For Hamid Karzai, it’s battle for survival

New Delhi, June 21 : For Hamid Karzai, it’s battle for survivalAfghanistan President Hamid Karzai seems to be a man in hurry. His strongly worded warning to Pakistan that Afghan and NATO forces will not hesitate to pursue the Taliban into Pakistan territory “to destroy terrorist nests on the other side of the border in self- defence” has provoked a huge uproar in Islamabad, besides causing political undercurrents within Afghanistan.

Karzai warned the Taliban chief Mullah Omar and Baitullah Mehsud that he would go after them and hit them in their own houses. “We will defeat them and we’ll avenge all that they have done in Afghanistan for the past so many years,” he said.

Karzai’s threat, immediately after his return from the Paris Conference, where the entire Afghanistan issue was discussed threadbare by the donor nations, is ominous. For far too long, Karzai had been pleading with the United States for acting sternly against Pakistan and only last year President Bush had to broker peace between Musharraf and Karzai in the White House. Subsequently, Karzai on his part organized the two joint Jirgas, but Musharraf did not fulfil his obligation. Now Musharraf himself has been rendered seemingly irrelevant.

Karzai has finally succeeded in persuading the Allies and the US that it is time for action. Pakistan has been ‘running with the hares and hunting with the hounds’ - crying from the rooftops that it has been helping in the fight against the Al-Qaeda and Taliban, but actually continuing to shelter Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda High Command and in effect supporting the Taliban operations. The US and the Allies have started asserting their ‘Right of Hot Pursuit’ and carried out anti-Taliban operations even if it meant going into Pakistan territory during the last few weeks, killing many Taliban terrorists and some Pakistan security personnel.

Karzai’s line of action has also been endorsed by President Bush during his recent London visit. Several US Administration functionaries also pointed that many terrorists were based in frontier areas of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan.

All these six-and-half years since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, Al-Qaeda-Taliban leadership and cadres had found shelter in areas along the border. They have received financial, material, training and logistical support to keep the fight against the Afghan and Allied troops. Though Pakistan was forced to follow the US diktats under the threat of ‘Bombing to the Stone Age’, Afghanistan has been feeling that all these years the Pakistan establishment and its powerful organs – the Army and the ISI -- have not been able to digest the loss of the strategic depth, against their traditional enemy India, which they had acquired after great effort.

Pakistan had received billions of dollars from the United States on the pretext of fighting the Taliban saying that it had deployed over 80,000 troops in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and lost over 1000 soldiers. Most of these dollars were utilised for acquiring heavy military equipment for possible use against India. Intelligence reports available with the US and Allies even suggested that some of the resources found their way to Taliban forces in carrying out their operations against the US Army in Afghanistan.

When the Taliban began enforcing the Shariat and setting up their own courts undermining the Pakistan Government authority and turned the heat on the Pakistani forces, Islamabad found it necessary to negotiate agreements and buy peace with the Taliban in Mohmand and Swat, which were led by Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Sufi Mohammad. This gave a free hand to the Taliban to carry out their terrorist activities against the NATO and Afghan forces deep into Afghanistan from their safe sanctuaries in Pakistan. The US and NATO Army Commanders in Afghanistan have been pointing out that the Taliban attacks have multiplied after these agreements and Mehsud and Haqqani are the two dreaded names in Paktiya, Paktika and other border provinces.

Pakistan’s other aims in Afghanistan include harnessing the waters of the river Kabul and its tributaries flowing into Pakistan without which all its proposed dams like Kalabagh would remain on paper. Other objectives include to keep Afghanistan as a captive market for all its goods and retain the stranglehold on the supply lines to Afghanistan and beyond into the landlocked Central Asian nations. It would thus be able to control the flow of the rich mineral and oil resources of the States, which were part of the former Soviet Union.

The impression is that a section of the establishment in Pakistan felt that by keeping the pot boiling in Afghanistan, they would tire out the foreign forces and again achieve their strategic goals. In this these forces got encouraged with the reports that the NATO and Allies were reluctant to commit more troops in Afghanistan, particularly deploy them in the real combat region bordering Pakistan.

The coming Presidential elections, both in the US and Afghanistan have lent urgency to the Bush-Karzai offensive against Taliban and Al-Qaeda as Bush would like to leave the White House on a winning note, at least in Afghanistan if not Iraq and Karzai is more than eager to win the second Presidential term. Bush has reportedly enlisted Special British Forces’ help for hunting Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. The US Army’s special operation unit -- Delta Forces -- has succeeded in carrying out operations within Pakistan territory.

Karzai faced flak from the donor nations at the Paris Conference for his failure to check corruption, which is eating into the reconstruction funds. His hopes to get 50 billion dollars for his ambitious Five Year Development Plan were dashed and he could get only 21 billion dollars. This is likely to slow down the development works, that too during the election year.

Karzai is specially worried because the mounting civilian casualties in US air strikes against Taliban after the recent Kandahar jail break has alienated the population in the southern Afghanistan which has a predominantly Pashtun population. This loss of support among the Pashtuns on whose over-whelming vote he got elected in 2004, has been causing concern to Karzai. Afghan Government’s writ does not run in the Pashtun areas and it is a Herculean task for his administration to conduct polling in these areas.

In the Northern provinces, Karzai does not command much support. Karzai was supported by the Northern Alliance during his elections. But he did not look after the leaders of the Alliance (non-Pashtuns) many of whom were close associates of the legendary leader Late Ahmad Shah Masoud, Defence Minister Marshal Fahim, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, Education Minister Younus Qanuni, Hazara leader Haji Mohammad Mohaqaq, Uzbek strongman General Abdus Rashid Dostum, to name a few. All these are now opposed to Karzai; they have retained their captive vote banks and are likely to gang up against him at election time.

Karzai’s has also found it difficult to contain the opium and drug mafia. The opium cultivation has reportedly increased several-fold and spread to even the traditionally non-opium areas. This has not only made the drug and warlords stronger. They are now in a position to challenge the Government authority. Besides, the funds generated from opium are feeding the terrorist activities of Taliban.

Karzai is being blamed for not devoting enough attention towards political organization. He did not join any political party or form one of his own. In a democratic system it is the party and the cadres who stand by you at the end of the day. He had a tough time to get his decisions ratified by the Parliament in the absence of institutionalized party support. Afghan constitution enjoins that even the ministers appointed by the President are required to be approved by the Parliament.

Already there is talk of a search for his an alternative to Karzai. The name of former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad who is now the US Permanent Representative at the UN, has been floated. An Afghan Pashtun, who also holds US citizenship, Khalilzad had been US Ambassador in Iraq at a very crucial period. Under the Afghanistan constitution any Afghan holding dual citizenship has to rescind his foreign nationality before contesting elections.

Faced by all these odds, Karzai sees a victory against the Taliban as the only way of his getting back to the Arg Palace. But much would depend on the attitude of the Pakistan Army and the ISI. It is also not clear whether he will be able to get the support, even passive, of the newly formed democratic Government by taking a tough stance against the Taliban. One factor, which may help Karzai and Afghanistan, is that the new Government of the North West Frontier Province is keen to distance itself from the Taliban, restore Pashtunwali – the traditional Pushtun code -- and follow the ideology of the legendary Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. (ANI)

I. Ramamohan Rao, former Principal Information Officer, Government of India and Chief Editor Asian News International. Email: (ANI)