Who’s afraid of a Karzai comeback in Kabul?

M.K. Bhadrakumar July 25, 2015 5:51 PM (UTC+8)
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A systematic campaign has been afoot in the western media in the recent months focusing on the former Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s political activities as an elder statesman, while living his life in retirement in Kabul.

A newspaper report says Karzai is being backed by “powerful foreign friends” who are interested in overthrowing Ghani’s government
A US newspaper report says Karzai is being backed by “powerful foreign friends” who are interested in toppling Ghani’s government

What began as innuendoes has lately become an avalanche of forthright allegations to the effect that Karzai is furiously working on a game plan to stage a political comeback through the back door as the ruler of Afghanistan for a third term, which the country’s constitution expressly forbids.

The hypothesis is that Karzai is systematically discrediting and undermining the credibility of the present national unity government led by President Ashraf Ghani with a view to overthrowing the set-up in Kabul and reset the power calculus by positioning himself as the savior of Afghanistan duly anointed by a Loya Jigha.

Karzai’s own categorical denials have had virtually no impact on the tirade against him in the western media. Last week, the campaign escalated significantly with the Wall Street Journal firing all eight cylinders.

A report with Kabul dateline said: “Capitalizing on popular discontent as the Taliban advanced and international financial aid dried up, Mr. Karzai and his circle of former senior officials, who continue to meet regularly, have used this time to build an alternative power center. That circle increasingly attracts regional power-brokers and, diplomats say, now may threaten the current government’s very survival. Some of these politicians are even openly calling for a removal of Mr. Ghani…

“For now, the current and former presidents have agreed to a fragile truce widely seen as temporary… Afghanistan’s Western donors, led by the U.S., are watching these intrigues with mounting apprehension.”

The report went on to allege that Karzai is being backed by “powerful foreign friends” who are interested in overthrowing Ghani’s government. It specifically mentioned Moscow, Tehran, New Delhi and Beijing as the regional capitals where Karzai has enjoyed “connections”.

What could be the reason behind such an orchestrated western media campaign against Karzai? On the face of it, mentioning Russia, Iran, India and China together in the same breath is the height of absurdity. Anyone who knows Afghanistan and regional politics would know that these countries have specific interests to pursue in the Hindu Kush and these interests do not necessarily overlap, while in their perspectives on the power dynamic in Inner Asia are strikingly dissimilar.

Why should these four regional powers incite Karzai to usurp power in Kabul? Among the four countries mentioned, it is with India that Karzai maintained very close ties. He openly claimed India to be his second home, where he lived his youth, received university education and enjoys a wide circle of friends.

Without doubt, as president Karzai went the extra league to promote ties with India so much so that his retirement as president literally handicapped India’s Afghan policies and rendered them ineffectual. Ghani never really warmed up towards India and he reportedly rolled back the close security cooperation between the two countries that had flourished during the Karzai presidency.

To be sure, India is deeply skeptical about Ghani’s overtures to Islamabad and the trust he is willing to place on the Pakistani military and the ISI to help kick-start the peace talks with the Taliban leading to a negotiated settlement.

But having said that, India has scrupulously refrained from undermining Ghani and has instead only tried to woo him, remaining rooted in the belief – rightly or wrongly – that in the fullness of time the Afghan president would be a sadder and wiser man in his dealings with Pakistan.

Two things compel India to wait patiently and mark time. One, the plain truth is that India no longer has any special links with any Northern Alliance [NA] groups, which in the nineties spearheaded the anti-Taliban resistance.

The best-known NA leader today, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in Ghani’s government himself is more beholden to the Americans for his political future than to India or any other country in the region.

In fact, name any NA leader, and the story repeats itself – most of them have been bought and sold in the Kabul bazaar by foreign intelligence agencies at some point or another through the past decade – and some probably sold themselves to more than one benefactor at the same time. In sum, India has no “guaranteed proxy” today on the Afghan chessboard.

Secondly, India has a fair knowledge of the extent to which the US has gone to catapult Ghani to power last year. And anyone who knows anything about the foreign policy orientation of the present Indian government would vouchsafe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will never undercut the US’ regional strategies in Asia.

