One often hears that Afghanistan is the most ferociously independent of countries, the graveyard of invaders. So the news that Hamid Karzai has been fitted with a battery of American bodyguards must give us pause. Why, one might ask, in this battle-hardened country brimming with warriors, in which Kalashnikovs outnumber men, should its head of state require this foreign guardianship?
The Pope in the Vatican has his Swiss Guards; but the mini-state has no competent armed population to draw on, and there’s a long history behind that quaint convention. Why should Karzai, or his American handlers, opt to surround him with gun-toting aliens, when there ought to be so many local, loyal troops?
We have been told that Karzai received overwhelming support at the Loya Jirga in June. If that were the case, why can’t he muster a trustworthy Afghan entourage? (First of all, it isn’t the case, actually; former king Zahir Shah enjoyed wide support but was forced to withdraw his bid to become head of state by Defense Minister and warlord Mohammed Fahim, whom a Western official quoted by the Washington Post has likened to a “street thug,” and U.S. special envoy and kingmaker Zalmay Khalilzad). The fact is that Karzai, having been placed in power by the U.S. as next-best-thing to the late CIA operative Abdul Haq, has reason to fear his own people. His “political base remains weak,” notes the Washington Post (August 5), and his “authority barely extends beyond Kabul.”
Two members of Karzai’s administration have been assassinated, cases still unresolved. On February 14, Transport and Tourism Minister Abdul Rahman was assassinated at Kabul Airport. Karzai and Foreign Minister Abdullah gave entirely different accounts of the incident. On July 6, Abdul Qadir, one of the vice presidents, was also assassinated for reasons that remain unclear. (Karzai blamed “terrorists,” George Bush suggested that opium interests might have been involved, and others blamed Northern Alliance forces for slaying a rising Pashtun leader.)
More significant than these acts of political violence is the emergence of a political opposition movement rooted among the common people. There have been ongoing protests in Kabul about that July 1 wedding party raid, in which according to the official Afghan government report, 48 civilians were killed by U.S. bombs; and demonstrators have targeted both the U.S. military and the president so intimately associated with it. Antigovernment demonstrations have occurred in Gardez and Khost as well.
Fahim, sometimes at loggerheads with Karzai (and should the two part ways, he will command far greater native military support) has long expressed the view that there should be minimal foreign military presence in the country. (His line since December has been, “Thanks for the bombs that broke the Taliban, but we Northern Alliances forces can handle things from here.”) He is furious about Karzai’s Yankee bodyguard. Those defenders are an admission of Karzai’s vulnerable position, in the lawless environment the bombing has produced, and of the well-founded fear that tends to encompass puppets making Faustian pacts.
An AP article and accompanying photo published August 3 said it all. It reported that Karzai “dismissed allegations yesterday that the United States tried to cover up a deadly airstrike [which Afghan officials claimed occurred south of Kabul August 1] and said a continued American presence was crucial to Afghanistan’s future. Flanked by U.S. special forces bodyguards, Karzai said he visited one of the villages attacked in the July 1 air raid and when asked if he believed there had been a cover-up, said, ‘I don’t think so. People would have told me.'”
Reporters were asking about a UN report leaked to the Times of London stating that U.S. forces may have removed evidence after the attack and violated human rights. Now, the UN, once a site of contestation between the U.S. bloc and the Third World (and frequently the object of Washington’s scorn) has since the collapse of the Soviet Union been more or less tucked under Washington’s armpit. The New World Order in international diplomacy has been especially evident since December 1991, when the Security Council revoked Resolution 3379 (passed in November 1975) describing Zionism as a form of racism. Many nations’ delegates changed their votes under extreme pressure from the Bush administration. In December 1996 the U.S. vetoed a second term for Boutros Boutros-Ghali (of Egypt) as United Nations Secretary General; the 14 to 1 vote in the Security Council outraged the Arab world. Under the leadership of Kofi Annan, the UN has avoided confrontation with the U.S. (and with Israel), as indicated by Annan’s report on the Israeli invasion of Jenin in April, which Human Rights Watch has called “fundamentally flawed.”
That even this lapdog UN general secretary alleges U.S. misconduct in the Uruzgan province incident of July 1 lends particular credence to the allegation. And for President of Afghanistan to dismiss the report out of hand is to confirm that he is a lapdog of even more abject status than Mr. Annan. The AP photo shows Karzai walking towards a shrine, fingering prayer-beads, with (as the caption states) “U.S. bodyguards clearing the way.” There are well-armed U.S. forces to the fore, one peering forward, the other walking sideways, gun in hand, scrutinizing the rear.
Way back in 1857, Friedrich Engels (who made some very interesting observations about Afghanistan, then central to “the Great Game” played out in Central Asia between Britain and Russia) described “the attempt of the British to set up a prince of their own making in Afghanistan” in 1842, linking its failure to the Afghans’ “indomitable hatred of rule, and their love of independence.” (This was published in the New American Cyclopedia in 1858). Like most of Marx and Engels’ stuff, its probably on the net now; in his leisure time, in his Kabul office, surrounded by his Swiss Guard, Mr. Karzai might want to peruse it.
Gary Leupp is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org