US wants to clip Karzai's wings
By M K Bhadrakumar
The United States' proxy war against Afghan President Hamid Karzai has taken a
vicious turn, undermining the tenuous political equations in the country.
Washington is displeased with Karzai's moves to accelerate reconciliation with
the Taliban, while his pitch for a regional initiative and his agenda of a
multi-vector foreign policy challenge US regional strategies.
The US is caricaturing Karzai as a tin-pot dictator, arguing that he is
"anti-democratic" since he decided to postpone by a month the convening of a
new parliament. The election commission cleared the election results and
Karzai's reluctance to accept the results casts him in poor light.
However, Karzai has no choice but to order a special tribunal to
review election results. Close to half of the population consists of ethnic
Pashtuns and yet 75% of parliamentary seats have been "won" by non-Pashtuns.
The Hazaras constitute 10% of the population, but they "won" 20% of the seats,
including in Pashtun-dominated regions.
Something has gone very seriously wrong. Conceivably, the election commission
did come under extraneous influence, as alleged by the attorney general. A
parliament on the basis of the available results lacks political legitimacy, as
Pashtuns will feel disenfranchized. Karzai rightly apprehends that Pashtun
alienation, which is at the root of the insurgency, would further deepen and
that can only augment Taliban's support base.
Enter the Americans. Washington waded into these ethnic politics by encouraging
non-Pashtun leaders to challenge Karzai's decision to have the election results
reviewed by a special tribunal. The American ambassador in Kabul, Karl
Eikenberry, and his Western colleagues threatened to attend a gathering of the
elected parliamentarians and recognize it as the "real" parliament.
This extraordinary "trade unionism" by Western diplomats can only be seen as an
orchestrated move predicated on the calculation that Karzai is damned either
way. If he convenes a parliament at this juncture, the US proxies who command a
majority will incrementally weaken him and can even impeach him at some
But if Karzai insists on greater Pashtun representation, it becomes a point of
friction with the non-Pashtun groups, and the delicate web of pan-Afghan
alliances that he tenaciously wove while consolidating political power over the
past two to three years will unravel.
Plainly put, the US is using the ethnic card to "entrap" Karzai and bring the
Afghan leader to his knees. The US is counting on the opposition candidate in
the 2009 presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah, and the speaker of the
outgoing parliament, Younus Qanooni, to spearhead the opposition to Karzai. The
Washington establishment has also co-opted former Afghan intelligence chief
Amrullah Saleh, who was sacked by Karzai last year.
Abdullah, Qanooni and Saleh belong to the Panjshiri clan and the line-up has
dangerous overtones of a (Tajik) revolt against (Pashtun) Karzai. The US is
also instigating sections of Hazaras whose political influence is at its
historical zenith today.
Why such venom?
Besides weakening Karzai, the US hopes to deal a body blow to the Afghan
leader's initiative to kick start an intra-Afghan dialogue. Karzai is banking
on a pan-Afghan alliance to support his audacious plan to reconcile the
Taliban, and the US is using the ethnic card to unravel Karzai's alliance
Why such venom toward America's own one-time prot้g้? Washington
finds Karzai increasingly acting as an Afghan nationalist rather than as a US
surrogate. What is at issue is how to secure a long-term US military presence
in Afghanistan. Washington is negotiating a new Status of Forces Agreement with
Kabul but Karzai is resisting the US plan to keep permanent military bases. US
Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Kabul last month failed to clear the
Meanwhile, Karzai is making sustained efforts to develop ties with Iran and
Russia, including military cooperation, so as to reduce his dependence on the
US by the 2014 timeline. Moscow has proposed a key role for Kabul in the
Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Last week, Karzai visited Moscow and openly said that the Russians made better
friends for the Afghan people than the Americans. This was the first official
visit by an Afghan head of a state to Moscow since the departure of Soviet
troops in 1989. The US reportedly tried to dissuade Karzai from undertaking the
Karzai also recently deputed former Northern Alliance stalwarts Burhanuddin
Rabbani (who heads the Afghan High Council for Peace in charge of reconciling
with the Taliban) and Mohammad Fahim (the first vice president) to Tehran to
seek Iranian support for his policies.
