The new American strategy for “AfPak”
Barack Obama has just launched his new strategy for Afghanistan. Is there a place for Hamid Karzai in the “restructuring plans”? Who can assure us that the other candidates aren’t ten times worse than Karzai?
(From Madrid) BARACK OBAMA HAS JUST MADE his strategy for Afghanistan public. Aside from the military presence, the strategical reformulation includes a regional approximation and a better coordination of international troops, together with the inclusion of other domestic players, chiefly those Taliban members that don’t opt for violence. Within this logic, it is worth wondering if the current president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, figures into the restructuring plans, especially with the elections set for August 20 of this year.
Ever since he began his presidential campaign, Barack Obama has proclaimed that Afghanistan is going to be one of the cornerstones of American foreign policy, and that “difficult decisions will have to be made” regarding said country and Iraq.
With the end of bipolarity, the new threats and diverse forms of international conflicts that characterized the last two decades of the twentieth century pose a challenge for this current stage. At this point, security and military means can no longer be linked together; rather, other elements are necessary, such as development and consensual political will. Within this rationale, Afghanistan has become a highly complex practical case, and can serve as a thermometer for the commitments on the multilateral international agenda. Time and results will prove us right, as long as the following statement by the country’s last British governor, Sir Olaf Caroe, does not ring true: “unlike in other conflicts, in Afghanistan, things get truly ugly only when the war is over”.
A CHANGE OF COURSE
There is a lot of hope being placed in Barack Obama, both by American society and the international community, which is asking for a greater consensus among the distinct international actors regarding common issues, and a relaunch of multilateralism in the great “Central Asian game”. And it is precisely in this analytical perspective where the issue of Afghanistan must be inserted, since, after the ineffective and harmful -in more than one sense- actions of the previous American administration and NATO, there has been no improvement in the complicated situation that the Asian country is currently in. In some areas, the turmoil and instability has increased, with some important examples being the increase in civilian and military casualties, the lack of improvement of the civilian population’s social economic conditions (an area in which progress has been scarce), the fragility of both the State’s and the current Afghan government’s institutions, and the progressive rise of the Taliban, which currently controls at least ten provinces in the country.
“Afghanistan has become a highly complex practical case, and can serve as a thermometer for the commitments on the multilateral international agenda”
The situation in Afghanistan is extremely complex, a product of its own idiosyncrasy and of foreign action. If we focus on the domestic level, it is convenient to remember the ethnic rivalries, the religious radicalism, the exacerbation of terrorism, the fragility of the State, the opium economy, the strengthening of the Taliban, the widespread under-development, etc., which contribute to the atomization of the problems.
We are looking at an indomitable land, always coveted but never conquered by the regional powers, and this is why we can state that Afghanistan’s strategic location is the cause of the its situation, as well as the key piece in regional stabilization.
The decision to intervene militarily has contributed to the countries in the area being directly or indirectly affected by the Afghan conflict; its neighbor Pakistan, with an extremely permeable border and a complicated geopolitical situation of its own, is the most affected. This international player’s delicate double game, highly ambivalent – on one hand the product of tending to the interests of the Western powers, and on the other hand the product of internal factors like secretly complying with the most radical Islamist sectors -, has caused Pakistan to find itself in an extremely weak state, undergoing one of the most convulsive periods of its sixty-two year history.
It looks like the new American strategy for Afghanistan is going to focus on fighting terrorism and those Taliban members that don’t renounce violence. In order to achieve the stabilization of Pakistan, we need to: increase the allocation of resources, ease the tension in the heart of NATO regarding the objectives of its mission, give incentives to agreements made at the international donor conferences, outline consensual and effective multilateral policies, and have more coordination between the foreign actors themselves, and between them and the Afghan authorities. But the underlying question is: only Afghanistan, or is it necessary to include neighboring countries too?
