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Afghanistan: Has Hamid Karzai Already Joined the Taliban?

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I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

The war in Afghanistan is disintegrating before our very eyes. Our counterinsurgency strategy is broken, and the Pentagon knows it. The so-called "emergency" funding requested months ago by the Obama administration now seems destined to die a slow, bureaucratic death in congress due to overwhelming pressure by citizens. Our allies in NATO have either reached their peak of military involvement, as with the UK, or have already begun to dismantle their troop presence, as with Canada and so many others. Other countries in the region are already vying for power after the US leaves, even as the Pentagon insists its July 2011 withdrawal date will only be the "beginning of a process."

But what about Afghanistan itself? What about President Hamid Karzai, our ally and head of the "Host Nation" government? The theory put forward by the pundit class is usually some variation of the "bloodbath" theme. That is, our allies in Kabul like Karzai would be overrun and annihilated by the Taliban. This appears to be more media myth-making, however, as we see from Karzai's political maneuvering that not only is he threatening to join the Taliban, but he may have already done just that.

Karzai is already negotiating with the Taliban and even received formal terms of a peace treaty from Taliban-aligned Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. But this doesn't necessarily mean that Karzai joined them. After all, negotiations are merely the first step in any peace process, no matter the circumstances. Instead we have to look deeper inside this peace process to see the real endgame Karzai is working toward, that of a nominal, Pashtun-nationalist government in Kabul overlaying a Taliban-dominated countryside. Together they function not only as a crime family capable of exploiting Afghanistan's resources (minerals, opium, timber, etc) but also as a highly effective proxy for Pakistan's interminable battle against Indian influence.

What is this Pashtun-nationalist government? While Karzai was formerly part of the Northern Alliance, he is also a Pashtun, as is the vast majority of the Taliban movement. The Taliban are quite adept at playing up this identity:

The Taliban are more than an expression of Pashtun nationalism, of course. They represent a reactionary movement that idealizes the simplicity and extreme conservatism of 7th century Islam. By burnishing this ideology, the Taliban is able, absurdly, to attract support beyond its Pashtun base.

The ethnic component, though, is a formidable one. It all but guaranteed a certain degree of success by the Taliban in all of "Pashtunistan," in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. Yet all the while, the ethnic map imposes constraints, if not limits, on how far the Taliban can expand.

They were able to seize power in most of Afghanistan before 2001, although the "Northern Alliance" -- made up primarily of ethnic Tajiks - managed to hold out until Americans arrived and smashed the regime in Kabul. Since then, the Taliban have had a harder time operating outside "Pashtunistan."

Not anymore. They're now able to expand beyond "Pashtunistan." Thomas Ruttig reports that the Taliban are beginning to expand far into Northern Afghanistan, in areas traditionally quite hostile to their oppressive rule. The ethnic Hazara in this region were part of the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban during the 1990's until the Americans came in 2001. The Taliban have a history of anti-Shi'a Muslim violence there, but this could be changing, as Ruttig notes [emphasis mine]:

Most Hazaras had been hostile to the Taleban's advance into their region in the 1990s after the movement that considered Shia as non-Muslim had committed some mass murders against the minority group, for example in Mazar-e Sharif, Yakaolang (Bamian province) and at the Robatak Pass (Samangan). The Taleban conquered Bamian, the largest town in Hazarajat, late in their campaign that brought them control over more than 90 per cent of Afghanistan's territory in that period. It was supported by an agreement with one faction of the main Hazara party Hezb-e Wahdat, led by Ustad Muhammad Akbari (now an MP in Kabul), a rival of the leader of Wahdat's main wing Abdul Karim Khalili (now a Vice President). Under this deal, Akbari's fighters guaranteed that Bamian remained calm and accepted a presence of Kandahari Taleban in the town.

