Obama and Karzai Sparring in Afghanistan

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Reproduced below is my latest blog on the above subject which was published by the Huffington Post on 2/5/2014.

It is hardly a secret that U.S. relations with Afghanistan are at a low ebb, just when the U.S. needs the cooperation and support of the mercurial Afghan President Hamid Karzai to effect an orderly withdrawal scheduled at the end of this year. President Obama and his advisers are understandably keen not to be seen as abandoning Afghanistan as the Soviets were perceived to have done in 1989. That is why the U.S. was keen to sign a security agreement with Karzai under cover of which an estimated 10,000 American troops would remain in Afghanistan to help bolster the Afghan National Army (ANA), and more importantly from the U.S. point of view, to insure that al-Qaeda elements do not once again pose a threat to the national security of the United States. This agreement has not materialized largely because the level of mistrust between Kabul and Washington has increased.

Karzai of course in the past had loudly protested at the U.S. drone attacks on the Taliban forces which have caused considerable civilian deaths and injuries in the past few years. The U.S. was not going to relent on the use of this weapon which it considers an important component of its counter-terrorism doctrine. Adding to this tension, have been accusations and counter-accusations between America and Afghanistan that each side was attempting to cut a secret deal with the Taliban aimed at co-opting the latter in the Afghan political establishment. Karzai was also making, from the American point of view, an untenable demand for the release of some hardened Taliban prisoners incarcerated at Guantanamo. Furthermore, Karzai’s frequent statements that U.S. motives and actions in Afghanistan are untrustworthy has only served to stir the pot of mutual antagonism. The recent memoir of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in which he portrays Karzai in a less than flattering light, has also reportedly infuriated the Afghan leader.

Politics in Afghanistan, a tribal society and culture, has been largely based on expediency where today’s alliances between some of the tribes can be transformed into tomorrow’s enmities. The British in India in the 19th century wished at all costs to keep Russian influence in Kabul at bay. They tried to engage a succession of Afghan rulers through bribes and threats. The Afghan kings, true to their tribal traditions, became quite skillful in playing the British against the Russians in what Rudyard Kipling termed The Great Game. Despite fighting the Afghans in three wars in the 19th and early 20th century, the British found Afghan resistance to be too strong to bend to their military will. Likewise, the Russians who invaded Afghanistan in 1979, could not subdue the Afghan resistance despite a huge outlay of military personnel and expenditure and had to withdraw a decade later in defeat. The United States has also fought a long and difficult war in Afghanistan without a clear cut result. The withdrawal of the American forces at the end of this year — and if the security agreement is a dead letter — could mean a complete withdrawal. If this eventuality comes to pass, America’s war in Afghanistan is likely to be interpreted as unsuccessful by elements in Afghanistan, its neighbors, and perhaps other members of the international community.

The U.S. decision to withdraw from Afghanistan appears to be in consonance with American public opinion. After the reversals suffered by the U.S. military, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which neither country could be pacified according to American objectives, it is understandable that Obama decided the time had come to withdraw the U.S. military footprint from this part of the world.

Karzai is reportedly making serious overtures to the Taliban, no doubt offering them a power-sharing agreement. Whether he will be successful in achieving this in the waning days of his presidency remains an open question. It is quite possible that the Taliban, sensing that the military balance would shift in their favor after December 2014, would prefer to continue fighting instead of taking up Karzai’s offer. Making predictions at this stage is therefore hazardous, as generally events in Afghanistan are never easy to discern with even a degree of probability.

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