Ramtanu Maitra is a regular columnist with the Executive Intelligence Review (EIR), a news weekly published from Washington DC. He writes columns for Asia Times of Hong Kong, Frontier Post of Peshawar and some other newspapers in Asia on South Asian political economy and Asian security. He has written on terrorism in a number of publications in the United States and India.
So far, the search for his replacement has not been made public, although every Tom, Dick and Harry wearing the garb of an Afghan expert and is associated with the Obama administration, without so much as breaking his or her stride, blames Karzai and his “corrupt administration” for the mess in Afghanistan.
With the advent of the Obama administration, and induction of President Obama’s Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke into the Afghan theater, Pres. Karzai came under pressure. Although Washington’s plan for Afghanistan was never made clear, Karzai was nonetheless expected to follow it. As the security situation worsened, with insurgents gaining control of more and more territory by pushing U.S. and NATO-led foreign troops into their bases and maintaining the security of major towns, Washington and Brussels became increasingly reckless, killing Afghans by the hundreds and identifying all of them as “Taliban.”
That did not go over well with Karzai, a Pushtun. At the same time, it created intense mistrust of him among the majority of his fellow Pushtuns. Kabul repeatedly spoke out against the killing of innocent civilians, but to no avail. In retaliation, Washington heaped blame on Karzai, charging his “corrupt” administration with responsibility for all the ills and misfortunes. (Curiously, however, no one talked about why and how opium production in Afghanistan multiplied 25-fold from 2001 to 2007 under the watch of the British and U.S. troops, bringing in oodles of cash to all and sundry, including the so-called Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents battling and winning ground rapidly against the foreign troops.)
This was the “business as usual” that prevailed in Afghanistan from 2006 through 2009. A noticeable shift began with the Jan. 28 London Conference, which was attended by high-level diplomats from almost 70 countries. There a tacit agreement emerged among participants that reconciliation with some “good Taliban,” with the intent of bringing them to share power in Kabul, would be attempted. How it would be achieved remained a question mark, but Pres. Karzai got the message nonetheless. For him, there were only two options left: hand over power to the “good Taliban,” leave Afghanistan and spend the rest of his life in exile; or, fight back and somehow gain the confidence of a majority of the Pushtun community, a small fraction of which supports the Taliban — “good” or “bad.”
Following the London Conference, Pres. Karzai visited Riyadh, where he spoke to Saudi King Abdullah, a strong proponent of bringing the Taliban to power. Later he visited Islamabad, where the Pakistani Army Chief crowed that the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul would provide Pakistan once more with an opportunity to set up Afghanistan as its “strategic depth” to counter any Indian invasion plan. These experiences helped persuade Karzai that he would have to buck the tide and go for the second option.
Prior to his Pakistan visit, Karzai invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was still in Afghanistan on March 10 when the Iranian president predicted from Tehran that American efforts in Afghanistan would fail. Later, at a news conference at the presidential palace with Karzai, Ahmadinejad said the U.S. used the excuse of fighting “terrorists that they themselves created, supported and financed” to maintain its occupation of Afghanistan.
Ahmedinejad’s visit to Kabul did not go over well in Washington. Only two days before, the U.S. defense secretary had told reporters in Kabul that Iran was “playing a double game” in Afghanistan. “They want to maintain a good relationship with the Afghan government,” Gates said. “They also want to do everything they possibly to can to hurt us, or for us not to be successful.” He said he believed that Iran was providing money and “some low level of support” to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Asked about Gates’ comments, Ahmadinejad responded: “What are you doing in this region? You are 12,000 kilometers away from here, your country is the other side of the world, and what are you doing here? This is a serious question.”
Karzai’s China and Iran Gambit
Karzai’s next move was to embark on his first-ever visit to China, where he found Beijing very receptive. On March 24, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Hamid Karzai signed three deals covering economic cooperation, technical training and the granting of preferential tariffs for some Afghan exports to China. China is seen as a key player in an international coalition seeking to secure and rebuild Afghanistan, particularly after U.S. troops pull out, analysts say, adding that Beijing is striving in particular to revive the economy in Afghanistan.
Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul told the China Daily on March 24 that China has contributed tremendously in Afghan economic development, especially in infrastructure building. It had been reported earlier that the state-owned China Metallurgical Group promised to invest a record US$3 billion in Aynak, one of the world’s largest copper mines located south of Kabul.
