Karzai’s trump cards brought Obama down from the high throne
by Ramtanu Maitra on 19 May 2010 1 Comment

It was amusing to see US President Barack Obama undergoing a complete flip, praising the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who concluded his four-day trip to Washington on May 13, and seeking long-term cooperation. Last time he met President Karzai in Kabul on March 28, when he visited the Afghan capital “under the cover of darkness, it was all fire and brimstone with the US president virtually ordering the Afghan president to get rid of corruption that ostensibly dominates the Karzai administration. It had been Washington’s long-held mantra that the reason why its Afghan military campaign is not showing any progress is the deep-rooted corruption in the Karzai administration.

To understand how much views have changed in the White House, one must note that President’s Af-Pak policy maker, Richard Holbrooke, arguably the most vicious critic of President Karzai within the Obama administration, was trotted out to receive President Karzai at the Andrews Air Force base near Washington DC. According to an Indian scribe, many Indians dealing with Afghanistan in New Delhi may have chuckled at the sight of Obama sending Holbrooke to receive Karzai, whom Holbrooke had tried to humiliate and overthrow.

However, this should not be read as Holbrooke getting the stick from Obama; it is more fundamental than that. What is real is that after throwing tantrums and fits at the behest of the British (who surely hate Karzai a lot more than Holbrooke does), blaming President Karzai for the present impossible security situation in Afghanistan brought about by the proliferation of opium production and almost a nine-year-long incomprehensible military policy of the United States, and its rather inert tail, NATO, Washington is now grudgingly accepting the fact that things could get a lot worse if the Afghans are not listened to. After all, Afghanistan is inhabited by the Afghans and there is no denying that the US and NATO troops have been pushed to the wall by the same-old primitive Afghans.

Karzai’s trump cards

But good sense in Washington usually does not prevail because someone saw the light. What the White House has come to realize is that while the United States and NATO together have more than 120,000 armed-to-the-teeth troops, which have functioned way below par, handicapped by an inept leadership and foggy goals set by Washington and London, President Karzai also holds a couple of trump cards. The White House knows that if President Karzai chooses to play those cards against the occupying forces, the campaign to wipe out terror launched by President Bush and faithfully dittoed by President Obama, may end as ignominiously as the American military campaign ended on that fateful early morning of April 29, 1975, following the fall of Saigon, when Defense Secretary James Schlesinger announced evacuation from Saigon by helicopter of the last US diplomatic, military, and civilian personnel.

What trump cards did President Karzai show in recent days that rattled the White House? The first such card is the admission by Karzai’s top adviser, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, during his recent visit to Washington, where he made clear that the government Hamid Karzai has been preparing a program to lure the Taliban off the battlefield and into peaceful coexistence. The government’s 36-page document, entitled “The Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Program,” will be released later this month following a peace conference in Kabul, Associated Press reported on May 11. The United States, Japan and Great Britain are among the countries contributing to the $160 million trust fund underwriting the effort.

The initial focus for reintegration will be in Kandahar, Helmand, Herat, Baghdis, Nangarhar, Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, the draft says. The reintegration program, which includes vocational training and promises of employment, involves “more than just a few mullahs changing sides,” said Stanekzai in Washington. According to Stanekzai and NATO officials, insurgents in a handful of provinces – including Herat in the west, Baghlan and Balkh in the north and Daykundi in the south – have already expressed interest in signing up for the reintegration program. The insurgents must renounce violence, respect the Afghan constitution and severe ties with al Qaeda or other terrorist networks.

The characteristics of these insurgents, who have allegedly agreed to lay down their arms, indicate they are anti-Pakistan, anti-US and NATO troops occupying Afghanistan, but not anti-Iran and not pro-Saudi-backed Wahabi movement. This became evident from the fact that Stanekzai, a former member of the Karzai Cabinet, said last February that some factions within Pakistani military and its powerful intelligence service have yet to offer any substantial help to reintegrate fighters from the movement it has been accused of harbouring and funding for 15 years.

Challenging the British-Saudi nexus

Karzai had long been battling the British design in Afghanistan. Back in 2007, some of Karzai’s closest advisers had accused Britain of conspiring with Pakistan to hand over southern Afghanistan. The deputy head of mission at the British embassy was in such a heated argument with the President that it was feared he would be expelled. Karzai’s chief of staff, Jawed Ludin, was forced to resign after his attempts to defend Britain led to accusations that he was a British spy. The row centered on the continued violence in Helmand province, where British troops were based, and London’s refusal to acknowledge publicly Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taliban. Karzai accused Britain of “compromising” with Islamabad because of its need for cooperation from Pakistan’s security services to infiltrate terrorist groups involving British Muslims.

