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The Karzai Dilemma

Afghan leader Hamid Karzai is not conforming to his puppet status. He was meant to be the marionette of Washington’s confused and often incompetent policy in Afghanistan. With Karzai at the helm of a broken and mutilated state, the Coalition forces demonstrated with much aplomb what version of democracy they were giving the Afghan state. Not only was it a weak stripling, it proved to be a diseased one on the cusp of death.

The anger shown towards Karzai’s reluctance to the current security plan by Washington is almost amusing. He has been accused by Tom Donilon, President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, as “reckless in terms of Afghanistan”. He has refused, at this point, to ratify the security deal with his occupying sponsors despite its endorsement last week by the Loya Jirga, or council of tribal elders. He is biding his time, waiting till spring national elections are concluded.

The bilateral security arrangement, if implemented, would see a continuing U.S. military presence once the U.N. mandate that oversees its role ends in December 2014. This is further proof that withdrawal is something U.S. officials are contemplating with deepest reluctance, the unnecessary inconvenience of abiding by the wishes of a local populace they generally regard as roadside furniture in strategic planning.

Withdrawal is a word they would like to sidestep altogether, removing the bulk of the troops while still maintaining a set of stern military eyes over their satraps in Kabul. In the words of an unnamed senior Obama administration official, “The footprint of the intelligence community depends to some extent on the footprint of the military” (Washington Post, Dec 2). If those eyes are removed, U.S. special operations and intelligence personnel would become ineffective. Hence the pressing need to clip the wings of Afghan sovereignty, qualifying it within the parameters of perceived U.S. security.

RAND analyst Linda Robinson is happy to have suggested a different approach: lie, even more, to win Karzai over. Giving him a zero-option was not wise, showing clay-footed indiscretion. The U.S. approach to Kabul in this case “betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of Afghan nationalism and pride” and it would have been wiser that Washington crafted “this in a way in which his role as guardian of Afghan sovereignty is unimpeachable.” Pride, sovereignty and nationalism are three concepts alien to the U.S. approach to that country, but Robinson dares not mention it.

It is also striking that these officials assumed that Afghan compliance in qualifying their own sovereignty would be a matter of course – mindless assumption seems to be the staple of clumsy hegemony. Between 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. and allied troops would remain at various bases in Kabul and in the four corners of the country. The interminable war would continue.

The consequences are being hammered home should U.S. involvement be totally removed from the region. Foreign aid would cease to flow, thereby asphyxiating the state. This was a threat aimed at Karzai by the White House national security advisor Susan E. Rice. Karzai claimed on December 1 that Washington had commenced cutting military supplies. As a Sunday statement from the Afghan national security council noted, “The meeting concluded that the cutting of fuel supplies and support services to the Afghan army and policy is being used as a means to pressure Afghanistan [to sign] the Bilateral Security Agreement [BSA] with the U.S.” (Al Jazeera, Dec 1).

James F. Dobbins, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has issued a gloomy forecast. “If [the agreement] doesn’t happen, if this anxiety grows, you project into the upcoming electoral period a degree of instability caused by growing alarm at Afghanistan returning to the 1990s” (Washington Post, Dec 2). The official line from the occupation forces is a dull and fanciful one: that the 1990s must be avoided; that the coalition has been invaluable to stabilising Afghanistan.

Fictitious lines have been drawn in the sand, the crossing of which will result in calamity. The truth has always been that such forces were creating the most artificial conditions and forging the weakest of institutions to begin with. Afghanistan was invaded and unconvincingly occupied. An ersatz mutant democracy has been created, fuelled by graft and corruption and there are no doubt some in the region who would be happy with the U.S. zero option of withdrawing all forces should Karzai refuse to comply. Karzai is unlikely to call Washington’s bluff, given his love for its snakelike gravy train. The charade is set to continue, only for some time.

A force that invades, however paternal, however benign, is the force that eventually must leave. Afghanistan will continue to fight, against all who are on its soil, because it has known nothing else. Karzai is but an aberration, a front, a footnote to be erased by the next power struggle.

With the entire Afghan policy in shambles, the countries that have invested in the enterprise, often bloody, rarely successful, need to come up with plausible narratives. They need to argue that the blood was worth shedding. The case is not convincing. The greatest testament to that failure is Karzai himself, the significant proof that Afghanistan is doomed as long as he, and his sponsors, remains in power.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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