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In Defence of Hamid Karzai

December 2, 2009

There has been much furor in the west about the ‘corrupt’, ‘incompetent’ governance of the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. The US understands that any withdrawal at this stage from and Afghanistan will not go down well in the international community. General Stanley McChrystal has got what he had been asking for – more boots on the ground. President Barack Obama has decided to send an additional 30,000 troops so that the strategic objectives can be achieved. He went on to say that these troops will be sent at the earliest. He also pointed out that the troops withdrawal will start sometime in 2011.

The justification in the troop levels has been that there are terror plots still being hatched from the Af-Pak region – a reference to the Hadley-Rana conspiracy. The president also warned that the terrorists want to lay their hands on nuclear weapons. The truth is that both these facts do not warrant a troop surge in Afghanistan. From the Pakistani and the Indian point of view, the American presence in the region is a welcome development, albeit for different reasons. Pakistan is in a financial mess and American dollars raining on them, because they posture themselves as indispensable for the American mission is such a respite. Pakistan would fold up if the American’s stopped helping them financially. They are providing logistical support and ostensibly fighting the Taliban on their side of the border. While they are indeed the territory from which the supply lines pass, their fight against the Taliban is intermittent and half hearted at best.

For India, the American presence is a boon as then they can piggy back on Washington to further their agenda. India is investing heavily in the development of Afghanistan and is building roads and hospitals. The traditional good relation with the Pashtuns that India enjoys is reason enough for them to demand a presence in a country that is the gateway to Central Asia. India would hate to see a Pakistan backed government in Kabul. For India a presence in Afghanistan is strategically important. During the times of the Soviets they piggy rode them and later Najibullah. Now that the Americans are there it suits India to have presence with the blessings of Washington. To be fair to New Delhi, Indian influence in Afghanistan has been a positive development for the people of Afghanistan. A Pakistan centric government in Afghanistan would be fatal for the country and the world as that would mean a radicalization of the region in a manner never seen before.

Hamid Karzai, the India educated Pashtun was the darling of the west not too long ago. He was feted and indulged in by the Bush regime. He was a hero or thought of as one, as he was seen to be the man who was fighting the abominable Taliban. Has the hero fallen? If one goes by the reports in the western media, perhaps yes. If one looks more closely, one will realize that Karzai is a man with his back to the wall. He is trying to do as much as he can for his country and his people. But he is not the only one. His government is a bunch of tribal leaders and regional personalities that have a stake in the countryside and have to deal with local war lords on a daily basis. What can Karzai do? Someone called him the Mayor of Kabul. That sums it up. Karzai’s writ is limited to a few pockets. The western forces have still not been able to take over the whole of the countryside and the small towns and hamlets that abound. Yet these are within Kabul’s jurisdiction. The man cannot escape those forces that have influence there. He has no choice but to deal with them. The western commitment to Afghanistan is a transitory affair. Karzai knows that. They are here only for a short period of time. The semantics change dramatically as soon as it becomes clear that the coalition forces will be gone sooner rather than later. Obama has his own political compulsions that force him to keep on talking about withdrawal from time to time. This is not a particularly popular war in the west.

Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, the former president of Afghanistan and his fate has not been forgotten by anyone in Afghanistan. Karzai knows that once the west withdraws, he and his men will not be able to stop the Taliban from running over the whole of Kabul. Abdul Rashid Dostum may be on his side today, and may have helped Karzai win the elections, but Karzai would be a fool if he were to depend on men like Dostum for his future political survival. Remember, Dostum was also a ‘friend’ of Najibullah but changed sides and did not let the man board a flight to India. While Najibullah’s family managed to escape to India, the man himself was left to take refuge in the United Nation’s building in Kabul before the Taliban dragged him out, castrated and killed him brutally. Afghanistan is worse than the Wild West. Here the stakes are high and the politics mean.

