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    « Is Europe's Increasing Use Of Biofuels Counterproductive For The Environment? | Main | 2010 US-China Report: How Beijing's Policies Threaten The US Economy & Security »

    Hamid Karzai: A Political Gamble By The US That Didn't Pay Off

    The NATO has wrapped up it's two-day summit in Lisbon this weekend with the announcement that the NATO troops will pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. It was the sort of announcement that could very well be called a fine example of the art of pleasing everyone while promising nothing concrete to anyone, or in other words: POLITICS. If you favored NATO withdrawing from Afghanistan then you could rejoice in the fact that the end was finally in sight. If you were in the opposite camp and felt that too quick a withdrawal from the country would have devastating consequences with resurgence of the Taliban, then NATO assured you that the withdrawal would be based on 'events on the grounds' and not be driven by calendar alone, and that NATO would maintain ties with Afghanistan well past 2014. Take your pick, there's something for everyone here. 

    Pres Hamid Karzai, Image Source:Wiki

    The vague and self contradictory nature of the NATO announcement speaks volumes to the nature and complexity of the problems that the NATO has encountered in Afghanistan over the last few years. At the heart of this massive political mess is the controversial leader of this country - Mr Hamid Karzai - a political figure created and propped by the US almost a decade ago as a hopeful answer to the warlords and the Taliban. 

    Karzai's ties with the US go back at least a couple of decades. Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun (of Popalzai tribe), was born in the village of Karz outside Kandahar into a prominent political family. During the 1980s, he was actively involved with the anti-Soviet Mujahideen. He lived in exile in Pakistan and became the director of information at the Afghan National Liberation Front (ANLF).

    Mujahideen movement as is widely known by now was funded mainly by the US, with help from Pakistan, to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. The CIA funneled billions to the Mujahideen during the 1980s mainly via Pakistan's ISI (Inter Services Intelligence). Karzai was one of the middlemen who worked with the CIA in helping the Afghan Mujahideen.

    When the Soviet backed Afghan government collapsed and the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1992, Karzai was one of the first to re-enter Kabul with the leaders of the Mujahideen. Karzai then became the Deputy Foreign Minister in the administration of the Northern Alliance leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who became the President of Afghanistan in 1992. This government didn't last too long. 

    In the early to mid-1990s,when the Taliban emerged as a political force in Afghanistan, Karzai was among many who initially supported the Taliban. But soon he started to suspect that the Taliban was infiltrated and controlled by foreign elements mainly from Pakistan and other Arab nations, whose interests were at cross-purposes to those of Afghanistan. In 1995 when he was approached by the Taliban government to be their representative at the UN, he turned them down. 

    By 1996 Karzai was back again living in exile in Pakistan. In July 1999, his father was gunned down in Quetta, Pakistan as he was coming home from a Mosque after prayers. This assassination is believed to have been carried out by the Taliban. By now Karzai was a vocal critic of the Taliban and was using his influence in the international circles, especially with the US and the NATO to 'purge Afghanistan of Taliban'. In a 2001 interview with the BBC, Karzai said, "These Arabs, together with their foreign supporters and the Taleban, destroyed miles and miles of homes and orchards and vineyards. They have killed Afghans. They have trained their guns on Afghan lives. These Arabs are in Afghanistan to learn to shoot. They learn to shoot on live targets and those live targets are the Afghan people, our children our women. We want them out." 

    Pres Karzai Speaking Before US Congress In 2004, Image Source:Wiki

    Following the September 11 attacks in the US in 2001, the BBC reported that Karzai 'received a stream of disaffected Afghan commanders and tribal leaders at his home in the Pakistani city of Quetta'. A month later, in October of 2001, he slipped back into Afghanistan, with blessings from Washington.

    Published in 2003 in TIME Karzai said, "Once Washington agreed to back me against the Taliban, I left for Afghanistan. I didn't think about being captured or killed—I just went. That was in early October 2001; I was in Quetta at the time, with my family. I told everyone that I was going to a friend's memorial service in town. I didn't even tell my wife what I was really up to. 

    At the border, I met with three trusted friends. They had two motorbikes and a couple of handguns. First we stayed in a village near Kandahar's airport; then we moved to a house in the middle of town. That evening, American bombs began to fall around us. The war had begun. My cousins arranged for a taxi, an old Toyota station wagon, to take us into central Afghanistan. With about 60 fighters, I took to the mountains. Afghans were joining us all the time. 

