Afghanistan caught in friendly fire

Posted in Afghanistan | 20-Jan-09 | Author: M K Bhadrakumar| Source: Asia Times

Vice-President Elect Joe Biden (R) shakes hands with a soldier deployed to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) at the Regional Command South, in Kandahar on January 11.

The Barack Obama era is commencing on a combative note in Afghanistan. The Afghan bazaar is buzzing with rumors that the equations between Washington and Kabul have become uncertain. Senior Afghan figures have been quoted as concluding that "the new US administration and the current Afghan administration will not be speaking the same language".

This followed a controversial visit to the Afghan capital Kabul last week by United States vice president-elect Joseph Biden. As the chairman of the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden is not a novice to foreign affairs and diplomacy, or to Afghanistan. Yet, during his visit, Biden apparently pulled up Afghan President Hamid Karzai for not giving a good account of himself as a ruler.

Again, Afghan Foreign Minister Dadfar Spanta has objected to US secretary of state-designate Hillary's Clinton's use of the term "narco state" to describe Afghanistan in her Senate testimony last Tuesday on her nomination. He called in the Associated Press specifically to rebut that Clinton's characterization was "absolutely wrong". Nerves are getting frayed at the edges.

NATO chief chips in

Alas, the Obama presidency is starting on a false note when close coordination between Washington and Kabul ought to be the hallmark of relations. As if taking a cue from the irate Americans, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, tore into the Karzai government in an unprecedented opinion piece in The Washington Post on Sunday, alleging among other things that "the basic problem in Afghanistan is not too much Taliban; it's too little good governance".

Scheffer is a consummate diplomat in the best traditions of the Atlantic alliance and is known to be always at Washington's bidding. He wrote, "We have paid enough, in blood and treasure, to demand that the Afghan government take more concrete and vigorous action to root out corruption and increase efficiency, even where that means difficult political choices."

Kabul didn't even wait for a full working day before Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Baheen plainly told Scheffer where to get off. He accused that the Afghan government was being undermined as the "international community, including some powerful NATO member countries, has their own favorite warlords" who they back against the Karzai government. Baheen, in turn, accused Western aid groups of corruption and the coalition forces for condoning opium production.

Biden leaks confidential talk

The curious part is that details of Biden's sensitive conversation in the Afghan presidential palace have found their way into the media and, inevitably, to the noisy Kabul bazaar. Afghans cannot resist coming up with conspiracy theories.

Karzai's spokesman Humayun Hamizada neither confirmed nor denied the reports that Biden had delivered a tough message to Karzai. He merely said the conversation was "frank but cordial and friendly". In diplomatic idiom, that usually means Biden and Karzai politely agreed to disagree. Or, more to the point in this case, Karzai, being the weaker of the two, held his ground.

Hamizada hinted that the differences were mainly over the war's strategy. He recalled Karzai had time and again stressed the "need to review the war on terrorism ... need to review our strategy, the way we fight terrorism and where we fight terrorism".

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL), Biden played "an aggressive foreign-policy role" in Kabul and delivered a "strong message" to Karzai. American officials have been cited as saying Biden "encouraged the Afghan leader to rid his government of corruption and temper his public statements regarding civilian casualties caused by NATO forces in Afghanistan".

Biden seems to have taken a particularly dim view of Karzai's growing criticism regarding the excessive use of military force by US troops against Afghan civilians. He reportedly warned Karzai that Washington "will view future statements as posturing for the presidential elections set to take place in Afghanistan later this year". American sources added that Biden "included no mention of the end of Karzai's presidential run, over which the United States in any case has no say".

Afghan bazaar speculates regime change

Meanwhile, the Kabul bazaar is full of rumors that Biden flatly told Karzai he was on his way out and that the US vice-president elect's mission might have been an effort to find a suitable replacement. Unsurprisingly, Biden's call on Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar led to further speculation that the British-educated Afghan official, who, according to RFERL, "is widely considered one of the most effective managers in Karzai's administration", might just be the suitable replacement that Washington is looking for as the next president of Afghanistan.

A spate of articles has appeared in the Western media during the past six months portraying Karzai as presiding over a corrupt, inefficient, ineffectual government that is confined to Kabul and its environs. This has generated a negative impression about Karzai in Western opinion, apart from making it very obvious that things are not going smoothly between the Afghan government and the international community.

Karzai holds his ground

What probably put the Americans' back up was an outspoken interview that Karzai gave to The Chicago Tribune last month. For the first time, Karzai reacted to Obama's harsh remark while on the campaign trail that the Afghan president had not yet "gotten out of the bunker and helped to organize Afghanistan".

Karzai loudly wondered: "Bunker? We are in a trench, and our allies are with us in the trench. We were on a high hill with glorious success in 2002, backed fully by the Afghan people ... We must now look back and find out as to why are we in a trench, or if you'd like to describe it, a bunker. Why are we in a bunker?"

