Karzai’s Compromises

Hamid Karzai is quite the shrewd politician. He realises that his foreign friends with the big guns could be leaving Afghanistan soon, and is expending considerable effort to ensure that he remains in power after they leave.

Renewed efforts to shore up local Afghani defense forces are meeting with the approval of Karzai and General David Petraeus, who knows as well as Karzai that the US and its allies are on the way out. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in a hilarious political euphemism, once called the groups they are trying to form “community defense initiatives“. Such local forces are, in effect, militias or paramilitary units that are supposed to fight the Taliban or keep it at bay (or, to the truly deluded, dismantle and destroy it). But there are a couple of reasons why that might not happen.

First, it is unlikely that these local forces feel much loyalty to Hamid Karzai or his government, which is seen by many Afghans as a puppet of foreign occupiers. Even if Karzai were seen as legitimate, ordinary Afghans are not likely to respect a government that forces them to pay large portions of their income in bribes for public services. They may even join the other side. There is no reason to think they would be less loyal to the Taliban than anyone else who might pay their salaries. These bands of fighters will not protect Afghanistan but only their friends and family. If there is a more effective route to doing so, for instance getting paid better by income from poppy farming, which might come from anyone, they could take it.

Second, Karzai is making deals with the Taliban, too. The consummate pragmatist, Hamid Karzai realises that the Taliban is strong, stronger than he, and without thousands of ISAF troops behind him, his future is uncertain. The US government has blacklisted many Taliban leaders by name, which means placing them on a UN list presumably so that they are not allowed to fly or talk to officials anywhere the US or UN have enough influence to stop them. Hamid Karzai asked the UN to remove as many as 50 of the names from the blacklist so that he could talk to them. Besides the fact that they are not all terrorists (whatever American authorities say), Karzai is reaching out to those who will want to wrench power from him when he is weak.

Hillary will visit Kabul soon for an international conference on Afghanistan after her present trip to Islamabad. (Her visit and its urgency were heralded by a suicide bombing in Kabul yesterday, not far from the US embassy.) She will likely discuss the US’s plans for reintegrating low level Taliban, the militias, anti-corruption efforts and aid, all of which are meaningless if there is no strong commitment to them for the next ten or twenty years. But we do not have ten or twenty years. The Barack administration plans to begin, carefully, to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2011, a year before an election. 2011 and 12 could be interesting years for the short term future of Afghanistan; however, its medium and long terms are in the hands of Afghanis. A British withdrawal is scheduled for 2014; however, if British forces suffer inordinate casualties due to increased pressure from Afghan fighters, the curtain may fall before then. Karzai will attempt to make it look as if he was the strong leader who demanded that the foreign troops leave. The real reason ISAF troops are leaving, however, is because the citizens they answer to are no longer convinced it is in their interest to shore up another corrupt dictator of a failed state.

If all these deals and olive branches and community defense initiatives work, it could mean that the US government claim that Afghanistan will fall apart if it leaves might turn out false. Again, Karzai is a shrewd politician, which means he is a power broker, and his remaining in power for now might mean an end to the decades of conflict Afghanis have had to endure. Either way, Karzai’s actions are a clear indication that relying on the ISAF to always be there would be foolish.

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