Saturday, February 2, 2013

A puppet regime (Afghanistan)

M K Bhadrakumar, Jan 31, 2013
 The Afghan president Hamid Karzai is entering a dangerous period. His political fortunes are intertwined with Afghanistan’s future. The regional countries, especially India, cannot remain unaffected, either.

Karzai’s sensational remarks on Tuesday in Kabul warning against foreign and regional attempts to hijack the peace talks with the Taliban by sidelining his government comes not a day too soon. It doesn’t require much ingenuity to comprehend that he principally pointed fingers at the United States and Pakistan. Karzai disclosed that foreign powers had approached some Afghan power brokers and prominent political figures with offers to hold direct talks, ignoring the High Peace Council set up by the government as the mechanism for handling reconciliation with the Taliban.

In essence, he lashed out at the US for ignoring the past pledges given by the Barack Obama administration that any peace talks will be ‘Afghan-led’ and ‘Afghan-owned.’ Karzai said, “All our politicians must know that the peace process can have good results only if we remain unified and the process moves forward through the High Peace Council.” Interestingly, Karzai cautioned the Taliban as well that they too could be taken for a ride by foreign powers. At one point in his lengthy remarks, Karzai directly targeted the US by asserting that during his recent talks in Washington, he made it clear that “no foreigners should try to hold the Afghan peace process in their hands.”

A stunning coincidence was that Karzai spoke out even as the Afghan defence minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi began a 5-day visit to Pakistan at the invitation of Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kayani. Mohammadi is a stalwart of the erstwhile Northern Alliance and a commander owing allegiance to Ahmed Shah Massoud. He used to be an implacable foe of the Taliban. Kayani’s move to extend a red carpet welcome to the ‘Panjshiri’ general at the GHQ in Rawalpindi underscores the Pakistani strategy to erode Karzai’s power base.

However, this is a not just a matter of Karzai’s political future. What emerges is that Pakistani military is working on the very same strategy to establish the Taliban’s pre-eminence on the Afghan chessboard that it successfully advanced in the early and mid-1990s, namely, relentlessly splinter the anti-Taliban groups and squash them one by one to clear the way for the power grab in Kabul. Let it not be forgotten that behind the myth of the Taliban saga, there was the brilliant ‘political work’ done by the ISI, which made the defeat of the Mujahideen possible. If the fall of Herat to the Taliban in 1995 could be traced to Rashid Dostum’s dalliance with ISI, the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1997-98 happened when Abdul Malik (who too was bought over by the ISI) backstabbed Dostum.

History is repeating
Suffice to say, Karzai gets the chilling feeling that history is repeating. Indeed, Pakistan is outmaneuvering Karzai. The ISI keeps the Taliban under wraps in splinter groups as ‘moderates’ and ‘hardliners’ so as to manipulate the peace process. Having sat out the whole of 2012 doing nothing on the peace track, Pakistani military estimates that president Obama has run out of time. Meanwhile, ISI has networked extensively with the non-Taliban groups – Karzai’s supporters and detractors alike.

The ISI’s game plan is to isolate Karzai and scatter the non-Taliban ‘resistance’, spread the story that the Taliban have ‘moderated’ their ideology and are willing to reconcile, and project Pakistan as a repentant benign neighbour who is no more capable of ill will. As the US troop presence on the ground begins to thin out in a few months’ time, Obama will be desperate to reach some sort of settlement with the Taliban. That opens the way for Pakistan to pitch for a ‘broad-based government’ in Kabul under de facto control of the ISI.

Pakistan sees Karzai as the great ‘spoiler’ here and, therefore, seeks to weaken him systematically by weaning away his staunch supporters from amongst the Tajiks. Karzai’s remarks on Tuesday suggest that the Pakistani attempt to undercut him is progressing. Karzai senses that the ground beneath his feet is shifting. He feels exasperated that in its hurry to end the war Washington has virtually subcontracted the peace process to the Pakistani military.

Unfortunately, Karzai’s own equations with Washington remain unstable. The Washington establishment has not forgiven him for his grit to obtain a second term as president in 2009 – much against the US wish to install a ‘suitable boy’ in Kabul. Now, with the presidential election due again in 2014, furious jockeying has begun and this time around, Washington is determined to have an Afghan president of its heart’s content, no matter what it takes.

Of course, this shadow boxing beautifully plays into the Pakistani hands. Notwithstanding the ‘angst’ in Obama’s mind about Kayani’s real intentions, a US-Pakistani convergence has appeared that they can do without Karzai. The sensible thing for Obama at this delicate juncture will be to give Karzai a free hand – arguably, even strengthen Karzai’s capacity to drive a hard bargain with Kayani and Mullah Omar.

After all, Karzai has proved to be a great coalition builder and what is needed most at this critical turning point is cohesion in Kabul – not disharmony or disunity. In sum, the advantage increasingly goes to the Pakistani military. The Afghan politicians will be keenly awaiting the Panjshiri general’s return from Rawalpindi. Massoud, of course, will be turning in his grave.

(The writer is a former diplomat) 

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