In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Kabul anxiously beckons Obama

Posted by seumasach on January 13, 2010


Asia Times

14th January, 2010

A tipping point comes when confusion arises about the identity of the adversary on the battlefield. Who is the United States’ number one enemy in the Hindu Kush: the Taliban and al-Qaeda or Afghan President Hamid Karzai?

United States President Barack Obama isn’t a “hands-on” president. He has scores of preoccupations. In addition to Yemen, The New York Times reported last week that six million Americans – one in 50 people in the US population – are living with no income other than food stamps. Like its economy, America’s tattered image also needs repair. Muslim anger is rising. Ranging from the nuclear non-proliferation agenda to Iran, from the reset of relations with Russia to the surge of China, and from smart power to pre-emptive wars, Obama’s agenda is at an impasse.

Yet Obama should urgently re-engage with the Afghan war. He said his piece brilliantly on December 1 and then moved on. But the subalterns resumed the wrong war – the covert year-long war of attrition with Karzai – rather than the eight-year-old war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

They have an old score to settle with Karzai. He defied their intricate plan to oust him and have a brand new Pashtun from Washington implanted in the presidential palace. Such defiance cannot go unpunished. There is an imperative need to take control of the Kabul government. Obama is about to jack up the budget for Afghanistan. A scramble has broken out in anticipation of the gravy train that will run through the Hindu Kush.

Billions of dollars are being put into the pipeline, and if a few hundred million disappear into a black hole, no one will be the wiser as to how or when it happened. It happened in Iraq. The US’s “war contractors” are already a legion. Not only American contractors but Afghan high-flyers also make shrewd war profiteers. The Nation recently featured an account naming close relatives of the Afghan parliament speaker, Younus Qanooni, and Defense Minister Abdul Wardak.

Obviously, Washington wants to hold the purse strings, whereas Karzai wants donors to route aid through the government. He has a point. He is getting the brickbats for “corruption” while American contractors and their Afghan associates keep the money. The outgoing United Nations special envoy for Afghanistan, Kai Eide of Norway, also stated in his report to the UN Security Council on January 6 that the challenge was to “expand the reach of the [Afghan] government instead of continuing to rely on parallel international structures”.

Beyond sleaze or the issues of “capacity-building” in the Afghan government, there is also a serious political side. Afghan politicians, including “warlords”, are mesmerized by the Midas touch Washington gives to their lives overnight if only they sing the American tune. Thus, parliament turned down Karzai’s cabinet nominees, except for those who were known as America’s nominees.

The US-funded media in Pashtu and Dari have gone to town gleefully projecting the “shameful defeat” of Karzai. Western media went overboard. There is no shred of evidence that Afghans are so naive as to overlook the US muscle-play behind their parliament’s decision. The ordinary Afghan is so hopelessly bogged down in the business of day-to-day survival that he does not care two hoots for Western-style democracy or pork-barrel politics.

Karzai defiantly reacted last weekend in an interview with Qatar-based al-Jazeera television:

With the international community, I don’t need to have their favor. They are here for a purpose: the fight on terror. And we are working with our purpose, which is the stability and safety of Afghanistan. The international community, especially the West, they must respect Afghanistan and its government, and understand that we are a people, we are a country, we have a history, we have interests, we have pride, we have dignity. Our poverty must not become a means of ridicule and insult to us.

We are not going to ask for more cash. We are going to ask the international community to end night-time raids on Afghan homes. We are going to ask them to stop arresting Afghans. We are going to ask them to reduce and eliminate civilian casualties. That’s what I want NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] countries to understand with us: that the war on terror is not in Afghan villages. It’s not in the pursuit of every man that’s wearing a turban and has a beard.

The Obama administration’s war with Karzai is edging toward an unhappy ending. Such denouements turn out to be messy. Obama risks ridicule on the world stage. The silly part of the war is that it falls out of Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock – a contest among great friends rising from trivialities that got dramatized into a feud and soon assumed the character of a sprawling mock-epic on the folly of giving primacy to appearance over substance.

What is the US’s grievance about Karzai? Essentially, it boils down to a single point. The New York Times in an editorial narrated the US demand: “He [Karzai] also should work hard to find a place for Ashraf Ghani, former finance minister and World Bank official who is well regarded internationally. He [Ghani] has sensible ideas about developing a national strategy for improving governance and for adopting transparent criteria for choosing credible people for government jobs. He could bring credibility and competence to a government short on both.”

It stretched credulity that there is only one able and discerning Afghan today on the planet who has leadership qualities. Assuming the US wins, what would be the net gains of “regime change”? The Obama administration would have removed from power someone a previous administration thought was a US puppet but eventually turned out to have a mind of his own. But the factors that drove someone as affable, sociable and cooperative as Karzai into a corner will still not go away. And history will only repeat itself.

Second, for argument’s sake, even if Washington ultimately foists all its English-speaking Afghan cronies on Karzai’s cabinet, what follows thereafter? Ghani himself failed to impress Afghan voters, including in his native region. The US will only end up creating a government that pulls in different directions. Perhaps that’s the intention – divide and rule. Perhaps only the cronies can take unilateral decisions favoring US companies with lucrative contracts in the mining or telecommunications sector.

The US risks finding itself in a political quagmire. The Afghan parliamentarians that the US-driven elections in 2005 catapulted onto the center stage have completed their term. Karzai insists that fresh parliamentary elections be held as scheduled in May. The US, on the other hand, is petrified that the election may reflect the rising curve of popular mood against foreign occupation. Another debilitating phase of political skullduggery is probably commencing in Kabul. Karzai seems determined to “Afghanize” the parliamentary elections.

The Taliban are closely watching the US’s war with Karzai. Afghans do not respect foreigners whose friendship lacks consistency, though they may never quite wear their contempt on their sleeves for such lower forms of life.

The US’s war with Karzai could dearly cost the region. The interests of regional stability demand that Obama orders an immediate ceasefire. The sensible thing would be that he visits Kabul and initiates the armistice. At any rate, one year is a very long period for the commander-in-chief not to have visited a battlefield where he has deployed in the region of 100,000 troops.

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.

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