The former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s interview with the Guardian newspaper, implicitly marking his distance from his successor Ashraf Ghani’s way of going about with a peace process with the Taliban, comes like a bolt from the blue. Of course, whatever be the merits and demerits of his remarks, Karzai has done an improper thing.
In his very next visit to Delhi, he should watch carefully and make notes as to with what quiet statesmanlike dignity and propriety the former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh is conducting himself. The point is, Karzai seems unable to reconcile that he is no longer the president.
Afghan politics is at a very delicate stage with the national unity government, which is a unique experiment in itself, barely showing signs of some traction, and to throw a boulder on its path at such a point is an unkind act. Now, why has Karzai, a deep man of many parts, done this?
What one would like to rule out is that he is not speaking on behalf of some other country in the region – India, in particular. This is important, because Ghani has just spoken while addressing the parliament in Kabul last week that peace in Afghanistan is a prerequisite for peace and regional stability and that he is working with regional stakeholders. He brought in China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan and Turkey as countries that would be part of the regional consensus he hopes to evolve, and he held out a big promise to steer Afghanistan out of ‘proxy wars’.
So, what is it that is troubling Karzai? One easy explanation could be that he is behaving like a porcupine – in a seemingly offensive posture while merely defending himself. Karzai and his retinue didn’t exactly acquit themselves well while in power and many skeletons are there in his cupboard. The Kabul Bank fraud case, where the elites of the Karzai set-up were deeply involved, is only a sensational case. The latest audit report of the Pentagon inspector-general copiously details the fraud and abuse of power by the Karzai government. So, one charitable explanation could be that Karzai fired a warning shot to the Ghani government to let bygones be bygones and let sleeping dogs lie.
Second, he surely senses that dissent is brewing in the political landscape and he is probably positioning himself. Ghani is making a ‘clean break’ from the Karzai era – not only in the style of governance but also in his idealistic views on creating a merit-based system (going against the grain of the Afghan culture rooted in an elaborate patronage system.) Indeed, many powerful figures – cutting across ethnic lines or political ideology – feel left out. Ghani’s critics today include on the one hand the redoubtable Islamist leader Rasul Sayyaf and on the other hand the secular-minded former boss of Afghan intelligence Amrullah Saleh. Both are ‘fallen angels’ with wings clipped who are struggling to take to the skies once again.
Karzai’s genius for coalition-building is a legion and it isn’t too difficult to rally around him these discontented souls wandering in the hills and valleys of the Hindu Kush. He may well succeed, but, of what avail? Afghanistan needs national unity as the government enters a tricky and dangerous phase of reconciling the Taliban. Karzai should do nothing or say nothing to create problems for Ghani. After all, Ghani doesn’t deny access to him. So, he can always give his best advice to Ghani privately instead of voicing it piece meal through a British newspaper.
The only good thing about Karzai’s interview is that it might alert the Pakistani GHQ in Rawalpindi and the political leadership in Islamabad to the grim reality that despite the current bonhomie between Kabul and Islamabad, there is a big trust deficit in Afghan-Pakistan relations and that the Afghan people are, justifiably enough, unconvinced about the Pakistani intentions.
As they say, once bitten, twice shy. Unsurprisingly, the pervasive Afghan opinion is that Pakistan has destroyed their beautiful country systematically ever since they got Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other islamists to cross over to Peshawar in 1974 (six years before the Soviet intervention.) It is a long, bloody saga of some four decades of Pakistani perfidy and interference.
Therefore, the onus is on Pakistan to make good its latest promises to work diligently and honestly for an Afghan settlement. Fortunately, there are voices within Pakistan itself today who underscore this as the imperative need today.
Having said that, it is also far too simplistic to think that Pakistan holds a magic wand. No one is discussing today the core issue of the foreign occupation of Afghanistan. Rustam Shah Mohmand, former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, rightly pointed out in a recent article that for the peace talks to succeed, the United States also needs to clearly chalk out “a policy on whether and under what conditions it would be prepared to make a complete exit from Afghanistan”. He explains:
“Since the major bottleneck to peace is the presence of foreign troops, the issue of their complete withdrawal within a stipulated time period assumes critical importance. Pakistan should be aiming at persuading the US to consider an appropriate time frame for the withdrawal of its forces. This would in turn depend on whether the various Afghan groups, including the resistance groups, can come to an understanding on how to manage and run the country in the event of complete evacuation of foreign troops. If the US agrees to a short time frame within which all its forces would leave the country and hand over military bases to Kabul, the resistance would, in all likelihood, agree to be incorporated in Afghan government institutions — even if certain minor amendments to the country’s Constitution are made with mutual consent of all parties. Afghanistan’s Constitution, its parliament and other institutions are sacrosanct but the country’s unity and integrity as well as peace should be considered equally sacrosanct.”
I have quoted Mohmand at some length since he is a knowledgable analyst and I respect him as a forthright opinion-maker. Surprisingly, neither Ghani nor Karzai; neither CEO Abdullah Abdullah nor former NSA Dadfar Spanta; neither Wahhabist ideologue Sayyaf nor intelligence czar Saleh seems perturbed that ‘durable peace’ in Afghanistan may remain elusive so long as it is under American and NATO occupation. Make no mistake, if the Americans are there in a Muslim country, Islamists and extremists will follow. It’s as predictable as night following the day.
Clearly, the onus to ‘deliver’ is also on US President Barack Obama – assuring the Afghans that the US will leave Afghanistan lock, stock and barrel once a settlement is reached – as much as on the Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif to bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table in good faith as an honest broker who is no more involved in the business of creating ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan. The two need to proceed side by side. In fact, Ghani should initiate discussions with Obama when he visits Washington in a few days’ time. And Abdullah, Karzai, Spanta, Sayyaf, Saleh et al, should also lend their voice to compel Obama to come clean. Indian Punchline