Obama, Karzai and the Afghan labyrinth

AL JAZEERA

With deep mutual distrust, Obama and Karzai consider their legacies.

The Afghan Loya Jirga’s endorsement of a security pact with the United States, to be signed by December 31, has brought to an end the uncertainty over the status of foreign troops, and Afghanistan’s relations with its donors, after most NATO forces are withdrawn from the country next year. However, it happened not before the whole labyrinth of Afghanistan was under the spotlight, and some lively exchanges were made between all sides.

First, the New York Times reported that President Hamid Karzai had given up his opposition to Washington’s demands that US soldiers be immune from Afghan prosecution, and US special forces continue to have freedom to conduct “antiterrorism raids on private Afghan homes”. But soon after, the proceedings at the Loya Jirga had a moderating effect on that optimism.

Distrustful relationship

President Karzai’s remarks about there being no trust between him and the US, and yet his call on the assembly to support the security pact, spoke volumes about Afghanistan’s need for economic assistance and stability on one hand, and the war and deep divisions which continue to traumatise the country on the other. Several members of parliament and the entire opposition had announced a boycott in advance.

A female delegate at the Loya Jirga shouted from the floor: “US troops had spilt too much Afghan blood, and should be stopped.” And Shia religious leader Ayatollah Salehi said: “Judicial immunity is against our independence, national sovereignty, against the will of the Afghan people and explicitly in contravention of Islam.” In a society with deeply embedded religious and tribal customs, many people are enraged by US troops’ night raids on their homes, and their acts of violence against Afghan civilians.

Divided society

The Taliban, still fighting after they were removed from power following the  US invasion in 2001, described the Loya Jirga as a “council of traitors“, saying that “internal mercenaries” wanted to ensure the foreign forces’ prolonged stay in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s uncompromising attitude, and the thousands of US troops staying under the security pact once it is signed, suggest that Afghanistan will remain a country in conflict.

The scenario helps explain Karzai’s announcement at the opening ceremony that any agreement on the status of US forces should wait until after the presidential election in April 2014, and should be signed by his successor. The Obama administration, caught by surprise and showing urgency, insisted that the Afghans needed to approve and sign the agreement by the end of 2013. It would give Kabul little more than a month.

For the US, it was neither “practical nor possible” to delay the signing. There was an implied threat that a failure would lead to the withdrawal of all troops, and no US aid to Afghanistan.

Roots of discord

The truth is that the US did not want a total withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the brinkmanship between Kabul and Washington raised intriguing questions. Why did President Karzai want to delay the signing until his successor had assumed office after the April 2014 election? And why should the US have viewed a four-month delay so calamitous for the agreement? After all, the US is a country known for drawn-out legislative processes.

Karzai was the US’ preferred choice to lead Afghanistan after the Taliban regime’s overthrow in 2001, but their relations have deteriorated steadily, especially under the Obama presidency. Accusations of corruption, incompetence and nepotism against the Karzai administration abound, though these ills afflict all sides in a clearly troubled partnership.

Alongside the US narrative of problems with the Afghan president and his close circle, there is an important narrative about President Obama and his administration’s conduct that has been perceived in Kabul as having caused deliberate and repeated humiliations of Afghanistan and President Karzai. The Afghan narrative should not be ignored in any serious attempt to understand the problems.

A great power demands compliance from minor entities. Karzai has often been defiant, and critical of US-led military operations resulting in civilian casualties and disrupted life for the Afghans. In this respect, Karzai is not like the other US dictator allies: A few names that come to mind are Marcos of the Philippines, Thieu of South Vietnam, Somoza of Nicaragua many a year ago, and Pervez Musharraf and Hosni Mubarak more recently.

Karzai was part of the anti-Communist Afghan opposition in the 1980s. He is well aware of the failed Soviet attempts to use loyal rulers to lead Communist regimes in Kabul. It was a somewhat risky move for the White House to publicly set a deadline barely a month away, at a time when the Loya Jirga was meeting. A swift response was issued from Kabul, that it “will not be rushed”, and that “President Karzai’s desire to sign the agreement after next year’s presidential election was the only deadline recognised by Afghanistan”.

The Afghanistan Times had earlier quoted Karzai as saying that the security pact could only be signed “when our elections are conducted, correctly and with dignity”. His spokesman underlined the need to secure the Loya Jirga’s approval. Afghan constitutions have come and gone with the country’s upheavals. The customary role of tribal assemblies in approving a constitution, resolving disputes and considering issues of national importance has remained constant. The process may not be perfect, but in the absence of the tribal jirga, legitimacy, in the eyes of many Afghans, is difficult to achieve.

