Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai has been threatening to join the Taliban. He should be encouraged to do it and we should leave his country quickly

This month, New Zealand dispatched its 16th rotation of troops to the Provincial Reconstruction Team base in Bamyan Province. Our SAS unit in Kabul must also be almost due for rotation. We are unlikely to hear about that changing of the guard until it has happened. Given recent outbursts from Afghanistan’s increasingly erratic president, we have to ask what New Zealand has at stake in a war that looks increasingly unwinnable.

President Hamid Karzai has been under constant internal and external pressure since last year’s fraud-marred presidential election – an election that he won only when his major opponent Abdullah Abdullah withdrew because he saw no prospect of a fair contest in a second round of voting to produce a clear outcome.

Since then, Karzai has attacked the integrity of the United Nations’ appointees to the Independent Election Commission who exposed vote tampering that, in the main, supported his candidacy. His subsequent attempt to take control of all appointments to the Commission for the forthcoming provincial and parliamentary elections later this year has been rejected by his parliament, which has also been knocking back many of his candidates for ministerial posts.

Karzai blames his political problems on the “the massive interference of foreigners” – western embassies, western journalists and the United Nations and European Union representatives appointed to the Independent Election Commission.

He is not above running his own brand of international interference, as he demonstrated last month when he hosted Washington’s new bête noir in the middle east, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who spent a pleasant day meeting with Karzai – and Afghan jihad groups.

Now Karzai is notching up his rebellious rhetoric with a warning to his own supporters in Parliament that “if you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban,” according to the New York Times.

What is Karzai being pressured to do? Five things, according to US officials involved in President Obama’s recent overnight visit to Kabul: improve governance by cracking down on corruption; make more “merit-based” appointments to his cabinet, his ministries, and at provincial and local levels; clarify his plans for re-integrating Taliban fighters into Afghan society; and ensure that two international observers hold seats on the commissions that will oversee the elections later this year. None of that sounds unreasonable.

Karzai’s response has been a series of tirades against foreign meddling. On local television, he warned that foreign troops were on the verge of becoming “invaders”. If that perception spread, he said, the insurgency “could become a national resistance.” And he’s spreading it.

In Khandahar last weekend, he delivered another speech focusing on the major military operation being planned for the city and its surrounds. Reuters reports that he told tribal elders: “Well, if you are worried, there won’t be an operation.”

Implicit in Karzai’s speech was a message that Khandahar’s tribal leaders will have the right to veto what is regarded by the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) as a vital operation in their campaign to turn the tide against the Taliban and whatever Al Qaeda remnants still roam.

Taliban sympathizers will be delighted by Karzai’s attacks on their enemy, while Taliban opponents worry that Khandahar will be turned into another Marja – the first of the Taliban strongholds to fall under the new “surge” strategy promised by Obama and his theatre commander, General Stanley McChrystal.

In Marja, the Taliban are reported to be back at work already – infiltrating the queues claiming US compensation for property damage, killing and beating people who enlist for the US-funded work programme, pocketing American dollars to fuel their insurgency. They are – in the words of the New York Times – “the only political organization in a one party town. “

McChrystal seems to be short of an urge to surge as he prepares a Marja-style operation for Khandahar. He has issued orders to his troops to limit night raids in an effort to cool hostile local reaction. He has also reined in most – but not all – the special force operations that are one of the major causes of civilian casualties, after the insurgents’ terrorist activity.

The urgency of bringing new discipline to both US and International Security Assistance Forces has been emphasized by ISAF’s acknowledgment over the weekend that one of its units was involved in the killing of two men and three women non-combatants during a "botched" night raid, despite its original claim that the women had been executed by Taliban before the unit’s arrival on the scene. That’s producing more bad press, and more power to Karzai’s argument that the crusaders are turning into invaders.

Meanwhile, the organizer of Karzai’s national reconciliation conference scheduled for early May, Ghulam Farooq Wardak says this “jirga’ will focus on ways to reach peace with the insurgents and will discuss the withdrawal of the 120,000 foreign troops in the country.

