in the service of Americans to keep foreigners longer in Afghanistan.
To be sure, Hagel's rejoinder came in no time when he told the media dismissively that any such collusion ''wouldn't make a lot of sense". Reuters reported that ''Hagel appeared at pains to be respectful of Karzai'' and at his meeting with Karzai in Kabul on Sunday he spoke ''clearly and directly'' about the Afghan leader's remarks. The US commander in Afghanistan General Joseph Dunford was more direct when he said:
We have fought too hard over the past 12 years, we have shed too much blood over the past 12 years, we have done too much to help the Afghan security forces grow over the last 12 years to ever think that violence or instability would be to our advantage. I'll let others judge whether that's [Karzai's remark] particularly helpful or not at the political level.
Walking the killing fields
Of course, there is nothing earthshakingly new in what Karzai said. A prevailing view among Afghans - and in the region - has always been that the US has a hidden agenda not to leave Afghanistan and Central Asia after having established a military presence since 2001.
This impression has further gained ground against the backdrop of the US's manifest keenness to establish military bases in Afghanistan and twisting Karzai's arms to give a ''most-favored-nation'' treatment to the US soldiers based there with diplomatic immunity, et al.
Again the ambivalences in the US stance toward the Taliban in the most recent years only reinforced the belief among Afghans that the Americans are not being transparent about their intentions. In fact, Karzai also alleged on Sunday that the US has been holding talks with the Taliban on a ''daily basis'' in Qatar.
Unsurprisingly, Hagel took pains to dispel what Karzai said - ''I told the president that it was not true. The fact is any prospect of peace or political settlements - that has to be led by the Afghans.'' It is improbable, however, that Hagel's perfunctory denial would convince many people, especially Karzai.
The past week also witnessed a backtracking by the US military at the last minute to hand over to the Afghan government full control of the prison in the Bagram base and the hundreds of Afghan inmates who have been held there arbitrarily without trial for the past few years. The US military has laid the precondition that the Afghan government should not release the detainees from the prison without the US military's prior approval.
The US military commanders' intransigence has put Karzai in a bind. He has been showcasing the transfer of the Bagram prison as a major political achievement on the path of regaining national sovereignty from the occupation forces, an issue that has huge emotive overtones in the Afghan opinion, cutting across regions, ethnicity or religion.
Only two weeks back, Karzai ordered the US Special Forces out of Wardak province on account of their wanton killings of civilians. The US commanders have taken shelter behind the sophistry that no regular troops were involved in such killings, but then, it is an open secret that savage killers are in the employ of the Americans whose identity is difficult to establish since they inhabit a grey zone, walking the killing fields at night stealthily, wearing no uniforms, holding no identity cards.
This is a happening that is common, perhaps, to all brutal guerilla wars and, in fact, the latest disclosures make it out that in Iraq at least, the wanton killings and other unspeakable atrocities by such secret forces were a key part of the calculated strategy pursued by the then US commander General David Petraeus (before he was promoted as the head of the CIA).
True, such strategies absolve the American military of direct charges as war criminals, but they pose a direct challenge to Karzai's standing. Put differently, Afghans tend to view him as incapable of protecting their lives and honor from the predatory killings by foreigners, and in the cultural ethos of that land nothing hurts like the image of a weak ruler.
So, assembling all this together, a mountain heap of friction developed in Karzai's equations with Washington. At the root of it, however, is the US's continued insistence to be on the driving seat controlling all major issues and most minor issues, which undercuts Karzai's position.
Fox in the chicken coop
Hagel's claim that the US pitches for an ''Afghan-led, Afghan-owned'' peace dialogue does not stand up for scrutiny. The entire Afghan bazaar knows that the US operatives are in touch with the Taliban functionaries and do not necessarily keep Karzai in the loop. Worse still, Karzai - and a large section of the Afghan political and military elites - feel exasperated that the US is increasingly sub-contracting to the Pakistani military leadership the reconciliation of the Taliban. They feel bewildered that the Obama administration is employing the fox to guard the chicken coop, and they are not exactly amused.
In turn, the Taliban have felt encouraged to stick to their rejection of taking Karzai formally as their interlocutor - although that doesn't prevent them from maintaining regular contacts with him. Meanwhile, the Afghans also get the nasty feeling that the Pakistani military leadership is back to its old tricks, simply marking time, playing one interlocutor against another and all against each other, and, most important, exploiting the contradictions in the US policies so that when the crunch time comes by end-2014 and the Obama administration has run short of time, it would show its true colors.
It needs careful noting that the Taliban attack on Saturday in Kabul was directed at the Defense Ministry. Only a week earlier, there was an unprecedented attack on an Afghan army convey in the remote eastern Badakhshan province bordering the Wakhan Corridor on the border with China in which Taliban slaughtered 16 soldiers in captivity.
