Time to say “Bye Bye, Mr Karzai”

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.