Afghanistan’s Karzai Problem

President Hamid Karzai has been locked in war of words with every one inside Afghanistan and beyond. Blamed for much of instability, corruption and mis-governance, President Karzai himself is increasingly becoming Afghanistan's biggest problem. Noted Afghan scholar and editor-in-chief of two of Afghanistan's largest dailies, Dr Hussain Yasa sheds light on Karzai's divisive Afghan and world view.

Posted on 02/4/14
By Dr Hussain Yasa | Via ViewsWeek
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai offers a brief cultural exchange discussing tea etiquette back in his country as he gestures with a Pentagon cup in hand as Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta hosts him in a working luncheon at the Pentagon Jan. 10, 2013. (DoD Photo By Glenn Fawcett, Creative Commons License)
President Hamid Karzai offers a brief cultural exchange discussing tea etiquette back in his country as he gestures with a Pentagon cup in hand as Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta hosts him in a working luncheon at the Pentagon Jan. 10, 2013. (DoD Photo By Glenn Fawcett, Creative Commons License)

On January 25, 2014, President Hamid Karzai announced at two different events in Kabul that he would not sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States unless Washington meets his preconditions. Keeping up his anti American rhetoric, he declared that Bagram (the Afghan airbase used by the U.S.-lead forces) had become a production line of Taliban. He denounced U.S. forces for detaining and humiliating “innocent” Afghans and forcing them upon release to stand up against their own country. Karzai was unmoved by the dossiers produced by the U.S. and his own security apparatus containing evidence that many of the detainees are dangerous and have been involved in killing Afghan and NATO troops as well numerous civilians.

 

Despite unending American optimism, the Bilateral Security Agreement issue seems stuck in a cul de sac. Karzai compared the BSA to the Durand Line and Gandamak agreements. Afghan nationalist historians consider these to be humiliating agreements signed under duress. Karzai stopped short of equating the BSA with Gandamak. But his body language said it all, appreciated by Afghan historians. He didn’t use the same wordings but his body language and tone proclaimed that signing the BSA would be as dishonorable as Emir Yaqub Khan going to a British camp in Gandamak to sign away Afghan territory and sovereignty.

 

Over the years Karzai has sporadically blamed the U.S. for many failures in Afghanistan. But he crossed a red line in the US-Islamic World Forum held in Qatar on June 9-11, 2013, when he said the U.S. is responsible for the growing extremism in the Islamic world.

 

Then on October 07, 2013 talking to the BBC, Karzai lashed out at NATO, describing it as the cause of suffering of Afghans because of its role in killing the innocents. On December 10, 2013 talking to the French Newspaper “Le Monde” he, said that the U.S. is absolutely acting as a colonial power.

 

On January 28, 2014 the Washington Post quoting a senior official within the government reported that Karzai believes that recent terrorist attacks were orchestrated by the US to undermine his government. Karzai made similar allegations over three years ago, when the Taliban attacked the three-day Consultative Peace Jirga on June 02, 2010. Soon afterwards he sacked his Intelligence Chief and Interior Minister for failing to provide security to the grand meeting of Afghan elders.

 

Civilian Casualties        

Killing of non-combatants has been the ugliest side of war for centuries. The most reprehensible way of is happening is when a warring group uses innocents as a human shield. The Taliban and their Al Qaeda partners have a reputation for their brutal ways of dealing with civilians since 1994, when the movement emerged on Afghan scene.

There have been dozens of reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the start of “Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)” in 2001. Many incidents are indeed tragic and civilians uninvolved in hostilities killed or injured. Despite all the talk about precision bombing, the most advanced military sometimes gets it wrong and ordinary people suffer. But the asymmetric tactics adopted by the Taliban and Al Qaeda has increased the risks to civilians. Insurgents consciously use civilians as a human shield.

 

Initially after the early incidents of civilian casualties, both Afghan and NATO troops tried to mitigate the risks to civilians by insisting on precise intelligence before operations. But things changed around 2005. Karzai’s affair with the international community started to break up in the period before the second countrywide elections (in 2009). It was realized worldwide that one of the obstacles to a prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan was corruption in the Karzai government. Reaction against this had boosted support for the Taliban as they started to gain ground in the rural areas.

