Karzai in his Labyrinth

Very good article, which I couldn't see elsewhere here.


Highlights include:

Whom could he trust? All he could do was begin recasting the play, substituting Pashtun jihadi commanders for non-Pashtun ones. He began to surround himself with the former loyalists of his old friend Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. This was the same commander whom the Americans named, in 2003, as a “specially designated global terrorist.” This was the man who had recently declared himself an open ally of Al Qaeda. But while Karzai’s new cohort might still have had loyalties to Hekmatyar, they could at least be organized, disciplined and trusted to a certain extent.

The riots woke Karzai up to the fact that, in choosing not to have a political party, he had completely isolated himself. He had no constituency. He had thought he could be a symbol of unity for all Afghans, but even a Mandela or a Gandhi needed a party or a grass-roots movement. Karzai had little more than his own family and weekly video conferences with President George Bush. So the Pashtun jihadis gradually became his constituency and insurance policy.

By late 2007, Karzai’s turn toward accommodation with warlords, tribalism and semiretired jihadis — and away from the international community — seems to have been completed. The palace had become like a Shakespearean stage, its officials, like so many Iagos, filling Karzai’s mind with plots and treachery. The British and the Americans, worried that Afghanistan was sinking beyond repair, conceived the position of a civilian czar who could coordinate the U.N. mission and the NATO mission and possibly bring some order into the chaos of the Arg palace. The man they chose was the British diplomat Paddy Ashdown, who had been the international community’s high representative to Bosnia until 2006. Karzai was at first intrigued by the idea and even accepted it. But the Iagos in the palace feared they would lose their gatekeeping status and the money they earned from it. They persuaded Karzai that the choice of Ashdown, who was born in British India to a colonial family and who had served as a British spy, was evidence of a British conspiracy.

Karzai has a complicated relationship with the British. He favors English shoes. He was a fan of “Last of the Summer Wine,” a three-decades-long BBC sitcom about the madcap adventures of elderly friends in the Yorkshire countryside. He has a romantic fascination with British royalty and rearranged his schedule to attend the Prince of Wales’s 60th birthday. Most of the other attendees were real royalty. “He thinks the Prince of Wales is a sensitive man, who understands him and Islam and the region,” one diplomat explained. On another occasion he visited the prince’s house in Scotland, seizing the chance to break out of his palace prison and stride across the moors for hours. Perhaps it reminded him of his days at college in Simla, where he used to walk for miles across the Indian hills.

“Maybe he just pretends to be a great lover of English culture,” the diplomat told me. “He thinks they’re in league with the Pakistanis and that they are two-faced and tricky and if they wanted to they could defeat the Taliban but they don’t because they want to keep their troops there.”

Karzai believes that evidence for a British conspiracy can be found in the story of Musa Qala, a collection of villages in the deserts of Helmand and a crossroads in the drug-transport routes. The tale has become a “Rashomon”-like parable. For Karzai it is a story of British duplicity. For the British it is a story of Karzai’s treachery and American bullying. And for the Americans it’s a story of European appeasement and Karzai’s madness.

In October 2006, after months of fighting between the British and Taliban that had left everyone exhausted and bloodied, all sides agreed on a truce. The British and the Taliban pulled back. The elders promised to keep the Taliban out. But almost immediately there were problems. The Taliban began creeping in. The town fell again. The Americans accused the British of wimping out of a fight. They pressured Karzai to distance himself from the whole scenario.

Gen. David Richards, the British officer in charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan, was caught in the middle of it all. Karzai liked and trusted Richards and appreciated his style. “He’d sometimes get me over three or four times a day to talk about all sorts of things, not just military,” Richards recalled. Karzai gave Richards and Helmand’s governor, Muhammad Daud, who helped organize the truce, his blessing. “The U.S. military and, I suspect, the C.I.A. were pretty hostile to it from the outset,” Richards told me. Gen. Dan McNeill of the U.S. Army made no secret of his feelings. Later, when he replaced Richards, he vowed that there’d be no “Musa Qalas” on his watch. And to drive the point home, McNeill began bombing targets around the district as soon as he took over from Richards.

