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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 48, November 14, 2009

US Goofs the Afghan Election

Tuesday 17 November 2009, by M K Bhadrakumar


Abdullah Abdullah’s refusal to take part in the Afghan presidential election runoff on November 7 is a watershed event. From his point of view, the former Foreign Minister did the sensible thing, having carefully assessed he had no stake whatsoever in a runoff that he had zero chance of winning.

President Hamid Karzai has also shown the door to Abdullah’s Western sponsors. They had approached in hopes of gaining a last-minute “deal” that would see Abdullah, their protégé, gain some position in the future administration. Abdullah saw that from this point onward, the law of diminishing returns would be at work if he kept pecking at Karzai.

Karzai estimated that Abdullah would be a thorn in the flesh—or worse still, a Trojan horse —for the Western powers; having him in the government in any serious capacity would result only in Karzai spending sleepless nights at the presidential palace.

In any case, Karzai calculated that Abdullah had already inflicted the maximum damage possible by lending his services to the President’s Western detractors. Karzai also knows that he will continue to enjoy strong support from within the major non-Pashtun groups as long as his partnership with erstwhile mujahideen leaders Mohammed Fahim, Karim Khalili, Ismail Khan, Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Mohaqiq remains intact.


The real political game in great Afghan style is now all set to begin. The shadow boxing is over. At the centre stage of the political theater stands Karzai. He has turned the table squarely on the Western powers, but he will not easily forget the sustained attempts over the past year and more to ridicule him and pull him down. There has been some attrition. The attacks on him and his family members have at times been on very personal terms and they hurt deeply. Afghans are unused to such Western-style muckraking in the name of democracy.

The latest broadside in the New York Times, portraying his brother, Wali Karzai, as a drug trafficker, has taken matters to a point of no return. American officials who spoke out of turn have done colossal damage to US interests in Afghanistan. It was probably meant as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to sling some more mud at Karazi. Hopefully, Washington will not order an inquiry into the New York Times story, as John Kerry, Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reportedly sought.

Any such inquiry will only end up bringing out of the cupboard skeletons that neither Kerry nor US President Barack Obama will want to see.

Washington must take serious note that the response to the New York Times report has come from none other than the Afghan Minister of Counter-Narcotics, General Khodaidad Khodaidad. The Minister has brought into public debate Afghanistan’s best-kept secret: the role of foreign troops in drug trafficking.

It was one thing to be dismissive when the former Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), General Hamil Gul, alleged that American military aircraft were being used for drug trafficking in Afghanistan. It might also have been expedient to simply ignore the issue when well-informed Russian sources made media comments that US troops were doing roaring business in drug trafficking in Afghanistan running into hundreds of millions of dollars. But Khodaidad is a highly trained professional who knows what he is talking about.

The Indians know him, and so do the Russians. Khodaidad passed out from the prestigious Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun and was a product of the famous Frunze Military Academy in Moscow. He had a proven record in the Communist Government in Kabul as a highly decorated General; he led crack paratrooper brigades in the war in the early 1980s and he served as the Army commander in the crucial Kunduz and Takhar frontline facing Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance. Britain, where he lived in exile for a decade, knows him too.

Therefore, when Khodaidad said on November 1 that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) contingents from the US, Britain and Canada are “taxing” the production of opium in the regions under their control, he carried a stern warning on behalf of Karazi. It is a simple, direct message: don’t throw stones while sitting in a glass cage.

It is the Western powers that have systematically, through countless acts of plain idiocy and by paying no heed to the culture and traditions of the Afghan people, brought things to this sorry pass. From now onwards they will have to limit talk about “warlords” and “warlordism”, and learn to perform—as long as their soldiers are deployed in Afghanistan—the way Karzai wants.

He is coming into power for a second term on his own accord, defying the wishes and frustrating the designs of Western powers. The point has come to bury the rift and to do some cool stock-taking. Perilous times lie ahead. The Obama presidency itself is in the firing line; Western powers cannot afford any more goof-ups.

In institutional terms, both the White House and the US State Department have an uphill task in rebuilding ties with Karzai. From all accounts, the equations between Obama and Karzai are very poor. Apparently, they don’t even use satellite phones and talk with each other. This should never have happened between two gifted politicians.

Equally, special Af-Pak representative Richard Holbrooke has become persona non grata in Kabul. Kerry did the famous arms-twisting act on Karzai two weeks ago and might also have become a burnt-out case.

It is possible to request former President George W. Bush to come out of retirement and talk things over with Karzai. They were pals and they used to banter on the phone at least once every week. But that isn’t a judicious way of fighting a war—under a retired commander-in-chief.