“I understand that Britain has a long friendship with Pakistan and that its relationship with Pakistan is different from that of other countries because of its domestic concerns,” Karzai told The Sunday Times on Feb 11, 2007. “It’s from this part of the world [Pakistan] that training takes place, and inspiration and motivation. So for British security, simply foiling incidents in London is not the only way,” he added. “The important thing is to find the source of it. Otherwise you’ll continue to suffer as you have with the London bombs. By ignoring what is happening in Pakistan, you can never defeat terrorism.” At the time, US officials confirmed that Pakistan had moved border posts at least a mile into Afghan territory.

There were further differences when Karzai began criticizing NATO bombing, saying mistakes were being made and too many lives taken. Whitehall was outraged in December 2006 when Karzai sacked the British-backed governor of Helmand, Engineer Mohammad Daoud.

Stanekzai said: “Pakistan’s civilian government now has a very good relationship with the Afghan government, but there are differences between their military set up and their elected government, so that is a different story.” He said he hoped the recent offensive in Pakistan’s tribal areas heralded a realization in Pakistan that extremism threatened Islamabad as well. Without naming the British-Saudi nexus as sponsors, he claimed the Taliban leadership was totally controlled by its sponsors. “The leadership, the Quetta Shura, they are under the influence of regional state and non-state actors,” he said. “They are acting in the way they are told by their supporters.”

This reintegration action of Karzai drew sharp rebuke from London. Mark Sedwill, NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, and former Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Robin Cook and Jack Straw) 2000-02, in the run up to the 2003 Iraq conflict, says it’s imperative that everyone agrees on the issue. “We know there are concerns and reservations among various ethnic groups and other communities in Afghanistan about the reconciliation program. They’re concerned to ensure that all of the gains of the past eight years are cemented and not put at risk by any kind of process of reconciliation,” Sedwill says.

British Army Maj. Gen. Richard Barrons, who heads up NATO’s reintegration program, says the Western alliance is sometimes blindsided by the actions of the Afghan government. “Well, this is Afghanistan. It would be hard to say we were genuinely surprised because we see that it’s a very complex place. What I think we’re clear about is that people aren’t setting about to deceive us, but actually everyone is feeling their way in this process,” Barrons says.

What is evident is that the British empire-servers, who would like the British-Saudi nexus-backed Taliban to take control of Afghanistan in the post US-NATO occupation period, find Karzai is undoing their plans. In Washington, those who unwittingly, or wittingly endorse the British-Saudi nexus, are of the view that reconciliation process must not precede the planned UN-NATO-led Operation Hamkari to take control of Kandahar.

Added to this difference is President Karzai’s concern about civilian casualties that would occur during Operation Hamkari (Dari for “togetherness”) in Kandahar. He strongly opposes killing of civilians, particularly in a province to which he belongs. During his recent visit to Washington he made this clear and succeeded in getting unqualified support from both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama.

At the joint press conference in Washington that followed the two heads of states’ meeting, President Obama said their talk had been an opportunity to “review the progress of our shared strategy and objectives” and said the two leaders had discussed one of Karzai’s top concerns -- the level of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, which is seen as a major impediment to persuading the Afghan people to reject the Taliban and side with the government. “We’ve taken extraordinary measures to avoid civilian casualties. And I reiterated in my meeting with President Karzai that the United States will continue to work with our Afghan and international partners to do everything in our power to avoid actions that harm the Afghan people,” Obama said.


Karzai’s Kandahar Card

During the ongoing preparation for Operation Hamkari, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the current Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), has come to realize that among the non-Taliban Pushtuns in Kandahar city and Kandahar province, President Karzai and his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, wield absolute power.

On the other hand, Tooryalai Wesa, the soft-spoken former Canadian academic who became provincial governor with the help of foreign allies’ intervention, is widely considered by the Pushtuns of Kandahar as ineffectual, and his power is eclipsed by the influential half-brother of President Karzai. Coalition officials have given Wesa additional staff and discretionary power over aid projects in an effort to change that balance of power, but the strategy has not helped Wesa.

