Surreal Contradictions: Obama’s call with Karzai.

In the modern Afghan history it is a truism that anyone the outsiders tried to negotiate with became the person who wasn’t worth negotiating with. Hamid Karzai seems aware of this Afghan temper. By publicaly exhibiting an independent streak, Hamid Karzai, in the recent months, has been quite successful in impressing the discerning Afghans.

In a still recent interview with the British writer and historian William Dalrymple, the Afghan president sounded firm. “America and Britain behave as if we also came through a colonial experience,” Karzai said. “We did not. We always won in the fight, but we lost politically. This time I want to make sure we win politically too.”

Next in the interview, the presidential tone becomes characteristically nationalistic, “I would like to give a message through you to the West. Pressure tactics will not work on me. We are only looking for a fair deal — a deal in which the interests of Afghanistan are kept in mind. . . . You will not get an Afghanistan divided into fiefdoms. We will not allow it. Over our dead bodies.”

On a lighter side, Dalrymple had chip in comments from the associates of the Afghan President. “He’s very fit indeed,” said Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan intelligence chief. “He takes at least an hour’s exercise each night and exhausts the guards that have to keep up with him.” Mahmood, who is a brother, agreed: “He’s very disciplined physically. And he’s extremely moderate in his eating. You know how delicious our melons are? I’ve often seen his hand hovering over a second slice, and then he resists. He has steely discipline.”

To cap it all, the Afghan President had tell, “I am not an opponent of the West. I am just the slave of the interests of the Afghan people. And that I shall fulfill.”

But, there is more beneath the surface. Afghanistan is a land of bewildering yet fascinating paradoxes. To politically govern it, a leader is thrown with the challenges of surmounting surreal contradictions of his position. It is not clear that the US President Barack Obama intellectualizes this Afghan surreality. Obama’s recent telephone call to Karzai is bland in its political content.

In the latest academic literature on Afghanistan, there is one piece in Afghan historian Tamim Ansary’s Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan, which US President may look into. The passage is liberally quoted herewith, “Trying to negotiate between the local and global forces, between the inner and outer worlds, put Afghan rulers in a double bind. Anyone who wanted to rule this country had to secure the sponsorship of the strongest foreigners impinging on the country at that moment; yet no Afghan could rule this country for long without the allegiance of the country’s deepest traditional forces. To the dominant outside power, therefore, every would-be ruler had to portray himself as a partner. At the same time, to his country’s internal forces, he had portray himself as a tough guy standing up to foreign bullies. The kings who best succeeded in this balancing act did so by covertly pursuing “modernization” while overtly proclaiming themselves champions of conservative social and religious values.”

But, the curious part is: What if Obama is already aware of this Afghan surreality?

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He is about to publish a book on the geopolitics of the Hindukush Region. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for his latest updates.



Afghanistan-Iran Relations & the proposed BSA


The Afghans have last sacked Iran in the early eighteenth century by ruling it from 1722 to 1730. The internal decline of the Safavids, especially during the reign of strictly orthodox and last Safavid ruler Shah Sultan Hosain, worked to the advantage of Afghans. That was an era when classical empires, in the Middle World, were coming to an end. From then on, Iran has quite a successful, though extremely turbulent, history of becoming a relatively cohesive nation state. Afghanistan has lagged behind Iran in this state building process. Historians and political scientists have provided some explanations for this difference between Kabul and Tehran. But, the recent visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Iran was not about differences. It was in the context of charged regional geopolitical templates.   

It needs emphasis that the suggestion that Hamid Karzai should lead Afghanistan was raised by the Iranian delegation to the international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, in 2001. According to the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, he and Javad Zarif, then Iran’s delegate to the conference and its present minister of foreign affairs, found informal settings in which to “accidently” meet and hold important substantive discussions.

