By Mark Sedra
Now that a few weeks have passed since President Karzai’s now infamous comment that he would consider joining the Taliban if Western pressure on him persisted, let’s try to assess what the ensuing flap over the incident means for the future of the Afghan reconstruction process. In light of the efforts of both the Obama administration, after some initial consternation, and Karzai to defuse the situation, it doesn’t appear that the incident will have much of an impact on Afghanistan, at least in the near term. As Bruce Reidel told the New York Times, “There is a realization [in Washington, DC] that public remonstrances and temper tantrums don’t work…It brings out the worst in Karzai, while undermining support for the war effort in Congress, in the media, and in the public. If you disparage Karzai, you’re in effect saying the war cannot be won.”
But make no mistake about it, a rift between Karzai and the US government (not to mention many other Western donors such as Britain) exists and has been developing for some time. Tensions first began to seriously mount in the summer of 2006 after a major riot in Kabul, triggered by a traffic accident involving a US military convoy, killed 14 Afghan civilians and even appeared to threaten the regime (for a few hours at least). Karzai reportedly clashed with senior Western officials in the wake of the incident, lamenting openly his decision to support Western reform processes which he saw as a reason for his declining popularity and heightened tensions in the street. Not long after, the President brought Mohammed Qasim Fahim back into government as a security advisor, a controversial move since the removal of Fahim (seen by most Western officials as a corrupt warlord) as Defence Minister two years before was heralded as a major step forward in cleaning up the government and stabilizing the country. Karzai would later tap Fahim to be his vice presidential running mate.
The situation got worse in late 2007 when two European diplomats, one working for the UN and one for the EU, were expelled from Afghanistan after apparently arranging a meeting with Taliban officials in Helmand province of southern Afghanistan without the approval of the Afghan government. Karzai saw the move as part of a wider effort of the British to make deals with the Taliban that circumvented the Afghan government, triggering a deep freeze in UK-Afghan relations.
In 2008, Karzai’s relations with the Obama Administration reached a new low-point when a diplomatic cable of US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was leaked that included direct criticism of Karzai, including the blunt assessment that he was “not an adequate strategic partner” for the United States. Complicating matters, Karzai’s relationship with Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, has been severely strained from the outset.
Even considering the build-up of tensions, Karzai’s controversial remarks must be seen as an overreaction and a political miscalculation. This isn’t the first time Karzai has publicly lashed out at the West for their actions in Afghanistan; he regularly criticizes Western militaries for the killing of Afghan civilians in military operations. Such open criticism of the US and its Western allies is a survival strategy for Karzai, already viewed as a Western puppet by a majority of the Afghan population. It is an effort to distance himself from the US and bolster his local legitimacy. However, since his administration depends upon Western aid and military assistance to survive, Karzai must walk a fine line between currying favour with his conservative and increasing restive domestic population and keeping donors happy and engaged. He crossed that line, and even tripped over it in this case.
Contrary to what some officials and commentators have stated openly or intimated, there is no evidence that Karzai is addicted to drugs or has had some sort of mental breakdown. He is playing the Afghan political game, only this time he overstepped his bounds.
It is no easy task pleasing both donors and the domestic population in Afghanistan whose interests can conflict. Take the 2006 case of the Christian convent, Abdul Rahman. After an Afghan court sentenced him to death for apostasy, international outcry forced Karzai to allow the shuttling of Rahman into exile in Italy. Despite the fact that the Afghan Supreme Court overturned the lower court decision due to a lack of evidence, the move angered many Afghans. Parliamentary Speaker Yunus Qanooni even asked Karzai to block Rahman’s departure. The incident damaged the reputation of the Afghan leader despite his efforts to find an equitable solution, showing that domestic and international interests are often irreconcilable in the Afghan context, making it very difficult to govern.
What will all of this mean in the short-, medium- and long-term? In the short and medium-term, it will be business as usual, as we have already seen. Afghanistan is too strategically and politically important to President Obama to let a flap such as this endanger his Afghan plan. However, tensions with the Presidential Palace have prompted US officials in Kabul to work around Karzai where possible, strengthening relationships with favoured ministers and political figures, such as Haneef Atmar at the Ministry of Interior and Rahim Wardak at the Ministry of Defence. Over time this may create rival centers of power in the Afghan government that can foster political instability. This episode will also make it more difficult, as long as Karzai remains in power, to justify continued engagement in Afghanistan to increasingly skeptical Western audiences. Americans will rightly ask why they should support a country whose leader doesn’t want us there.
The irony of all of this is that for the first five years of the state-building process, Karzai was the only game in town and was viewed as the key to stability by most donor countries. The West put all their eggs in the Karzai basket, believing he was the only political figure who could unite the country and deliver on reform. Now the knock on him is that he is uninterested in reform, willing to tolerate corruption and cronyism, and increasingly divisive domestically. Whether the Western donors like it or not, Karzai will be around for the next five years and they will have to learn to work with him and tolerate the occaisional rant.