A titanic power struggle in Kabul
By M K Bhadrakumar
The flurry of diplomatic activity in Kabul during the past week heralded the opening shots of a titanic power struggle, the outcome of which will largely determine the contours of an Afghan settlement....http://dailycaller.com/2010/03/15/afghanistan-the-end-is-nigh/.
In what is shaping up as a multi-layered power struggle, the principal protagonists are the United States and Britain, Pakistan, Iran and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The struggle is set to accelerate during the coming weeks and will lead all the way to the Afghan loya jirga (the traditional tribal council), which by present indications is expected to take place in Kabul on April 29. Undoubtedly, the stakes are high for all protagonists and the battle lines are being drawn.
The sudden dash by Pakistani army chief Pervez Kiani to Kabul last Friday to discuss "matters of mutual interest" with Karzai, the two-day unannounced mission on Monday by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (whose primary intent was to check out on the intensifying exchanges between Kabul and Tehran), Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinejad's consultations in Kabul on Wednesday ostensibly to discuss the bright prospects for Afghan-Iranian economic cooperation, and Karzai's own two-day trip to Islamabad from Wednesday - all served to highlight the overlapping templates of the power struggle.
Karzai digs in ...
In a fashion, forming part of the mosaic was London's timely decision last week to place Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's special representative for Afghanistan and formerly ambassador in Kabul, in the Afghan capital as its suave Man Friday in the crucial time until the loya jirga is safely home and dry. Ideally, this role could and should have been US special representative for AfPak Richard Holbrooke's by birthright, but then, his type of muscular diplomacy may prove counterproductive in the sensitive times ahead. Cowper-Coles, on the other hand, can be equally tough as Holbrooke, while smiling all the way.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband's major speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on Wednesday, "The war in Afghanistan: How to end it", assertively underscored that London intended to be very much in the driving seat in steering Afghanistan politically to a new era.
Several templates are discernible in the power struggle. First and foremost, Karzai insists on his legitimate leadership as elected president under the Afghan constitution to lead national reconciliation which can bring the war to an end.
This translates as his prerogative to convene the loya jirga, and decide its composition. Karzai also holds a mandate from the January 28 international conference in London to draw up the "reintegration" plan for the Taliban, which he is expected to present and seek approval at the loya jirga. Karzai has said his confidante, Ghulam Farooq Wardak will handle the "reintegration" plan.
Karzai hand-picked Wardak for education minister in his new cabinet in December. Having previously held the post at the ministry, a large recipient of Western aid, Wardak was not one of the new faces that the US and Britain had sought.
The choice of Wardak as mentor for the "reintegration" plan is significant. He comes from an influential Pashtun family in Wardak province adjacent to Kabul and Parwan, which forms the gateway to Bamiyan. Wardak is a base of Deobandis and Hezb-i-Islami, and the Taliban have been strongly entrenched in the province.
Conceivably, Karzai would have considered while deciding on Wardak's appointment that he was educated in Peshawar and lived and worked there for a decade. Wardak should be acceptable to Pakistan. This is important as Karzai needs maximum cooperation from Pakistan in ensuring that the loya jirga endorses his road map for the reconciliation of the Taliban. There is always an inherent risk that the assembly turns out to be "uncontrollable" once in session and throws up nasty surprises.
Therefore, Karzai is making preparations with great circumspection, no matter how the Americans and British attempt to force the pace. Washington and London were originally not in favor of Karzai's plan to hold the loya jirga. Now they are stuck with it - and are determined to influence its proceedings.
Their preference will be that the loya jirga leads to a consensus favoring formation of an "interim government", which would force Karzai to step down from the presidency.
... as Miliband baits Pakistan
Karzai, on the other hand, hopes to conduct the parliamentary elections soon after the loya jirga, which would consolidate his power base for the following four years. He has already decreed that no more will there be any US or British proxies in the Afghan election commission.
The fact of the matter is that while both the US and Britain may have grudgingly accepted Karzai's re-election as president, they estimate that he has long since ceased to be anything other than an obstacle to the kind of Afghan settlement that fits their geopolitical agenda towards Central Asia.
Miliband's lecture at the MIT on Wednesday was, in fact, intended to send a loaded "message" to Karzai. "The international community will judge him [Karzai] by his actions, not his words ... The Afghans themselves must own, lead and drive such political engagement [with the Taliban]," Miliband pointed out.
Miliband's speech stopped short of calling for an interim government. He urged Karzai to consider bringing Taliban supporters into the political system and argued that "now is the time for the Afghans to pursue a political settlement with as much vigor and energy as we are pursuing the military and civilian effort".
