He has to give up playing petulant games and prepare Afghanistan for its transition

The fierce Kabul winter is still mild but the mood of the political elite, as I discerned during a recent visit to the Afghan capital, is cold, dark and grim, looking at 2014, the year of transitions with anxious apprehension. The sentiment in Kabul’s bazaars, with the economy in a depressed state, is no different.

The urban youth, more exposed to the world and taking increasingly to social media, are more hopeful and determined to avoid a return to the days of anarchy and civil strife. The Taliban insurgency and violence as well as its influence in the Pashtun areas is a threat but there is quiet conviction that the Afghan Security Forces will be able to meet their challenge if Western support continues and the Presidential election scheduled for April 5 next year is credible and leads to the formation of a coherent government.

Afghanistan’s attention is currently focussed on the controversy relating to the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, the internal peace process with the Taliban and the Presidential elections. In this discourse, there is also the thought — unlikely as it may seem — will President Hamid Karzai play one last card to continue beyond his constitutionally mandated term which ends in September 2014.

To be fair, President Karzai has, on his part, said all the right things about his “retirement”. More significantly, the Presidential election process has moved ahead. The Election Commission has cleared a final list of 11 Presidential candidatures and running mates for the election. If any doubts remain, it is because of the absence of a tradition of peaceful transfer of power and of constitutional practice. It is also because of Mr. Karzai’s record of brilliant political manoeuvre; hence the view that he wishes to continue but is not to be blamed for wanting to do so. Mr. Karzai’s position on the BSA has disappointed a majority of Afghans. The text was closed in mid-November after long and difficult negotiations. Mr. Karzai was required under the constitution to sign it and send it to Parliament for approval. He decided to summon a traditional Loya Jirgah (grand assembly) to endorse it before sending it to Parliament. The over 2,000 members of the Jirgah from all over Afghanistan were cleared by Mr. Karzai.

It seems certain now that Mr. Karzai misread the mood of the country, reflected in the stand of the Loya Jirgah, on the BSA. There is no doubt that there is deep resentment, especially in the Pashtun areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, against the Coalition forces for having entered Afghan homes during operations against the Taliban. There is also anger over the death of civilians resulting from the U.S. bombing.

Above all, the Afghans are afraid of the country reverting to anarchy; an overwhelming majority of the people, including Pashtuns, feel that the residual presence of U.S. and NATO forces after 2014 is essential for the stability of the country. Mr. Karzai basically wanted the Loya Jirgah to give an equivocal endorsement to the BSA so that he would have space for further negotiation with the U.S.

However, the Jirgah not only approved it but also demanded that he should sign it by the end of December. The chairman of the Jirgah, a veteran Jihadi leader and Islamic scholar, Hazrat Sibghattullah Mojededi was angered when Mr. Karzai imposed new conditions on the U.S. and said that he would sign the BSA only in April 2014. All this has never happened in a Loya Jirgah and has diminished Mr. Karzai’s image.

Mr. Karzai is now hostile to the U.S. and openly says that there is lack of trust between them. It was not so to begin with. In this writer’s first meeting with Mr. Karzai, in 2002, he was deeply appreciative of the U.S. role in liberating Afghanistan from Taliban tyranny. Mr. Karzai’s relations with President Bush were close and warm but have been distant and frosty with President Obama. He is also not reconciled that Afghanistan is no longer a foreign policy priority for the U.S and that it merely wants an orderly exit from the country.

Mr. Karzai will eventually sign the BSA, probably before the Presidential campaign begins in early February. He knows that the full Western support — military and civilian — which is vital for Afghanistan’s future, is linked to it. But the delay has added to uncertainties reflected in the fall of the Afghan currency and the postponement of important investment decisions by overseas Afghans.

Mr. Karzai has relentlessly pursued a quest for a rapprochement with the Taliban. The Doha initiative failed because of Taliban overreach, but at a more fundamental level the Taliban is simply not interested in negotiating with Mr. Karzai. The BSA will also be a major stumbling block for the Taliban is against the continuing presence of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Karzai has pinned his hopes on Mullah Baradar, who has been “released” by Pakistan to kick-start the process. His preferred venue for the talks is Afghanistan but he is willing to have them in Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

Mullah Baradar’s standing among the Taliban is unclear. In any event, the Taliban core leadership is unwilling to give up its basic Islamist principles which are contrary in many respects to the old Afghan traditions and the constitution.

Some senior Afghan political personalities suspect that one purpose of the reconciliation process for Mr. Karzai is to prolong his stay in office. If the process gathers traction, he may tell the country that his continuance is essential for its success and some Afghans may support this position though it will be opposed by those who want to see him go and will lead to turbulence.

Fluid political scene

The Presidential election’s success is necessary to combat the insurgency. Fraud had vitiated the 2009 election and it may become an issue in the forthcoming election too. The principal candidates are former Foreign Ministers Dr. Abdullah and Zalmai Rasool, and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani. They are all Pashtuns (as are the rest) but Dr. Abdullah, whose mother was a Tajik and who was a close aide of Ahmed Shah Masood, is perceived to be a Panjsheri.

The tickets — the constitution provides for two Vice-Presidents — indicate the fluidity of the Afghan political scene and the continuing importance of ethnic considerations and ethnic leaders. Mr. Karzai has said that he will not support any candidate, including his brother Qayyum Karzai, but many suspect he may quietly give his administration’s support behind the scenes to a favourite (Zalmai Rasool perhaps) especially in the second round as the election is expected to go to. Currently, Dr. Abdullah is the frontrunner.

President Karzai has a central role and responsibility to steer Afghanistan while adhering to the constitution to safety. He has to give up the propensity to play petulant games and, instead, prepare the country for the transition. The question is, does he have the vision to do so?

(The writer is a former ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar)

Keywords: KarzaiTalibanBSANATO forces

More In: Comment | Opinion