The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Karzai good, America bad

For all the varied western interpretations of the current situation in Afghanistan, this critique from former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar (who counts Kabul and Islamabad among his postings) is strikingly different to any strand of western opinion.

Bhadrakumar's opinion of the role of Pakistan and the ISI in Afghan politics, more specifically the reconciliation process, is what one would probably expect from an Indian observer and, moreover, his opinion is one which would very likely find favour among many western observers too. What is different, however, is Bhadrakumar's view of Hamid Karzai who, far from being an American puppet, he depicts as their victim.

On the former point, Bhadrakumar is damning in his assessment of malign Pakistani influence, American doublespeak and their joint sabotage of Karzai's reintegration plan - most notably through the arrest of Taliban leader Mullah Baradar in Karachi early this year.
The bizarre operation was undertaken despite the CIA and the ISI being aware that in Mr. Baradar (who is credited with moderate views), Mr. Karzai had a key interlocutor and the two were at an advanced stage of negotiations regarding the Taliban's participation in the upcoming Loya Jirga in April, which, of course, would have become a defining moment of the war. The ISI's detention of Mr. Baradar can only be seen as a move to ensure that Mr. Karzai did not have any top-level interlocutor among the Taliban leadership and to drive home the message that any dealings between the Taliban and Kabul should be conducted through the “proper channels,” namely, Rawalpindi and Washington.
A frustrating aspect of this article is that Bhadrakumar does not explain this in greater detail, either by citing evidence that Baradar was in advanced negotiations with Karzai or by explaining why the US would sabotage Karzai in such a way.

The notion that the Pakistani authorities arrested Baradar, along with several other alleged members of the Quetta Shura, in order to install their own people in their place is hardly unique to Indian conspiracy theorists - it appeared for example on CNN and in the New York Times. In the same vein, Bhadrakumar's assertion that the ISI is playing a long game, willing to bet that Afghanistan's western-style, pluralist democratic system will not last and that eventually the Taliban will come out on top once again, is also not entirely alien to western audiences.

What is less comprehensible is Bhadrakumar's depiction of concerted American efforts to fatally undermine Hamid Karzai and have him replaced as the Afghan leader during last year's Presidential elections. For all the (very public) disagreements between Karzai and the international community, above all the US, the long-term investment in Karzai's political (and actual) survival is surely too great to be ignored. Moreover, if regime change truly is the objective, then who is being lined up to replace Karzai? The list of realistic candidates is not long.

Incidentally, Bhadrakumar alleges that "the U.S. does not want a strong Afghan leader in Kabul with an independent power base" but some informed westerners have previously argued for precisely this scenario.

There are clear reasons, therefore, to call into question's Bhadrakumar's belief that Karzai (along with his family) is the victim of American sniping and manipulation, which should not mean dismissing it altogether. However, where Bhadrakumar's case really starts to fall into place is when he touches (all too briefly) on regional geopolitics.
"The U.S. strategy will be to keep up the pressure on Mr. Karzai in the coming period even as the mother of all questions concerning the U.S. military presence is yet to be addressed. The Afghans will oppose a permanent U.S. military presence, while the Pentagon is bent on getting a status of forces agreement with the powers that be in Kabul so as to retain long-term access, which is needed to effectively pursue the containment strategy toward China."
That line of argument makes more sense - in fact, it would be very difficult to disagree with it - but it still warrants greater explanation and analysis. As interesting and thought-provoking as this article is, Bhadrakumar raises as many questions as answers on several issues, all worth revisiting in the very near future.

Post-scriptum: On a different note, the IWPR report that the Taliban have imposed a maximum price of $3,800 on brides (yes, you read that correctly), which has made one future groom very happy:
Now my father-in-law can’t charge me too much because this Taleban order isn’t like one from the Karzai government - it’s a strict order which no one can disobey.”
Now that is how to win hearts and minds.

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