Karzai's curious counterblast
By Hafizullah Gardesh
Whatever President Hamid Karzai's motives for launching a scathing attack on his American allies at a particularly sensitive time, they remain obscure.
As Afghans sift through their president's musings on possible United States-Taliban collusion, some see them as confirmation of their own mistrust in foreigners, while others warn of disastrous consequences for a crucial relationship as the country heads into an especially turbulent phase.
Speaking on March 10, Karzai suggested that the United States and the Taliban were in some kind of alliance designed to cause
instability and thus trigger a continued American troop presence beyond the planned 2014 withdrawal date for international forces.
Referring to suicide bombings in Kabul and Khost that left 17 dead the previous day, Karzai said they were "in the service of Americans, to keep foreigners longer in Afghanistan". He also accused US officials of holding meetings with Taliban leaders without informing his government.
Karzai did not elaborate on why the insurgents would be keen to have US forces remain longer in the country, thus delaying any chance of winning a military victory.
The accusations came on the same day that newly-appointed US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Afghanistan for his first visit. Karzai repeated his comments on a visit to Helmand province two days later.
The commander of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford, delivered a strong rebuff, saying far too much blood had been shed in the 12 years since coalition forces arrived in the country to "ever think that violence or instability would be to our advantage".
Two specific issues raised by Karzai may have contributed to his exasperation. First, the Americans did not immediately comply with his instruction that they withdraw special forces from Wardak, a Taliban-infested area dangerously close to the Afghan capital. And second, they have been slow to move towards closing US-run prisons and handing over detainees to Afghan control. (This latter point was agreed when he met President Barak Obama in January.)
In another sign the Afghan leader is trying to be seen to pursue an independent line and also to appease public concern about civilian casualties, he ordered his army to stop calling in NATO air strikes in mid-February.
Confusion mounted as Karzai then appeared to backtrack. In a televised debate hosted by the BBC and Afghan National TV, he expressed gratitude for US and other international support, and said he wanted a friendly and equal relationship with Washington. Those earlier comments, he said, were no more than a move to "correct rather than damage this relationship".
Karzai must have realized the effect his tough remarks would have, just as the US defense secretary arrived for their first meeting.
Much uncertainty hangs over 2014, when Afghanistan's army and police will be left to face the Taliban on their own. Beyond that date, Afghanistan will remain heavily dependent on aid from the international community. The country is also due to hold a presidential election next year, and Karzai is not eligible to stand, leaving the question of succession open.
Reactions to Karzai's remarks were understandably mixed in a country where many have conflicting views about the foreign troop presence. Fazel Hussein Sancharaki, spokesman for the opposition National Coalition, pointed to the 2014 election as one possible reason why Karzai was taking this line.
"Karzai and his team are trying to stay on or somehow retain a share of power after 2014, but this aspiration has been rebuffed by the US," Sancharaki said. "He's worried about his future role, and this has made him very angry. That's why he has unleashed this media row."
At the same time, Sancharaki aligned himself with the basic points the president was making, saying everyone in Afghanistan wanted complete sovereignty over their affairs.
Sancharaki questioned the president's methods, though, arguing that "he should be talking to all the political parties and civil society institutions about these matters, and sharing them in a logical and calm fashion… so that a rational solution can be found. He must not do it in an emotional way, because that alarms both the Afghan people and the international community."
The Council of Political Parties and Coalitions, a coordinating body that brings together 22 different groups, slammed Karzai's remarks. After meeting on March 13, members issued a statement warning of disastrous implications for relations with Washington.
The allegation of US-Taliban collusion "cannot reflect the views of the people of Afghanistan in relation to their international friends". It described his comments as "part of a series of deliberate actions that are lead Afghanistan towards crisis".
Political analyst Ahmad Sayidi agreed that the president was playing a dangerous game, since evidence of tensions with the West would only invite neighboring states to step up their interference. On the issue of transferring US-run detention centers, Sayidi suggested the president was being disingenuous.
"Why hasn't Karzai pressed his point about Bagram prison over the last 11 years?" he asked. "The Americans say they have evidence that individuals released by Karzai have rejoined the opposition [insurgents], and they've lost confidence in him. They believe large numbers of [ex-detainees] will join the Taliban again if Bagram is transferred."
Other commentators, however, felt that their president had a point.
"The demands Karzai is making of the US are appropriate and correct," another political analyst, Satar Saadat, said. "His opposition to American night-time raids, civilian casualties, house searches, US control of the Bagram prison run - all of which run contrary to all national and international standards - are being called for not just by him, but by all Afghans. The Americans have ignored these demands, and that has reduced Karzai's faith in them."
In any case, Saadat said, the potential fallout was being overplayed.
"The US and its allies have interests in Afghanistan, and they'll never withdraw or [abandon] their interests just because of some verbal attack from Karzai - something that in any case he's clearly within his remarks to do."
One thing on which many analysts agree on is that Karzai is now looking to his legacy.
"Karzai's problem is that he is fighting this fight alone, as he wants to be go down in Afghan history as a free, independent, and heroic president. He should [instead] be pursuing these demands through national and international institutions," Saadat said.
Sayidi recalled a string of Afghan historical leaders who were originally backed by foreign powers but later turned patriotic.
Shah Shujah Durrani had British support in the early 19th century, while presidents Babrak Karmal and Najibullah were both installed as Soviet puppets but in Sayidi's words "became patriots in their last days".
"Now Karzai is in the same position," he added.
Hafizullah Gardesh is the Institute for War and Peace Reporting's Afghanistan editor.