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Update No: 099 - (25/04/10)

A phoney war inside the war?
During April once again the relationship between Karzai and the Obama administration experienced more ups and downs. In his (often clumsy) efforts to shore up public support inside Afghanistan, Karzai often ends up irritating his patrons in North America and Europe. His rhetorical hyperboles, such as threatening to join the Taliban in front of a crowd of Afghan elders, are usual stuff in Afghan politics, but do not go down well in Washington. The press eagerly reports about Karzai’s behaviour, adding to western embarrassment. Although Karzai’s behaviour has become increasingly erratic and the multiple sources of pressure to which he is subjected seem to be affecting his stability, to a large extent the ‘war’ with Washington and the Europeans is a phoney war. Within certain limits, his foreign patrons understand as it being in their own interest that Karzai tries to recover some political ground and a more autonomous image, by criticising them. The worry however is that statements by Karzai, meant for internal consumption (but widely publicised abroad), might further undermine western public support for the military effort.

Some genuine paranoia too
Karzai, moreover, seems increasingly genuinely convinced that Washington might be manoeuvring behind his back to replace him, or at least undermine his already precarious hold on power. Talk of reform and negotiations with the armed opposition do not help rebuilding trust between the Kabul government and its western patrons. Some western diplomats in Afghanistan, for example, worry that Karzai might be holding some nasty surprise up his sleeve for the forthcoming Peace Jirga, now planned for May, such as announcing some rushed-up and ill-considered deal with sectors of the armed opposition. This could be meant to show that he has indeed a degree of autonomy and is not just a puppet, as well as establishing new political alliances. The Obama administration, on the other hand, has repeatedly followed up its diatribes with Karzai with public statements of enduring support. Obama’s recent trip to Kabul seems to have been meant to remind Karzai of his (as yet unfulfilled) commitments taken at the London Conference in January. Karzai might well have resented the warning as undue interference. Karzai is also signalling his newly found autonomy of thought, by befriending President Ahmadinejad of Iran, at a time when Washington would like to see him as isolated as possible. Karzai visited Teheran twice in two weeks, including once after Obama’s short visit to Kabul.

Karzai is also increasingly at odds with the Afghan parliament, where he used to hold a majority until last year. Apart from having been unable to get his choice of ministers confirmed, Karzai was challenged on a number of other issues, including his electoral decree, which was overwhelmingly rejected. Ownership of the process leading to the parliamentary elections later this year, is becoming contentious even as far as the international community is concerned.

How the phoney war affects the real war
On the military front ISAF is now claiming successes in Helmand province and elsewhere, particularly the south-west. There is some truth in these claims, together with a fair dose of propaganda, but the areas falling under relative ISAF/government control are flat pockets, where running an insurgency is very problematic. The mountainous parts of the country seem as out of reach as ever and they account for most of Afghanistan. ISAF’s calculation was that if it could strike the Taliban hard in their most cherished provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, it could then force them to negotiate a reasonable settlement. The operation around Kandahar city, however, is being thrown into doubt by the hostility of local notables and of Karzai himself. Having sought the agreement of Afghan authorities and elders before starting the operation, it is now difficult for ISAF to backtrack.  

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