 

Corruption

It was admitted officially and reported by the various non-governmental organizations that the various layers of government, up to the Presidential Palace, were involved in a wide range of corrupt practices. Since, there was no will to fight corruption, with the passage of the time it was slowly institutionalized and infiltrated into almost every walk of life. Many reports showed that corruption had gone beyond the level at which it could realistically be curbed by ordinary measures.

 

Karzai faced a challenge as he was asking for more money from international donors to be spent through the channel of his corrupt administration. The world community was reluctant. The problem was compounded by the lack of capacity of the various ministries to properly disburse development and ordinary budgets.

 

From 2006 onwards there were multiple incidents in which Karzai’s team announced higher civilian casualty figures than indicated by reliable reports from the field
Karzai highlighted the issue of civilian casualties in direct proportion to the demands for transparency and a corruption-free Afghan administration. Just like the Taliban, Karzai chose to hide behind a human shield. From 2006 onwards there were multiple incidents in which Karzai’s team announced higher civilian casualty figures than indicated by reliable reports from the field. Egged on by the President some unscrupulous people even dug fake graves to attract the attention of media and to claim more money as compensation. This manipulation was deeply insulting to the real civilian casualties. Local and International media reported more than a dozen times replays of the dispute between Karzai and his international allies and no technical or diplomatic measures could reconcile their different takes on the many incidents.

 

The last high profile case of civilian casualties was reported on January 16, 2014 in a fierce battle in Ghorband  (in Parwan province) between Afghan and NATO troops on one side and the Taliban on the other. Once again the Taliban and Karzai were on the same page on the issue of exaggeration of casualties. Karzai appointed Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a pro-Taliban MP, as the head of a fact-finding commission to investigate this matter. The evidence provided to the Afghan National Security Council bizarrely drew on material collected from Taliban sources. Once again Karzai blasted the U.S. and made Ghorband his latest excuse for not signing the BSA. Soon afterwards, the Governor of Parwan province, another MP and members from the affected families dismissed the results of the presidential inquiry as concocted.

 

The Taliban Prisoners

Afghans and the world were surprised when they found that Karzai is even keener than the Taliban on pursuing the issue of Guantanamo prisoners, captured during the OEF. These include notorious Taliban commanders who were involved in systematic massacres in the northern and central Afghanistan.

 

The extrajudicial release of Taliban has become more prominent after Bagram Detention Center was handed over to Karzai last year. However Karzai was presiding over the release of Taliban fighters and terrorists for many years before he got his hands on the keys to Bagram. His former intelligence chief admitted this fact many times even in his briefings to the open sessions of Parliament.

President Karzai never took the “War on Terror” seriously, not even in the heady days of 2001. As a leader, Karzai modeled himself on those old Mujahideen commanders who were accused of letting Osama bin Laden and his friends slip away from Tora Bora in December 2001. He never acted as a reliable partner to the more than 100,000 NATO combat troops in their efforts to overcome the Taliban. He desperately tried to limit the capabilities of the troops by creating obstacles in their way and objecting to detentions, home searches, night raids and air support.

 

General Rasheed Dostum has enjoyed immense influence in norther Afghanistan for decades.
General Rasheed Dostum has enjoyed immense influence in norther Afghanistan for decades. (Photo from Gen Dostum’s website)

Karzai’s game was to use ISAF against the North (northern Afghanistan, the bastion of non-Pashtoon Northern Alliance) rather than the Taliban. He even tried to trick the Americans into bombing General Abdul Rasheed Dostam (the Uzbek leader from northern Afghanistan) by concocting reports that he was involved in a rebellion. It would have been a disaster if the Americans had fallen for this particular canard.

 

And while the US has been lavishing billions of dollars on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), Karzai has never trusted his own army and is more interested in staving off an imagined coup than in leading the army against the country’s enemy. Bizarrely he identifies much more with the Taliban as the army of his native community. Probably in private he watches Taliban propaganda videos and cheers as their militants blow up American Humvees. He dreams of having the Taliban Movement under his command and using it to dominate Afghanistan and smash the anti-Taliban constituency politically and militarily.

 

Karzai calculates that by releasing Taliban insurgents from the prison he is strengthening the Taliban military. He knows that released militants go back into action. Releasing them is an act of war by someone who sees himself as commander-in-chief.       