Divergent imperatives

As Obama and Karzai both approach the end of their final term as president, they are under competing political pressures. Obama, who is due to leave the White House in January 2017, is a man in a hurry, at a time when success is by no means certain in the latest Israeli-Palestinian talks, and rapprochement with Iran has just started after more than three decades of cold war, and tedious negotiations in recent months finally resulting in a historic, but fragile, agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Karzai, whose presidential term will end after the April 2014 election, has personal as well as long-term considerations. In a distrustful relationship, Karzai’s interest is in securing maximum cover for himself in the eyes of his people; true national sovereignty; and freedom for the next Afghan president to act. In essence, a legacy which, Karzai can argue, was delivered at a time of extreme national emergency.

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The Syrian Riddle

CounterPunch, FPJ, Palestine Chronicle

Recent remarks by Carla Del Ponte, a Swiss investigator of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry, have changed the nature of debate on the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war. Momentum had been building up for months against Bashar Syriaal-Assad’s government, first on the basis of accusations that such weapons were in use, followed by heavy hints by anti-Assad groups and Western politicians that the Damascus regime was guilty of chemical warfare against its opponents and civilians. There is no doubt about the unspeakable brutality committed by both sides in the conflict, but chemical warfare, if proven, would mean escalation to another level involving serious war crimes.

Carla Del Ponte, Switzerland’s former attorney general and prosecutor of the UN tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, is no pushover. She is now a member of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, appointed under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Contrary to subsequent insinuations that she did not know what she was talking about, Del Ponte had chosen her words carefully. She had said that witness testimony made it appear that “some chemical weapons were used, in particular nerve gas.” And it appeared to have been used by the “opponents, by the rebels.” There is “no indication at all that the Syria government … used chemical weapons.” She said she was a “little bit stupefied” that the first indications were of the use of nerve gas by the opponents.

Del Ponte’s remarks, made amid reports of gains by Syrian government forces, seemed to undermine the position of rightwing hawks in Washington like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and in London Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague. These are some of the powerful figures who craft Western policy, but hardly objective and credible voices on Syria and the wider Middle East.

Within hours, enthusiastic interventionists in Washington and a somewhat reluctant Obama administration were scrambling to adjust. The White House said the United States believed that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime. In a stark reminder of Iraq in 2003, the British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted in Parliament: “I can tell the House that there is a growing body of limited but persuasive information that the [Syrian] regime has used and continues to use chemical weapons.” The Foreign Secretary William Hague agreed. Mainstream television channels and newspapers remained broadly uncritical, unquestioning, even generous in giving the benefit of the doubt to Hague, despite lessons of Iraq.

Persuading those who are ideologically drunk and politically myopic is often a hopeless undertaking. Hunger for war and lust for power or for distant resources always impair both reason and morality. The developing situation on the ground has made the war hawks struggle for credibility. For them, the last resort is to assert with dead certainty their “belief” that it is Bashar al-Assad’s forces who have employed chemical weapons and committed war crimes. How could “freedom fighters” do this?

The changing reality of Syria’s long and brutal war, in which government forces show much greater resilience than their opponents’ predictions, has generated some desperation among the rebels and worry in the American and European capitals about Islamist factions gaining control of the anti-Assad campaign. The capture by rebels of UN peacekeeping troops in Syria, freed after a week of behind-the-scenes activity, tells the story, bringing a little more balance in the scenario usually painted before us.

It was the second time in two months that UN peacekeepers had been held by a rebel faction. The United States and its allies are trapped between delusions of total victory in the Middle East and its true consequences – emergence of anti-Western forces such as Al-Nusra Front that are even more aggressive and erratic.

The outcome of the recent Moscow visit of President Obama’s new secretary of state John Kerry is instructive. America’s agreement with Russia that they co-sponsor an international conference to find a negotiated settlement raised some eyebrows in Washington and among U.S. allies in Europe and the Arab world. President Vladimir Putin seemed to have prevailed in his insistence that Assad’s exit cannot be a precondition. But this precondition is the starting point for the Syrian rebels and many of their foreign supporters who have a wider Middle East agenda. A commentary in Italy’s rightwing publication Il Geornale said in its headline, “Obama’s Defeat: To Pacify Syria He Is In Cahoots With Putin.”

