Monday, June 28, 2010

Karzai's Pashtun Gambit

Afghanistan may be short of many things but its awash in agendas. Everyone has an agenda. The Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazara have theirs. Each warlord has his own. The drug barons have theirs. The Karzai family have their agenda or maybe a few and the Talibs obviously have their agenda to boot.

Political power has never been consolidated in Afghanistan. There is nothing approaching a genuinely supreme national government. The central government in Kabul has failed to extend its reach in several critical parts of the country's territory. In other regions it has ceded control to ethnic warlords. This patchwork of power devolution is further weakened by the stresses of tribalism that continually wrack this most tribal of countries. Add to that the malignancy of corruption and criminality and you wind up with a nation that cannot carry its own weight and is in constant danger of collapse.

We in the West do the only thing we can. We look the other way although we do periodically mumble something about cleaning up the corruption. We instead focus on fighting the Taliban whose war long ago evolved from a mere insurgency into today's classical civil war. Even that we don't acknowledge. As for warlordism and tribalism, the very cornerstones of failure in this desperately failed state, we accept them even though they render our objectives unattainable.

We have thrown all of our effort into fighting the fire in the kitchen, oblivious as the flames consume the rest of the house.

And what of Hamid Karzai and what of the Taliban? Reports over the past couple of days in The New York Times and The Guardian, indicate that Karzai is seeking an accord with the very forces we're struggling to hold at bay. Karzai, it seems, is looking for a political accommodation, some sort of power-sharing arrangement with our mortal foes. From the Guardian:

Western officials say Pakistan's ISI spy agency has offered to negotiate with Sirajuddin Haqqani – an al-Qaida linked commander – as part of a broader initiative to find a find a settlement to the conflict.

Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and the head of the ISI, Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha, are due to arrive in Kabul tomorrow for their third meeting with Karzai in recent months.

Frosty relations between the two sides have thawed in recent months; about 10 days ago reports emerged from Pakistan that the ISI was offering to "deliver" the Haqqani network, which is based in North Waziristan in the tribal belt.

Karzai, it seems, has weighed his options and decided that he's better off accepting some Taliban muscle even if it fractures his fragile alliance with the Tajks, Uzbeks and Hazara.

"None of the players believe in the current strategy," opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah told the Guardian. "Karzai is going down the drain and taking the international community with him.

"If he thinks he can give [the Taliban] a few ministries and a few provinces, they will simply take those provinces and then force him out."

This puts the West in an awful position. We may have to choose sides - either a supposedly elected Pashtun president backed by the Talibs or the alienated minority tribes.

Three weeks ago Karzai's intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, and his interior minister, Hanif Atmar, quit in protest at the new Pakistan policy. Both men are Tajiks; Saleh was previously a leading member of the Northern Alliance that helped topple the Taliban in 2001.

Michael Semple, a regional expert, said he was alarmed at the speed with which the political class was fissuring.

"Sane people, who've been part of this process all along, are now saying the country won't survive till the end of the year," he said.

The paper claims that Western leaders are stunned at the way Pakistan and Karzai are negotiating without them, seeking their own deal without Western consent. I guess they figured we were far too busy in the kitchen to notice.

To the West it appears that Karzai is betraying us, doing an end run with Pakistan and the Taliban. That's because we've long since stopped looking at Afghanistan realistically because that would mean acknowledging the intractable problems we cannot solve. Karzai, however, has to be realistic. He has to be pragmatic. He knows the ISAF/NATO force begins to dissolve next year. Washington wants to draw down its forces beginning in 2011. The Brits have announced they'll be gone by 2015. We can leave, he can't and the Afghanistan we'll leave behind is no place for the weak.

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