Although it is still too early to analyze Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan, we can note some substantial changes:
1) An attempt to avoid the sensation of just being adrift, as has occurred in the case of Iraq;
2) The situation in the country is conceived as “not just a military problem”, but also a political and social one;
3) The United States is no longer aiming to export democracy, good government and the basic principles of civil society to the country; rather, it is trying to keep the country from serving as a sanctuary for terrorists, since the priority is to “make sure that Al Qaeda cannot attack the United States, our interests, or our allies’ interests”;
4) The planning of an exit strategy;
5) Involving other regional players in the process, considering a regional approach;
6) Sending new troops to the territory in addition to the 17,000 soldiers already committed, to be added to the troops already deployed in the region.
THE STRENGTHENING OF PAKISTAN
A decisive element for regional stability, and therefore for Afghanistan’s stability, is the strengthening of the fragile Pakistani democracy and economy since, as Richard Holbrooke, the White House’s special envoy to the region (who also played a key mediating role in solving the Balkan conflict during the nineties) said at the Munich Conference (February 7 and 8): “First of all, we often call the problem AfPak, as in Afghanistan – Pakistan. This is not just an effort to save eight syllables. It is an attempt to indicate and imprint in our DNA the fact that there is one theater of war, straddling an ill-defined border, the Durand Line, and that on the western side of that border, NATO and other forces are able to operate. On the eastern side, it’s the sovereign territory of Pakistan. But it is there on the eastern side of this ill-defined border that the international terrorist movement is located. Al Qaeda and other organizations of its sort, and we have to think of it that way, not to distinguish between the two”. Likewise, the situation in Afghanistan cannot be fixed without a consensus with Iran, which at certain times in the past, above all during the Bonn Peace Conference, played a very constructive role.
The creation of a strong state in Afghanistan was not one of the previous Republican American administration’s primary goal; instead, it banked on Iraq and relegated the physical and political reconstruction of Afghanistan to a secondary plane, although it made an effort to improve its security. There are other extremely important factors that haven’t helped things either: the preponderance of the military variable as opposed to the political one; the lack of a strong economic involvement from the United States and Europe; the weak state of the Afghan government, whose influence barely goes beyond the capital city; the widespread corruption, which makes it impossible to strengthen institutions; the poor coordination among foreign actors, and between them and the Afghan authorities; and the absence of other civilian players in the process.
“It looks like the new American strategy for Afghanistan is going to focus on fighting terrorism and those Taliban members that don’t renounce violence”
At the 45th Security Conference held in Munich (February 7-8), the United States admitted that it had made mistakes, and that an urgent change in the pacification strategy was necessary, as well as the support of its partners. This was not only a reference to an increase in troops, but also a call to broaden the scope of the approach, since Afghanistan is not an exclusively American problem, but an international one as well, since it affects the surrounding region as a whole and the credibility of the foreign policy of the other nations involved.
The conflict in Afghanistan has been labeled the “good” war in comparison to the one in Iraq. In spite of the difficulties, if we analyze its situation from a development or border destabilization standpoint, Iraq presented an easier case, and several years later we can observe that there is more stability, as opposed to Afghanistan, where the turmoil and instability has been increasing since 2001, and not only within the Central Asian country itself, but in its neighbors too, principally Pakistan. In light of this outlook, the American administration has been considering a gradual withdrawal from Iraq, in such a way that its presence would be reduced, creating a bypass with Afghanistan in relation to military troops, since no one doubts that the United States and NATO member states’ need to send more forces. This means that Washington will pressure its European allies to step up their commitment to Afghanistan.
A PRESIDENT AMORTIZED FOR CHANGE?
Hamid Karzai’s unexpected decision to move the elections forward to April caught the country’s agitated internal political scene by surprise and alarmed its Western allies, as it simultaneously planted seeds of doubt surrounding the legitimacy of the process. This gutsy wager by the Afghan president allowed him to have the elections while in power, strengthen his position in the near future and make it difficult for other candidates due to the lack of time. The Afghan presidential elections had been set for August 20 of this year, although there were very serious doubts regarding whether they would be held or not, due to the insecure climate in the country. Although this date technically lies outside of the time period delineated by the Constitution, and thus creates a type of constitutional limbo lasting from the moment the presidential term expires until a new president is proclaimed by virtue of the electoral results in August, both NATO and the main international players involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan were banking on it. They were not very concerned about constitutional legality, but instead were hoping that a hypothetical greater stabilization would prevail and the search for a consensus candidate would continue.
