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Opinion

All is not lost in Afghanistan

Despite the rhetoric on all sides, Afghanistan can be saved through strategic patience and re-calibration.

Last updated: 27 Jan 2014 11:48
Omar Samad

Omar Samad is senior Central Asia fellow at New America Foundation. He was the Ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011) and to Canada (2004-2009) and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004).
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Over the past few weeks, commodity prices have shot up by at least 30 percent [EPA]

Afghanistan seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place these days. But there is hope.

On one side, there is Hamid Karzai, the wanna-be kingmaker, semi lame-duck president whose eagerness to be embraced by the Taliban has surpassed his quirky fervour to blame the United States for the country's misfortunes. On the other side, we have an increasingly frustrated and inconsistent group of policy wonks in the US who are tugging over Afghan aid money and the size of a new military footprint instead of focusing on strategic implications.

This is not to mention the Taliban monstrosity, which continues to inflict a major toll on the civilian population with no regard to any Afghan, Islamic or humanitarian norms as demonstrated by recent attacks on soft Afghan and foreign targets that claimed many lives.

Relations further deteriorated on Saturday when Karzai, contrary to expectations, came out full force to put his newfound sense of nationalism on display, hoping to remain politically relevant at least until elections - scheduled for April 5 - and appease the Taliban, who have shown no serious interest to-date to interact with him.

Snubbed by a recent congressional appropriation bill that cut Afghan aid by half, he used a press conference - his preferred stage for diplomatic wrangling lately - to claim that the US and NATO can leave the country if they are unwilling to take serious measures to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Conventional wisdom errs on the side of US inability - not unwillingness - at this stage to resurrect talks with the Taliban. If Pakistan and Taliban leaders see themselves on the ascendency in this phase of the end-game, what incentive exists to play ball with Karzai?

Referring to the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that is finalised but in limbo because of his unwillingness to sign, Karzai said "in exchange for this agreement, we want peace for the people of Afghanistan. Otherwise, it's better for them to leave, and our country will find its own way".

Leaving the country may not be viewed favourably by millions of Afghans whose livelihoods depend on foreign subsidies and funding. Or even worse, may weaken the Afghan security forces that still depend on foreign resources and training.

Karzai and his enriched cronies may not feel the pain of belt-tightening and economic hardship but millions of Afghans will, and already are, suffering from the uncertainty created by Karzai's unsound and stubbornly defiant mood.

Over the past few weeks, commodity prices have shot up by at least 30 percent, real estate transactions have screeched to a halt, the Afghani currency has lost more than 15 percent of its value, and unemployment stands at more than 60 percent.

While there is little comparison between current conditions and colonial times, he used the press conference to invoke the humiliating 19th century Gandomak and Durand Line agreements imposed on Afghanistan by the British, comparing them to the BSA, and vowing to not repeat those historic smears.

He also used the occasion to make a highly provocative statement, previously used by his Chief of Staff, to describe the once US-run Bagram prison as a "Taliban-making factory". On previous occasions, his government has accused Pakistan's radical Madrassa system of producing militant Taliban and sheltering terrorists. Afghan officials have at times also pointed to Iranian connections to fringe Taliban groups.

Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories generated by a clique of malfeasant staffers abound within the confines of the presidential palace. For one, Karzai believes that foreign plots aim to weaken the central government and divide the country into fiefdoms.

Portraying himself as defender of Afghan sovereignty on one hand, he is seeking a path to the Taliban via US-Pakistani mediation on the other, and stresses on that conditionality for signing the BSA. Otherwise, he claims, signing the bilateral agreement without taking practical steps toward a negotiated settlement will put Afghanistan at risk.

What is not clear though is how will the country be protected and assisted in the absence of vital international engagement and resources before it can fully stand on its own?

If Karzai is dismayed and jaded for having lost the "Pakistan argument" in Washington, he is going the wrong way about it. It is not by berating the US administration and personalising his displeasure that he can make a case trying to convince policymakers about the cross-border threats that endanger peace and stability across South and Central Asia.

If Karzai is dismayed and jaded for having lost the "Pakistan argument" in Washington, he is going the wrong way about it. It is not by berating the US administration and personalising his displeasure that he can make a case trying to convince policymakers about the cross-border threats..."

He has lost the publics in the West, and is about to lose the Afghans too. He should have used the goodwill he had to offer concrete alternatives for win-win scenarios when it was possible. Western inconsistency and on-and-off engagement has also contributed to the loss of momentum.

However, there is a window of opportunity open with the political process and transfer of power that is expected to take place this year. With just a few weeks left to elections in Afghanistan, the West needs to show strategic patience with developments surrounding Afghanistan.

While Karzai will use all means at his disposal to influence the outcome of the presidential ballot in his own favor, the international community needs to remain neutral but engaged in advocating for and enabling a fair and transparent process to the extent possible.

Revised mission

Now is not the time to decrease the overall international/NATO post 2014 military and civilian footprint, as suggested by some at the White House, to a level that is inconsistent with the revised mission as defined and agreed to at the Tokyo (2011) and Chicago (2012) conferences.

The twin planks of counter-terrorism and training and equipping of Afghan forces will require more than 8,000 pairs of boots on the ground for at least three more years.

The politically-motivated congressional decision to cut Afghan aid by half (to $1.1 bn) for FY 2014 has not been welcomed by Afghans in general, and is seen as tit-for-tat posturing that will hurt to sustain the gains of the past 12 years, and might open up space to be filled up by spoilers. International aid to Afghanistan needs to flow in a more predictable manner per pledges made over the past three years.

It is a given that Karzai and his entourage will, over the next few months, use every domestic and regional leverage at their disposal to hedge and remain relevant, eyeing to protect their political and financial interests.

Meanwhile, the large majority of the Afghan people have spoken out clearly in favour of change and reform. They have also expressed their desire to prolong their partnership and friendship with the international community.

It would be a much bigger loss than it already seems to be, as portrayed by the Taliban and their supporters, to discard Afghan goodwill, the spectacular gains made since 2012, the heavy sacrifices offered by many nations, including Afghans, and to ignore the obvious strategic value represented in an Afghan engagement that is properly re-calibrated.

Omar Samad is senior Central Asia fellow at New America Foundation. He was the Ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011) and to Canada (2004-2009) and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004).

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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