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Karzai's gambit: Bashing America to woo the Afghan

Every modern Afghan leader has either been ousted or killed so President Hamid Karzai is trying desperate things to cling on.

world Updated: Mar 13, 2013 22:06 IST

The longest shadow in Afghan politics is cast by a traffic post that used to stand in Ariana Square. The Taliban hanged Najibullah, the last president of the communist government, from it shortly after they marched into Kabul in 1996.

That history, and the reality that every modern Afghan leader has been ousted or executed, has surely not escaped President Hamid Karzai as he faces what is expected to be his final year in office, and with the American military pullout well underway.

Seeking a nobler ending than his predecessors after his long tenure in the palace, Karzai is taking a gamble: intensifying his vilification of his American allies at a critical moment in their Afghan endgame, risking their support for him in order to save himself politically.

Even as his government is negotiating the terms for a lasting American military presence, in just the past two weeks he has ordered Special Operations forces out of a critical province, railed against CIA plots, rejected US terms for handing over detainees and, most recently, even equated the US and the Taliban as complementary forces working to undermine the government.

Afghan observers paint an image of a leader who is desperately trying to shake his widely held image as an American lackey by appealing to nationalist sentiments and invoking Afghanistan's sovereignty.

Many believe that Karzai may not fully appreciate the risks he is taking in betting that the US will commit billions of dollars in military and economic support for years to come despite growing differences with him, the economic challenges at home and battle fatigue after a long war.

"Karzai, very confident of the Americans' need to stay indefinitely and with much invested already, believes he has a lot of leverage," said Saad Mohseni, an Afghan businessman who owns Tolo, Afghanistan's most popular TV network.

"Rather than being the person who was installed through the 2001 Bonn process he wants to be remembered as the guy who kicked out the 'foreigners' - in this case, the Americans."

American officials have bent over backward to reassure the Afghan public - and Karzai - that they will not abandon them as the Russians did in the early 1990s. Indicators from the White House, though, have not been as sure. President Barack Obama has yet to decide how many troops might stay on after combat units leave at the end of 2014.

"At what point does dealing with him become such a political pain that people in Washington, in Congress, say, 'Let's rethink the map on this a little bit,'" said a Western official in Kabul.

"I don't think Karzai fully understands this."

Many Afghan observers say Karzai is trying to keep himself politically potent during the last year of his term by playing to at least three Afghan constituencies: his ethnic Pashtun base; ethnic Tajik and Hazara leaders in his government; and, notably, the Taliban, who have rejected negotiations with him.

In his recent banning of US commandos from Wardak, a Taliban stronghold, some Afghan observers see an attempt to reach out to the insurgents by proving he has the power to halt military action against them.

But since his words have had only limited effect on the US, they increasingly ring hollow to many Afghans. At the same time, the reality on the ground has changed: increasingly, the war is being fought by Afghan forces seen as acting in Karzai's name. That leaves Karzai casting about for new ways to prove that he is not, as the Taliban insist, "America's chief puppet."

Says Malek Sitez, an adviser to the Civil Society and Human Rights Network of Afghanistan.

"Karzai is kind of taking an anti-foreigner policy, and many ordinary people in Afghanistan like this. But he does not understand how he and his government are totally dependent on the international community economically, and he doesn't understand the impact of his speeches on the relationship."

Many see an echo in the last chapter of Najibullah's rule, when, the latter turned more nationalist and even told the Russians to go and just leave the financing for the military. That is very much the message Karzai has sent to the Americans and the world.

For Afghans at a more grass-roots level, there is little faith in either the Afghan government or the Americans.

"Now Karzai is trying to deceive people that he sympathises with the Afghan people, and also he is trying to show the Taliban that 'now I am independent from the Americans,'" said Hajji-Abdul Majeed Khan, a tribal elder from Arghistan, Kandahar.

The Taliban are not impressed. After Karzai all but claimed collusion between the Taliban and the Americans, they dismissed Karzai as an abject hypocrite, eating food and wearing clothes paid for with dollars.

"We offer him free advice," reads a Taliban statement.

"Do not take this road, because this road leads to Ariana Square."

First Published: Mar 13, 2013 22:04 IST