The Western countries view Karzai's idea of holding a loya jirga as a move by the astute leader to extract legitimacy for continuing as president by heading off the need for an interim government that would require he step down. They anticipate that if Karzai has his way with the loya jirga, he will set the political calendar for the coming years, which would in turn devolve on his presidency till 2013 at a minimum and block any chance of "regime change".
Miliband in his speech literally appealed over the head of Karzai to the participants of the loya jirga when he underlined the framework of a "political outreach", which he saw in terms of a sustainable Afghan government with more inclusive ethnic Pashtun participation, primacy on regional governors and governing councils, a pronounced shift of the locus of constitutional power away from the president to the parliament and a political leadership in Kabul that will forcefully address the "pervasive problem of corruption" in the Afghan government.
Miliband made an undisguised pitch for rallying Islamabad's support by stressing that Pakistan "holds many of the keys ... [and] clearly has to be a partner in finding solutions to Afghanistan". Interestingly, he also called on countries with "vested interests" in Afghanistan - including India, Russia, Turkey and China - to recognize the basic fact that "the status quo in Afghanistan hurts all".
With Miliband's speech, the US and Britain have literally prompted the loya jirga to dictate the peace terms to Karzai.
Iran stands by Karzai ...
As the Afghan leader sizes up the challenge ahead. so too is Tehran, which is extremely concerned that if the US-British game plan succeeds, it will lead to an open-ended presence of American troops in the region bordering eastern Iran, which Washington can always put to use to pressure Iran.
Ahmedinejad's visit to Kabul on Wednesday was primarily intended to make a big statement of solidarity with Karzai, urging the latter to stand up to the challenge and conveying Tehran's willingness to stand shoulder-to-shoulder by his side .
In essence, Tehran abhors the idea of a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan and wants a settlement that duly reflects Afghanistan's plural society. Tehran shares Karzai's thinking that while the Taliban can participate in any inclusive settlement, that has to be on the basis of a willingness to lay down arms and accept the Afghan constitution, which provides for a democratic plural society safeguarding the interests of all religious and linguistic groups.
The US and Britain have been trying to tarnish Karzai by caricaturing him as an appeaser of the Taliban, but Tehran sees through the Western ploy.
Thus, Karzai can hope to tap into Iran's influence with various Afghan groups, which traditionally focused on the Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazara Shi'ites but today also extends to segments of the Pashtun population. Significantly, Ahmedinejad was received on Wednesday at Kabul airport by the Northern Alliance leader Mohammed Fahim, who has become the first vice president in Karzai's new government despite strong opposition from the US and Britain.
On the other hand, the US and Britain can count on Afghanistan's former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah to raise the banner of revolt against Karzai in the loya jirga. They can also count on sundry disgruntled old war horses like Sibgatullah Mojaddidi and Burhanuddin Rabbani to criticize and isolate Karzai. Some circles have already floated the name of Mustafa Zahir Shah, a grandson of the late Afghan king, as the head of an interim political dispensation in Kabul to succeed Karzai.
But with help from Iran (and Turkey and Russia), Karzai can hope to have the bulk of the Northern Alliance extending support to him. Besides, Karzai has also reached out to Hizb-i-Islami leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who is interested in a political accommodation in the power structure in Kabul.
... but all eyes are on Islamabad ...
The "swing factor" nonetheless will be the extent of Pakistan's cooperation.
Iran and Turkey, which remain supportive of Karzai's leadership, have been working with Pakistan to form a sort of regional condominium that offers a regional solution to the Afghan conflict. Ultimately, Pakistan's mind will be swayed by the extent of confidence it has in Karazi's ability to accommodate its legitimate interests in Afghanistan.
And right in the first circle of Pakistan's interests falls Islamabad's demand that Karzai should not stand in the way of a rollback of Indian influence in Afghanistan.
From the available reports, Karzai used his visit to Islamabad to assure Islamabad will have a critical role in any reconciliation with the Taliban. He acknowledged publicly that without Pakistan's cooperation, his reconciliation plan would not get anywhere.
Karzai also seems to have extended assurances as regards Pakistan's legitimate strategic interests. Of note, he had a separate meeting with Kiani.
In his press conference in Islamabad on Thursday, Karzai drew a subtle distinction between India and Pakistan in the Afghan perceptions. Karzai said, "India is a close friend of Afghanistan but Pakistan is a brother of Afghanistan. Pakistan is a twin brother. We are conjoined twins, there's no separation."
Karzai also stressed Afghanistan's neutrality. "Afghanistan does not want any proxy wars on its territory. It does not want a proxy war between India and Pakistan. It does not want a proxy war between Iran and the US on Afghanistan."
