In retrospect, United States President Barack Obama did a great favor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai by excluding him from his charmed circle of movers and shakers who would wield clout with the new administration in Washington. Obama was uncharacteristically rude to Karzai by not even conversing with him by telephone for weeks after he was sworn in, even though Afghanistan was the number one foreign policy priority of his presidency.
Vice President Joseph Biden traveled to Kabul to let it be known to Karzai that he was a fallen angel and unless Karzai mended his ways and did that soon enough, the US would rather be rid of him once and for all. Biden made it brutally plain that as a surrogate the US had installed in power, it could as easily banish him from grace.
The shrewd man that he is, with an eye and an ear trained constantly on Washington, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Jaap de Hoop Schaffer promptly pitched in and harshly chastised Karzai in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, as if the Afghan leader was a mere vassal of the Western alliance. It was an appalling breach of protocol as Schaffer, a one-time foreign minister himself, should have known.
But Karzai has had the last laugh as he travels to Washington from Kabul for an "intense" trilateral summit meeting with Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Thursday. Schaffer, Biden and Obama - indeed, they all have something bitter to swallow this week. Karzai will be around for another five years. The word coming out of Kabul is that Karzai is as of now all but certain to win the Afghan presidential election on August 20.
The supreme irony is that what is probably helping Karzai more than anything else to wrap up his re-election is that Western politicians like Schaffer and Biden rubbished him and distanced themselves ostentatiously from him. Without the opprobrium of their company, Karzai's political fortunes began looking up. At once he began gaining a new credibility - even respectability - in Afghan eyes. It reads like a morality play.
Sherzai hugs Karzai's little son
On Monday, Karzai formally registered his candidacy for the presidential election. His vice presidential running mates will be two stalwarts of the erstwhile anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Muhammad Fahim Qasim from Panjshir and Muhammad Karim Khalili from Hazarajat. It is no doubt a dream ticket. Fahim brings in Tajik support in good measure, while Khalili is the unquestioned leader of the Hazara Shi'ites in Bamyan.
Karzai is the proud scion of a powerful Pashtun tribe. It seems likely that the Karzai-Fahim-Khalili ticket may also be enjoying a back-to-back understanding with Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum and Hazara commander Mohammad Mohaqiq from northern Afghanistan.
The ticket has several engrossing features. It is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and inter-regional. Second, it has the potential to rally the mujahideen. Both Fahim and Khalili were notable mujahideen leaders. They have extensive networking with the mujahideen leaders who still form a significant constituency.
Third, their staunch opposition to the Taliban is too well known to be reiterated. Their presence in the top echelons of the power structure will underscore the imperative need of an inclusive, broad-based government as part of any settlement with the Taliban.
Fourth, Fahim and Khalili are truly "sons of the soil". They may lack Karzai's sartorial skill, English fluency, urbaneness and panache for diplomacy, but they stuck it out in the tangled mountains of the Hindu Kush through the entire 30-year civil war. Also, they bring in something that Karzai lacks. They are both able and experienced commanders with large followings and can significantly contribute to the "Afghanization" of the war. Fahim also headed the intelligence activities of the Northern shura under Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Besides, Karzai has in Fahim a running mate who is known to the Russians and in Khalili as a top leader who enjoyed the respect and backing of the Iranians. But more than anything else, with the choice of Fahim and Khalili, Karzai has virtually ensured that there cannot be any unified opposition able to put up a coherent challenge to his candidacy.
How Karzai succeeded in maneuvering into such a strong position offers some salutary lessons about Afghan politics. In essence, he spent the past few weeks in backroom negotiations - Afghan style - cutting deals with one-time adversaries, compromising or bartering influence and power with political bosses. The high point was reached on Saturday when Gul Agha Sherzai, the popular governor of Nangarhar, who was widely regarded as Obama's favorite and who was expected to announce his candidacy this week, dropped by to meet Karzai in the presidential palace in Kabul.
The two Pashtun leaders were closeted for over four hours, after which Sherzai emerged with a gem of a statement. He told the media, "I visited the president, and hugged his little son and decided to withdraw my candidacy. I will neither lead this [opposition] alliance nor announce my candidacy for the presidential election."
