Karzai’s Official Visit to US: An Analysis

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan Issues

The recent official visit to the United States by the incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been focus of analysts’ attention for different reasons. The Afghan president engaged in talks with his American counterpart under conditions when differences between the United States and Afghanistan on a host of issues are still high. However, it seems that neither side is theoretically in good conditions in order to give special concessions to the other side. The Obama administration has made continued military presence of the United States in Afghanistan after 2014 conditional on judicial immunity for its remaining troops and nobody believed that he would appear flexible on this point. On the other side, the government of Hamid Karzai insisted that Washington should respect the national independence of Afghanistan as the main precondition for the signing of the security agreement between the two countries. By doing this, Karzai indirectly tried to show his opposition to granting judicial immunity to the American troops in Afghanistan.

It was due to this situation that the political and military officials of the United States talked about possible withdrawal of all the US forces from Afghanistan before Hamid Karzai’s Washington visit. Some analysts believed that the announcement by the United States was aimed at putting more pressure on the Afghan delegates to make them concede to judicial immunity for the American troops in Afghanistan. They also argued that the United States was not likely to actually take all its troops out of the war-torn country. There were, however, other analysts who maintained that [the US President] Barack Obama was not in a position to withdraw from the important condition that he had already announced in public, especially taking into account that the US Congress was sure to oppose him. However, why both sides insist on their positions? To understand this issue, different conditions and goals pursued by the United States and Afghanistan should be taken into account to provide a clearer picture of the situation. The conditions and goals of the two sides can be summarized as follows:

A) US goals:

1. To meet Washington’s strategic goals in a region vaster than Afghanistan;
2. To control, restrict and set the direction of the jihadist and extremist forces in the region;
3. To implement the US Asian strategy in the 21st century;

B) Afghanistan’s goals:

1. To maintain the existing power structure in cooperation with the United States;
2. To control and set the direction of the extremist forces and, if possible,  to make them a partner and give them a share of power; and
3. To pave the way for receiving aid and facilitating economic, political, and cultural development of Afghanistan.

It is quite clear that the two sides do not possess equal possibilities and capacities for imposing their conditions and goals on the other side and this reality will play a determining role in any kind of negotiation and possible agreement. In the meantime, it is not possible for the United States to impose all its demands on Hamid Karzai. Of course, the United States is serious about some of its goals such as having a permanent military base in Afghanistan, at least, up to 2024, which has been stipulated in the two countries’ strategic agreement, and obtaining judicial immunity for its troops. These are two areas in which Hamid Karzai does not have enough latitude for maneuvering. One major reason behind the present condition is the situation of the armed opposition with which the government in Kabul is currently dealing and which consists of the Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party, and the Haqqani Network. Most analysts believe that the government in Kabul will have little chance of survival in the absence of effective military support from the United States following 2014 and if the United States actually decided to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan, it would be quite possible for the armed opposition to gain power through forceful means.

Of course, this does not mean that the return of the Taliban to power would take place through a smooth and easy process. The main concern is about possible change in the composition of the main players as well as geographical coordinates of war in Afghanistan with the resultant continuation of the civil war in a new form. This means that the former jihadist forces most of whom have social bases in non-Pashtun ethnic groups may take up arms to prevent resurgence of the Taliban to power. Since resurgence of the Taliban to power will benefit Pakistan and Saudi Arabia more than other countries in regional power equation, it would certainly ring the alarms for India, Russia, and to some extent, the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the same time, it would not be considered a positive development for China either. Therefore, if this really happens, Afghanistan will go back to the situation it was in 2001 and before the military intervention by the United States and the NATO in which domestic ethnic and ideological groupings matched regional configuration of political forces. At that time, ethnic and ideological opponents of the Taliban were mostly concentrated among non-Pashtun ethnic groups such as Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara Shias and were supported by Russia, India and Jordan. On the opposite, the Taliban was supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Under present circumstances, nobody inside Afghanistan or at regional and international levels is willing to witness the resurgence of the Taliban to power because this will not only undermine peace and stability in Afghanistan, but also increase the risk of instability across the entire region. Moreover, such a development would mean uselessness of more than a decade of the US and NATO war in Afghanistan which has so far cost over 120 billion dollars in addition to claiming the lives of over 4,000 Western soldiers. Therefore, it would be logical to surmise that a return to the past conditions is not a desirable option for domestic, regional or international political forces. This reality would become more understandable when considered in parallel to a more important reality: the large-scale Asian goals that the United States is pursuing on the basis of its 21st century Asian strategy. According to that strategy, the United States will continue to remain in Afghanistan and will extract the concessions it needs from the Karzai government. Containing China by surrounding it on the east and the west, controlling Russia in order to prevent [the Russian President Vladimir] Putin from reviving the past situation of Tsarist or Communist Russian empires, as well as controlling Iran and India in their quest for a new position and standing in regional power equations are of utmost importance to the United States’ 21st strategy in this region. Being located in the neighborhood of the potential and active rivals of the United States, Afghanistan is of high strategic significance to the US strategy in the 21st century.

Therefore, general fear about the possibility that Afghanistan will turn into a center for the activities of radical Islamist groups with high potential for spreading the crisis to other countries, even to such remote geographical regions as the United States and European countries, has provided Obama with a good opportunity to use this fear and pave the way for long-term presence of the US forces in that country. In doing so, Obama is firstly trying to manage this general fear in order to ensure long-term presence of the US army in Afghanistan and, secondly, convince the government of Hamid Karzai as well as his political opponents that they should give concessions under the present circumstances which would have hurt their national pride under normal conditions. In the meantime, it is only the Taliban and the armed opposition to the government in Kabul which can make their opposition public, though they are not capable of hindering realization of the US strategic goals in the country. On the other hand, President Karzai is also in no position to use his armed opposition as a bargaining chip to take concessions from the United States before the two countries’ security agreement is signed.

At any rate, despite growing opposition inside Afghanistan and at regional level to presence of foreign forces in the war-ravaged country, and although the government in Kabul has voiced its discontent with the behavior of the American troops during the past 12 years, the fate of Afghans has been tied to the presence of big foreign forces in that country. This link is expected to remain extant for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it is quite imaginable that after his return from Washington, Hamid Karzai will try to aggrandize small achievements of his trip to the United States and downplay the major concession that he has given to Obama. However, optimism about the possibility of restoring peace to Afghanistan in an easy way and in the near future is actually not very high.

Key Words: Karzai, US, Military Presence, Security Agreement, Judicial Immunity, US Asian Strategy, Mollazehi

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