Karzai’s desire to secure his legacy as the father of a modern Afghan nation is behind his public olive branches to the Taliban. However, Afghan internal politics are increasingly becoming a zero-sum game and Karzai’s actions toward the Taliban provoke hostile reactions from others.
Last week, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar once again referred to President Karzai and his administration as “stooges” and “puppets” and rejected any notion of negotiation between them. On the other side, Karzai has on numerous occasions referred to the Taliban as “brothers”, including in a graveside oration for his slain [NB: not by the Taliban] brother Ahmed Wali – and has been heavily criticised for doing so.
The relationship between Hamid Karzai and the Taliban is clearly complex, which will pose problems in whatever political dialogue will take place up to and beyond 2014, but it is not as paradoxical as it would seem.
While doubtless very amusing to Americans who have dealt with the Afghan President, the Taliban’s repeated dismissal of Karzai as a US stooge is actually quite rational. From their perspective, the legitimate government of Afghanistan is that of the Islamic Emirate and its legitimate leader is Mullah Omar. To negotiate with Karzai on equal terms is to surrender that legitimacy.
In addition to this question of legitimacy, there are other factors in the Taliban’s relationship with Karzai which are often overlooked by, or simply not known to, western observers. Indeed, there is a history stretching back to the mid-1990s and the very creation of the Taliban – which the young Karzai initially welcomed.
This soon changed and Karzai, in exile in Pakistan, began to work against them. In July 1999, Karzai’s father, Abdul Ahad, was assassinated by the Taliban and his son led a massive funeral procession into Kandahar province in open defiance of the Taliban regime.
Over the past ten years, the manner in which Karzai has built his power base (which was non-existent in 2001) has only deepened the enmity of the Taliban. Beginning with his late brother, Ahmed Wali, key Karzai allies in southern Afghanistan are figures of detestation to the Taliban (and many others besides).
Matiullah Khan and Abdul Raziq, the current police chiefs of Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces respectively, are notorious for their brutality towards Taliban fighters. Another hated individual is Asadullah Khalid on the basis of his actions while Provincial Governor of Kandahar and later as overall security coordinator for southern Afghanistan. Khalid was recently appointed Head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan internal intelligence agency, and as such will play a central role in any sort of reconciliation process.
In short, while there are rational political reasons for the Taliban’s public stance towards Karzai, there is also a deep visceral hatred of the President and his allies in the south. This combination must seriously call into question any possibility of meaningful negotiation.
As for Karzai himself, his stance towards the Taliban may appear irrational given all of the above and given the heavy criticism he has received when he has referred to them as “brothers” [NB: On occasion Karzai has even threatened to join the Taliban, although he was not thought to have been serious]. They may not be immediately apparent but Karzai does have his reasons nonetheless.
Karzai’s survival – political and actual – depends in large part on bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan by the end of 2014 when he leaves (or is supposed to leave) office. His desire to secure his legacy as the father of the modern Afghan nation – an Afghan Ataturk, if you will – is a significant factor behind his very public olive branches to the Taliban. The problem there is that Afghan internal politics are increasingly becoming a zero-sum game and Karzai’s actions towards the Taliban provoke hostile reactions from others, for example key power brokers and politicians affiliated to Jamiat-e Islami and Shura-ye Nazar.
Northern suspicions as to Karzai’s agenda of ‘reconciliation’ with the Taliban also stem from the fact that the President’s inner circle has, in recent years, become increasingly dominated by Pashtun nationalists whose politics closely resemble those of the Taliban, at least to northern eyes. This is in stark contrast to the early years of the Karzai administration, during which the Interim President’s massive reliance upon northern powerbrokers (usually Panjshiris) within his Cabinet, such as current Vice-President Fahim Khan, allowed them to effectively run the government.
Today, Pashtuns affiliated to Hezb-e Islami occupy a number of key positions in the administration (e.g. Karim Khurram, his Chief-of-Staff, and Farooq Wardak, Minister for Education) and it is reasonable to suppose that Karzai’s policy towards the Taliban is, in part, a result of their influence.
Abdul Salam Zaeef, a formerly high-ranking Talib, presciently wrote that Karzai is imprisoned within a circle of people who keep him from the truth, adding that:
Karzai is between the tiger and the precipice and he wakes up every day unsure which way to go. He cannot differentiate between friend and enemy.
In the context of a peace process and a nationwide political dialogue, that could spell real danger.
Photo Credit: isafmedia