Shireen Hunter, in her book “Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era” quotes Barnet R. Rubin, who attended the Bonn Conference as part of the UN delegation, talking about Javad Zarif. Barnet said about Zarif that he “supported efforts to frustrate Rabbani’s goal of preventing the meeting from reaching agreement in the hope of consolidating his own power and formation of a broader government. Zarif’s last minute intervention with the Northern Alliance delegation chair, Yunus Qanuni, convinced the latter to reduce the number of cabinet posts he demanded in the interim administration.”

Iran had been satisfied with the overthrow of the militant Taliban and their allies; as earlier, the situation in Afghanistan was extremely pesk for Tehran. In September 1998, several Iranian officials were murdered in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. By the end of that horrid month, seventy thousand revolutionary guards were exercising along the Afghan-Iran border. Then, in October, 200,000 Iranian troops were ordered to take positions on the same border – Tehran’s largest ever mobilization and deployment against its eastern neighbor. The US policy had thus helped Tehran in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Iran is now confronted with the possibility of US bases in Afghanistan. Earlier, the US intervention in Afghanistan to remove the Taliban setup had also provided Washington with an opportunity to expand rapidly its ties with the Central Asian states. Herein lies a strategic trade-off that continues to confront the Iranian diplomacy.

Hamid Karzai is under extreme US pressure to expedite the signing of the BSA (Bilateral Security Agreement) which is a document of a far-reaching character for Afghanistan’s future and regional geopolitics. In such a charged regional setting, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has taken a position to reinforce the Afghan Presidency. Rouhani has stated, “We are concerned about the tensions arising from the presence of foreign forces in the region and believe that all foreign forces should exit the region and (control of) Afghanistan’s security should be ceded to the people of that country.”

Is Tehran the solitary supporter of Hamid Karzai’s present defiance to the US in Afghanistan? James Dobbin claims so in his testimony before the US senate foreign relations committee in Washington. But, what about Beijing and Moscow? Are they really willing to make accommodations with the BSA in Afghanistan? And in the immediate neighborhood, has an accurate assessment of the thinking in Islamabad and New Delhi been made?

Interestingly, Iran and China maintain longstanding civilization and geopolitical links. To mention one related example, On May 9, 1980, Iran’s then foreign minister Sadeq Qotbzadeh met with China’s then premier Hua Guofeng for a half hour at the Intercontinental Hotel in Belgrade, while attending Josip Tito’s funeral. John W. Garver, in his book, “China & Iran: Ancient partners in a Post-Imperial World” recounts that Hua and Qotbzadeh other than discussing and agreeing on the expansion of Sino-Iranian relations on the basis of mutual respect and noninterference in each other’s internal affairs also agreed that “Soviet forces should withdraw immediately from Afghanistan, leaving the destiny of Afghanistan to be decided by its people.

On last Sunday in Tehran, Yang Jiechi, a senior member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China held a meeting with the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani. Yang is reported in the Iranian press telling Shamkhani, “Iran and China could work together to help promote peace and stability in Afghanistan and Syria.” 

In the meantime, the Afghan government has released the text of the BSA, which is of a climacteric reading time for any serious Afghanistan watcher. 

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He is about to publish a book on the geopolitics of the Hindukush Region. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for his latest updates.

Elections in Pakistan – A Trajectory for Gen Kayani

There is one central question, having international consequences, in the month of May: Who will govern Pakistan after the May elections? The question is important as it also leads us to explore the keen internal tussle that lies ahead between the politicians and military leadership in Islamabad.

Pakistanis are casting their vote at a time when the regional geopolitics is extremely fluid. Iran would elect its new president in June this year. Present Pakistani and Iranian presidents have agreed to construct a gas pipeline between the two states, which would be partly financed by the Chinese. The Saudis are not hiding their displeasure with the emerging arrangements, and in this context it is less striking how a leading Saudi press organ has permitted its space for using adjectives like cunning, sly and selfish to describe the present Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari.

Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 severed the Indian link with Central Asia and rarefied its geographical connectivity with the Middle East. Though, Indian elite opinion still remains mute about approaching the Middle East (read Iran) through Pakistan, India would like to reach to the Central Asian markets using the strategic geography of Pakistan. Indian media is casting Nawaz Sharif in favorable terms, and there’s the rub – how do you get to Central Asia through a possible Nawaz Sharif government when his political party is conniving in the elections with militants having links with the Taliban?

With this, and in an anti-clock wise manner, one comes to the Land of Afghans and its impact upon the present Pakistani politics. As the Pakistanis currently think of going to the polls, the Islamabad-Kabul equation is in disarray. For Pakistan, legitimization of its western frontier with Afghanistan is of foremost strategic priority. Primarily for this reason, it has been trying to seek “strategic depth” in Afghanistan over the last four decades.

But, how to deal when Afghan president Hamid Karzai could resist Islamabad’s attempts to project Pakistani power in Afghanistan. Given Karzai’s hailing from the pivotal Afghan tribes of the south, he does have the dangerous capacity to entice the Pashtun political sphere away from Taliban in Afghanistan. It appears that Karzai has a political plan for himself for the next year, and perhaps beyond, which is seemingly not matching with the policymakers in Islamabad. His latest volleys aimed at Islamabad over issues of the Durand Line and Taliban could be interpreted in this complex context. Incidentally  Afghans are also supposed to elect a new President in 2014.

Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of Pakistani armed forces, presumably has a daunting task ahead. Other than regional geopolitical intricacies, he also needs to concentrate on charting a future course for the US-Pakistan interaction. US has not disclosed its intentions for post-2014 Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, on the other hand, is aiming for a tough bargain with Washington. In this situation, Gen Kayani needs an experienced personality for Islamabad who has a keen understanding of operations in the international diplomatic trenches, and simultaneously who is also adept in navigating the local military & political dimensions.

As Pakistanis go to the polls, a few points of immediate relevance would help: (i) No one political system of governance is natural or ideal. (ii) Political systems are nurtured and shaped to suit local conditions & requirements to achieve and safeguard national interests. (iii) The leading Pakistani political parties, except Imran Khan’s Justice Party, are clan based with stiff hereditary control. (iv) Voters, even with literacy, are susceptible to tribal, feudal, clannish and sectarian influences and considerations. (v) Leading political parties, irrespective of their program or manifesto, look for electable candidates in constituencies, and tend to overlook financial corruption, tax evasion and loan default. (vi) There is not a single political leader of national stature in today’s Pakistan.

In this matrix, it is imperative to understand Gen Kayani’s internal constraints. At this critical juncture, there could be grave risks in entrusting total authority to those who have already been tested and who have questionable democratic credentials. The Pakistani military is combating internal militants, and a consensus is slowly emerging that Imran Khan, the cricket legend, could do the tricky negotiations part with the militants for their peaceful reintegration into their own regions. The cricketer turned politician has stirred the imagination of many, especially the sizable youth segment that is to vote for the first time.

Imran Khan’s injuries that he has sustained from a fall during a rally are expected to generate additional sympathy vote for him. To quote a local journalist from the Guardian’s report about the electoral salience of the incident, “This really resonates because people like the image of a fighter, of a warrior,” and “He took this terrible fall and he’s recovering quickly – that is a powerful image.”

For Pakistan’s internal front, Imran is a reasonable administrative choice. But, Obama administration has recently named a new US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. James F. Dobbins has a tough assignment ahead in Kabul and in Islamabad. Yet, who will be the Pakistani special representative to confront a fraught relationship between Washington and Islamabad, as well as an uncertain American military presence in Afghanistan?

The need for an experienced Pakistani personality for Islamabad that has a keen understanding of operations in the international diplomatic trenches, as well as an ability to navigate the local military & political dimensions could lead Gen Kayani towards the splendid military farm at the outskirts of Rawalpindi where his ex-boss General Pervez Musharraf is presently incarcerated. The May 2013 elections in Pakistan are a multiple-cast political thriller.

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for all his latest analysis on international questions.