On balance, the Pentagon is the only winner. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates has kept his nails clean. Enormously experienced in the business of statecraft and bureaucratic dogfight alike, he could make out from 10,000 miles the expedience of steering clear of the sordid skirmishes in the Hindu Kush that Washington was pitting against the obstinate Afghan leader. He knew such things could only end up messily and, more important, that there would be a critical need for Obama to still deal with Karzai in the aftermath of the foul-up.

Obama’s dependence on the Pentagon to “manage” the Karzai Government and take Kabul along in the pursuit of the future war strategy has increased greatly. Fortunately, Gates can depend on Ambassador General (retired) Karl Eikenberry to deliver. He has excellent equations with powerful “warlords” such as Fahim, dating to his two tours of duty in the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, during Eikenberry’s first tour of duty in 2002-03, “warlord” Fahim was serving as the all-powerful Defense Minister in Karzai’s Cabinet.

In fact, a saving grace today is that Obama thoughtfully chose someone as steeply immersed in Oriental culture and traditions at a scholarly and personal level as Eikenberry for the sensitive post in Kabul. (Eikenberry holds a master’s from Harvard and was a Ph.D candidate in Stanford on East Asian Studies.)

By the time Eikenberry arrived in Kabul on his ambassadorial assignment in May, Washington’s bridge with Karzai had already become quite shaky and almost beyond repair. Eikenberry can now look forward to rebuilding that bridge to his own design—an enormous opportunity and a formidable challenge at the same time for a remarkable scholar-soldier-diplomat.

The tumultuous phase of the past few months centring on the Afghan presidential election will peter off sooner than most people in the West expect. Actually, too much was made—quite needlessly—out of the “legitimacy” factor of the Afghan election. Legitimacy was never an issue insofar as the Afghan people’s real concerns at this juncture lie elsewhere. As for the inter-national community, that it to say, the non-Western world, it was quite used to dealing with Karzai and it never mixed that up with the state of democracy in Afghanistan.

The broad perception in the world community was that a few motivated Western capitals were deliberately making an issue of the “legitimacy” of the election to “soften up” Karzai politically and make him malleable like jelly, and if he still resisted, to get rid of him from power. Thus, the world community mutely watched when Kerry, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen all chanted in unison that there should be a runoff and that Karzai’s shortfall of 0.3 per cent of the votes in the first round made him “illegitimate” in the eyes of the Afghan people. (Karzai just missed the 50 per cent of total votes cast to avoid a runoff.)

It has turned out to be a first-rate farce. Abdullah’s abdication from the political arena is not going to set the Kabul River on fire. There isn’t going to be any war between the Pashtuns and Tajiks, either. Even Mohammed Atta, the Governor of Balkh, who arranged the vote rigging for Abdullah in the Amu Darya region and had threatened violence if Karzai got elected, will see the writing on the wall.

Atta’s problem is actually an old running feud with Dostum (and Mohaqiq)—and not so much with Karzai, as Western reporters have been led to believe by Abdullah’s media managers. Therefore, it is just as well that Turkey is assuming the leadership of the International Security Assistance Force at this juncture. Ankara has considerable influence over Dostum. Arguably, Washington should use Ankara as a “mediator” with the new government under Karzai. Turkey will relish such a role.


In overall terms, Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries (except Pakistan, perhaps, to an extent) will find Karzai’s new team easy to work with. The new set-up will include personalities who have been known for long years to Moscow, Tehran, Tashkent and Dushanbe. The emergence of such a team in Kabul will be reassuring for these regional capitals.

The big question is how the Taliban will view the Afghan political developments. A complex picture is indeed emerging. The US is inching closer to discussing a modus vivendi with the Taliban, and Karzai has partners who have dealings with the Taliban. (Ironically, Wali Karzai is one such skilled politician who is deeply immersed in Taliban folklore.) It will not be surprising if a political accommodation is reached with the powerful Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the very near future.

It is foolhardy to assess that the old war horses of the Northern Alliance have a closed mind on the Taliban—or, for that matter, on Pakistan. Simply put, that is not how the Afghan political culture works. What the outside world—including neighbouring capitals like New Delhi—often fails to realise is that the battle-lines have never really been clear-cut in the Hindu Kush. This is only to be expected in any civil war that is essentially rooted in a fratricidal strife.

If Hekmatyar walks over, a virtual polarisation of the mujahideen will have taken place. We will then be finding ourselves in a priori history, lodged somewhere in the early 1990s after famous United Nations diplomat Diego Cordovez and the Red Army had left the Hindu Kush and somewhat before the Taliban arrived on the scene and spoiled the party.

But if Hekmatyar chooses politics over war, a major hurdle will also have been crossed in isolating the intransigent (irreconcilable) elements within the Taliban—the so-called Quetta shura (council) and the Haqqani network. Interestingly, the ISI chief sought an audience with the Saudi King in Riyadh on October 31.

(Courtesy: Asia Times Online)

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.

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