The worries in Afghanistan

In the days that have passed since American Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Kabul and received a less than cordial welcome from President Hamid Karzai, there has been no visible improvement in relations between the Karzai administration and the International Security Assistance Force. The fact that two Americans and some others were killed in a “green-on-blue” attack the day after Karzai made his speech criticizing America and the Taliban was probably a coincidence. But the speech itself blaming the two for colluding to create security conditions to justify a continued American presence was deemed provocative. US and Nato commander Gen Joseph Dunford issued an advisory to his commanders in the field asking them to be extra alert after what he termed an inflammatory speech that could trigger insider attacks by Afghan forces against Westerners. He even went on to say that “he [Karzai] may issue orders that put our forces at risk”.

It is difficult to think of anything else that could better describe how precarious the Afghan-American relationship has become. After a call from US Secretary of State John Kerry, Karzai did acknowledge the importance of working with America and maintained: “My recent comments were meant to help reform, not destroy the relationship.” He did not, however, retract his charges of Taliban-American collusion or change his adamant stand on the transfer of Bagram’s Parwan prison unconditionally to Afghan authorities.

In subsequent conversations with Dunford, Karzai’s office claimed it had been agreed that the transfer would be completed within a week but the American statement on the subject went no further than stating that the next week would be used to work out the issues.

It does not seem likely that the Americans will agree to the transfer unless they are given assurances that the three dozen or so prisoners the Americans regard as “enduring security threats” will not be released by the Afghan judicial system. And therein lies the rub. If one understands Karzai it would appear that beyond the publicly stated position of asserting Afghan sovereignty Karzai does want to release these mostly Pakhtun prisoners because of the influence they enjoy in the Pakhtun-dominated areas of south and east Afghanistan. Perhaps he believes that these prisoners will on release become the vehicle for dialogue with the Taliban leadership that Karzai says he desperately wants as a means of advancing reconciliation. More likely he hopes that they will galvanize support in the Pakhtun belt for the candidate he puts forward for next year’s presidential election. In the meanwhile, Karzai’s speech has provoked reactions both within Afghanistan and in the West.

In Washington a senator, Lindsey Graham, involved in Afghan policy has been quoted as being ready to “pull the plug” on assistance to Afghanistan. The New York Times in an editorial has called Karzai’s behavior “appalling” and opined that “it will make it harder for Mr. Obama to argue compellingly to keep a smaller counterterrorism and training force in Afghanistan into 2015 and beyond”. In Kabul, a group of representatives from 14 political parties – most of them opposition groups but several with members in government – held a news conference to denounce the president’s stance.

On the other hand, there have been demonstrations in Maidan Wardak and Kabul calling for the immediate implementation of the Karzai order to remove all American forces from Wardak. The Afghan Ulema Council, all government appointees, have made a similar demand in a statement which called the Americans “infidels” and threatened that if they [the Americans] did not “honor their commitments then this [their presence in Afghanistan] will be considered as an occupation, and they may expect to see a reaction to their action”.

The Americans currently are adamant that this contretemps will not affect their military plans but the truth is that if there is an increase in “green-on-blue” attacks it is not only a residual presence but also an orderly American withdrawal that will become a nightmare. British commentators are grimly recalling the fate of British troops in the First and Second Afghan wars. The accepted axiom that “retreat is often the most dangerous part of a deployment especially when the military falls below the critical mass required to protect itself” will certainly apply if by April 2014, 34,000 troops are withdrawn. This would leave half the number to carry out their own withdrawal and that of the $48 billion worth of equipment currently in Afghanistan, which would require the movement of 95,000 containers and 35,000 vehicles. America will do what it can to avoid such a situation. One way is to pursue reconciliation with or without Karzai. The Afghan president’s opponents have now made public their efforts, undoubtedly with American support, to seek recon-ciliation with the “armed” opposition.

An Associated Press story by Kathy Gannon, easily the Western correspondent with the best connections with Afghan politicians and knowledgeable Pakistanis, recently said that the 20-party Council of Cooperation of Political Parties which counts among its numbers some heavyweight Afghan politicians, many part of Karzai’s administration, is reaching out to both the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. And that two senior Taliban officials have indicated the group is willing to pursue talks.

The problem is that, to my mind, these parties all have different agendas and while they could come together to frame a “charter of democracy” in September 2012 laying down reasonable conditions for Afghan elections, they will have very different views on how negotiations with the Taliban should be conducted and what the outcome of these negotiations should be. It is difficult to imagine that they can sink their differences and reach a solution. The outlook is bleak for Afghanistan and therefore for Pakistan. Can we do something about it? And if not, can we make whatever effort we can to insulate ourselves from the turbulence that is to begin in Afghanistan?

It does not seem likely that the Americans will agree to the transfer unless they are given assurances that the three dozen or so prisoners the Americans regard as “enduring security threats” will not be released by the Afghan judicial system.

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