Anyone who knows the ethnic politics in Afghanistan would see that in political terms Taliban have chosen to take on the Tajiks, finally, who spearheaded the anti-Taliban resistance in the 1990s. There is some background to this.
The Pakistani military leadership has met with considerable success in the past year or so in creating disunity among the groups of the erstwhile Northern Alliance [NA], which fought the Taliban. The Pakistani GHQ recently hosted the virulently anti-Taliban leader Mohammed Mohaqiq (who is popular among the Hazaras of the Amu Darya region). The Pakistani military hopes to develop independent lines to the NA groups, accommodating their specific concerns and incrementally finessing their opposition to the Taliban.
This is not an entirely new strategy insofar as the military victory of the Taliban in the 1990s was also invariably supplemented by brilliant ''political work'' of Pakistani intelligence operatives among the non-Taliban Mujahideen. In the present context, the strategy aims at isolating the Tajik groups of the erstwhile Shura-e-Nazar - especially from the Panjshir and Badakhshan regions - who are robust nationalists and harbor deep resentment toward the Pakistani interference in Afghanistan over the past decades.
Now, the catch is that it is these very same Tajik forces also happen to provide the military underpinning for Karzai's power structure (although he has a substantial following among the Pashtuns also). Any outside chance of the Afghan government warding off the Taliban challenge in the coming crucial 12-18 months would largely depend on Karzai's success in holding together the coalition that supports him.
On the whole, therefore, his frustration is mounting insofar as one the one hand the US constantly belittles him and makes him look small among his own people (while also whining that he is ''ineffectual''), while on the other hand Washington fawns over the Pakistani military leadership while keeping him out of the center stage of talks with the Taliban.
Countless bleeding wounds
From Karzai's point of view, the Americans are making a self-fulfilling prophecy that his government cannot hold the country together and save it from a Taliban takeover without the open-ended protection of forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
If the Obama administration is sincere about its Afghan strategy, there are ''do's'' and ''don'ts'' that it needs to observe. No doubt, the continuance of the war in Afghanistan is untenable and the presence of the Western troops is very much the problem in that country, and the solution lies in their speedy withdrawal. Obama is doing the right thing on this score.
Second, the countdown has begun for the US and NATO to do all they can to beef up Karzai's political standing. Now that the Western troop withdrawal is under way, everything depends on Karzai's capacity to lead the show.
Obviously, there is this matter of the professional pride of the US military. The Soviets also claimed that Najibullah would wither away the moment they pulled out the Red Army in 1989. It was unthinkable that where they failed, Najibullah could succeed.
In retrospect, what brought down Najibullah's regime was the subsequent decision by Moscow to summarily roll back all assistance to him even as he was in the thick of efforts to hold his ground militarily and to advance a tricky reconciliation process with the Mujahideen.
That is to say, NATO and the US should suspend their disbelief and let Karzai get on with his job. It is not axiomatic that since Western armies failed to win the war, he will too. The Afghans have their native ways of fighting wars, and the right thing to do is to leave it to them to go about their own ways to find an end to their civil war.
At any rate, trust their ingenuity and do not look down upon them as a lower form of life. Instead, what the US and NATO could and should do is to ensure that they fulfill the commitments to support the stabilization of Afghanistan in the post-2014 period. Don't resile from the commitments made or make them conditional on the establishment of the US military bases on Washington's terms. Karzai has good enough reasons to be worried.
In short, do not do what the Soviets did by dumping Najibullah. It needs to be understood that the Afghans did not invite the US military to invade their country in 2001. And if at the end of it all, when the Chicago NATO summit in 2010 decided that this is it, the war is to be wound up, that was also a unilateralist decision.
Why the US did what it for so long for undefined - and increasingly undefinable - objectives at such enormous cost in lives and money will remain a matter for historians. The story, evidently, is yet to be told.
Meanwhile, what the Obama administration should realize at the very least at this point is that it has morally, politically and militarily forfeited the right to prescribe the way forward. All that Washington can claim rightfully is the moral obligation to help Karzai stitch up the countless bleeding wounds that the Western soldiers have inflicted.
Actually, the Obama administration has enough on its plate in the post-2014 period in rehabilitating the Afghan war veterans alone. Hagel would know that itself is one hell of a job for the US's strapped resources.
So, why do this nitpicking with Karzai? Let him circle the wagons his own way and do not butt in with unsolicited advice. At the very least, do not undercut him. No one knows the Pakistani military as well as he, like any other Pashtun, does.
By all means, do compensate the Pakistani military well so that maximum cooperation is forthcoming for the US troop withdrawal through Karachi Port. But let the compensation be in financial and material terms and not in political terms, which would only encourage the Pakistani military to place faith in the efficacy of the old strategy of gaining ''strategic depth'' in post-2014 Afghanistan.
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.
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