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, struggling to maintain his authority within his Conservative Party and coalition with the Liberal Democrats, immediately flew off to Moscow for talks with Putin in an attempt to see that any international conference on Syria is held in London; Cameron’s trip to Washington would be next; Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel planned a visit of his own to Moscow after ordering two secret air attacks against Syrian military facilities in a week; and Israeli and Western newspapers issued warnings that Russia was about to supply S-300 missiles to Assad.

As for Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov maintains that Moscow is “not planning to supply Syria with any weapons beyond the current contracts,” which, he says, are “for defensive purposes.” Russia’s message to Washington, delivered a year ago, continues to be “hands off Syria and Iran.” Obama continues his rhetorical maneuvers. And the war goes on.

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Obama Fights to Win as America’s Stock Falls: Heading for a Hollow Victory

CounterPunch, September 26, 2012

Important commitments have kept me from my writing interest for some time, but events never wait. We have run into greater turbulence following the appearance of a blasphemous film, Innocence of Muslims, about the Prophet Mohammad. The film was supposed to have been made by a convicted fraudster living in California, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, and was promoted by Florida Pastor Terry Jones, previously involved in the burning of the Quran. That the causes of turmoil lie closer to us may be too unpalatable to accept for many in Western societies. Sadly it is true. When passions run high and it is difficult to see clearly, calm reflection, not ritual condemnation, is preferable. As the thirteenth-century mystic poet and theologian Jalaluddin Rumi wrote, then is time to “close both eyes to see with the other eye.”

The November 2012 elections in the United States are upon us. In the age of ceaseless electioneering, America’s domestic politics determine its behavior abroad, and leave little scope for reflection on anything other than votes and power. This major fault line in the American political system gives extremist individuals and fringe groups a voice far louder than their size would suggest. Their capacity to radicalize the population is significant. They push some moderate figures seeking power to take more extreme positions. Other voices are muted for fear of damaging their political careers. What happens in America thus affects the rest of the world. The phenomenon is unsustainable, but will continue wreaking havoc for as long as it lasts. Islamophobia does exist in Europe, too. But the scale of Christian fundamentalism and the anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States is quite different.

A decade after the United States launched its hegemonic venture under the “war on terror” umbrella, Washington faces an unprecedented challenge to its authority in the Middle East and beyond. The assassination of the American ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, and attacks on Western embassies in other places, are difficult to explain away simply by apportioning blame on a few Muslim extremists.

That open hostility expressed by violent means involves relatively small crowds is not in dispute. The more important and worrying aspect of the anti-U.S. protests is their worldwide dimension, and the depth of disapproval of America’s conduct by moderate Muslims and non-Muslims alike. A Pew survey of global attitudes, published in June 2012, shows a collapse in support for the Obama administration’s international policies, even in Europe and Japan.

The message from the rest of the world to Obama on his drone attacks and his “Kill List” is stark. Of twenty countries where people were asked, only in two there were more respondents who approved killing by drones than those who disapproved. Those countries were the United States and India.

According to Pew, there remains a widespread perception that the United States acts unilaterally and does not consider the interests of other countries. On one hand, many think America’s economic clout is in decline. On the other, people around the globe overwhelmingly oppose the way the United States uses its military power in international affairs. They include people in Germany, France, Italy, Poland and Japan. As Obama fights to win in November his second and final term against a bumbling Republican opponent, Washington’s credibility and moral standing are sinking. It is this trend which perhaps explains the strength of challenge to America’s authority more than anything else.

Another investigation, this time by academics of Stanford and New York universities, puts the blame on President Obama for the escalation of CIA drone attacks in which groups are selected by remote analysis of “pattern of life.” The “dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killings’ of terrorists.” But the report concludes that “this narrative is false.” The number of ‘high-level’ militants as a percentage of total casualties is only about 2% of [deaths]. “The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims.” Residents in remote tribal areas across the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier are “afraid to attend weddings and funerals.”

Developments such as these provide the logic of popular antagonism against the United States across continents. A decade on, the “war on terror” has extended far beyond the Taliban and al Qaeda. As America prepares for a retreat from Afghanistan, NATO troops in that country live in fear not only of the enemy, but Afghans who were supposed to be their allies. Antagonists who challenge the United States come from many sections of populations in Africa, the Middle East, rest of Asia and Europe. They are both militants and moderates who may not see eye to eye with each other on tactics, but their goals are similar. The stakes are high, the prospects gloomy. Barack Obama, a prisoner of forces that have historically ruled America, is unlikely to heed the message from the wider world for as long as he is in the White House. Unlikely, too, is the prospect of the anti-US tide turning.

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