Diplomatic Channels: Karzai is going nowhere fast, so Western powers ought to maintain good relations


One evening last week, away from the crowds, the vibrancy and violence of the election campaign, Hamid Karzai hosted a dinner for two of the candidates. One was Zalmai Rassoul, a long-term ally, the other Abdullah Abdullah, a long-term adversary.

The talk, according to those present, was about the governance of the country after the polls: with none of the leading contenders likely to secure enough backing to claim outright victory in the first round, the outcome is likely to be decided by the swing of the majority Pashtun vote. The state apparatus, controlled by Mr Karzai, will play a part in delivering it; he has, for instance, already personally chosen the senior officials who will adjudicate over disputed results.

To the exasperation of the West, the Afghan president is not disappearing to count his millions in Dubai. He is staying on, reinventing himself as a power-broker, a man who wants to have a significant say in the future of his country. Dr Rassoul and Ashraf Ghani, the third major contender, have already stated that they want Mr Karzai to play a “guiding” role in their administrations if they win.

The President has been portrayed by Western officials as sunk in bitterness and inaction; refusing to sign the bilateral agreement which will allow a limited Western military force to stay on and enable international aid to continue coming in.

Instead, he had spent his time lashing out at the West, accusing it of collusion with the Taliban, trying his best to antagonise; one of his last official pronouncements was to support the Russian annexation of Crimea.

When it came to Afghan politics, however, Mr Karzai has been remarkably active: there is a pattern to his realpolitik, making and breaking alliances, ensuring that those jockeying for positions in the future will be grateful for his support.

The Americans will not be happy by the presence of Banquo's ghost at the Afghan table in the future; but whose fault is it that relations between them and their one time protégé had ended in such mutual loathing? When we met Hamid Karzai in 2001 in Kabul, as he waited to become the leader of a deeply fractured country, people were taking bets on just how soon he would be killed. I asked Tommy Franks, the then commander of US and British forces in Afghanistan, about Mr Karzai's chances of survival. It depended, the General was clear, on whether the international community lived up to its commitment to provide help on security and development on an urgent and sustained basis.

A few months later, President Karzai was at a press conference with Colin Powell where the US Secretary of State was asked what had happened to the 'Marshal Plan'? We pointed out that Marjan - an ailing lion at Kabul zoo and the subject of a media appeal - had received more international donations than the Afghan people despite all the promises by international donors. Aid was slow in coming and, two years later, the money and troops which should have been devoted to Afghanistan was poured into the black hole of Iraq. President Karzai and the Afghan government - with a minuscule international force - could do little as the Taliban took advantage of the security vacuum to pour back across the Pakistani border.

In 2006, the West finally re-engaged in Afghanistan. But the sheer lack of knowledge about what lay ahead came in the hope of then defence secretary, John Reid, that the British mission to Helmand would end “without a shot being fired in anger”. There were mistakes made in the early military campaigns while, at the same time, the influx of international money introduced corruption on a heroic scale.

Those close to Mr Karzai were among the accused. The President's half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, it was claimed, was a narcotics dealer and gangster.

“Where is the evidence? That is what we want to know,” AWK, as he was known, stressed to me over lunch at his fortified compound in Kandahar.

The President, Ahmad Wali confided, had a copy of a letter from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) exonerating him of any criminal offences; he would show me a copy when we next met. I had promised to bring him a shirt signed by John Terry - his hero as a Chelsea fan. But by the time I got back, the strongman of Kandahar had already been shot dead.

That President Karzai ran a corrupt administration “while our boys die” became a common refrain in the West, whose visiting politicians felt free to lecture him, often in highly offensive fashion. The President, in turn, accused the Americans of interfering in domestic politics and undermining him: he went on to accuse them of collusion with the Taliban.

This may seem preposterous, but the argument is this - the Afghans believe that sections of the Pakistani military and the secret police, ISI, are backing the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. This is also a common belief among Western military, diplomats and international journalists, with ample evidence. Why then, Mr Karzai asks, do the Americans keep giving millions to the Pakistani security establishment, knowing that some of this will be used to carry out bombings across the border? The President's pronouncement on Crimea came after reports that the Americans, while refusing to give Afghan forces heavy weaponry, were going to donate military stock to the Pakistanis as they withdrew from Afghanistan.

With this level of antipathy it is highly unlikely that full trust can ever be reestablished between the outgoing President and his former sponsors. But he is not going to cut and run: one suspects the West will have to learn to work again with Hamid Karzai.