Checked Out

Checked Out

"Are you a son of Dost Mohammed or Shah Shuja?" asks a common Taliban recruiting slogan. It implies that President Hamid Karzai is today’s Shah Shuja, the puppet leader installed by the British from 1839-1842, and the Taliban’s Mullah Omar is today’s Dost Mohammed, the great 19th-century ruler of Afghanistan whose reign Shah Shuja interrupted during the First Afghan War.

Thus unpacked, the message is clear: that Mullah Omar ruled before and will again, just like Dost Mohammed. Indeed, it was Mullah Omar who put on the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed in Kandahar in 1996 to profess himself the himself leader of all Muslims, the Amir-al-Mu’minin, no doubt aware that the last person to have done so was Dost Mohammed in 1834, who used it as a rallying call for war against the Sikhs.

Perhaps then it should be no surprise that President Karzai has consistently displayed an anxiety to show himself as an independent ruler, typically expressed in a melodramatic idiom that stresses Afghan sovereignty while expressly blaming foreign forces, and implicitly Pakistan, for Afghanistan’s woes.

Does this explain Karzai’s rejection last week of the loya jirga‘s recommendation to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States?

That would be consistent with the tone of this rhetorical flourish, for which Karzai got rousing cheers at the 2011 loya jirga, the grand assembly of Afghan tribal leaders:

"We want our national sovereignty recognized by all means and from today! I repeat, we want our national sovereignty recognized by all means and from today…. Well, the United States is richer, more powerful, more populated than we are, it is larger than our country, but we are lions!… They bring us money, train our soldiers and police, and provide security for the home of the lion. The lion does not have leisure time to do all these things. They should protect his surroundings but should not touch the lion’s home. They should protect the four boundaries of the jungle."

The irony is that this kind of complacent delusion has been tolerated by international community precisely because of its recognition of Afghanistan as a sovereign state.

Karzai seems to want to have his cake and eat it this time round as well. While stating unenthusiastically, and in the same patronising tone, that "we support this agreement, but Americans should respect Afghan lives, Afghan houses. They should be truthful and give huge amounts of money", he appeared to want to delay signing the BSA until after the April 2014 presidential elections.

That the next Afghan president should be the one to sign this agreement fits with the image Karzai presented this week of being somehow neutral in the conflict: "many people lost their lives, many because of Taliban attacks, many because of foreign attacks in the name of the fight against terrorism. Victims of both kinds of attacks are present here."

The problem Karzai had in re-deploying his sovereign anxiety through the usual idiom this week is that he did not get rousing cheers. On the contrary, the head of the loya jirga, Sibghatullah Mujadidi, following Karzai’s speech on the podium, added more than a gloss by stating that if the BSA were not signed: "I will resign all my positions and seek refuge in another country."

That pithy, provocative, and most public of statements, appears decisively to undercut Karzai’s Janus-like stance towards the international community, and particularly the United States, which sustains the Afghan state. In 2011, both the next presidential election and the end of the security transition to Afghan forces in December 2014 were a long way off; now they are around the corner.

Abdullah Abdullah, the man Karzai beat for the presidency in 2009, pointed out this week that Karzai had pushed too far, risking the possibility that the United States really could pull out completely after 2014 (the "zero-sum option"), implicitly recognising that Afghanistan is in truth no longer the strategic priority it once was for the United States.    

Karzai’s sovereign anxiety pitch is no longer credible, particularly given the fact that he will be gone next year, perhaps abroad to the extensive properties his extended family own in Dubai. The conditions he wants in place before signing the BSA (no U.S. troops in Afghan homes, U.S. assurances of fair elections, and support for the peace process) seem distinctly hollow coming from him, not least because of the massive electoral fraud that accompanied his own 2009 election, and the vast corruption of the Afghan state under his presidency.  

In short, the difference between 2011 and today’s loya jirga is that, in 2011, Karzai could still claim to be speaking on behalf of the state; today he privileges his own legacy over anything.

Karzai would be more credible if he were actually going to have to rule post-2014. In that respect there is a key contrast with President Mohammad Najibullah, the last Soviet-backed leader of Afghanistan. Najibullah too had a sovereign anxiety, based on the fact that his government could not survive without Soviet support. As Thomas Barfield has written, in 1986, Dr. Najib added the suffix "ullah" ("of God") to present himself in more Islamic tones, and adopted a general posture that privileged nationalism over communism, symbolised in the name change of his party from the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) to the Hizb-i-Watan ("Homeland Party").

The striking aspect of this policy is that it only started to have real effect after the transition of the main Soviet forces in 1988-1989. As the statistics of this study show, the central revelation of Soviet transition was that many of the mujahedeen saw their role in the fight as being over once the Soviets faded as a visible target (though some Soviet forces did stay on as military advisers and to operate more complex weapons for the Afghans).

Now Islamisized, Najibullah was then able to present the Peshawar-based, Pakistani-backed, mujahedeen forces as the foreigners, while at the same time empowering many ethnic minority groups that depended on the Afghan state for security. The result was a huge expansion in militia groups, and a correlative reduction of Afghan regular forces, which effectively created a decentralisation of the Afghan state.

This process was catalysed when the mujahedeen showed themselves unable to fight a conventional battle, and were heavily defeated at the battle of Jalalabad in March 1989 by the Afghan army supported by Soviet-operated SCUD missiles.

While by no means stable, and still heavily dependent on Soviet aid to disburse as patronage, the Najibullah regime survived past the Soviet withdrawal, contrary to expectations, until of course the Soviet Union itself collapsed, and funding to the Najibullah regime ended in December 1991, precipitating the fall of the regime.

Given that most of the delegates at last week’s loya jirga lived through the Najibullah period, the parallels with today are not distant shadows, but powerful analogies. The central importance of the BSA is that it is hard to see the insurgency presenting an
existential threat to the Afghan state without the capacity to win conventional battles, which will be hard to envisage so long as the Afghan security forces can depend on the United States in extremis to back it up.

So the BSA matters — especially at this moment, when its signing gives forward guidance to those on the fence. It underlines the fact that, while the insurgency may make inroads into the countryside, the Afghan government in the Pushtun areas of the south and east will likely hold at least the big cities and the roads.

If President Karzai was going to stay on duty post-transition like Najibullah, his comments about sovereignty might have been taken seriously at last week’s loya jirga. As it was, however, he might as well have been speaking from a deckchair in Dubai. Only someone who has already mentally checked out of the conflict could be so reckless with his country’s future, and so politically numb to the sacrifice that the Afghan state’s international supporters have shed.

The people who cannot leave Afghanistan will ultimately be the arbiters of the sovereign concerns of the state, and last week, it seems they called time on the fantasy of President Karzai’s rhetoric.