In the meantime, the Taleban have - at least officially - moderated their position vis-à-vis the Shia community. Mulla Omar has declared repeatedly that the movement would not tolerate any 'sectarian' bias. This can be interpreted as an attempt to woo the Hazara population that feels neglected by the central government in Kabul.

In addition to supporting the Taliban presence in Hazara areas, Akbari was also a supporter of Karzai's rape law, claiming it actually protected women's rights. While the Hazara have historically fought the Taliban, Akbari has shown time and again he's willing to compromise with whoever is in power. When the Northern Alliance was winning, Akbari supported them. Until the Taliban came, when he supported them. And now it's Karzai's Pashtun coalition with the Taliban, so Akbari is willing to take oppressive Shi'a laws in exchange for expansion of Taliban control.

In a separate interview, Ruttig explains further the dynamic between the Taliban and former enemies in the Northern Alliance [emphasis mine]:

The Karzai government already has shown that it is more sensitive about what conservative sectors in the clergy -- the so-called jihadi leaders -- demand than what civil society is concerned about - remember the "Shia Personnel Law.[...]

[Former head of National Directorate of Security, Amrullah Saleh's] resignation might have to do with all this. Politically, he belongs to the current which emerged from the former mujahedin Northern Alliance (NA). This current -- represented by Karzai's 2009 main rival at the elections, Dr. Abdullah -- sees Karzai's reconciliation approach with skepticism. It technically boycotted the peace jirga. (It did not use that word, though.) On one hand, this skepticism reflects concerns broader political and social circles share, like the organized women. On the other hand, the NA had not been known for a tendency toward power sharing and fears losing further influence if the Taliban joined a future government. Finally, if Thursday's Guardian is right, Saleh also saw Karzai moving closer to Pakistan. The relations between the NA and Pakistan have "traditionally" been strained.

Karzai seems to be marginalizing, if not outright rejecting from the political process, members of the Northern Alliance, usually in favor of those willing to side with the Taliban. He isn't so much joining the Taliban in the sense of being subservient to Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura, but rather in the sense of a power-sharing government. The Taliban will still control large amounts of Afghanistan, and we even see them moving back into areas they haven't held since the war with the NA during the 90's. But they're willing to negotiate as "brothers" with Karzai.

Why would the Taliban share power with Karzai? More Ruttig [emphasis mine]:

We should not believe our anti-terrorism psy-ops and understand that the Taliban are a political movement with political aims. Such a movement will compromise when serious talks are held. Some Taliban know that they cannot rule Afghanistan on their own. We heard this discussion amongst Taliban in 2008 and 2009, but the surge closed their ranks again.

The Taliban will maintain Karzai's government in Kabul in order to effectively rule Afghanistan. After all, Mullah Omar is unlikely to have much success as President of Afghanistan. Instead, the militants will need Karzai for stuff like this [emphasis mine]:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Friday he was concerned about a looming battle over his country's untapped mineral resources and that Afghanistan's major donors should be prioritised in exploiting them. [...]

"I hope we will be able to manage it properly both in terms of rivalry from the international bidders in Afghanistan and also within Afghanistan, we should be able to manage the returns of those mineral extractions properly for Afghanistan," he said in a seminar hosted by the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

Karzai has enough credibility to deal with foreign investors (though maybe not American investors), allowing them to exploit Afghanistan's resources as well as manage the funds properly "within Afghanistan," which of course means pay-off for the Taliban that legitimizes Karzai's presidency. Afghanistan will be ruled by oligarchs, a mafia family controlling the country's resources. Karzai is not simply joining the Taliban, they are forming a coalition government, albeit a criminal and oppressive one.

But what about that other piece of Afghanistan's post-war tyranny, that of being a puppet for Pakistan's war against India? For the same reasons as the Taliban, Pakistan's military dictatorship also appreciates the benefits of a Taliban-Karzai coalition government:

"Morally, Afghanistan should give access as a priority to those countries that have helped Afghanistan massively in the past few years," he said, adding that Japan, the second biggest donor to Afghanistan in terms of money pledged, would be a welcome investment partner.