 

Reluctance in Signing BSA 

Everyone in Afghanistan is aware of the importance of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US. A vast swathe of public opinion believes that it is critical for the economy and security of the country and that there is a real risk of state collapse if Afghanistan does not sign. But Karzai has used the crudest possible tactics to delay it, by posing the US as the monster rather than the ally.

 

There are many complex conspiracy theories about this aggressive attitude of president Karzai toward the US. The reality is much simpler. Karzai is acting out a fantasy. He is behaving like an adolescent addicted to the comic strips of his childhood, who desperately wants to look like a batman-superman hero. In the Karzai fantasy world he has a cartoon image of the heroes of Pashtun history, such as Ahmad Shah Abdali, who founded a dynasty in the second half of the eighteenth century.

 

There were many critics in Afghanistan over his growing anti-US rhetoric, since it strengthened the Taliban’s case. They have long considered America as enemy number one for ousting their regime in 2001 with the help of their previous utmost enemy the then Northern Alliance.

 

In addition to his growing anti-US sentiments, he has also been threatening the community leaders from the Northern anti-Taliban constituency, telling them that if he does not get his way, he may be obliged to bring back the Taliban.  He has repeated this threat many times since he came to power in 2001 as the head of the Afghan Interim Administration. Karzai’s implied message to the non-Pashtun communities was that the dismissal of the Taliban administration would not change the fundamental balance of power in the country. They were fated to live under Pashtun rule and they should be thankful to have a soft Pashtun ruler. Karzai tried to convey to the non-Pashtuns that his rule is ordained by God and brings with it divine blessings. They should rejoice since they have all those freedoms which the Taliban brutally seized from them, at least there have been no more systematic ethnic cleansing, scorched earth policy and Stone Age interpretation of religion mixed with traditions unmatched to their life style. The threat to bring back Taliban was not just directed to the non-Pashtuns but also to the international community led by NATO.

 

Karzai tried hard to become one of the comrades of Molla Omar and lobbied to be the permanent representative of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan in New York. Ironically, the Taliban turned him down as incompetent and unreliable. He met with Mullah Baradar and tried to negotiate with the Taliban leadership at the time of the Taliban retreat from Kandahar in 2001 but failed to get the US to buy into the deal he wanted to offer
He tried to convince the US to divert the war towards the Northern Alliance rather than concentrating on Taliban. He always considered the Taliban as his brothers, including their fugitive leader Molla Omar. He posed the northern anti-Taliban constituency as the strategic threat to the system. This ethnocentric mindset of the president is also mentioned in “Duty” the memoire of Robert Gates, the former US Secretary of Defense. It should not be forgotten that Karzai tried hard to become one of the comrades of Molla Omar and lobbied to be the permanent representative of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan in New York. Ironically, the Taliban turned him down as incompetent and unreliable. He met with Mullah Baradar and tried to negotiate with the Taliban leadership at the time of the Taliban retreat from Kandahar in 2001 but failed to get the US to buy into the deal he wanted to offer. For a while Karzai and his associates dismissed the Taliban as useless tools because they allowed the mishandling of the Al Qaeda confrontation with the US to disrupt their campaign to conquer Afghanistan.

 

Karzai feels that BSA would be an obstacle in his way to reach to his dreams. He harbors illusions that the US with its huge resources might give him terms, which would help him to achieve his ethnocentric agenda. In any case, he considers the BSA useless if America is just to stay in Afghanistan and train the ANSF and do counter-terrorism. After all he does not trust the ANSF and considers the terrorists his brothers. 

 

Elections 2014

The international community is pinning hopes on the 2014 elections to consolidate democracy in Afghanistan. But the bitter reality is that none of the elections which Karzai and his cronies have presided over since 2004 has been anywhere near to meeting international norms
The international community is pinning hopes on the 2014 elections to consolidate Democracy in Afghanistan. But the bitter reality is that none of the elections which Karzai and his cronies have presided over since 2004 has been anywhere near to meeting international norms. The 2004 countrywide presidential polls conducted under the supervision of the UN were just a formality. The second presidential election in 2009 was marked with huge systematic rigging. But in his Goebbels-like parlance, Karzai still denounces the 2009 Election Commission’s act of rejecting one million votes from stuffed ballot boxes as “foreign interference”. His blatant refusal to acknowledge that ballot box stuffing has become a feature of Karzai-era elections is as clear a declaration as you could expect that this time too he plans to tell his administration to stuff the boxes for the palace-favored candidate.

