By M K Bhadrakumar
Washington gave Afghan President Hamid Karzai over 18 months to bring himself to agree to the United States-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement, but hardly a fortnight to get the document ratified by his parliament.
Karzai's motivation to get the job done is not in doubt, since his own political future hinges on his dexterity to persuade Afghan parliamentarians to endorse the pact.
And only after parliament's endorsement can US President Barack Obama submit the document to the US Congress. The pact is intended to be the highlight of the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Chicago on May 21.
Just about 10 days left, and Karzai is under enormous pressure. .The popular feeling among Afghans about the pact is a great "unknown unknown", to borrow the words of former despicable war criminal and utterly corrupt US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.....
Afghan officials announced in April that they had endorsed a final draft of the strategic partnership agreement that will make certain the US commitment in the country for at least 10 years after the 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops deadline and the transition of security to local forces. Few other details were given.
The Taliban may have helped matters a bit. Their spectacular attacks in Kabul and other places recently created an overall awareness about the fragile security situation and Karzai's best hope is that the people will appreciate that for the foreseeable future, Western military backing becomes critical for the survival of the Afghan state.
Karzai is risking that this new "awareness" subsumes the popular feelings against foreign occupation of their country. Things were going rather well for Karzai for the first three days since US President Barack Obama came to Kabul on May 1 to sign the pact. It all seemed a done thing that he would navigate the US-Afghan pact through parliament and start packing his bags for the journey to Chicago and commence a new chapter in his political career.
But then, destiny struck on May 4. A dozen or so Afghan civilians, including five children, were killed on that fateful Friday evening when NATO-led forces carried out two separate air strikes in the southern province of Helmand. NATO repeated the crime two days later with a second air strike in the northwestern province of Badghis. Karzai's office admitted that NATO also struck in Logar and Kapisa provinces in eastern Afghanistan in the weekend, killing dozens of civilians.
Karzai promptly went into damage-control mode by calling in the US commander, General John Allen, and the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker. He told them that the strikes were "unacceptable". Karzai's office also issued a crisply worded press release, according to which, "President Karzai said if the lives of Afghans are not safe, then the strategic cooperation between the two countries will lose its meaning and concept."
Indeed, the raison d'etre of the pact lies in the US's political obligation and military commitment to make Afghanistan a safe place for Afghans. Karzai has been made to look a very impotent leader.
Karzai controls a fair number of parliamentarians who will dance to his tune, but they fall short of a majority. Karzai is so uneasy that he even took the extraordinary step recently of stopping a visit to Kabul by prominent US congressman Dama Rohrabacher, who is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to meet Afghan opposition leaders. Rohrabacher was denied a visa and prevented from boarding a flight from Dubai to Kabul. "[US Secretary of State] Hillary [Clinton] was very clear that this came from Karzai," Rohrabacher later said.
Rohrabacher has supported the demand of the Afghan opposition (belonging to the erstwhile Northern Alliance) that Karzai should share power with parliament. The incident showed Karzai's uneasy standoff with the opposition represented in parliament. Suffice to say, Karzai faces the biggest challenge of his political career when he submits the US-Afghan pact for endorsement by parliament in Kabul.
Tehran challenges ...
But Karzai still has a few tricks in his pocket. On Saturday, he struck at Iran. Afghan security forces nabbed the Kabul bureau chief of Iran's semi-official Fars news agency, Abdulvahed Hakimi, and took him to an undisclosed destination. It was a provocative move and inconceivable without clearance from a high level in the Kabul set-up.
Media leaks have since made out that Hakimi is charged with spying. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty soon began flashing reports in Dari and Pashtu about Afghan security having cracked a spy ring allegedly working for Iran.
Unsurprisingly, Karzai has opted for a huge diversionary tactic to turn attention away from the NATO air strike by whipping up Afghan nationalism. Meanwhile, the Karzai government also leveled allegations that the Iranian ambassador in Kabul, Abolfazi Zohrehvand, tried to influence Afghan parliamentarians to oppose the US-Afghan pact. On Tuesday, the ambassador was summoned to the Afghan Foreign Ministry.
Simultaneously, a media campaign has begun, alleging that Tehran proposes to expel Afghan refugees living in Iran as a mark of displeasure against the Kabul government over the security pact. This is a highly emotive issue within Afghanistan with high potential to incite anti-Iran sentiments.