Most importantly, the climate of Afghan-Pakistan relations has dramatically
improved and the US feels "excluded" even as Kabul and Islamabad show signs of
kick-starting an intra-Afghan dialogue. The recent visit to Islamabad by
Rabbani underscored a new flexibility on the part of Pakistan.
Army chief General Ashfaq Kiani received Rabbani. Biden visited Islamabad
within days of Rabbani's talks with the Pakistani leadership but he drew a
blank. Evidently, Islamabad and Kabul increasingly find themselves sharing a
lot of common ground. Neither one favors US General David Petraeus' military
strategy and both are keen to begin talks with the Taliban.
Within a week of Biden's talks in Islamabad, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman
Bashir flew to Kabul and held more consultations, which included calls on
Karzai and Rabbani. Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul is now scheduled to
visit Islamabad on Tuesday for a follow-up.
Kabul and Islamabad are getting along better than at any time in the past
decade and they don't seem to need the crutch of US mediation. By the time the
US-Pakistan-Afghan trilateral forum of foreign ministers convenes in Washington
on February 21, there could be a strange reversal of roles with Pakistan and
Afghanistan coordinating their stance vis-a-vis the US.
Clearly, the specter of a peace initiative on the Afghan problem at a regional
level has begun haunting Washington for the first time. Biden openly flirted
with the idea of a long-term American military presence in Afghanistan.
Middle-level US officials have shifted gear to reinforce Biden's thought
process. A recent speech entitled "The Obama Administration's Priorities in
South and Central Asia" by Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake at the
James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy falls into this category.
Red rag, intransigent bull
Blake underscored that Washington intends to expand its engagement with Central
Asia, "this critical region", which is situated at a "critical crossroads,
bordering Afghanistan, China, Russia and Iran".
What emerges from Blake's speech is that Washington and Delhi may have drawn
closer on Afghanistan. Arguably, this was bound to happen. India is perhaps the
only regional power that still seeks a military solution in Afghanistan. India
quietly favors a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan. The US is
edging toward the one-dimensional Indian view of Pakistan as the "epicenter" of
The US views India as a red rag to taunt the intransigent Pakistani bull and
India may not mind it. Blake made a stunning claim that India is the key US
partner in Afghanistan and Central Asia:
These projects with India in
Afghanistan mark a small but important part of a significant new global
development - the emergence of a global strategic partnership between India and
the US ... India's democracy, diversity and knowledge-based society make it
special, a model of a tolerant pluralistic society in the region, and one that
now actively seeks to work with the US and others to help solve problems on a
global level ... The strength of India's economy makes it the powerhouse of
South and Central Asia's growth.
He said one of the three
"primary objectives" for the US in the "dynamic regional context" of South and
Central Asia would be to "build a strategic partnership with India". This may
seem like hyperbole, but it makes for geo-strategy.
The Americans are feeling rather lonely in the Hindu Kush and India too faces
isolation, as it stands excluded, on Pakistan's insistence, from the regional
forums working on the Afghan problem. Neither Washington nor Delhi feels
comfortable with the Kabul-Islamabad bonhomie. Both the US and India view the
Afghan endgame through the prism of their rivalry with China.
Then, there are the opaque operational factors. India wields influence with the
"Panjshiri boys" who happen to be the current US proxies. Saleh figures as a
key advisor to the security establishment in Washington, while Abdullah and
Qanooni act as front men in Kabul. All three share a near-pathological aversion
to Karzai and are viscerally opposed to any form of accommodation with Taliban.
Pakistan brands Saleh as an "Indian agent". If the American ploy is to annoy
the Pakistani military (and Karzai), there couldn't be a better choice than
Any US-India axis in Afghanistan can only be tactical, but it will nonetheless
be seen as high provocation by Pakistan and Iran (possibly, also by Russia and
China). Pakistan will feel more justified than ever to have placed such
irrevocable faith in the Taliban as its "strategic asset".
The US will eventually realize that it is skating on thin ice. There are
half-a-dozen very good reasons why Pakistan remains and will continue to remain
central to any durable Afghan settlement. Karzai will prove to be as tough as a
nail. Thus, in many ways, the US proxy war in Kabul promises to be a defining
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.