Every now and then, Afghanistan rocks the world or itself, making headlines across the globe.
Just as often, President Karzai lashes out at the Pentagon, but the cozy working relationship rarely suffers. The president, of Pashtun origin, has been at the helm since 2001 despite marginal support for his government and corruption allegations. More than his ability to battle on all fronts while failing to deliver, the scare-mongering Western media keep claiming the Afghan president is an indispensible ally.
For Karzai and the US both, things have started to change, though. The Feb. 20 Quran-burning incident at Kabul’s Parwan Detention Center base brought to light the hatred of US troops, who are in fact mandated to win the hearts and mind of local Afghans. The security forces further fueled the ensuing rage when bullets fired at protestors claimed the lives of 28 Afghans, while two American advisors were shot dead inside the interior ministry. Apologies, whether from US President Obama or his Afghan counterpart, Karzai, meant little for a common Afghan or a trained Taliban.
Last Sunday, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales emerged from his Kandahar base to kill 16 Afghans, predominantly children and women, wounding others. The Western media branded him as a lone wolf instead of a terrorist. Now his lawyer is playing his version with a carefully administered spin, suggesting that the killer was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He was twice injured in Iraq and saw his friend’s leg blasted off in Afghanistan. Now safe in custody and awaiting trial in the US, Bales’ advisors are justifying Afghan suicide bombers who have endured PTSD since the Soviet troops invaded their country and the US started funding its proxies through neighboring Pakistan. Whatever plea Bales may put forward at a very lenient US military court, he has no fear of being publically tried in an Afghan court.
The trail of two back-to-back incidents leaves Karzai in an unusually uncomfortable position. He can neither appease his people nor his much-valued friends in Washington. Like the Quran burning incident, the Afghan president slammed the US for indifference over the probe into the Kandahar massacre, in a region where anti-American and anti-Karzai sentiment have always been on the rise. “This has been going on for too long. You have heard me before. It is by all means the end of the rope here,” Karzai told reporters in Kabul. Playing to the gallery, meanwhile, the Afghan leader has sought the withdrawal of foreign troops one year ahead of schedule. (I will analyze this utterly unrealistic demand later in this article.)
Had it not been for the Western media and US/NATO leadership, Karzai could not have sustained his role in the presidential palace. With the Taliban immediately calling off any peace parleys with the United States, the ethnic Pashtun leader is left to be viewed by common Afghans as an American ally.
The lack of genuine Afghan leaders
For a long time, I have been analyzing the Afghan imbroglio from the leadership crisis perspective. The war-ravaged country is bitterly divided along ethnic and sectarian lines, yet a common goal of putting it back on track could have brought up genuine leaders who deliberately or accidently never acted as proxies for American interests during or after the Soviet invasion.
The fearsome nature of the Taliban militia notwithstanding, the leadership crisis is equally grave in their ranks. Though Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbadin Hekmatyar has kept a low profile with the aim of entering the political process, his political base remains seriously challenged by the Taliban.
Violent reactions to the foreign presence or Afghanistan’s very own problems may never end no matter how seriously the White House pursues its desire to have a broad-based peace process and how committed it is to the current timetable for the security transition and US troop withdrawal in 2014.
Back in October 2001, which saw the arrival of US troops in Afghanistan, references to the Vietnam War and embarrassing withdrawal were ripe amongst political and security analysts. Given the internal complexities of the Afghan situation and US politics, now parallels with the Vietnam debacle appear very realistic.
While the Bush administration blundered in separating al-Qaeda from the Taliban right after 9/11, Washington continuously undermined the political aspirations of the Afghan people. Although Obama continues to exhibit unflinching resolve, his campaign promises have not been realized in four years. Given his low rating in polls, he is likely to play to the voters on the issue of bringing home the troops from Afghanistan.
America’s arrogance in offering an apology and conducting a joint probe into the NATO attack on a Pakistani border post, which claimed the lives of 28 officers and soldiers on Nov. 26, led to Islamabad’s closure of supply routes and information sharing with Washington and its allies in Afghanistan. Ever since, Pakistan has turned away several American visitors, including its special envoy Mark Grossman and Gen. James N Mattis.
However incompetent and corrupt Pakistan’s sitting elected government may be, there seems to exist total unanimity of views regarding relations with the United States and suspicion as to what role Washington accords to New Delhi in its backyard. Not only has Islamabad withstood American and NATO pressure over the sustained supply route closure, Pakistan’s parliament is slated to take up the rules of engagement with Washington for the first time since 1947.
The country is not ruled by its powerful military elite. The Pakistanis are experiencing their own awakening, with cricketing-hero-turned-politician Imran Khan riding a wave of popularity. The continuing violation of the Pakistani border and arbitrary killings of its nationals in semi-autonomous tribal regions are keeping the US in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Even if the Pakistani parliament waters downs its demands of America, the 2013 elections would surely keep the rhetoric loud and adrenaline high.
Without an uninterrupted supply line via Pakistan, along with Pakistan’s total support for the political process in Afghanistan, the NATO troops’ withdrawal remains unlikely. More importantly, the capabilities of the Afghan troops and the civilian security apparatus are far too inadequate to fill the void once the foreign troops depart. The US would not like to expose the few hundred troops guarding its special interests outside the bases.
For now, however, Washington needs a two-pronged strategy for Afghanistan: a) Repair its troops’ image at the governmental and public level; and b) let the Afghans control their political space instead of forcing them to accept Karzai. Yet no one knows when the next attack on a Pakistani checkpoint will occur, when another incident of disrespect towards Islamic symbols will come to light or when another soldier suffering from PTSD will be revealed.
*Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic focusing on diplomacy, security and democratization. @naveed360; [email protected]