    The Americans dropped us weapons, ammunition—and 16 members of the special forces. Once, the Taliban and al-Qaeda came close to capturing us, setting up an ambush with about 500 militiamen. But a village clergyman, who had risen to call the early-morning prayers, saw these armed men getting out of their vehicles and moving into the mountains. Instead of summoning the faithful to prayer, he ran to warn us. We put up stiff resistance, and we had help from American bombers."

    So strong was the US backing for Karzai, that in November 2001, as the Taliban continued it's pursuit of Karzai, the US forces flew him out of Afghanistan temporarily to ensure his safety. By the time the UN meeting in Bonn, Germany took place in December 2001 to formalize an interim Transitional Administration in Afghanistan after the fall of Taliban; Karzai, groomed and backed by the US, was the clear front runner to head the Afghan government. And the rest as they say is history. 

    Over the ensuing years, Karzai's political fortune sky-rocketed. Karzai owes not just his political career, but even his life to the US. Without US help, at worst he may have been killed and at best he would have likely survived in political anonymity like many others who supported the Mujahideen but never rose to power.

    He was 'chosen' for a number of reasons by his benefactors: his long standing 'perceived loyalty' to the US, going all the way back to his days with the Mujahideen, his vocal opposition to the Taliban, his tribal background (being a Pashtun has it's advantages in the Taliban country, since Pashtuns formed the majority within the Taliban, it was hoped that having an alternative leadership from their own tribe would help convert some of the Taliban followers to the new US backed Afghan government), his Westernized manner, education (he holds a Masters in Political Science), fluency in English (and reportedly six other languages), so on and so forth. He clearly seemed to have it all, at least in theory to be useful to the US to secure it's own interests in the region.

    Former Pres Bush With Pres Karzai, Image Source:Wiki

    But alas, not only has the rise of Karzai not brought to fruition the dreams nurtured by his mentors, but he has become their biggest nightmare. Karzai has turned out to be a far tougher nut to crack in reality than what Washington had ever imagined. Accusations of massive electoral fraud in recent elections, wide spread corruption, alleged ties with narcotics smuggling, abuse of billions of dollars of aid received by his administration that is funneled to private interests, cronyism - all together serve to make him a weak, corrupt and an incompetent leader and an utterly unreliable partner for the US. 

    Karzai's ineptitude has famously earned him the nickname of 'Mayor of Kabul' rather than the 'President of Afghanistan', implying that his sphere of influence does not extend beyond the city of Kabul. There are indeed many areas of the country where his administration has no control at all.

    The perpetual state of chaos in the country with the combination of the Taliban, the Karzai administration, and the NATO forces all operating within the same territory with different and at times entirely conflicting agendas, has made him deeply unpopular among the Afghan population. Not only has Karzai not succeeded in eliminating the Taliban, but his inept governance has actually seen a resurgence of Taliban, as many local people disillusioned with his administration would now rather support the Taliban. 

    Over and beyond the judgment errors about his ability to govern, the biggest political miscalculation by the US about Karzai has been about his loyalties. His loyalties have always been limited to himself, his family and friends (who have benefited immensely by his attainment of power), and his own country. He is not now, nor has he ever been loyal to the US. 

    Each has used the other. He has used the US repeatedly for his own gains, to further his own personal political ambitions and the interests of his own country. The US has likewise used him to further it's own agenda in the region but has little faith in him. The extent of Washington's distrust in him became glaringly evident when news broke this August that one of Karzai's aides, Mohammed Zia Salehi, the chief of the National Security Council, had been on the CIA's payroll for years, and had been supplying the CIA information about the inner workings of the dysfunctional Karzai administration. 

    The Bush administration had apparently hoped that in exchange for it acting as the king maker for Karzai, he would be a grateful, compliant, and reliable ally for future. The fact that he has turned out to be anything but shows how the political calculation has completely backfired. Now, after having created almost a monstrosity by giving power to an inept, self serving, shrewd person with immense personal political ambitions, the Obama administration admits with frustration that we have to figure out a way to work with him merely for lack of better alternatives.

    ~ Gauri 

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