From all this, we can deduce that the urge for reconciliation in Afghanistan is now outpacing the foreign-led surge to purge the country of Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists, and the Obama-Karzai relationship is strained close to breaking point.

It seems like a good time for Prime Minister Key to accelerate his exit strategy and get the New Zealand troops home and well away from a country with a history of closing ranks against foreign invaders.

If Karzai wants to join the Taliban instead of delivering good governance to Afghanistan, let him do it without our help.

Comments (7)

by stuart munro on April 08, 2010
stuart munro

I have some sympathy for Karzai; being America's puppet is never an easy role. Electoral corruption is perhaps culturally determined too - a NZ PM who did what Bush did in Florida would certainly be shot.

But Obama's escalation was always doomed. The Pashtun are not about to buy into US culture anytime soon, nor should they have to. The international presence was and is a mistake, and the US is no better at dealing with the area than the British were.

But I'm sure that Key will not be among the first to withdraw. Our allies need us, especially when they have lost sight of their objectives.

by David Beatson on April 09, 2010
David Beatson

Today's headlines: Karzai has sacked two of his supporters from the Electoral Commission, bowing to pressure from the United States. The US State Department now describes him as "a figure we respect". And a popular rebellion is threatening the security of the US base in Kyrgystan, a major supply centre for its military operations in Afghanistan. It's a strange world and getting stranger by the day.

by stuart munro on April 09, 2010
stuart munro

No surprises really though. The use of drone assassinations against a population is hardly going to win hearts and minds.

There are studies out showing that the Taliban war budget exceeds their income from the opium trade - so where is the money coming from? The US supply line. When you're funding both sides of a war it's time to get out.

by Tim Watkin on April 09, 2010
Tim Watkin

Check out Jane's new piece. The coverage in North America where she is seems to be getting increasingly hostile. Patience is running out, but do you abandon the country because of the corruption of its president?

by stuart munro on April 09, 2010
stuart munro

From the US perspective, it's not a country - it's a right of way for a pipeline.

by David Beatson on April 09, 2010
David Beatson

Tim - Are we abandoning the country, or is the country abandoning us? We [the US-led and subsequently UN-mandated international alliance] collectively routed the Taliban and installed Karzai. We are deluding ourselves to imagine that we have won the hearts and minds of the people by our actions - or that we have a mandate to determine who should or shouldn't govern Afghanistan today. The internationally-supervised presidential election was a fraud-riddled farce, and the subsequent, botched military operations do not suggest the new surge strategy is working. Karzai - the internationally-annointed leader - is incompetent [at best]. How many more mistakes can we make?


by on April 13, 2010

Why is this ignorant opinion on TVNZ? I am shocked that TVNZ have stooped so low, almost to the poor levels of so called journalism seen on

Your opinions on Afghanistan demonstrate a total ignorance on what is actually happening on the ground over there. There is no "war" as such as you put it, but there is an insurgency which is concentrated mainly in the Southern province of Helmand. Your whole piece appears to be based on a few NY Times/American opinions and sources. If you actually did any unbiased research yourself you might discover that the Taliban has taken an absolute hammering over the last 6 months, their leadership is in disarray after many were captured/killed and it has got to the stage where they have run low on ammunition.

You may have your own agenda for withdrawing NZ soldiers/engineers and that is fine. The official NZ presence in Afghanistan is merely a token offering anyway situated in areas which are meaningless in the overall ISAF fight against the insurgency.

The only Kiwis who are really seeing any action in Afghanistan are those who fighting in the British or US military in Helmand. The NZ military itself is situated in the safe areas of Kabul and Bamyan where NZ troops have come under fire twice in 5 months (they would see so much more action than that on a typical weekend in Manukau).

Additionally you are naive if you think that a final settlement in Afghanistan will not involve the more moderate elements of the Taliban. All sides involved have already held discussions through the UN special envoy Kai Eide.

I still cannot believe the ignorance in your opening paragraph - to say that Karzai is joing the Taliban and we should encourage him is so far from the truth or any facts that you should be embarrassed to have actually written it.

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