The best outcome of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington has been that US President Barack Obama finally cracked the whip on his AfPak team. When the AfPak special representative Richard Holbrooke turned up at Andrews Airbase at 6.00 am to receive Karzai whom he once not too long ago yelled at, a loud message went down the line-up in Washington. Similarly, the US ambassador in Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry who once thought Karzai was unworthy to be America’s ally, found himself escorting the Afghan leader from Kabul to Washington.
A gloss has been put on it as Obama’s “charm offensive” but the plain truth is Washington has no alternative but to propitiate Karzai. Three factors led to this calamity. First, of course, Karzai outwitted the US’s AfPak diplomats who tried to muzzle him. He showed a streak of independence that took them by surprise. They caricatured Karzai as a confused figure but the campaign ultimately disintegrated and Obama decided to step in.
Secondly, from the praise Obama showered on Karzai (and downplaying the Afghan leader’s obvious human flaws), Washington has begun appreciating Karzai’s political skill. Karzai keeps together an unwieldy coalition, he is not lacking in flexibility as shown by his retraction from his stubborn stance regarding an all-Afghan election commission and he kept up a working relationship with General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the US forces. All this didn’t go unnoticed by Obama.
Nor the sense of realism Karzai showed by deputing Ashraf Ghani who was the US’s preferred candidate in last year’s presidential election, as his emissary to Washington ahead of his visit. Ghani took with him Karzai’s practical ideas that could facilitate the transition in Obama’s war strategy in July 2011 when the drawdown of US combat troops is expected. Karzai displayed sincerity about making a success of Obama’s Afghan strategy.
Again, despite the gloss put on the US military operations in Helmand province, the ground realities appear grim and the prognosis of the upcoming operations in Kandahar doesn’t look good. To quote well-known columnist David Ignatius, the “much-touted offensive” in Marjah in Helmand in February has not gone on the expected lines and “Kandahar, the next big test of the US strategy, will be even harder.” Evidently, Obama needs Karzai’s cooperation.
An opinion survey funded by the US army has come up with the startling finding that the Kandahari opinion overwhelmingly supports reconciliation with the Taliban – “our Afghan brothers”. This was also the belief expressed by tribal elders in Kandahar whom Karzai met in March. Indeed, Karzai shares their belief. The poll revealed that Karzai’s proposal for the convening of a jirga enjoys massive popular support.
Obama realizes that the time has come to abandon the holy cow that Karzai should not open negotiations with the Taliban until mid-2011. Obama reportedly instructed his war cabinet last month that it might be time to start negotiations with the Taliban, overruling the assumption that peace talks should be deferred until McChrystal degraded the Taliban militarily.
From this overall perspective, the outcome of Karzai’s talks in Washignton can be evaluated. One, Obama made it clear that notwithstanding the tensions of the past, the US is closing ranks with Karzai. He admitted candidly that tensions are endemic to “such a complicated, difficult environment” and the US will continue to be “frank” with Karzai while the latter will continue to “represent his country and insist that its sovereignty is properly respected”.
But the bottom-line is that “Our solidarity today sends an unmistakable message”. Obama complimented Karzai publicly that “progress…has been made, including strengthening anti-corruption efforts, improving governance at provincial and district levels, and progress towards credible parliamentary elections later this year.” In sum, Karzai carries back to Kabul considerable political capital even as Afghan interest groups strain to figure out their president’s standing in Obama’s court.
Two, Karzai won Obama’s open support for the jirga to be convened in Kabul in end-May. The US was lukewarm to the idea and suspected it to be a ploy by Karzai to corner his detractors. Obama’s support goes a long way to strengthen Karzai’s hands.
Equally, the Obama administration gave away its thinking on the reconciliation strategy towards the Taliban. The US agrees with Karzai’s estimation that Taliban is a rubric under which diverse networks, groups, fighters operate with different motivations and so long as these elements renounce violence and ties to the al-Qaeda and adhere to the Afghan constitution, it is possible to integrate them.
Obama said the jirga provides for a “framework” to move forward on the political track. He qualified that the political track “in part depends on our effectiveness in breaking their [Taliban] momentum militarily” but he didn’t flag it as a precondition.
In Obama’s presence, Karzai insisted that those “within the Taliban’s leadership structure” are also welcome to join the national mainstream. Obama neither agreed nor disagreed. It stands to reason that Karzai argued for a comprehensive reconciliation strategy toward the insurgents. Obama said, “On the…subject of Afghan-led peace and reconciliation efforts…the United States supports the efforts of the Afghan government to open the door to the Taliban…. And I look forward to a continued dialogue with our Afghan partners on these efforts.”
To be sure, with the endgame in view, Washington and Kabul have begun discussing their long-term strategic partnership. Karzai seeks a new status of forces agreement regarding the US’s long-term presence. Obama revealed that a “new strategic partnership” will be formalized later this year while Karzai hinted at differences on the control over the US operations (which often cause civilian casualties) and “with respect to judicial independence of Afghanistan.” Karzai seeks to bring the US forces under the purview of Afghan laws and constitution.
Karzai claimed he heard a “very supportive voice” from Obama on this issue. This becomes important as the July 2011 deadline draws close. Obama spelt out in some detail “what July 2011 represents” – “beginning in 2011, July, we [US] will start bringing those troops down… But we are not suddenly, as of July 2011, finished with Afghanistan…this is a long-term partnership that is not simply defined by our military presence. I am confident that we’re going to be able to reduce our troop strength…. But after July 2011, we are still going to have an interest in making sure that Afghanistan is secure…. And so we’re going to still be putting in resources.”
Pakistan’s role figured in Karzai’s talks. Interestingly, Obama, while underscoring Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and acknowledging that the security of Afghanistan and Pakistan are intertwined, refused to be drawn into any criticism of Pakistan.
On the contrary, he said: “I am actually encouraged by what I’ve seen from the Pakistani government over the last several months. But…it’s going to take some time for Pakistan, even where there is a will, to find a way in order to effectively deal with these extremists in areas that are fairly loosely governed from Islamabad. Part of what I’ve been encouraged by is Pakistan’s willingness to start asserting more control… But it’s not going to happen overnight… Pakistani military has been going in fairly aggressively… We think that that message is starting to get through…”
Karzai also avoided criticizing Pakistan’s disruptive role. He drew strength from Obama’s forceful support for his leadership. As Obama put it, “our overarching approach is unified…his [Karzai’s] willingness to our concerns, even as we listen to his…only makes the relationship stronger.”
Now comes the hard part. An assertive Obama let it be known that he intends to deal with Karzai pragmatically and the US’s AfPak diplomats who waged a guerilla war against the Afghan leader lost no time imbibing the message. Obama propitiated Karzai whose support is needed for McChrystal to make a reasonable success of the impending military operations in Kandahar.
However, Karzai’s acquiescence still cannot ensure the success of McChrystal’s enterprise. The equations hangs in the balance and if the war strategy fails to produce expected results, the blame game resumes all over again.