“There are some security issues,” Rassoul said. “We are trying to deal with it, and I hope the security situation will allow Chinese investment to operate without any risks.” Afghanistan is heavily dependent on international aid, but its government hopes the vast reserves of minerals will provide the key to eventual financial independence, Rassoul added.
Gong Shaopeng, a professor in international politics at China Foreign Affairs University, said the major goal of the Afghan government is to revitalize the country's economy. He said China's step-by-step aid to the country has helped stabilize the situation and provide job opportunities. “We have helped Afghanistan rebuild facilities damaged by the war, like roads and water channels,” he said.
Subsequently, Pres. Karzai further antagonized his Western allies when he joined regional leaders in Tehran to celebrate the first festival of the International Day of Nauroz on March 27. Leaders from Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq and Turkey, as well as senior-level representatives from 20 other countries were in Iran to participate in the international celebrations.
Thanking leaders for taking part in the festival, Iranian Foreign Minister NAME? said celebrations at the regional level were first observed in 2008 in Dushanbe, in Tajikistan, with the participation of the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan. The following year, he said, the occasion was celebrated more gloriously in Afghanistan’s northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Pres. Karzai had been among the speakers on that important day, he said, adding that he hoped 2010 would be a year of peace, stability and progress for Afghanistan.
A Talk in the Dark
Within days, under the cover of darkness, U.S. President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Kabul. Before he departed, also under the cover of darkness, the American president had a long talk with Pres. Karzai. Although the discussion was not made public, reports indicate Obama made clear to Karzai that he was highly displeased with the Afghan president’s performance.
The Washington Post, in its lead editorial on April 6, said that Pres. Obama has been pressuring Karzai “to crack down on the rampant corruption in his government, especially in the southern provinces where U.S. troops are trying to break the hold of the Taliban.” The White House also resisted Karzai’s attempt to eliminate U.N. representatives from the election commission, the Post noted, adding that the Afghan president’s claim of electoral interference, though perhaps prompted by that pressure, is not credible. His steps toward launching negotiations with insurgent leaders appear premature, at best, the Post concluded.
Clearly, his discussion with the U.S. president had enraged Karzai. On April 1, addressing the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the Afghan president lashed out against Washington’s accusations that he had committed vote fraud in the election last October. “There is no doubt that the fraud was very widespread, but this fraud was not committed by Afghans, it was committed by foreigners...,” Karzai fumed. “This fraud was committed by Galbraith, this fraud was committed by Morillon, and this fraud was committed by embassies.” Karzai was referring to Peter W. Galbraith, the deputy United Nations special representative to Afghanistan at the time of the election who helped reveal the fraud, and Philippe Morillon, the chief election observer for the European Union.
Later in the speech, he accused the Western coalition fighting against the Taliban of being on the verge of becoming “invaders” — a term usually used by insurgents to refer to American, British and other NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan. “In this situation there is a thin curtain between invasion and cooperation-assistance,” said Karzai, adding that if the perception spread that the Western forces were invaders and the Afghan government their mercenaries, the insurgency “could become a national resistance.”
That speech, particularly the implication that the insurgency could become a national resistance, got Washington’s goat. There was a widespread hue and cry in Washington, where Obama administration officials expressed dismay at such “outrageous” allegations by a “corrupt” handmaiden of the United States. But Karzai was in no mood to back down.
Three days later, on April 4, visiting his home town of Kandahar, the seat of the Pushtun royalty and the birthplace of the Taliban, Pres. Karzai spoke to local parliamentarians, chastising the U.S. for “interference” in Afghanistan’s politics. His statements centered chiefly on attacking the U.S. and its NATO allies, and parliament itself, warning that if they didn’t assent to his takeover of the Electoral Complaints Commission it would give the impression that Afghanistan was dominated by the West and that would grant legitimacy to the Taliban. Some parliamentarians who were present say that, at one point, Karzai even threatened to join the insurgency himself.
Fighting for His Life
It is evident that President Karzai is not only fighting back, but at great personal risk. Unless he is able to garner quick support from China, Iran and Russia — the three major nations in the immediate vicinity not antagonistic to him — Karzai will be the main target of a number of recognized, and not-so-well-recognized, killers.
His principal threat comes from Britain and Pakistan. Over the years, Karzai has crossed swords with Britain. London never liked the appointment of an Afghan Pushtun close to the United States and India in the first place. In 2005, Karzai spoke out against the explosion of opium production in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, accusing the British troops stationed there of allowing the large-scale growth of opium production.