A recent report by the Institute of War, Politics and Power in Kandahar, penned by Carl Forsberg in April 2010 says “the Karzai family is the key to politics in Kandahar. Of the actors contesting the vacuum left by the fall of the Taliban, the Karzai family has, along with the Quetta Shura Taliban, emerged as the most serious contender. In the course of eight years, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has, with the support of family members, built a political and commercial empire in Kandahar. By the end of 2009, all significant institutions desiring influence within the framework of the post-2001 Afghan government were dependent upon his blessing.”

The Karzai family’s rise to power was facilitated by the US, but it also owes much to the Karzai family’s mastery of political tactics and intrigue. In recent years, the Karzai family has benefited from using the institutions of the Afghan state to its advantage, and in doing so, has formed important synergies linking politics in Kandahar and Kabul, the report said.

With such power in their hands in Kandahar, the Karzais have made clear to the US and NATO that the tribal elders in Kandahar strongly oppose military operations within Kandahar City. Such an operation, the elders believe, will lead to large-scale loss of Pashtun lives, most of whom would be civilians with little or no association with the targetted Taliban. If the bloodshed in Baghdad during the US occupation is any indicator, there is an absolute certainty that the elders are right.

The Churchillian General

The other likely reason why President Obama was most cordial to President Karzai during the latter’s visit to Washington is the utter failure of the much-drummed up military campaign, Operation Moshtarak, of General McChrystal, to take control of the Taliban and opium-infested town of Marjah. That military campaign began almost three months ago and recent reports indicate that the US and NATO troops, after their initial success in flushing out the Taliban from that town, has not succeeded in achieving anything of significance. In fact, reports indicate that the Taliban are coming back and the foreign troops are now living within a virtual stockade, achieving nothing.

Operation Moshtarak was drummed up by the mainstream media in the United States, under virtual orders from Gen. McChrystal, as the beginning of taking control of the vast southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban roam free. It was the beginning of the so-called COIN (counterinsurgency operation) which would “liberate” some towns of Helmand and Kandahar provinces by clearing, holding, building and transferring power to a clean government set up by the authorities. The objective was to create a Taliban-free corridor of security in southern Afghanistan. The last such post will be Kandahar.

However, all those claims have turned out to be mere optimism, at best, or propaganda, at worst. As Jim White pointed out in his May 11 article, McChrystal’s Box Was Empty: Blame Game Begins, the General’s now infamous “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in” claim at the beginning of the Marjah offensive has proven false. Competing narratives seem to be emerging on whether McChrystal is to blame for making an overly optimistic claim or the Afghan government is to blame for being unable to live up to its obligations under the plan. A senior US military official conceded to White that the phrase, ‘government in a box’, “created an expectation of rapidity and efficiency that doesn’t exist now.”

Three months since Operation Moshtarak was launched, one hears a much subdued voice from the COIN operators. The official Pentagon line, after a White House review on May 10, is that there’s “slow but steady progress” in Afghanistan. But the senior US military official cautions that 90 days after the offensive, “Marjah is a mixed bag,” with parts still controlled by the Taliban and Afghan government performance spotty. A top State Department official agrees: “Transfer is not happening” in Marjah.

Gen. McChrystal is an avid fan of Winston Churchill, the colonial British premier. McChrystal is said to listen to the writings of Churchill on his iPod during his daily eight-mile jog. A recent visitor to NATO headquarters in Kabul found the American general immersed in Churchill’s first book, his account of the struggle to pacify the tribes of the North West Frontier at the end of the 19th century. General perhaps has realized by now that no matter how the history of that campaign was depicted by Churchill, the British troops were routed. It is apparently not worthwhile to read up the revisionist version of that humiliating defeat.

Perhaps because of that, or his inability to achieve most of what he intended to achieve through Operation Moshtarak, he is seemingly ready to set aside his most ambitious counterinsurgency aim: the creation of a large zone of control covering both provinces. In late January, an official working for McChrystal at the International Security assistance Forces (ISAF—an amalgamation of US and NATO troops) told International Press Services (IPS), “The first thing you’ll see is an effort to establish a contiguous security zone in Helmand and Kandahar accounting for 85 percent of the economic resources.”

Now, Washington realizes that Gen. McChrystal had oversold the bill of goods to President Obama and without the cooperation of the Karzais in Kandahar, and President Karzai’s reconciliation move with the Taliban of his choice, to bring back some troops before the 2012 presidential election to help President Obama’s re-election efforts may turn out to be a non-starter.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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