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Canada Has Good Reasons To Smooth Hamid Karzai’s Ruffled Feathers

April 14, 2010

Hamid Karzai with supporters in 2002, after being chosen as president of Afghanistan at a Loya Jirga or grand council. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

This is a bit of an addendum to my previous post about decision making in Afghanistan, but it’s rather timely because the Globe and Mail has now reported that our Defence Minister Peter MacKay “purposely decided not to meet with” President Hamid Karzai during his visit to Afghanistan last weekend. This childish snub was apparently intended to reflect MacKay’s general displeasure with Karzai’s approach to governance and his particular displeasure with some of Karzai’s recent public statements, which have included (1) a wild accusation that America, Britain and the UN perpetrated fraud in last year’s presidental election in an (obviously unsuccessful) attempt to prevent him from winning, and (2) a threat to “join the Taliban” if foreign powers continued with their meddling. As MacKay put it to the Globe:

“I called for more constructive and active engagement. People need to see a more visible presence of the Afghan government in Kandahar province,” Mr. MacKay told the Afghan officials, explaining the President’s comments have a “corrosive impact on Canadian soldiers and citizens.”

While I don’t particularly feel that I’m being corroded, it’s hard to deny that Karzai’s remarks suggest a certain fraying of the fraternal ties between the Afghan government and its friends in the West. This is worrying, if not alarming. In the short term, our summer plans – and those of our allies – include a push to take full control of the city of Kandahar, but Karzai has already promised local tribal elders that the operation will not go ahead without their consent. Clearly we could act without the cooperation of either Karzai or the elders, but under those conditions the battle for Kandahar would be far more difficult. Karzai has deep tribal roots in the area, and his shady brother Ahmed Wali Karzai is leader of the local provincial council. Surely their combined influence could make the operation either much easier or much harder.

More broadly, Hamid Karzai is a pivotal figure partly because he is the elected (however dubiously) president of Afghanistan, and partly because of his leading position within the powerful Popalzai tribe of Pashtuns and his alliances or at least understandings with warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan. Through Western eyes his apparent electoral cheating and the corruption that has flourished on his watch may seem inexcusable, but Hamid Karzai is there.  If we’re not going to try to depose and replace him, which could be messy in the extreme, we’re going to have to deal with him. Which is the main reason, of course, why Peter MacKay should have sat down with him last weekend. We need to know what Karzai is thinking, and what prompted his recent threats and accusations.

Since MacKay opted not to have this necessary conversation, and not to pass on any information about Karzai’s state of mind that he may have gleaned from his discussions with lesser officials, Canadians can only speculate. Leaving aside unsubstantiated rumours of emotional instability and heroin use on Karzai’s part, it seems likely that he is intensely frustrated with the incessant criticism directed his way from the West, and especially from America. In the Guardian, Simon Tisdall describes US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Afghanistan as almost colonial in tone:

By all accounts, Obama was in his most condescending, holier-than-thou professorial mode… He lectured Karzai on the need to entrench good governance, extirpate corruption, eliminate the narco-barons, and hold free, fair parliamentary elections in September. Then, refusing a joint appearance, he left.

Hamid Karzai – leader of a proud warrior nation, ally of warlords and tribal khans – probably wanted to wring Obama’s scrawny, sanctimonious neck. Since Obama’s own Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has set a welcome precedent for frank public discussion of cross-border disagreements, someone in the Harper government really ought to declare to anyone who wants to listen that the Americans are mismanaging the relationship with Afghanistan and need to show more respect for both local partners and local realities. Canada should also recalibrate its own approach, and a long, frank, constructive conversation between Karzai and a senior minister should be the first item on the agenda.

However, Karzai’s ruffled feathers may be only part of the explanation for what could be described as his increasingly assertive and anti-Western attitude. As I’ve noted previously on this blog, he reportedly feels that he is close to making peace with the Taliban, but is constrained from doing so by American pressure. A Tajik politician and warlord, Berhanuddin Rabbani, has also told Terry Glavin in a remarkable interview that reconciliation with Taliban elements is a real – and in some ways disturbing – possibility. Any reconciliation that can take place on acceptable terms should be welcomed by Canada, but we will need to maintain a working relationship with Karzai in order to keep abreast of developments.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2010 7:16 am

    Thanks for this overview – it’s the kind of local intelligence we need to understand the situation. A friend is passing along Terry Glavin’s recent report and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m glad to see that you tempered your description of his relationship with people like Ismail Khan – I think they tolerate each other – barely, but I fear if Karzai becomes too close to the Taliban, he may find he has a bigger enemy within the country. I can’t imagine that Khan is going to allow the Taliban to extend their influence again. And he used to have a bigger standing army than the central government so I expect it wouldn’t take him much to regroup. S

    • corsullivan permalink*
      April 17, 2010 12:24 pm

      Yes, it’s certainly going to be difficult to pursue meaningful reconciliation with the Taliban and simultaneously avoid antagonising Ismail Khan and other Northern Alliance types. This is perhaps an instance of one of the central problems of governing Afghanistan, the need to walk a line between the interests of the Pashtuns and those of the other ethnic groups.

      However, there will have to be some kind of peace deal eventually. It’s a legitimate strategy to fight on for a while and try to weaken the Taliban in order to get better terms, but every month of continued conflict has a human cost. From this perspective, we can certainly encourage Karzai not to make too many concessions to the Taliban, but we should also encourage Northern Alliance figures – and our NATO allies – to accept that some concessions will almost certainly be necessary.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    April 14, 2010 8:20 pm

    Glad to see you on the case on this ongoing issue. After writing many columns on Canada and A/Stan, I confess to A/stan Fatigue, with apologies for the glibness of that remark, while so many give their lives. Naturally, I don’t agree with all of your positions – more, later. Keep up the good work. I have sent you some AfPak Channel briefings – let me know if they are of use – I am way behind on my A/Stan readings, and am no longer able to keep up to speed on the daily briefings. ( am working on a book of prose poems for my canadaproject etc) I will try and get “with the programme” sometime soon. Best, R.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      April 17, 2010 12:29 pm

      I understand what you mean about fatigue, although I don’t feel much of this myself. Events in Afghanistan are fast-moving and colourful enough to hold my interest, although it may just be that I’m easily entertained. The briefings you send are useful, and much appreciated – I may not write about them directly, but it’s all grist for the mill. Good luck with the prose poems, and I’ll look forward to your further thoughts!

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