However, Pakistan will still closely watch how Karzai goes about fulfilling his assurances that its concerns on India would be addressed, while drawing satisfaction that his tone and tenor on Wednesday and Thursday were exceedingly positive.
The Pakistani leadership went out of the way to roll out the red carpet for Karzai. Almost the entire cabinet turned up at the airport to receive him. A cosmetic outcome of Karzai's visit is that the two sides have agreed to revive the two-year-old idea of holding joint jirgas. Thus, a mini-jirga ("Jirhagai') will be held in Kabul following the April 29 assembly, and another loya jirga in Islamabad later on with a view to narrow down the differences between the two countries and to delineate the role of Pashtun tribes straddling the border areas.
Quintessentially, Pakistan has put its demands vis-a-vis Karzai on the table: Islamabad seeks the "stabilization" of Afghanistan with a minimal Indian role and presence and expects traditional Pashtun influence in the power structure in Kabul will be restored.
The Pakistan army has also offered to help train the Afghan army, which will be a key instrument of power for the Afghan state. "I cannot afford to have Afghan soldiers on my western borders trained by the Indians with an Indian mindset," Kiani is reported to have remarked recently.
... as it bargains with the US
Speaking to the media in Islamabad, however, Karzai left the door open on Kiani's offer. He said, "We have discussed this offer from Pakistan where some equipment has also been offered. We accepted this [equipment]. As far as the training of Afghan soldiers, my minister of defense will study and we will come back on this." He pointedly recalled that the Soviets had also "trained" the Afghan army and "so, we are careful".
Without doubt, Islamabad will now turn towards Washington and assess what it has to offer. There is much satisfaction in Islamabad that recent US statements have virtually acknowledged Pakistan's drive for gaining "strategic depth" in Afghanistan.
Almost the entire Pakistani leadership is going to Washington for consultations in the coming weeks. Pakistani navy chief Admiral Noman Bashir reaches the US capital on March 17, followed by Kiani and Inter-Services Intelligence chief Shuja Pasha, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi at the end of the month, and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in the second week of April. Pakistan-US strategic dialogue is also scheduled to take place in Washington in the last week of March at the level of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Beyond the Indian presence in Afghanistan, beyond Karzai's political future, beyond imponderables over the loya jirga, and even beyond the fortunes of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Islamabad will calculate that the time has come to assess if, how and to what extent the US is prepared to accommodate Pakistan's aspirations as a regional power.
Specifically, Islamabad expects parity with India as regards the US strategic partnership.
Islamabad estimates that with the endgame in progress in Afghanistan, the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bandwagon is already preparing to roll onto the Central Asian steppes, and the great game for the containment of Russia, China and Iran is about to commence in earnest.
The first moves on the Central Asian chessboard have been made already. Washington won over to its side Uzbekistan, a key country in Central Asia, and has significantly eroded Russia's traditional ties with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The US Embassy in Bishkek last week confirmed the sensational news that Washington proposes to build up a counter-terrorism training center in Batken in southern Kyrgyzstan, close to China's border, which ironically enough will be in immediate proximity to a proposed Russian base.
That is to say, the US estimates that Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is in reality much ado about nothing. At any rate, Tashkent has succeeded in paralyzing the CSTO's proposed activities with regard to mobilizing a rapid reaction force that would have rivalled NATO as a guarantor of regional security.
According to the US ambassador in Bishkek, Tatiana C Gfoeller, "Brand new, modern military equipments ... are arriving in Kyrgyzstan daily and being distributed to Kyrgyzstan's armed forces." It seems the crack Scorpion Battalion of the Kyrgyz military has received "extensive training from US forces".
Close on the heels of Holbrooke's Central Asia tour last month, Central Command chief David Petraeus paid a two-day visit to Kyrgyzstan this week. Following the talks in Bishkek, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said that "all the main challenges and security threats to Central Asia" come from Afghanistan and "therefore, Kyrgyzstan is interested in providing security and stability in this country, and will continue its efforts to offer its endeavor for rebuilding Afghanistan - along with the international community".
Pakistan will carefully factor in all these trends, which unmistakably suggest that the Barack Obama administration has quietly expanded its AfPak brief to include Central Asia so as to bring it in harmony with NATO's future enlargement.
Islamabad will assess that progression of the AfPak policy will involve greater US (and NATO) dependence on cooperation from Pakistan, which is the strategic "beachhead" to the Central Asian hinterland.
All in all, therefore, Pakistan will take a final call on the developing Afghanistan situation only after the series of intense consultations in Washington. Karzai would have estimated that Pakistan is keeping its trump cards in readiness for playing at a penultimate stage in the titanic power struggle unfolding in the Hindu Kush. Afghanistan's future depends on the US-Pakistan strategic nexus.