Hamid Karzai’s Poison Pill

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Hamid Karzai’s Poison Pill

The Afghan president has laid out the conditions for an extended U.S. military presence. But with opposition to his rule growing, can Karzai hold on?

Hamid Karzai took one more wobbly step along the tightrope he walks as president of Afghanistan last week.

Coming just a couple of weeks before the world community holds a global summit on Afghanistan in Bonn on December 5, Karzai adroitly navigated through a four-day traditional grand assembly, or loya jirga, that he summoned to strengthen his political standing at home and to proclaim a set of conditions for the evolving U.S.-Afghanistan relationship as the United States draws down its forces in advance of 2014. It was a performance watched intently by friend and foe alike. Like the skilled survivor that Karzai has proven to be, once again he managed to provide a little something for everyone, though it’s unclear how long his balancing act can last.

More than two thousand delegates, reportedly weighted disproportionately toward Afghans from the southern provinces, Pashtuns, and Karzai’s own inner circle, endorsed Karzai’s proposed tradeoff: Karzai promised to give the United States military bases in Afghanistan for a decade after 2014, as part of a negotiated U.S.-Afghan strategic agreement, if – and only if – the United States agrees to stop house searches by Special Operations forces, call an end to controversial night raids in conflict zones, and dismantle foreign-controlled detention centers.

Although the idea of an extended, decade-long American military presence in Afghanistan was designed to appeal to the Obama administration and to American military planners, the conditions announced by Karzai may have been designed as a kind of poison pill. Juggling appeals to nationalist, anti-occupation sentiments in the country, especially in the south, and the more sober reality that his impoverished, besieged government can’t long survive without ongoing U.S. and Western support, Karzai dangled the prospect of future military bases while trying to force the United States to call off some of the more egregiously unpopular measures that the United States deems critical to the counterinsurgency effort.

In Washington, officials at the White House and the State Department chose not to confront Karzai’s demand directly, publicly welcoming the idea of long-term bases, while at the Pentagon the military emphasized its determination to continue the counterinsurgency measures. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told the Wall Street Journal that the night raids are “very important,” adding that the “Special Operations Forces allow us to put constant pressure across the entire insurgent network that we're going after.”

In colorful language, however, Karzai compared Afghanistan to a lion. “The lion doesn’t like it if a foreigner intrudes into his house. The lion doesn’t like it if a stranger enters his house. The lion doesn’t want his children to be taken away by someone else in the night, the lion won’t let it happen,” he told the jirga. “They shouldn’t interfere in the lion’s house: just guard the four sides of the forest.”

It was the latest in a series of calculated affronts to the United States. Earlier this month, a top American general was fired for denouncing Karzai’s proclamation that he’d side with Pakistan in a conflict with the United States. And although the administration kept quiet on the more controversial aspects of Karzai’s speech to the jirga, it drew fire from hawkish members of Congress, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a frequent McCain ally. And, writing in the The New Republic, Fouad Ajami called Karzai a “brazen and ungrateful client” who “offers us the most peculiar of gifts—the right to stay on indefinitely, shore up his regime, and pour our scarce treasure for his family and retainers. That Afghan lion doesn’t make its own kills.”

While U.S. hawks fumed, however, Karzai’s biggest problem might be his fellow Afghans. Increasingly, Karzai is facing an organized and militant bloc of non-Pashtun warlords and power brokers, including the members of the old Northern Alliance. A huge contingent of members of parliament, along with several leading warlords and some key opposition politicians, denounced the jirga as a power play by Karzai designed to undermine or short-circuit Afghanistan’s national assembly and its constitution. Nearly eighty members of parliament boycotted the jirga, along with warlords such as Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and Muhammad Mohaqiq, former Prime Minister Ahmad Zia Massoud (whose late brother was the Northern Alliance commander), and opposition leaders such as former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, former Interior Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar, and former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh and others all denounced the jirga and boycotted it.  (In 2010, Karzai fired Atmar and Saleh for tilting too strongly toward India and for opposing Karzai’s efforts to bring both the Taliban and Pakistan, the Taliban’s chief backer, into a political accord with Kabul.)

Some, if not all, of these opposition figures represent minorities concerned that Karzai, himself a Pashtun but from a more conservative, less religious-fundamentalist Pashtun tradition, might be intent on handing over the country to the Pashtuns. Reflecting that view, one Afghan analyst wrote: “[The] concern about the ethnic and geographical dimension of the jirga is shared by many northerners and non-Pashtuns, who see the jirga as a Pashtun tradition that could further entrench elements unfriendly to the minorities, or lead to a deal with the mostly Pashtun Taliban that would put the gains made by minorities over the past decade in danger.”

Most of Karzai’s opponents have either already formed or are setting up political parties to oppose Karzai and to block reconciliation talks with the Taliban, and at least of some of them, such as Atmar’s, are taking on the coloring of a militia preparing for civil war, according to a veteran expert on South Asia in Washington.

On the day of the jirga, Atmar appeared at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C. thinktank, where he delivered a near-apocalyptic presentation. If the United States withdraws too quickly from Afghanistan, he said, and if Karzai brings elements of the Taliban into a coalition of some kind, the result could be catastrophic for the entire region. It would, he predicted, lead of a proxy-led civil war in Afghanistan, involving a host of regional powers, especially India and Pakistan. “India, Iran and Russia will not accept the return of the Taliban, and they will use all the assets at their disposal,” he said. “Russia will create a buffer state in the north.” Tensions between Pakistan and India will rise, he said. “And if there is one more attack of the Mumbai sort, it will being India and Pakistan to nuclear war.”

Doomsday scenarios notwithstanding, it’s increasingly widely recognized that a political settlement of the Afghan conflict mist include some viable deal with the Taliban, their allied insurgent groups, and Pakistan. Earlier this year, there was hope that the Taliban might well participate in the upcoming Bonn conference, and even though it now appears that that won’t be the case, it’s possible that the Taliban and the so-called Haqqani network led by Sirajuddin Haqqani might be present on the sidelines at Bonn, in some form or other.

The United States is trying to induce both groups to negotiate, and U.S. special envoy Marc Grossman has been shuttling back and forth among regional powers to win support for a deal. An American official told the Washington Post that the purpose of the Bonn meeting is to come up with a framework for a settlement. “What we want to do is provide an international basis of support for a political outcome in Afghanistan,” the official said, though it’s a tall order to say the least.