He expelled two MI-6 agents on Dec. 27, 2007, on charges that they posed a threat to the country’s national security. Afghan government officials said the decision to expel them was taken at the behest of the CIA, after the two agents were caught funding Taliban units. One of the agents, Mervyn Patterson, worked for the United Nations; the other, Michael Semple, worked for the European Union. Both were alleged Afghan specialists who had been operating in the country for more than 20 years; that means they must have been interacting on behalf of London with all the al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders there. According to the London Times, when Patterson and Semple were arrested, they had $150,000 with them, which was to be given to Taliban commanders in Musa Qala in the opium-infested Helmand province.
An unnamed Afghan government official told the London Sunday Telegraph at the time that the “warning” that the men had been financing the Taliban for at least ten months “came from the Americans. They were not happy with the support being provided to the Taliban. They gave the information to our intelligence services, who ordered the arrests.” The source added, “The Afghan government would never have acted alone to expel officials of such a senior level. This was the information that was given to the NDS [National Directorate of Security] by the Americans.”
In 2006, U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan had loudly protested the British decision, in a deal with local tribal leaders, to withdraw troops from Musa Qala, opening the door for a Taliban takeover of the region. Michael Semple has since been laundered and currently holds a fellowship with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He is now in the seminar circuit of various American think tanks, proffering his “expertise” on issues concerning insurgency, reconciliation and political developments in Afghanistan.
In addition to throwing out those two MI-6 agents, Karzai also drew the wrath of the British empire’s establishment when, in January 2008, he turned down the joint effort of Washington and London to appoint Lord Paddy Ashdown as the U.N.’s super envoy to Afghanistan. Ashdown, a “liberal” and a “democrat,” who wears his vainglorious feudal title on his shirtsleeves, was ready to pinch-hit for London and Washington, which had begun to look increasingly like colonial powers trying to occupy Afghanistan, to further undermine the “duly elected” Afghan President.
The second powerful threat to Pres. Karzai emanates from Pakistan. Karzai has pointed again and again over the years to the existence of a tacit agreement between Pakistani intelligence and the insurgents. He has claimed over and over again that the terrorists who have committed terrorist acts inside Kabul bore the fingerprints of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) organization. He also insisted on a number of occasions that the insurgents were not only sheltered inside Pakistan, they were also protected. It is widely known that Karzai is intensely hated by a section of the Pakistani military and the political grouping close to both the Pakistani Taliban and Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, the Pakistani Army may conclude that Karzai, who is developing an independent base among a large section of the Pushtun community, may stand in the way of the Pakistan-backed Taliban from gaining control in Kabul. Also, Karzai is close to India; and his coming to power on his own strength would necessarily allow a larger presence for New Delhi in Afghanistan in the future. If, in addition, Karzai can bring both China and Iran in full force into Afghanistan, Pakistan would have to give his elimination a second thought.
If one jogs one’s memory, it is not difficult to find in the scenario developing in Afghanistan vis-a-vis Karzai important similarities with what occurred during the Vietnam War in the early 1960s in Vietnam. On Nov.2, 1963, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who years earlier was eulogized by Washington’s policymakers and the American media as the “demigod” and “savior,” was removed and, a day later, killed (along with his brother and close collaborator, Nhu Dinh Diem) in a military coup carried out by Gen. Minh. The coup was carried out hours after Diem met with President Kennedy’s envoy, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Admiral Felt.
According to The Pentagon Papers, Vol. 2, “Washington was deeply concerned about Diem’s unpopularity and was confronted with the following choices: (1) continue to plod along in a limited fashion with Diem — despite his and Nhu’s growing unpopularity; (2) encourage or tacitly support the overthrow of Diem, taking the risk that the GVN (Government of the Republic of Vietnam, or, South Vietnam) might crumble and/or accommodate to the VC (Viet Cong); and (3) grasp the opportunity — with the obvious risks —of the political instability in South Vietnam to disengage.
“The first option was rejected because of the belief that we [Washington, Ed.] could not win with Diem-Nhu. The third was very seriously considered as a policy alternative because of the assumption that an independent, non-communist SVN (South Vietnam) was too important a strategic interest to abandon — and because the situation was not sufficiently drastic to call into question so basic an assumption. The second course was chosen, mainly for the reasons the first was rejected — Vietnam was thought too important; we [Washington, Ed.] wanted to win; and the rebellious generals seemed to offer that prospect…”