Karzai was, of course, caught in the middle between the British and the Americans. The Americans had more money, more troops, more power. To make matters worse, on the heels of Musa Qala, General Richards flew to Islamabad to see Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. “I delivered Musharraf a pretty sharp message that we expected him to do more to help, but I think Karzai believed that I was getting too close to Musharraf,” Richards told me. Richards began passing notes between the two hostile presidents, trying to get them to work with each other.

The palace advisers seized on those visits as proof that the British were going to sell out Afghanistan. They told Karzai that Richards and Musharraf didn’t talk about Afghanistan at all. They talked about London and terrorism. Look at Helmand, they’d say. It used to be so peaceful. Until the British forced you to remove Sher Muhammad Akhundzada. Whom did they replace him with? Muhammad Daud, plucked from the National Security Council. Who constructed the National Security Council? The British. Who paid for it? The British. Who has advisers there? The British.

The advisers pushed Karzai closer to the edge. Look around you, closer to home, they said. Is that not a coup in the works? Jawed Ludin, the chief of staff, and Hanif Atmar, minister of education, had both studied in Britain. They have nightly dinners and meetings with the minister of defense, the minister of foreign affairs. . . .

One day in front of several people inside the palace, Karzai turned accusingly on Ludin and Atmar: There’s news the British are conspiring against us, against me personally. There’s news that you are meeting very frequently. What is happening? Why are you meeting?

They replied that they were just getting together socially.

Karzai said he didn’t believe them, according to an Afghan official present at the incident.

The next day Karzai regretted his words, as he often does. He apologized. It was too late. Both men submitted their resignations. Ludin became ambassador to Norway. Atmar stayed on as minister for education, but he and the president hardly spoke for months until Karzai appointed him as the new minister of the interior. These rifts have since healed and Karzai’s men have rallied for the presidential campaign.

“Every conceivable lie is told to the president to alienate him from his friends,” Ashraf Ghani told me. “He accused me in front of Secretary Rice and the British secretary of joining Ashdown in a conspiracy to unseat him. I had a family illness in Dubai around the clock. I met with Paddy Ashdown once in my life. Yet the Afghan government for a week was concentrating on an alleged conspiracy.”

By the end of 2007, Karzai’s worst fears seemed to come to fruition. The new governor of Helmand, an old friend of Karzai’s father, claimed to have uncovered a plot by the British for a Taliban training camp. The allegations were so far-fetched that the entire diplomatic community began to think Karzai had gone mad. In reality, Michael Semple, then the European Union’s political adviser, had come up with a plan for a Taliban re-education camp in Helmand, and several of Karzai’s advisers had agreed to it. Yet, in front of his security team, Karzai accused the British of total treachery.

According to one diplomat, the British responded that they had been trying to pursue reconciliation and had documents approving the project signed by Afghanistan’s ministry of the interior and by its intelligence service. Karzai’s advisers squirmed and said nothing. Apparently no one had dared to tell Karzai about the camp.

The damage was done. Enraged, Karzai had Michael Semple and Mervyn Patterson, two of the foreigners most knowledgeable about Afghanistan, thrown out of the country and an Afghan general imprisoned.

I asked Karzai if he really believes, as so many Afghans do, that the British and Americans don’t want the Taliban defeated. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I wonder. After all, I am also an Afghan. So I have to believe in what the majority of the Afghan people believe in.” And that the British want the Taliban to take over Helmand and Kandahar? “The Taliban are already in Helmand,” he said with a knowing look.
Good article and good perspective on Karzai and why in Afghanistan everything is far more complicated than it ever appears. Rory Stewart's recent article entitled The Irresistible Illusion (will try and find a link to it) is also excellent in highlighting some of the major problems.

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