By Wajid Ali Syed
In almost every briefing pertaining to South Asia, the U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke says that he won’t use the ‘K word,’ by which he means Kashmir. This is sensible of him, knowing that any statement could escalate into an exchange of hot words between India and Pakistan (and India has made it clear it has no intention of bowing down before an meddling intermediary). Hence Ambassador Holbrooke understands the seriousness of the situation and thus avoids the “K” issue.
There is another increasingly controversial “K” that U.S. officials should refrain from using, especially in a derogatory manner. And that “K” stands for Karzai. Until recently the United States has treated the Afghan President as a puppet without realizing that his power base has grown in Afghanistan. It’s true that when Karzai was installed by the Bush administration he had little to no support in the country. But just the Bush era has passed and America has voted in a new President, time has not stood still for Karzai. The sooner the US realizes this the better for the Afghanistan, the NATO, the British and the US army. Over the years Karzai made himself matter in the country while rumors of his impending political death continued to circulate. The first sign of Karzai’s power was evident last year when the West discredited him during Afghanistan’s presidential elections. His opponent Abdullah Abdullah was openly supported by the Obama administration. The conflicting reports coming out of Afghanistan made the geniuses in Washington conclude that an ethnic Pashtun shouldn’t represent Afghanistan. Karzai didn’t take the news well. On the ground the situation was quite different. An intelligence expert based in Afghanistan said that if Abdullah Abdullah runs again he will still lose to Karzai. The reason? Abdullah Abdullah is of Tajik ethnicity.
It’s on the record that when Karzai agreed to a second round run-off vote Dr. Abdullah withdrew from the race. Abdullah’s claims that he had dropped his bid because of overwhelming voter fraud was only part of the story. This doesn’t mean that the elections were clean. From Peter Galbraith to the U.N. to Hamid Karzai, there was agreement that ballot mishandling and corruption took place — but what do you expect from a country run by the Taliban for five years and then taken over by the Western armies with little to no understanding of internal Afghan dynamics? If Karzai’s brother is a warlord and a drug trafficker, Abdullah Abdullah has such criminals in his camp too, the difference being that Karzai’s brother is reported to be helping U.S. intelligence. Hamid Karzai’s recent statements about joining with the Taliban have been unhinged, but they reflect his growing frustration with his Western sponsors.
Just last month Karzai, like a shrewd chess player, made a point of inviting Iran’s Ahmadinejad to visit Afghanistan, presumably as a goodwill gesture to reach out to his neighbors. Afghanistan can not change its neighbors at the behest of the United States – but Karzai can certainly rattle some cages when need be. That President Obama’s schedule suddenly opened up following that visit, necessitating a rush to Kabulthat speaks not only to the wiliness of Karzai, but also the importance of Afghanistan and, more disturbingly, the disarray of U.S. policy toward that country.
Angered by Karzai’s threats to join with the Taliban, the White House has started threatening to call off Karzai’s trip to the U.S. A bevy of questionable opinions being circulated in the American press are adding fuel to the fire. Such suggestions look good on paper but are not practically executable. This Pentagon theory will bear no results, as it is impossible to deploy the army countrywide, take out the middle tier of Taliban sympathizers and eventually nab the upper tier. Logically, the army doesn’t know who is Taliban and who is not; furthermore, who are the “good” and “bad” Taliban? Who can be negotiated with and brought into political talks and which elements are too ideologically hardened and radicalized, thereby incapable of negotiating? Such an approach indicates that decision makers are living in lalaland while ground realities are totally different, especially when Obama wants to bring back troops while Karzai is willing to talk to ‘good Taliban’. Karzai is another ‘K’ that cannot be ignored.