Although President Hamid Karzai's shining moment this week with Chinese President Hu Jintao may not equal the historical drumfire of Nixon and Chairman Mao's 1972 "handshake felt around the world," Mr. Karzai's trip to Beijing was yet another illustration of his foreign policy sagacity.
However, many Afghans probably roll their eyes to the heavens when hearing about Mr. Karzai's supposed geopolitical acumen, wishing he'd apply a similar level of proficiency to running his own government - an administration plagued by rampant fraud and corruption that Mr. Karzai has either been unable or unwilling to contain.
It seems as if Mr. Karzai was born to be a worldly diplomat and not the President of one of the most underdeveloped countries on earth. He speaks six languages - Pushtu, Farsi, Urdu, English, French and Hindi - and walks, talks and dresses every bit the part of a statesman, attributes that were all on display during his three-day visit to China.
Karzai struck a debonair pose during a photo op with Mr. Hu, bedecked in his usual sartorial splendor, including a dark suit draped with an exotic cape and his head adorned with an Astrakhan hat - a signature look that combines Western ultra-chic with an ecumenical mix of traditional Afghan dress that represents all the tribal factions of his homeland. Later, he sashayed down a red-carpeted runway like a fashion model, sauntering past rows of Chinese honor guard at the Great Hall of the People.
Yet President Karzai actually does more than just look the part of foreign dignitary. As a matter of fact, he has practiced the art of statecraft rather remarkably in the middle of a geopolitical chess match that has more moving pieces than Nixon and Kissinger faced when developing their triangular strategy, as Karzai hones a multi-vector diplomacy involving a number of major actors on the world stage who are competing to win the 21st century version of the Great Game in Central Asia.
Karzai has intensified the competition in the region between international stakeholders, including China, the United States, Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. According to Nicklas Norling of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program in Sweden, Mr. Karzai is playing foreign powers against one another so Afghanistan can maximize leverage on each and thereby strengthen its sovereignty.
President Barack Obama could actually learn a thing or two about effective diplomacy by observing President Karzai in action, especially with respect to China who has resisted compromising with the U.S. on trade, human rights and environmental issues - a recalcitrance made most apparent when China sabotaged the U.S. at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December.
China avowed that they would refrain from joining the rest of the international community in denouncing Afghanistan for corruption, cronyism and electoral fraud. Of course, it makes sense that the Chinese would espouse a "live and let live" philosophy, considering they too want to avoid foreign powers from meddling in their internal affairs and exposing similar defects.
The Afghan leader efficiently signed three deals with Hu in which China agreed to expand trade, investment, economic cooperation and technology transfer with Afghanistan. China will also provide preferential tariffs for some Afghan exports and will continue sending developers to build Afghanistan's infrastructure.
Earlier this year, Karzai adroitly sold countries like China on the fact that Afghanistan has the potential to become one of the richest nations in the world, claiming it sits on mineral and petroleum reserves worth over a trillion dollars.
Thus, a stable Afghanistan is of paramount importance to the Chinese who are especially fond of Afghanistan's natural resources, evidenced by their $3 billion investment to tap into the world's largest unexploited copper reserves at Aynak, as well as their hopes to win the rights to iron deposits at Hajigak, which will translate into a massive sum of desperately needed revenue for Afghanistan.
An even more impressive feat would be convincing Beijing to help limit Pakistan's control in the post-war Afghan government - whatever that government should look like. This would be quite the accomplishment because China needs a strong Pakistan as a check against India, who China sees as their biggest threat.
President Karzai has also nimbly walked a tightrope in dealing with the heated rivalry between India and Pakistan. He has been able to secure a tighter relationship with India to balance the influence of Pakistan, while at the same time assuaging Pakistani leaders over concerns that India will play a dominant role in the Afghanistan government once the U.S. leaves.
India has already sunk one billion dollars of development aid into Afghanistan, including a 135-mile long road built last year that stretches from Nimroz Province to Iran's Chabahar seaport, providing an alternate trade route to the Arabian Sea and freeing landlocked Afghanistan from absolute dependence on Pakistan's Karachi port.
During a visit to Islamabad earlier this month, Karzai tried to convince Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani that Afghanistan would never allow India to use its soil against Pakistan. Also, in a sign of increasing cooperation, Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari agreed to revive stalled peace jirgas. Zardari went so far as to call for a "Marshall Plan" for Pakistan and Afghanistan to rebuild each country and vowed to work together to eliminate the Taliban.
Karzai has been the ultimate international wheeler and dealer, raising funds from countries all over the world. Other neighbors have made infrastructural investments in Afghanistan's future, including the construction of a half-mile long bridge between Tajikistan and Afghanistan which has increased trade by 700 percent. The Friendship Bridge between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan has resulted in a massive expansion in trade with Central Asian countries, and Russia is also planning to link Afghanistan with Europe via rail.
In Karzai's defense, his progress in foreign affairs and the investments he has secured from the international community will greatly enhance the quality of life of many Afghans - if managed properly. However, if Karzai continues his pattern of incompetent domestic leadership these funds will be funneled into the wrong hands, such as those of corrupt government officials. Karzai needs to focus his time and apply the same skill-sets that have made him a master global strategist to ensuring this does not happen. Although the result of Karzai's geopolitical craftiness has led to much progress abroad, if he does not rectify these domestic issues, the result will be nil at home.
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