 

One should admire the opposition leaders for going to polls even after understanding this fact.  Probably they want to test the last hope for a democratic Afghanistan.

Many hope that the upcoming presidential polls could be a means for a peaceful transition of power. But that is the least likely outcome as it doesn’t match the Afghan ruling culture. For Karzai the upcoming elections will be nothing but another round of a systematic ballot stuffing for the candidate of his choice, who will be determined in coming weeks. Following in the steps of his predecessor rulers by staying on for life seems to be impossible. So he dreams instead of continuing his rule indirectly.

 

Karzai wants a free hand to manipulate the electoral process. Therefore, with another nod to Goebbels, he proclaims that he demands the Americans promise elections will be free and fair. The message is simple – back off and let me rig as I like. .

 

Peace Process    

He was never sincere regarding the peace process to end the war in Afghanistan. For him peace is nothing more than the unity of his native community under his sole command. The few non-Pashtuns whom Karzai has ostensibly involved in the process have been systematically sidelined. He is dealing with the peace process either through his family members or his loyal comrades. Meanwhile, partly inspired by the realization that the President deliberately marginalized him and cut him out of any serious discussions on negotiations, the High Peace Council chief Sallahuddin Rabbani, the son of the non-Pashtun ex-president assassinated by the Taliban on September 20, 2011, has joined the camp of the main opposition presidential candidate.

 

Karzai wants to portray himself as the nationalist hero simultaneously standing up to both Pakistan and America
Karzai wishes that the US would use all its capabilities to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and pressurize them to accept Karzai. This is impossible. Karzai dishes out some of his harshest criticism to anyone who dares suggest that Afghanistan’s conflict is fundamentally an internal one rather than international. Never mind that 90 percent of current armed clashes involve Afghan fighting against Afghan, Karzai wants to portray himself as the nationalist hero simultaneously standing up to both Pakistan and America. He also denies that the Taliban control parts of Afghanistan and believes that the sanctuaries are beyond the borders. It is the job of US to finish them by using its maximum military capability and to pressurize Pakistan to bring Taliban under his command, again an impossible task.

 

The Future

  1. Karzai will continue his anti US rhetoric to curry favor among his native Pashtuns, in particular the Taliban and Hizbe Islami. He is not different from them in his warped sense his community’s interests.
  2. Although, Karzai never missed a chance to portray the US as the villain and the spoiler in Afghanistan. But on the contrary the US diplomacy has been very resilient and they have expressed the maximum level of tolerance. But Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary General on January 27, 2014 in Brussels has warned that Afghanistan may lose aid packages if Karzai fails to sign BSA. The other US European Allies have also expressed the same sentiments. On the other hand Karzai is not in the mood to be impressed by these threats. First, he cannot sign the BSA since he has already called it equal to the most shameful treaties in Afghan history. Secondly, if it is signed Karzai will not own it since signing BSA doesn’t fulfill his ambitions to be enlisted in the line of Afghan heroes mentioned in the history. He considers the BSA as a betrayal and treason to his native community, avoiding that betrayal is to sell the country to the Taliban or its notorious ally Hizbe Islami.
  3. The strong domestic and world pressure has affected the pace of Karzai’s efforts to help the Taliban by releasing the ruthless terrorists. But it will not stop him from doing so. He has released thousands of them over the last years and he will continue to do so.
  4. The world community and the Afghans who still hope for a stable, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan should reaffirm their commitment that if this time the mandate of the people is stolen they will not keep silent. Even if perfect elections are impossible this time, Afghans and international community alike should resist attempts to take ballot stuffing to the level where it kills the future of democracy in Afghanistan.
  5.  The world and Afghans in particular the anti-Taliban constituency should stand ready to face any artificially contrived crisis through which Karzai might try to bring the Taliban back into power. If Karzai could not fulfill any of his promises to lead Afghanistan towards a better future he will keep his word and handover to the Taliban as a last resort.

 

Dr. Hussain Yasa is the Editor-in-Chief of the daily Outlook Afghanistan. Currently he lives in Germany in a self-imposed exile. He can be reached at dr.yasa@munichprocess.com

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