Sherzai wouldn't say more about this sudden change of heart. Mum's the word. Needless to say, a deal is not for sharing in Afghanistan. Instead, in a flamboyant show of utter indifference to all power, Sherzai said he would also resign as governor. Whereupon, the presidential spokesman in Kabul came up with a statement, "The president of Afghanistan appreciated Gul Agha Sherzai's announcement he will not run in the presidential election, and called it a positive step towards improving the government and unity of the people of Afghanistan."
He added, "Hamid Karzai sees Gul Agha Sherzai as a very fine and hardworking governor and a good advisor, and rejects his resignation." The confusion ensuing from Sherzai's change of heart has forced a re-think on the other potential contenders in the election on August 20, who included Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Afghanistan who was popularly seen by Afghans as the "American candidate", Ashraf Ghani, yet another US-based contender who was also a former finance minister, Ali Jalali, a former interior minister, and Dr Abdullah, the dapper former foreign minister who used to be Massoud's aide.
It doesn't take much ingenuity to comprehend that Karzai has brought into his candidacy a solid axis of two powerful Pashtun tribes from the Kandahar and Nangarhar regions, the heartland of Pashtun nationalism.
The Afghan experience with democracy offers a good lesson for Obama: it is best to keep a discreet distance and leave the Afghans to broker power-sharing on their own terms according to their own ethos and traditions. Conceivably, unlike in 2001 when Karzai was first foisted upon Afghanistan as the US's choice, or in 2004 when the US choreographed and then stage-managed an election to catapult him into the presidential palace as a "democratically elected" leader of the Afghan people, this time around, if he indeed manages to win a mandate in the August 20 election purely through his own efforts, he will enjoy a degree of legitimacy in Afghan perceptions that Obama could never dream of winning for him. Arguably, he graduates to the league of Iraq's CIA Prime Minister Nuri CIA al-Maliki, and Fouad CIA SINIORA in Beirut....
However, Obama has a long way to go in imbibing the lessons of democracy in the Hindu Kush, which has a fierce history of independence, as is evident from his press conference last Wednesday when he publicly berated the elected government of Pakistan.
Obama said, "I am gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan, not because I think they are immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan. I'm more concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile and don't seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services: schools, healthcare, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of the people. As a consequence, it is very difficult for them [government] to gain the support and the loyalty of the people."
Obama then proceeded to applaud the Pakistani military in comparison with the civilian government. Highly placed American officials have since begun leaking to the press reports that the Obama administration is "reaching out more directly than before to [Pakistani opposition leader] Nawaz Sharif, the chief rival of Asif Ali Zardari". The reports (which have a "Holbrookean" ring) further claim that Washington and London have been holding consultations about Sharif but "no conclusions were reached ... The idea here is to tie Sharif's popularity to things we [US] think need to be done, like dealing with militancy".
But these faceless senior officials in Washington don't seem to care that if today Sharif's popularity is coasting over 83% among the Pakistani public, it is precisely because he is seen - rightly or wrongly - as a politician credited with the spunk to tell the Americans off. The Lahore establishment daily Nation acidly commented that the leaks by the US officials were "likely to prove a kiss of death for Mian Nawaz, as an endorsement by Washington would reduce the public image of any political leader in Pakistan". Ask Karzai if that isn't indeed so.
True, as Biden took leave of Kabul, Karzai cut a sorry figure in the Afghan bazaar. Divested of the all-important American support, the impression gained ground that Karzai's days were numbered, especially as the so-called international community (read Western capitals) took the cue from Washington and promptly added their own voice to blame him for all that had gone so horribly wrong with the Afghan war. If a marker is to be put on the reversal of Karzai's political fortunes, it could be dated January 20, when Obama ignored Karzai and invited four other Afghan politicians to attend his inaugural in Washington.
Those four Afghans included Sherzai and Abdullah, who figured as presidential hopefuls until last Saturday when Sherzai - the formerly drug-tainted warlord who resembles a rotund, feudal king and once enjoyed a close relationship with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence - traveled to Kabul, hugged Karzai's two-year-old son and decided it was simply not worthwhile to contest an election against the little boy's father.