In addition to providing a training ground for terrorism against India, Afghanistan is also useful for undermining India's economy and trade partners. Japan is indeed the second largest donor of aid to Afghanistan, but the largest in the region is...India:

India has offered $750 million in aid to Kabul (Reuters) since 2001, making it the largest regional donor to Afghanistan. Besides helping to rebuild Afghan roads, airlines, and power plants, and providing support to the health and education sectors, New Delhi also seeks to spread its own brand of democracy in Kabul. Not only will future Afghan parliaments sit in a building that India helped construct, but Afghan civil servants, diplomats, and police officials will have received training from their Indian counterparts.

India's contribution has been large, but when weighed against other international donors, like Japan's billions, they fall much farther down the list of "prioritized" trading partners. But not only does Japan push India down the line, which is really not that bad considering India has mines of its own, but it also affects India's bottom line in other ways [emphasis mine]:

Traditionally, Japan has been the second largest destination of Indian exports (major exports include gems, marine products, iron ore, and cotton yarn). India is also a major importer of goods from Japan, and its importance has been growing in recent years (major imports include machinery, plant-related products, transport equipment, and electronic machinery).

Japan will need to import less from India thanks to its opportunity in Afghanistan. Obviously that's good for Pakistan, as it forces India into some uncomfortable economic positions, but this is only one tiny example of how Afghanistan can be used against Indian interests. The Karzai-Taliban government would be compliant with Pakistan across the board, with the Taliban providing foot soldiers for Pakistan's "strategic depth" against India, and Hamid Karzai able to counter Indian influence in Kabul, whether that means obscure complications like new trade competition with Indian ore exporters or overtly downplaying India's role in post-war Afghanistan by "prioritizing" them below larger donors, like the US, Japan, Russia, and of course, Pakistan.

That is what will become of Afghanistan when then US withdrawal is over: A Taliban-Karzai coalition government, and a client state for Pakistan.

It's worth noting, however, that this is not a reasoning for more war in Afghanistan. This maneuvering is happening now, in the middle of a massive US escalation. Our military involvement does nothing but exacerbate these effects on Afghanistan. Our violent war against the Taliban legitimizes them as freedom fighters. Our support of the crooked Karzai regime gives him credibility to run a sovereign state, as well as assuming all of the economic responsibilities that entails. And our support for Pakistan's military dictatorship, at the expense of their democratically elected civilian government, enables the Pakistani national security strategy of perpetual war against India, whether through terrorism, trade, or conventional means.

If the US has any interest in seeing a different outcome for Afghanistan, troops, special forces, or any kind of war are simply not an option. Rather Afghanistan's post-war tyranny can be undermined through other ways, such as developing Afghanistan (Everything from roads to education to a free press) to the point where extremist ideologies, as well as the endemic corruption and oppression, like those of Karzai and the Taliban will no longer be tolerated or sustainable. The US can also push for free and fair elections in Afghanistan, allowing a credible test of legitimacy for Afghanistan's government, to allow for more ethical international trade activities. And the US can engage directly with the civilian government of Pakistan, allowing peaceful Pakistani citizens to set and implement their own foreign policy, rather than have it controlled by the unaccountable warmongers under Army Chief Kayani.

As domestic pressure finally chokes off support for the war in Washington, it's helpful to keep a close eye on these machinations by Karzai and the Taliban. Supporters of the war in the US will make claims about an impending bloodbath, but clearly Karzai's regime will survive our absence. War supporters will also claim that these problems which were created by our war can only be fixed by...more war. It's simply not true.

Post-war Afghanistan will be a miserable place indeed, but just as in 2009, 2007, 2001, and hell, 1979, more war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not the answer. The US occupation which feeds Afghanistan's misery must be brought to an end, and only then can we set about the process of developing the country, eradicating extremism, and making peace for the region as a whole.

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