By: Jay’s Blog
Amid a surge of Western troops into Afghanistan, a raging Taliban insurgency and Pakistan’s attempts to consolidate its influence in the country, Kabul is being pulled in many directions. The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, now at the beginning of its second five-year term, is trying to secure its own future as well as balance the ambitions of other key players, all while preventing the already war-torn country from becoming a proxy battleground.
A growing Taliban insurgency and a surge of U.S. and allied forces into the country are shaking things up in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. There, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, now in his second five-year term, has been formally in power since 2002 and in elected office since 2004. After several years of being portrayed as an American lackey, perceived more as the mayor of Kabul than the president of Afghanistan, Karzai has tried to break out of this mold and secure his own political survival. This at a time when the Taliban have emerged as a major force and the United States has made it clear that its commitment to Afghanistan is limited.
Karzai’s problems have only escalated since the Obama administration took office. Relations began to sour in the run-up to last year’s Afghan presidential election, when elements in Washington began searching for alternatives to Karzai, who was being criticized for corruption. But with years of experience in managing his country’s many regional warlords, Karzai was able to quickly align with all major ethnic groups and ensure his victory in the election, despite the entire process being marred by charges of fraud.
Tensions with Washington throughout the election helped Karzai create his own political space within the country, space that he sought to expand even as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry behind the scenes expressed doubts about Karzai’s viability as an effective American partner. In recent weeks, Karzai took his efforts to a different level by accusing the United States of engaging in fraud during the Afghan election, triggering a strong response from Washington. His move paid off. After a couple of weeks of high tensions, senior U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, moved to ease the strain, calling the Afghan president an ally and partner. With almost all of a second five-year term still ahead of him, Karzai is as much a political reality in the country as the Taliban.
Objectives and Problems
The main objective of the current Karzai regime is to maintain as much of the existing political structure as possible and to maximize its position within that structure. This is a system that has been crafted and staffed in large part by Karzai and his inner circle, and thus it bolsters their position disproportionately. But because the Taliban are also a political reality, Kabul must work to achieve meaningful political accommodations that will serve to stabilize the security situation in the countryside.
To maximize its leverage, Kabul must do this rapidly. The surge of U.S. forces into the country and the money, aid and advice that the Karzai regime receives will never be more abundant than it is right now, so with his power at its height, Karzai must reach these political accommodations as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, Kabul has two main problems. The first is that it has limited means to compel the Taliban to negotiate on the requisite timetable while the Taliban have every incentive to hold out on any meaningful talks. The Karzai government is working with interlocutors (mostly former Taliban officials who still retain influence) to negotiate with the jihadist movement, but the question is the pace at which real progress can be made. At the heart of these negotiations is the question of who speaks for the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s single largest demographic segment, accounting for more than 40 percent of the country’s population.
Nor will political accommodation come cheaply. The Taliban will not be won over with a few Cabinet positions. The current discussions include the need for constitutional change that will allow more room for Islamic law and perhaps an extra-executive religious entity that controls the judiciary. Just how much of a stake the Taliban would have in the government and what shape that stake would take remains to be seen. In any case, it will likely require substantial concessions in Kabul.
The second problem is that Kabul’s efforts to negotiate with the Taliban are being pulled and manipulated from all sides. This is the real challenge for the current regime – balancing all the outside players who are trying to shape the negotiations. Kabul needs to prevent the already fractious and war-torn country from becoming a proxy battleground for the United States and Iran or Pakistan and India (among other countries). The difficulty of maintaining this balancing act – while also maintaining local support – is increasing by the day.
Kabul’s closest allies are the United States and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Although Washington and Kabul do not always see eye to eye, and Karzai is trying to distance himself from the United States in order to downplay the puppet image, the United States and other coalition countries provide the foundational support for his government as well as security in the countryside. And while the United States likely views Karzai as a convenient scapegoat as well as an interchangeable political part, it is trying to demonstrate some confidence in the Afghan president. At a major tribal meeting in Kandahar on April 4, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of the ISAF, was notably silent, allowing Karzai to speak and lead the discussion.
Aside from the United States, Pakistan is the next biggest player in Afghanistan, and because of its own links to the Taliban, it has far more practical leverage than the United States does in shaping the negotiations (of which it has every intention of being at the center). Pakistan’s arrest of senior Taliban figure Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is now believed to have been carried out to disrupt direct negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul in which Baradar is thought to have been engaged. A strong Pakistani hand in Afghanistan is a longstanding reality for Kabul, but Islamabad is maneuvering to consolidate its influence as a planned American drawdown in 2011 approaches.
But Pakistan’s resurging role in Afghanistan places Karzai in a difficult place between his eastern neighbor and its regional rival India. New Delhi has invested a great deal in development and reconstruction work in Afghanistan since 2002, and Kabul will need to balance this aid with the need for Pakistani assistance with the Taliban. And complicating all this, of course, is India’s alignment with Russia on the Afghanistan issue.
Perhaps more critical than the Indo-Pakistani struggle over Afghanistan is the U.S.-Iranian contest. Although Iraq is the main arena for Washington’s struggle with Tehran, the focus of the contest is shifting to Afghanistan, along with the U.S. military effort. Iran also has considerable influence to its east, with deep historical, ethno-linguistic and cultural ties that it has adroitly established and cultivated not only among its natural allies – ethno-political minorities opposed to the Taliban – but also among some elements of the Taliban themselves. Though this influence is not decisive (the Taliban have their own interests, and many groups opposed to the Taliban are close to Karzai and the West), Tehran has the ability to influence events on the ground in Afghanistan, and an eventual settlement of the war cannot happen without Iranian involvement. From Karzai’s point of view, he has to balance his alignment with the United States with the fact that Iran is always going to be Afghanistan’s western neighbor, long after U.S. and NATO forces have left his country.
This is really the ultimate problem. On its best day, Afghanistan is poor, lacks basic infrastructure and is economically hobbled. With weak domestic security forces and little to offer the outside world, Kabul can only hope to continue to entice more international aid while playing all the various countries with vested interests in Afghanistan against each other. Incorporating the Taliban into the political framework will be especially important over the next few years, but when and if that happens, the balancing act will continue to be played by any central government in Kabul.