“More than 13 million voters will be able to exercise their right to vote, out of a population of 30 million”
Consequently, more than 13 million voters will be able to exercise their right to vote, out of a population of 30 million. Afghanistan can be characterized as having an extremely atomized society, which does not help the establishment of a consolidated and democratic central power, since each ethnic group maintains its deep-rooted traditions when it comes to making political, tribal and religious decisions. The decrees of the clans, tribal elders, warlords, etc. take precedence, and the regulations of the central state power are not accepted. The degree of turmoil increases if we add that the Pashtun ethnic group, the most numerous and dominant with around 50 percent of the inhabitants, is in a state of permanent confrontation with the government, and comprises the largest group in the Taliban.
The Independent Electoral Commission has rejected the attempt to move the elections forward. This has relieved the UN, NATO and the rest of the international players involved in the country’s reconstruction, since the former is assisting the Afghan government with the organization of the voting -for which it needs more time-, and the latter is waiting for the arrival of 17,000 soldiers promised by the United States in order to reinforce its deployment in view of the advances being made by the Taliban insurgency. Besides, all of the political forces agreed with Karzai last year that it was impractical and very difficult to organize the vote count in spring, since this forced the preparations to be carried out during the snow season, which leaves many of the country’s regions isolated.
“Karzai, who enjoyed the backing of the Bush administration, does not appear to be too close with Obama’s”
Relations between Karzai and the new Democratic American administration are going through a delicate period, with the first setback having taken place in May 2008, when the man who would eventually be named the American envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan referred to the current government as “weak” and “corrupt”. The Afghan president has been carrying out a small poison dart policy towards the foreign actors, principally the United States. This was seen in a harsh message at the Munich Security Conference in February, in which he attributed the resurgence of violence to strategic mistakes like “the delay in constructing a police force…, the inefficiency in cutting off financing to violent groups…, the arbitrary arrests…, the rise in collateral damage”, in other words, civilian casualties.
THE DESIRED POLITICAL SHIFT
Karzai, who enjoyed the backing of the Bush administration, does not appear to be too close with Obama’s. In his attempt to be reelected and reverse his and his government’s low popularity – a product of widespread corruption, scarce state institution establishment, no visible improvement for the population, an increase in civilian casualties and narcotrafficking, etc. – he has opted to include certain criticism of foreign action and a greater Islamization of the current Executive in his speeches, in order to bring himself closer to the population. In light of the possibility of not enjoying the backing of the foreign actors, in the last few months he has been favoring a policy of approximation with the Taliban members who condemn violence and want to be integrated into Afghanistan.
It is obvious that the United States and other European partners would like to make a political shift in Afghanistan that includes the nation’s presidency. Something that could help with this objective would be creating the position of prime minister; said figure would be at the helm of the country and would trim the presidential powers. This would involve reforming the Constitution and calling together a General Assembly. The foreign consensus to block the current president’s actions and reduce his powers is obvious (The Guardian, February 23), since for the last few years Hamid Karzai has been characterized by making decisions alone, leaving his allies on the sidelines and, in his effort to remain in power, being willing to negotiate with God and the devil if the opportunity presents itself.
“Hamid Karzai has been characterized by making decisions alone, leaving his allies on the sidelines and, in his effort to remain in power, being willing to negotiate with God and the devil if the opportunity presents itself”
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the current president will remain in office after the elections in August, in view of the aspiring candidates. For now, he is overshadowed by no one, and the only figure capable of overshadowing him is the former Finance Minister – Ashraf Ghani – who enjoys a wide popularity in the country and was beginning to look like a possible successor, all the while having the approval of the foreign actors. However, he has health issues. In light of this situation and the lack of a more appealing candidate to both domestic and international players, Karzai has the easiest road ahead of him since, as a certain diplomat stated, “No one can assure us that the other candidates aren’t ten times worse than Karzai”, making the gamble clear.