Karzai's team clashes over US
relations By Qais Azimy and
KABUL - The increasing
influence of a conservative circle within
President Hamid Karzai's palace has impeded
progress in signing a crucial strategic agreement
with the United States to chart the relationship
beyond 2014, officials and analysts have said.
Their outspoken anti-US views have
frustrated Karzai's diplomats negotiating with US
officials, often resulting in messy clashes.
On March 8, a day before Afghanistan and
the US signed an agreement to gradually transfer
control of prisons to the Afghan
government, Jawid Ludin, the
deputy foreign minister, and Karim Khurram,
Karzai's chief of staff, were summoned to brief
Karzai ahead of a video conference with US
President Barack Obama. Also in the room were
General John Allen, the US commander of North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in
Afghanistan, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador
Just minutes before the call
between the two leaders, Karzai left the room for
a break, according to three separate sources
inside the palace. In the following few minutes,
in a confrontation that reportedly verged on
physical violence, Khurram and Ludin accused each
other of spying - one for Pakistan, the other for
the United States. They were split up by the NATO
commander and the US ambassador.
Accusations It all began with a
complaint from Allen, the palace sources said. The
US Embassy and NATO declined to comment for this
Allen reportedly stated that the
prisons would be gradually handed over, one of
Karzai's preconditions to signing a long-term
strategic agreement on wider issues. But the
Afghan government's media wing must tone down its
anti-US rhetoric, Allen insisted.
Government Media and Information Center (GMIC)
falls directly under the authority of Khurram,
Karzai's chief of staff.
Ludin, one of
Karzai's chief negotiators, turned to Khurram and
reiterated the general's point - that such
comments hindered negotiations with the US
Khurram, according to the palace sources,
said the GMIC was only defending Afghanistan's
interests - which Ludin took as an insult.
What Khurram insinuated, an official close
to Ludin said, was that the Foreign Ministry was
betraying Afghanistan in negotiations with the US.
Ludin said he would take it upon himself
to stop GMIC from making such statements, to which
Khurram reportedly responded: "Not even your
father can do that."
"You are a spy for
the Americans, you do whatever they tell you,"
Khurram told Ludin at the meeting, according to
Ludin, in return, accused
Khurram of spying for Pakistan. At that point,
General Allen and Ambassador Crocker are said to
have stepped in to prevent a physical
Ludin declined to comment
for this article. Khurram, after hearing about the
premise in person, promised an interview, but then
refused to answer his phone.
was set aside," one senior government official
told al-Jazeera about the meeting. "They turned to
the Afghan way of arguing."
returned to the room, the video-conference went
The prison deal, gradually
transferring control to the Afghan government over
six months, was signed before the cameras of the
world's media the next day, as planned. But the
reported confrontation underlines how divided
Karzai's inner court is, with regard to the nature
of the long-term relationship with the United
Divided palace "It has
been one and half years that the palace has been
fractured into two groups," said analyst Abdul
Waheed Wafa, the director of the Afghanistan
Center at Kabul University.
"On the one
side, you have people who say: 'We have not
achieved what we want, but we need to stick with
the internationals because the alternative is
chaos.' Then the other elements - they are against
night raids, and against a long-term US and
agreement is supposed to provide Afghanistan - a
poor country that requires foreign donations for
roughly 90% of its annual budget - some assurance
to continue its new beginning after decades of
war. More importantly, the support of the US would
bolster Afghan standing in a volatile region,
where the country's neighbors have long been
accused of interfering in its internal affairs.
For the US, a longer presence in
Afghanistan would ensure that it could operate
against "threats to US national security", by
being able to go after the sanctuaries of those
who it believes would use violence against US
But the increasing influence of
the conservative chief of staff, and his clashes
with what he sees as pro-US elements within
Karzai's circle and beyond, has hindered progress
to such a point that, in recent weeks, the US
announced "it is more important to get the right
agreement than to get an agreement". Some
interpreted that as the US expressing a decreasing
interest in the commitment.
Wafa said the
announcement was a bluff that put pressure on the
Afghan negotiators, who then compromised, tabling
certain preconditions for separate discussions.
"The change of tone in the US was partly
to pressure Afghans," said Wafa. "But some Afghans
believe it is true - that these people [US
officials] are fully frustrated, the US public
opinion is against the war, even some senators who
were staunch supporters of the war are now saying
it is hopeless. That those who wanted an exit got
an excuse - that look, the Afghans don't want us,
they don't want to sign a long-term commitment."
