Here is the reason it is so important that President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has begun behaving so erratically. It is because the path President Obama chose in Afghanistan requires a strong, upright, and relatively efficient local partner. Moreover, the US needs to gain hearts and minds, but a series of costly errors of judgment have scandalized the Afghan public. Put the two developments together, and you get a ‘surge’ that so far is not going well and in which the loyalty of America’s partners cannot be taken for granted.
President Obama had two choices in fall of 2009 in regard to Afghanistan. He could have pursued a limited counter-terrorism strategy, involving targeting of armed extremists but gradually extricating US troops from that country. Instead, he signed on to a major counter-insurgency project that implies a certain amount of state-building. US and Afghanistan National Army [ANA] troops would take territory, clear it of insurgents, hold it in the medium term so they would not return, and build services and infrastructure.
This strategy of counter-insurgency is far more dependent on expanded military and governmental capacity than the course of counter-terrorism would have been. The army and police are to be much expanded and given basic training. The civil bureaucracy is to be encouraged to provide more services.
But at the head of the security forces and the civil bureaucracy is Hamid Karzai. The president stirred controversy last week by asserting that the problem of ballot fraud in last summer’s presidential election was actually caused by foreign troops. Both the US and the UK have vigorously denounced Karzai’s comments. (In fact, the ballot fraud appears to be the work of Karzai’s own supporters).
Then last weekend, according to the Wall Street Journal, Karzai met with a handful of US congressmen and senators. During the meetings, Karzai is said to have warned the US that if it went on acting so heavy-handedly in his country, it would create the Taliban as national liberators and make them popular.
But then he went further and warned that he himself might join the Taliban if he were subjected to too much American pressure. The US legislators who leaked these details did not think they should be taken seriously.
But the remarks underline that Karzai is a loose cannon. They provided an opening for former deputy UN envoy to Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, to accuse Karzai of being unbalanced. Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia and a representative of Kurdish interests in Iraq (along with being an investor in Kurdistan petroleum development), was at loggerheads with Karzai last fall because of the way the Afghan politician stole the presidential election. Galbraith was fired over his stance.
In an interview with AFP, Galbraith said that Karzai is given to extreme temper tantrums and suddenly becomes very emotional. He added that there are rumors that Karzai uses [“the drug of this country, which I took to mean] heroin [he now says he meant hashish], and that that drug use helps explain his outbursts. I fear Mr. Galbraith undercut his credibility by retailing this unsubstantiated rumor, which does not actually fit with the facts he is reporting. [Although hashish can make a person paranoid, it mostly makes people laid back, and the Dutch, who allow it to be sold openly, are not known for their irrational outbursts; and as for heroin:] Heroin users are notoriously laid back and emotionally detached even on occasions when emotion is called for.
Karzai’s problems do not derive from being crazed or a drug addict. Rather, he is in an impossible situation. He knows that the Obama administration came into office last year determined to remove him as indecisive and more of a problem than a solution. He responded by rigging the presidential election to ensure his hold on power. He presented the Americans with a fait accompli, which they reluctantly acknowledged and even embraced.
At the same time, Karzai faces an ongoing insurgency (some of it Taliban, some of it other groups less seldom studied). The insurgents have a rhetorical advantage over Karzai, insofar as they can freely paint themselves as guardians of the national heritage and freedom fighters determined to expel the foreigners. This stance is leant plausibility by some US actions, a recent mistaken raid that left women dead and which was covered up. The impact of such actions on Afghan and especially Pashtun nationalism and male self-image cannot be over-estimated.
Karzai has responded to this difficult situation by blaming the US for some of his troubles, by reaching out to negotiate with figures such as Gulbadin Hikmatyar (not Taliban but mujahid or ‘freedom fighter’ in Ronald Reagan’s terms)– with whom the US would probably prefer he not be talking– and then by adopting the rhetoric of mujahid or freedom fighter himself. There is a little resemblance between Karzai’s current strategy and that in 2008 of Iraq’s PM Nuri al-Maliki. Al-Maliki sent troops to Basra against US advice, and then negotiated a US troop withdrawal that Bush-Cheney did not want but which they had no choice but to accept if foreign troops were to remain in the area.
Karzai would very much like to likewise position himself as having brought greater security to his country and as having forced the US to set a withdrawal timetable for its exit. Karzai’s outbursts and his apparently erratic statements actually just mark off his peculiar, almost DeGaulle-like situation (in being in his own mind a national liberator who in fact is deeply dependent on foreign allies. That humiliation and contradiction once led DeGaulle to warn that missiles could be aimed as easily at the US from France as toward the Soviet Union.
Karzai’s jejune threat thus bespoke his own internal contradictions.
But if Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s counter-insurgency campaign depends on Karzai’s support and on the latter supplying a ‘government in a box’ for the provinces, then it may well be in trouble.
Karzai seems to have forgotten to ask the Taliban whether they would have him, but the answer appears to be ‘no.’ Here is an article translated by the USG Open Source Center on the state of play in Afghanistan politics:
Taleban dismiss Afghan leader’s alleged joining the Taleban remarks
Afghan Islamic Press
Tuesday, April 6, 2010 …
Document Type: OSC Translated Text…
Taleban dismiss Afghan leader’s alleged joining the Taleban …
Text of report by private Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency:
Kandahar: “We neither have information about Karzai’s remarks, nor can we say anything about them.”
A Taleban spokesman has denied reports that the Taleban has said that Karzai will be the Taleban’s brother if he separates himself from foreigners.
In a telephone interview with Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) Taleban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi said: “We neither know what Karzai has said nor have we reacted to anything like that.”
He added: “Some media take opinions about such sensitive issues from people who identify themselves as Taleban and we consider such reports as an irresponsible action. The Islamic Emirate has specific spokespeople and we hope that the official position of the Islamic Emirate will be taken from these spokespeople.”
AIP asked what would be the Taleban’s position if President Karzai had really said, or if he says, that if foreigners do not stop meddling in Afghanistan he will join the Taleban. Ahmadi replied: “This is drama. Karzai wants to draw people’s attention away from bigger issues, such as the invasion of the country, the killing of people and other big facts. Such remarks have no importance for the Taleban.”
Some media reported that the Taleban’s regional spokesman had said: “If President Hamed Karzai separates himself from foreigners, then he is our brother.”
(Description of Source: Peshawar Afghan Islamic Press in Pashto — Peshawar Afghan Islamic Press in Pashto — Peshawar-based agency, staffed by Afghans, that describes itself as an independent “news agency” but whose history and reporting pattern reveal a perceptible pro-Taliban bias; the AIP’s founder-director, Mohammad Yaqub Sharafat, has long been associated with a mujahidin faction that merged with the Taliban’s “Islamic Emirate” led by Mullah Omar; subscription required to access content; http://www. afghanislamicpress. com)
End/ (Not Continued)