The Day After
After the failure of its military misadventure in Afghanistan, that cost well over $350 billion and the lives of 1400 U.S. and 400 British soldiers, the Obama administration seems to be in a hurry to exit Afghanistan, leaving behind a legacy of anarchy and threat of a potential relapse to the internecine warfare witnessed in late 1990s. Hamid Karzai, who was catapulted as a leader of Afghanistan and was often called ‘the man of the hour’ after the defeat of the Taliban in the wake of U.S. blitzkrieg, would also leave his position after 13 years. When he steps down, many in the west would be relieved to see him clearing the deck.
An educated person and head of a strong Pashtun tribe, Hamid Karzai was surrounded by pro-west followers. In western capitals, he was seen as the new Afghan hero. His anti-Taliban credentials before 9/11 and lobbying for international assistance to dislodge them endeared him to world leaders. But as time passed and the events turned out quite differently from what the U.S. administration had expected, the marriage between Karzai and his western benefactors was jeopardized and ultimately ended with a painful divorce. Perhaps a recap of the events that led to this transformation would not be out of place to understand the current situation in Afghanistan and what the future holds for it.
Karzai was installed as president of Afghanistan in December 2001 after the defeat of the Taliban. His position was the result of both the U.S.’ approval and consultations among representatives of major Afghan tribes. The Afghan Loya Jirga endorsed his appointment as president of the Afghan Transitional Administration in 2002 and he became the full-fledged president of Afghanistan in 2004 after the elections. Initially, international leaders were impressed with him and felt that he was capable of delivering. However, their perception waned by the next elections in 2009. The U.S. administration wanted him out and even tried to manipulate the results, but couldn’t achieve its objective.
The nosedive in the relations between Karzai and western leaders, especially U.S. leaders, is attributable to the failure of the international community to honor its commitments in Afghanistan. The relations between the U.S. administration and Karzai were much more convoluted than
they seemed. However, despite the ever widening gulf between the two sides on the purposes and modalities of achieving the ambitious objective of rebuilding and reconstructing Afghanistan, they continued to work together. In the early years of Karzai’s presidency, millions of refugees returned to their native land, the economy showed signs of recovery, schools reopened and a number of NGOs participated in the socioeconomic development of Afghanistan. A semblance of peace also returned to the country.
The relations between Karzai and the west started to strain when the Taliban staged a comeback due to weak administration in Kabul and inability of the coalition forces to maintain peace. By 2006, militants had reclaimed territories in southern, eastern and central Afghanistan. Karzai, who had turned into a maverick from being an errand boy of the west, was involved in a row with the British government over its political and military strategy to contain the Taliban onslaught. He became increasingly critical of the unfulfilled promises of the world community. Karzai also raised an accusing finger at Pakistan, blaming it for the re-emergence of the Taliban. He was bitter about the U.S.’ inability to stop Pakistan from allegedly supporting the Taliban – a charge which Pakistan vehemently denied. Karzai survived four assassination attempts on his life between September 2002 and April 2008.
To push back the Taliban, the U.S. and NATO forces made excessive use of air power. That caused enormous civilian casualties, which irked Karzai very much. During the air raids in 2007, 1500 people were killed whereas in 2008 more than 2000 people lost their lives. Karzai threatened to ground the U.S.-NATO war planes and helicopters that were being used to massacre civilians. Another element which contributed to the straining of relations between Kabul and the west was the system of government chosen by Karzai.
Instead of relying on building institutions, he put his faith in influential individuals and power brokers. That was quite contrary to what the west had wanted him to do. Karzai also had repeated rows with Washington about aid to Kabul, subsidies for the security forces and the number of U.S. soldiers and bases in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the U.S.-NATO forces; a major reason for his refusal to sign the BSA. The U.S. administration also accused Karzai’s younger brother of involvement in drug deals.
The dilemma of western leaders was that they had no alternative to Karzai. Apparently, Karzai’s change of mind and his refusal to play the game according to the rules drawn up by his western mentors stemmed from his desire to change the perception of his being a U.S. puppet and his conscious effort to remain relevant to the future political scenario in Afghanistan.
To get even with Pakistan, his government – that enjoyed the support of Indian intelligence agencies – provided sanctuaries to the TTP leadership in Afghanistan and encouraged it to launch attacks on targets within Pakistan, notwithstanding the invaluable role of Pakistan in bolstering intra-Afghan dialogue by releasing a number of important Taliban leaders. During the 8th Trilateral Summit in Ankara, Karzai had himself acknowledged the positive role played by Pakistan and promised to make sure that Afghan soil would not be used for launching terrorist attacks on Pakistan. Consequently, there was a little lull in his anti-Pakistan rhetoric.
However, earlier this year, during his visit to India to participate in the oath-taking ceremony of the Indian prime minister, he again accused Pakistan of being involved in an attack on the Indian consulate in Afghanistan. Pakistan, on the other hand, fulfilled its commitment to remain neutral during the presidential elections and also sealed the Pak-Afghan border.
Although Hamid Karzai will no more be at the helm of affairs once the new Afghan government takes charge, there is no denying the fact that he has been able to refurbish his image to a great extent. He has emerged as an influential player on the political chessboard of Afghanistan. With a strong tribal backing and support of powerbrokers, all of which seems to have worked in favor of Ashraf Ghani in the run-off stage, Karzai would still be in a position to exercise his influence in the future scheme of things, provided the wrangling over the rigging issue in the run-off stage is amicably resolved before the scheduled transfer of power this month, failing which the country is likely to plunge into yet another unending conflict between different factions, with the Taliban already having upped the ante.