Three issues have been of contention in
the negotiating process: US control over Afghan
detainees, night raids, and permanent military
bases. The two sides agreed to remove the issues
of prison transfer and night raids from the
strategic agreement, allowing them to be discussed
The prison transfer was signed
on March 9, while the memorandum over night raids
is being finalized this week, according to an
official at the national security council. But the
contentious issue of military bases still looms
The argument on March 8 was not
just a spur of the moment event. Those views were
repeated in subsequent interviews.
"Khurram clearly has an agenda - and he
wants to disturb any progress in the relations
with the US," an official close to Ludin insisted
days after the incident. The other side was no
"Absolutely, there are circles
that see their sustenance in the West's benefits,
and they don't think about the nation," said
Ghulam Gilani Zwak, the director of Kabul's Afghan
Research and Consulting Center. "They insist on
not negotiating and bargaining, and their actions
"But there are others who
have the interest of the nation in mind, who don't
want the repeat of what Dr Abdullah Abdullah and
Younus Qanooni signed with the US in December
2001, bringing our independence under question."
Zwak was referring to an alleged agreement
signed between the US government and
representatives of the northern alliance, then an
anti-Taliban group holed up in the north, which
helped the US topple the Taliban. But the "status
of forces" agreement that stands now, giving US
military personnel immunity from criminal
prosecution by Afghan law, was actually signed
with Karzai's transitional government in 2003, a
US congress report says.
Ministry's dysfunction is much spoken about in
Afghanistan. Zalmai Rasul, an aging foreign
minister, has been called a passive operator
without much foreign policy experience. Ludin, a
former spokesman and chief of staff to Karzai,
shoulders most of the responsibility in the
Foreign Ministry, where many appointments are
allegedly based on kinship.
policy weakness is that we haven't had a stable
foreign policy, a clear vision. It's all been
reactionary, ad hoc," said Wafa.
Shuja, a Washington-based Afghan analyst, believes
the palace repeatedly steps on the toes of the
diplomats, making it difficult for them to do
"Karzai's statement, his
dynamism, eclipses the efforts of the Foreign
Ministry to set policy. It is diplomacy
'Afghanistan style' - not policy in the
And Khurram's tight
grip over the president in the past year has made
the job much more difficult for diplomats like
Ludin, said analysts.
Frustrations A controversial
former minister of culture, Khurram took over the
post of Karzai's chief of staff in early 2011 - a
position that has held increasingly more power in
the country, particularly under Khurram's
predecessor, Omar Dawoodzai.
stint as culture minister, Khurram was known as a
strict censor of television programs.
Shuja believes Khurram's seemingly anti-US
views stem from two sources.
political ideology is shaped by his alignment with
Hizb-e-Islami, and that seems to figure in his
calculations," he said.
Led by Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar, Hizb-e-Islami began as a political
party that fought the Soviets. It played a major
role in Afghanistan's bloody civil war in the
1990s, and now is considered the third (and
weakest) faction of the anti-US insurgency.
"But also, let's not forget that they have
been trying to reach out to the insurgency.
Delaying the signing of a strategic pact will help
them in appeasing the Taliban," added Shuja.
In purging the GMIC, which is largely
funded by the US Embassy, the new chief of staff
announced his intention to control the
government's message. Frustrated with Khurram's
control, the US Embassy cancelled funding for a
brief period and withdrew its advisers from the
Khurram also issued a warning
to the president's press staff, ordering them not
to allow US advisers in press conferences, one
palace official told al-Jazeera.
Embassy declined to comment for this story. But a
US official based in Kabul confirmed the
frustrations with the palace.
embassy, it is hard to get any access inside the
palace since the chief of staff changed," the
Khurram has at least three
private newspapers, a television channel and a
radio station under his control, directly or
indirectly, one official - who formerly worked for
him - said.
"The message is not just an
anti-American one, but also divisive internally,"
said Khurram's former colleague. "His brand of
conservative Pashtunism strengthens the notion
that all Pashtuns are unilateralist and
conservative by nature.
non-Pashtun allies have been increasingly
isolated. The damage that Khurram has inflicted on
President Karzai's image in one year - his enemies
could not have done the same."
Published under an agreement with
al-Jazeera. Reporting by Qais Azimy in
Kabul, Afghanistan and Mujib Mashal in
Doha, Qatar. Follow them on Twitter: @QaisAje, and