They seem to have duly taken note in Washington, and did not like the assertive remark, deciding they might as well make it plain that someone they put in power, they could just as well remove from power. What is overlooked, however, is the substance of Karzai's criticism.

Which is a pity, since Obama can only benefit from reading and re-reading the transcript of Karzai's hour-long interview. Most expert commentators would share Karzai's views, though they might constitute an open indictment of the American military commanders and their chief in the Pentagon.

Karzai had a strong point when he said, "The international community should correct their behavior ... the [US-led] coalition went around the Afghan villages, burst into people's homes and committed extra-judicial killings in our country ... And if this behavior continues, we will be in a deeper trench than we are today. And the war against terrorism will end in disgraceful defeat."

Again, Karzai was spot on when he said, "If they [US-led forces] go to the Afghan homes and burst in and arrest or kill, does that leave the Afghan people with the feeling that they have a government? No. That is actually the destruction of the Afghan government. If Afghanistan is a sovereign country, if Afghanistan has a constitution, if Afghanistan has laws, and if there is the slogan of strengthening Afghan democracy and institutions, then Afghan sovereignty and Afghan laws must be respected, and not violated in such an extreme manner as is being done today."

He stressed that the war strategy reportedly being conceived in the Pentagon to arm Pashtun tribes and set them against each other would have catastrophic consequences: "If we create militias again, we will be ruining this country further." True, the new US war strategy is unrealistic insofar as it simplifies what are in fact multi-layered structures of violence in Afghanistan. The strategy overlooks the enormous variety of local violence. A policy similar to the "awakening" of Sunni tribes in Iraq cannot be the answer to Afghan violence.

Equally, Karzai was critical of the so-called "surge" policy that is the brainwave of Central Command chief General David Petraeus from his Iraq campaign. He felt any additional US troops should be deployed to man the Afghan-Pakistan border rather than intensify military operations in the southeastern provinces as the Pentagon is contemplating. To this end, the US plans to double the number of its troops in the country, from about 30,000 to 60,000. Karzai anticipates that the proposed "surge" will only accelerate the bloodbath, which in turn will make his position extremely precarious politically and generate more local support for the Taliban fighters who are increasingly being seen by the people as a genuine resistance to the marauding Western forces.

Who isn't corrupt?

The US criticism about rampant corruption in Afghanistan has basis. But, then, what do we expect out of a long sunset when a country slowly bleeds to death and foreign military occupation strips it of national honor and self-confidence? Putting things into perspective, it was former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld who introduced the US policy of dispatching planeloads of green bucks to the Hindu Kush in a cynical move to encourage Afghan "warlords" to take on al-Qaeda so that Americans didn't have to do the fighting.

Most of these "warlords" who worked for the US special forces today ostentatiously display their ill-gotten wealth. Many are deeply involved in prostitution, bootlegging and drug trafficking. They are openly buying and selling sinecure positions. Their palatial mansions in Kabul came up right under the nose of the US Embassy. Again, it was the Pentagon's obstinacy that the drug problem was not their business which allowed the situation to develop into its current scale, eating into the vitals of the Afghan state.

When the occupiers themselves are the fountainhead of venality - like the Spanish Conquistadors who introduced "European diseases" in the Western hemisphere in the 16th century - how can the blame be apportioned to Karzai's regime or family members? In a devastating essay recently, noted American aid worker and author Ann Jones lifted the veil of silence over the spectrum of corruption that the George W Bush administration introduced in Afghanistan. (See The Afghan reconstruction boondoggle Asia Times Online, January 13.)

The US not only skimped on aid but ploughed the big bucks into the coffers of well-connected American military contractors and profiteers and the whole retinue of parasites who generally go under the rubric of experts and consultants. Jones called it "a form of well-organized routine graft that leaves the corruption of Karzai's government in the shade and will undoubtedly continue unremarked upon in the Obama years. Those multi-millions that will continue to be poured down the Afghan drain really represent promises made to a people whose country and culture we have devastated more than once."

Browbeating, damning or dumping Karzai will not end the stalemate in the war. Actually, the best thing would be to allow the Afghan people to genuinely choose Karzai as their president in the upcoming election and if they indeed do so, to let him select his team. It may not be an English-speaking team, but that is the best way the Afghan political process can hope to gain traction, if at all, in the current gloomy scenario when it looks difficult to rescue the seven-year US enterprise.

Karzai is still the best choice America has got in Kabul. Biden's visit was a mistake because in political terms, he seems to have mortally wounded Karzai, even if Washington's his intention was merely to do some plain speaking before the Obama era commenced, about salvaging the US's efforts.

Biden's tough talk leaps out of a classic Graham Greene novel set in Indo-China in the 1950s. It dampens the residual hopes of a clean break from the overbearing US war strategy in Afghanistan, which Karzai resents and the Taliban exploit.

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.