Tehran furiously protested that it had been a generous host for more than two million Afghan refugees for over two decades with little help from the international community and has always been of the opinion that their repatriation could only take place with the "establishment of sustainable peace and security" within Afghanistan.
But the damage is done. Meanwhile, Tehran has broken its silence over the US-Afghan pact. On Saturday, in a strong statement, the Iranian Foreign Ministry warned against the deployment of US troops in Afghanistan. The statement said:
Evidently, Kabul anticipated that Tehran would at some point come out against the security pact and tried to pre-empt Iran's capacity to rally the Afghan opposition. Interestingly, on Tuesday, even as the Foreign Ministry in Kabul summoned the Iranian ambassador, Karzai dispatched National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta (who negotiated the pact with Washington) to the western Afghan city of Herat to respond to Iranian criticism.
The "unclear roles defined for the US forces and their military bases" under the pact constitute "major sources of concern for Iran and other regional countries". The pact cannot solve Afghanistan's security problems and will further destabilize the country and worsen insecurity. The Islamic Republic of Iran believes that the establishment of peace and security in Afghanistan is possible through the total withdrawal of the foreign forces, the closure of military bases and dialogue among the Afghans within the framework of the High Peace Council.
Herat has traditionally been heavily under Iranian influence. Spanta defiantly underscored that the pact with the US was precisely intended to withstand threats such as from Tehran. He said:
Iranian officials told Afghan senators not to approve the pact or else Afghanistan will face problems. We reply to them that it is for this very reason that we signed the agreement ... What I see in Iran is nationalism and radicalism, which tries to influence the region from a religious point of view. [Iran's] politics have never been recognized globally ... Afghans should guarantee their children's future with peace and think only about their national interest.Karzai's choice of the mild-mannered Spanta for the mission to Herat is interesting. Spanta is a Sunni Tajik and Herat is predominantly a Sunni Tajik city. By playing the sectarian card, Karzai evidently hopes to cast his net wide and "neutralize" the Shi'ite Iranian sway over the people of Herat.
… Obama's gamble
The Iranian ambassador in Kabul lost no time to respond to Spanta. He urged on Wednesday that the Karzai government should pay heed to Iran's concerns about the US-Afghan pact. Referring to his meeting at the Afghan Foreign Ministry the previous day, he disclosed:
The point that I made to the Afghan officials was that in our view the consequences of this [US-Afghan] agreement are not restricted to Afghanistan and will have regional and trans-regional impact and can disturb the regional security structure. We asked the Afghan officials to reconsider it [the security pact] more carefully. The Afghans should take our concerns into consideration and make their decisions while considering the Afghan people's interests and the security considerations of the regional countries.Clearly, the ambassador has pushed the envelope by claiming that Tehran's stance is shared by other regional capitals. He also reached above Spanta's and Karzai's heads to bring onto the table the interests of the Afghan nation.
The Iranian demand for a review of the pact all but sets a collision course with Karzai. If the calculation was that amid the preoccupations over the P5+1 (Iran Six") talks on Tehran's nuclear program in Baghdad on May 23, Tehran would have no spare time to pay attention to the US-Afghan pact, that isn't the case. Evidently, Tehran's threat perceptions from the long-term US military presence on Iran's eastern borders run far too deep.
Tehran has probably consulted other regional powers. Both the Foreign Ministry statement in Tehran on Saturday and the Iranian ambassador's remarks in Kabul on Wednesday referred to regional opinion weighing against the US-Afghan security pact. Although no other regional capital has spoken against the US-Afghan pact in the past 10 days, Tehran's claim suggests that the silence is merely tactical.
It is a claim difficult to disprove. The big question is going to be the nature of the mood swing among Afghan parliamentarians. Tehran has brought into focus that the US-Afghan pact is controversial among Afghanistan's neighbors. Iran wields influence over certain constituencies within Afghanistan cutting across regional or sectarian and religious divides. (Tehran has much influence with the insurgent Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who lived for almost five years in Iran in exile in the late 1990s until his return to Afghanistan in 2002.)
It is virtually unthinkable what would happen to Obama's political standing if the Afghan parliament failed to ratify the security pact. Politicians can make fatal errors of judgment. Obama gambled by traveling to Kabul to sign the pact just ahead of the formal commencement of his re-election.
The temptation to derive political mileage likely got the better of him. Obama's political life testifies that he has usually won his gambles. But Afghan parliamentarians could punctuate that lucky run.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.