Karzai skates on thin ice - 11-21-2011, 12:10 PM
By M K Bhadrakumar
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has seriously dented the credibility of one of the noblest institutions of his country's history and culture. A large number of Afghans today would hope that the institution of the loya jirga (grand tribal assembly) survives Karzai's presidency.
There are very few Afghan institutions remaining after the systematic vandalization of society and its native traditions through the past three decades of civil war, foreign interference and blood-soaked chaos.
Loya jirgas are called rarely - fewer than 20 have been held in the past 300 years of Afghan history. And they were probably never called to sanctify the bonding of an Afghan ruler with a foreign power. Karzai has violated a sacrosanct tradition. There could be
a price to pay.
The 2,300-strong four-day jirga that concluded in Kabul on Saturday was packed with "tribal leaders and other community leaders" whom Karzai nominated. According to the New York Times:
From the beginning, the jirga was called into question by both its timing - it seemed to undercut an active session of parliament - and its composition, in which about 90% of the delegates were handpicked by Mr Karzai or his aides.Karzai's nominees dutifully handed to him their approval for his decision to ink a strategic partnership with the United States that allows American military bases after most foreign troops leave in 2014. The jirga resolution noted that the strategic partnership would be for 10 years and could be extended if necessary.
Put plainly, Karzai can now claim he has a mandate from the Afghan nation even if parliament were to refuse to ratify the Afghan-US strategic pact.
More questions than answers
Karzai promptly declared, "I agree with your decisions and the resolution read out today has been a comprehensive decision that will be represented and implemented."
The funny side is that Karzai did not even share with the jirga the terms of the agreement, since Washington insisted it might not be a good idea to publicize them. Indeed, this political theater was not entirely Karzai's brainwave.
Washington wanted Karzai to secure a mandate from a loya jirga before the pact is inked at the Bonn Conference II on December 5 to which 90 countries have been invited.
The US expectation is that the loya jirga's "mandate" and the presence of the "international community" at Bonn will give the strategic pact a degree of legitimacy that irate regional powers - Russia, Iran and Pakistan, in particular - may find difficult to question.
Washington is also sensing (rightly so) that Afghan opinion would militate against foreign occupation. Significantly, the recently formed National Front, which includes heavyweights like former vice president Ahmad Zia Massoud (brother of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud), Jumbish leader Abdur Rashid Dostum and Hezb-e-Wahdat chief Muhammad Mohaqiq with a power base among the Tajiks, Uzbek and Hazara communities, called Karzai's move to convene a loya jirga "unconstitutional" and boycotted it.
The administration of US President Barack Obama burnt its fingers in Iraq where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki wouldn't or couldn't steamroll public opinion into accepting an extended US presence after formal withdrawal at the end of this year.
Again, regional opposition to the US military bases is much stronger with regard to Afghanistan. Tehran has been a trenchant critic of Karzai's proposed pact. Pakistan has made no bones that it disfavors US military bases in Afghanistan.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov questioned American intentions in a lengthy statement in Moscow on Thursday. He seemed to have had the ongoing jirga in mind:
It is not yet clear how the planned 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, determined, we are told, by the completion of the anti-terrorist operation there, correlates with the plans to set up large US military bases in the country.With the Taliban repeatedly and categorically stating their opposition to Karzai's pact with Washington and influential sections of Afghan (non-Taliban) opinion and key regional powers questioning the move, what does the Afghan president hope to achieve?
In a nutshell, he hopes to secure American consent to his continuing in power in the period beyond 2014. But Karzai will find the going very tough now that his peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban has run aground.
His equations with the Pakistani leadership continue to deteriorate. Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar last week publicly aired annoyance with the Karzai government. The recent Turkish move to mediate apparently met with no success. Karzai had a frosty meeting last week with Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of a regional South Asian summit in Male.
Once a lion, ever a lion
To be sure, the most critical factor on the chessboard is that Pakistan views the Bonn Conference with a singular lack of enthusiasm. Without Pakistan's whole-hearted support, the Bonn process won't have much meaning. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle visited Islamabad last week and met army chief General Ashfaq Kiani.
However, an all-consuming political crisis is threatening to unfold in Pakistan - stemming from disclosures that a few months ago the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari sought Washington's help to crack down on the military leadership.
These are early days, but two things are becoming apparent. One, the political crisis is bound to strengthen the Pakistani military vis-a-vis a civilian government that is perceived to be selling out to the US.
Two, Washington figures at the epicenter of the ensuing civil-military rift in Pakistan and this is bound to weaken the US's capacity to influence the leadership in Islamabad in the near term.
The high probability is that the Pakistani leadership will not budge from its position as regards the Afghan settlement. The US can have its security pact with Karzai, but it means nothing if the peace process can't get underway. The more time passes, the more untenable Karzai's position would become.
Karzai would know that Washington has a poor opinion of him and that there is no dearth of Afghan politicians who could fill his shoes in 2014 and equally sub-serve American interests.
Washington couldn't have felt comfortable with Karzai's "fiery" speech at the loya jirga on Wednesday when he posed as a staunch nationalist who is at loggerheads with the Americans. For establishing his nationalistic credentials, Karzai said words that have since become the butt of jokes in the Kabul bazaar:
Even if old, sick and feeble, a lion is still a lion. Other animals in the jungle are afraid of even a sick lion and stay away from him. We are lions, the United States should treat us as lions, and we want nothing less than that. We therefore are prepared to enter into a strategic agreement between a lion and America.Then he added:
They [US presence] bring us money; train our soldiers and police, and provide security for the home of the lion. The lion does not have leisure time to do all these things. They should protect his surroundings but should not touch the lion's home. They should protect the four boundaries of the jungle.Karzai seemed acutely self-conscious that the Afghan people would not take kindly to a ruler who is so obviously the puppet of a foreign power. Shuja Shah was put on the throne by the British in 1839 out of sheer gratitude for concluding Kabul's first and only "strategic pact" with an imperial power, but could not remain in power when the British left.
The saving grace is, perhaps, that Karzai is intuitive. He chose to make the short trip from his presidential palace to the venue of the jirga by helicopter. On the conclusion of the meeting on Saturday, when he returned home, two additional helicopters were also deployed as decoys.
Asia Times Online :: Karzai skates on thin ice
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
11-21-2011, 12:17 PM
"With the Taliban repeatedly and categorically stating their opposition to Karzai's pact with Washington and influential sections of Afghan (non-Taliban) opinion and key regional powers questioning the move, what does the Afghan president hope to achieve? "
"Again, regional opposition to the US military bases is much stronger with regard to Afghanistan. Tehran has been a trenchant critic of Karzai's proposed pact. Pakistan has made no bones that it disfavors US military bases in Afghanistan."
The high probability is that the Pakistani leadership will not budge from its position as regards the Afghan settlement. The US can have its security pact with Karzai, but it means nothing if the peace process can't get underway.
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