Obama, Karzai and the Afghan Labyrinth
CENTRAL ASIA, 2 Dec 2013
With deep mutual distrust, Obama and Karzai consider their legacies.The Afghan Loya Jirga’s endorsement of a security pact with the United States, to be signed by December 31, has brought to an end the uncertainty over the status of foreign troops, and Afghanistan’s relations with its donors, after most NATO forces are withdrawn from the country next year. However, it happened not before the whole labyrinth of Afghanistan was under the spotlight, and some lively exchanges were made between all sides.
First, the New York Times reported that President Hamid Karzai had given up his opposition to Washington’s demands that US soldiers be immune from Afghan prosecution, and US special forces continue to have freedom to conduct “antiterrorism raids on private Afghan homes”. But soon after, the proceedings at the Loya Jirga had a moderating effect on that optimism.
President Karzai’s remarks about there being no trust between him and the US, and yet his call on the assembly to support the security pact, spoke volumes about Afghanistan’s need for economic assistance and stability on one hand, and the war and deep divisions which continue to traumatise the country on the other. Several members of parliament and the entire opposition had announced a boycott in advance.
A female delegate at the Loya Jirga shouted from the floor that: “US troops had spilt too much Afghan blood, and should be stopped”. And Shia religious leader Ayatollah Salehi said: “Judicial immunity is against our independence, national sovereignty, against the will of the Afghan people and explicitly in contravention of Islam.” In a society with deeply embedded religious and tribal customs, many people are enraged by US troops’ night raids on their homes, and their acts of violence against Afghan civilians.
The Taliban, still fighting after they were removed from power following the US invasion in 2001, described the Loya Jirga as a “council of traitors“, saying that “internal mercenaries” wanted to ensure the foreign forces’ prolonged stay in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s uncompromising attitude, and the thousands of US troops staying under the security pact once it is signed, suggest that Afghanistan will remain a country in conflict.
The scenario helps explain Karzai’s announcement at the opening ceremony that any agreement on the status of US forces should wait until after the presidential election in April 2014, and should be signed by his successor. The Obama administration, caught by surprise and showing urgency, insisted that the Afghans needed to approve and sign the agreement by the end of 2013. It would give Kabul little more than a month.
For the US, it was neither “practical nor possible” to delay the signing. There was an implied threat that a failure would lead to the withdrawal of all troops, and no US aid to Afghanistan.
Roots of discord
The truth is that the US did not want a total withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the brinkmanship between Kabul and Washington raised intriguing questions. Why did President Karzai want to delay the signing until his successor had assumed office after the April 2014 election? And why should the US have viewed a four-month delay so calamitous for the agreement? After all, the US is a country known for drawn-out legislative processes.
Karzai was the US’ preferred choice to lead Afghanistan after the Taliban regime’s overthrow in 2001, but their relations have deteriorated steadily, especially under the Obama presidency. Accusations of corruption, incompetence and nepotism against the Karzai administration abound, though these ills afflict all sides in a clearly troubled partnership.
Alongside the US narrative of problems with the Afghan president and his close circle, there is an important narrative about President Obama and his administration’s conduct that has been perceived in Kabul as having caused deliberate and repeated humiliations of Afghanistan and President Karzai. The Afghan narrative should not be ignored in any serious attempt to understand the problems.
A great power demands compliance from minor entities. Karzai has often been defiant, and critical of US-led military operations resulting in civilian casualties and disrupted life for the Afghans. In this respect, Karzai is not like the other US dictator allies: A few names that come to mind are Marcos of the Philippines, Thieu of South Vietnam, Somoza of Nicaragua many a year ago, and Pervez Musharraf and Hosni Mubarak more recently.
Karzai was part of the anti-Communist Afghan opposition in the 1980s. He is well aware of the failed Soviet attempts to use loyal rulers to lead Communist regimes in Kabul. It was a somewhat risky move for the White House to publicly set a deadline barely a month away, at a time when the Loya Jirga was meeting. A swift response was issued from Kabul, that it “will not be rushed”, and that “President Karzai’s desire to sign the agreement after next year’s presidential election was the only deadline recognised by Afghanistan”.
The Afghanistan Times had earlier quoted Karzai as saying that the security pact could only be signed “when our elections are conducted, correctly and with dignity”. His spokesman underlined the need to secure the Loya Jirga’s approval. Afghan constitutions have come and gone with the country’s upheavals. The customary role of tribal assemblies in approving a constitution, resolving disputes and considering issues of national importance has remained constant. The process may not be perfect, but in the absence of the tribal jirga, legitimacy, in the eyes of many Afghans, is difficult to achieve.
As Obama and Karzai both approach the end of their final term as president, they are under competing political pressures. Obama, who is due to leave the White House in January 2017, is a man in a hurry, at a time when success is by no means certain in the latest Israeli-Palestinian talks, and rapprochement with Iran has just started after more than three decades of cold war, and tedious negotiations in recent months finally resulting in a historic, but fragile, agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Karzai, whose presidential term will end after the April 2014 election, has personal as well as long-term considerations. In a distrustful relationship, Karzai’s interest is in securing maximum cover for himself in the eyes of his people; true national sovereignty; and freedom for the next Afghan president to act. In essence, a legacy which, Karzai can argue, was delivered at a time of extreme national emergency.
Deepak Tripathi, fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, is a British historian of the Middle East, the Cold War and America in the post-Soviet world.
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