The situation is compounded from the fact that this is drug land. The cultivation of poppy and the manufacture and sale of drugs is what drives the Afghan economy. Kabul was a favorite haunt of the hippies looking for cheap drugs, in the seventies. This malaise has increased over the years. Mujahiddin and later the Taliban got their sustenance from the sale of drugs. To expect the president of a fragile, volatile republic like Afghanistan to try and fight this menace with the transitory presence of a foreign force is asking too much from the man.  If Pakistan is running with the hare and hunting with the hound, then so are the Afghans. They are trying to make most of the sunshine while the Americans are still there. They would love to see more roads built and more wells dug and more hospitals operate, because they know that this is a transitory lull in the havoc that will follow once the western forces are gone. Karzai wants to do as much as he can for his people, but he also must play along with the forces that have a sway over the landmass. He cannot shut his eyes. His very survival will be a big question mark then. If Karzai and his family and clan are making the most of the sunshine, it is but understandable. For Karzai will make sure he has a helicopter ready at all times to flee once the west withdraws. He is not going to be foolish to try and hold the fort only to be dragged out and killed by the Taliban a la Dr. Najibullah. He has fought the Taliban, he has hedged his bets and he has tried to do some good for his people. But he must keep his backside safe too. I will not be surprised if Karzai also has an exit strategy, like the west has. He is a good student of sociology and history and he will do all that he can to make sure he is not caught napping. Karzai may land in Delhi sometime in future like Najibullah’s family did. What he does know is that while the west may frown on him trying to take refuge there (remember the fate of the Shah of Iran), New Delhi will be a courteous host to him and his family, if such a need arises anytime in future. He does not believe or depend on the west, nor does he have friends among the hardliners within Afghanistan. Delhi will most likely give him refuge as a gesture of goodwill to the Pashtuns and to set an example for future leadership in Afghanistan.

There has been a lot of talk about raising an army of Afghans to fight the Taliban. I think this is a good idea, but one that will fail sooner rather than later because Taliban has Allah on their side. Remember, how the Iraqi Shia forces changed sides during the seven year Iran-Iraq war? Even if there is a plausible Afghan army raised and armed with modern weapons there is no guarantee that the army will remain faithful to the man in charge in Kabul, because at the end of the day it is all about ethnic and clan loyalties. Only a small faction among the Pashtuns belonging to Karzai clan will at the end support the man. He is seen as the man who sided with the infidels. Karzai has taken a great risk by standing up for the west in his country. I hope the west appreciates what the man is doing. He has a small coterie that is with him, but to say that he is seen as the savior by the average Afghan will be absolutely wrong. The man is making hay while the sun is shining and is preparing for his own future, where ever that may be.

So is the west doing the right thing by committing itself to a more entrenched position in Afghanistan? America and the west will send another 37,000 troops very shortly. They are exposing a whole lot of young men and women to a treacherous terrain where the enemy mingles in the crowds and the war is like fighting a ghost. Obama should have recalled his troops as he had promised. But before that the US needs to deal with Pakistan, de-nuke them and stop all military aid, while increasing the developmental aid exponentially. That is what is required in the region – a safe, peaceful and prosperous Pakistan that does not have any military ambitions. Pakistan does not have any fears either from the east or the west of their borders. They do not need a military and do not need to spend on expensive fighter aircrafts and missiles. What they need to do is to educate their masses and make sure that radical Islam is marginalized by investing in modern education, healthcare, infrastructure and encouraging small enterprise. If there has to be peace in the world, Pakistan needs to dramatically change its priorities. The thousands of madrasas on the Afghan-Pakistan borders must be closed forthwith and the radical Islamic seats of learning in cities like Karachi, Lahore and Muridke must be transformed. This is the cheap, safe and the correct way of going about it – without putting on line the lives of thousands of western forces as also the millions of Afghans and Pakistanis who want to live a life of happiness and peace.

Update 9.12.2009: President Karzai has observed that it would take between 15 to 20 years for Afghanistan to be able to take care of its security needs independently. What Karzai is saying in effect is loud and clear: don’t abandon me!! He knows that his political future depends on the military support of the west.

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