What Modi has done during the past one year in power to dilute India’s non-aligned policies and to get the country to identify with the US’ strategies in Asia has been absolutely breathtaking. None would have suspected that this politician with such a robustly nationalist reputation could have secretly harbored such a pronounced pro-American bias.

That being the case, why should Modi let loose the Indian agencies against Ghani and to undermine the government in Kabul, which has been installed in power by Washington with such painstaking personal involvement on the part of Secretary of State John Kerry? It will be an insult to President Barack Obama, which Modi will never allow. Simply put, it belies logic that India is egging on Karzai to seize power.

True, Ghani has dealings with Pakistan. He has injected much warmth into Afghan-Pakistani equations. But then, Americans also have dealings with Pakistan but that doesn’t deter the Modi government from working closely with the US’ containment strategy against China.

If this is the actual story about India and the Karzai conundrum, the story with Russia, Iran and China is not very different, too. Russia and China probably have misgivings about the US’ intentions in keeping its (and NATO’s) open-ended military presence in Afghanistan, but having said that, neither would want the Americans to get the hell out of Afghanistan, either.

In fact, Moscow and Beijing will be terrified of a situation where they are called upon to bear the main responsibility to mould Afghanistan’s future. Most certainly, they want the US to continue to be involved in Afghanistan.

A curious thing in common between the Russian and Chinese foreign policies is that both are manifestly keen to engage constructively with the US on as many fronts as possible in regional politics and internationals security issues. This is only natural in the present-day big power politics, which is devoid of ideology.

Thus, despite the US’ containment strategies toward them and the tensions over Ukraine or the South China Sea, both Russia and China have bent over backwards in the recent period to be helpful in the US’ negotiations with Iran. President Obama actually phoned up his Russian and Chinese counterparts to express appreciation for the help they rendered in concluding the Iran nuclear deal.

It is also useful to factor in that neither Russia nor China has spent anything more than a tiny fraction of the money that the US has spent on Afghanistan during the period since its intervention in 2001. They are acutely conscious of a cost-effective Afghan policy, which brings dividends without heavy financial commitments. (India and Iran have spent far more money than Russia or China in Afghanistan so far by way of economic assistance.) In sum, Moscow and Beijing do not want to replace the US as Afghanistan’s principal donor country and take on a multi-billion dollar burden.

Finally, the core issue in Afghanistan is terrorism and both Russia and China have consistently underscored their abiding interest in working with the international community in the struggle against terrorism. They may harbor suspicion that the US would use the extremist groups as its proxies or as geopolitical tools and they will most certainly safeguard against such negative fallouts, but the priority nonetheless is to work with the US to defeat the terrorist groups – be it in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Above all, there is hardly any evidence to show that Karzai was a hot favorite of the Russians or the Chinese. As president, Karzai’s equations with Moscow and Beijing were cordial but were based on considerations of mutual benefit. (With Moscow, Karzai was even distinctly cool for much of the time.)

Equally, it is inconceivable that these two big powers ever really forgot that Karzai was originally installed in power by the Americans as their trusted man in Kabul. Wouldn’t they know that Karzai depended heavily on the Americans for even his personal safety, leave alone for bankrolling his government? Of course, they knew.

Therefore, while Karzai’s outspoken criticism of the US’ policies in Afghanistan might have made platinum grade stuff for anti-American propaganda, neither Moscow nor Beijing would have been under any illusions about getting entangled in what was essentially a family quarrel that at times spun out of hand and became unpleasant or embarrassing to onlookers.

Suffice it to say, it is illogical for Russia or China to destabilize the Ghani government at a juncture when the security situation in the country has reached a criticality. Like India (or Iran), Russia and China too are “stakeholders” in Afghanistan’s stability and they also are extremely concerned about the spectre of the Islamic State that is haunting Afghanistan.

All four regional powers – Russia, China, India and Iran – would know that once constitutional rule is derailed in Afghanistan, it may take generations before it could be restored, and what lies ahead could well be the disintegration of the country itself.

If so, what explains the exaggerated stories that foreign powers are egging Karzai on to seize power by creating a power vacuum? Put differently, who stands to gain from spreading such dark rumors that Karzai is stoking the fires of a coup in Kabul? This indeed needs further probing.

This is the first part of a two-part article by M. K. Bhadrakumar  

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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