Karzai’s Latest: US Behaving Like Colonial Power

Since he lobbied for and then obtained loya jirga approval of the Bilateral Security Agreement but then added new conditions before he would sign it, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has exasperated military planners in NATO and the US, confounded most of the Obama administration and spawned a growth industry among pundits trying to explain his actions. Karzai’s latest offering though, provides a delightful turning of the tables in which he has decided to characterize the actions of those who are pressuring him to sign the agreement. Here is how Tolo News described Karzai’s most recent gem:

Amidst highly public tensions with the United States over negotiating a long-term security deal for the coming years, President Hamid Karzai has said that the U.S. is behaving like a colonial power.

In a response to a somewhat leading question from the French newspaper Le Monde in an interview published Tuesday, “Do you think the USA is behaving like a colonial power,” President Karzai said:

“Absolutely. They threaten us by saying ‘We will no longer pay your salaries; we will drive you into a civil war.’ These are threats,” Karzai said. “If you want to be our partner, we must be friends. Respect Afghan homes, don’t kill their children and be a partner. So bluff or no bluff, we want respect for our commitment to the safety of Afghan lives and to peace in Afghanistan.”

I would have described the question from Le Monde as highly leading rather than somewhat leading, but Karzai’s response shows that he realizes that for those in his country, the situation indeed resembles colonialism with the US as the colonial power. And the US is clearly using that colonial positioning as a very blunt instrument with which to attempt to control Afghanistan. Karzai is telling us that only a colonial power would threaten to withhold salaries and generate a civil war. He wants the US to realize that he wants a partner and not a colonial overlord. The partner would have no trouble meeting his demands of secure homes and a negotiated peace with the Taliban.

I had missed it when it came out on Thanksgiving, but this Op-Ed in the New York Times could serve as Karzai’s primary example of colonial behavior by the US. It was penned by Michael O’Hanlon, who was perfectly described by Glenn Greenwald as a “really smart, serious, credible Iraq expert” who also clearly lends the same sort of intellectual firepower to his Afghanistan analysis and John Allen, the mental giant who opined that green on blue attacks in Afghanistan were caused by fasting at Ramadan (and appears to have found the perfect home for himself at Brookings with O’Hanlon after his retirement from the military). O’Hanlon and Allen open with a blast at Karzai’s lack of appreciation for all that the US has done for Afghanistan:

What is going on with President Hamid Karzai? The world’s only superpower, leading a coalition of some 50 nations, is willing to stay on in his country after a war that has already lasted a dozen years and cost the United States more than $600 billion and more than 2,000 fatalities — and yet the Afghan president keeps throwing up roadblocks.

Isn’t that just the height of ungratefulness? We (the world’s ONLY superpower!)  waged war in Karzai’s country for twelve years, have offered to continue doing so and he has the gall to throw up roadblocks? Really!

But this paragraph is perhaps the height of colonial positioning by O’Hanlon and Allen:

Certainly, part of Mr. Karzai’s attitude comes from the umbrage he has taken at various Americans, especially in recent years. Some United States officials did make mistakes in their handling of the complex Afghan leader, lecturing him in public too stridently about matters such as Afghan government corruption. There can be little doubt, though, that Mr. Karzai’s own peevishness and ingratitude have played a large role.

The wonderful superpower US “did make mistakes”, but those mistakes were in how they “handled” Karzai. And therein lies the problem, virtually in its entirety. To O’Hanlon and Allen, Karzai is merely an operative, a puppet administrator, to be “handled” by the real powers in the US. And he has the gall to be peevish and ungrateful when we make a mistake with this handling.

With all that as background, it should come as no surprise that the US now is going to allow the original deadline of the end of 2013 for Karzai to sign the BSA to expire. Military planners appear to be telling the Obama administration that a decision sometime in the spring will allow them to plan adequately for either a full withdrawal or the residual force sought in the BSA.

For a bit more reading on the issue of what Karzai really wants, I recommend this Khaama Press column written by Afghan diplomat Ahmad Shah Katawazai and this one by US-based Pakistan analyst Arif Ansar in Pakistan Today. Both get to the concept of sovereignty, which, of course, is the opposite of being a colony. From Katawazai:

President Karzai perhaps wants to be remembered as a patriot Afghan leader rather than a foreign puppet. His egoistic nature compels him to leave a name in the history of a figure that thought and worked for the greater interest of his people, by standing against and not allowing a major power like the United States to raid their houses or reach an agreement with them without the condition of bringing peace.

And Ansar provides a very interesting parallel between the dilemma Karzai faces and the political situation in Pakistan:

Apparently, Karzai is seriously concerned about protecting the sovereignty of Afghanistan and to settle the issue of night raids, searches of Afghan homes, along with civilian causalities that have continued despite strong condemnation. In spite of the opposition, the operations have persisted and so have the causalities, even after NATO and American authorities apologized and promised on several occasions that this will not happen again. Usually there is discrepancy on what really transpired during an incident, with local Afghan officials claiming civilian casualties while NATO insisting that militants had been targeted and eliminated.

The continuation of the raids and casualties raise and reinforce the perceptions that Karzai is either a puppet or his criticism is merely meant as rhetoric. This also complicates his government’s role in the reconciliation process as Taliban refuse to take to it seriously.

The above concerns are not much different than those being raised on the other side of the border in Pakistan. There, it involves the contentious issue of drone strikes and state sovereignty. The associated matter of civilian deaths caused by drone strikes in FATA has remained controversial and has consistently strained ties between US and Pakistan.

While the government of Pakistan diplomatically condemns the strikes, it is widely believed to privately condone them. After the recent strike in which TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud was killed, several political parties accused the US of sabotaging the nascent peace talks between TTP and Pakistan. The fissures over civilian casualties have now escalated to such an extent that Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf, Jamatey Islami, and Awami Muslim League have decided to block the NATO supply lines until the drone strikes cease.

What a perfect analogy. Karzai need only look at his next door neighbor to see how disastrous it is take a public policy position that is violated on a regular basis by a “partner” that pays no attention to the concept of sovereignty. The sad reality is that this same example demonstrates to Karzai that there also is zero chance that this partner will ever change its behavior.

10 replies
  1. joanneleon says:

    Exactly spot on. I was arguing with someone on Twitter about the issue of sovereignty. He, an expert on the region and an American (I’m pretty sure) who lives there insists that Afghanistan is a sovereign state. This is an impossibility given the situation and the players, though I wish they could have sovereignty and could manage their own affairs. But nobody can seriously make that claim. And as long as we’re paying the bills and have a military presence there and in the region, and given what the US has become, it just ain’t going to happen. I’m not saying that NATO has full control over the country. That’s an impossibility too, as the last twelve years have proven.

    All that being said, it’s smart for Karzai to do what he is doing right now, in my opinion. From his perspective, it makes perfect sense that he should hold on to the only leverage that he has for as long as possible and he should make it clear to the world that the treatment of Afghan citizens is unacceptable. After all, I think there have been cases where a postwar American military presence was achieved without night raids and blowing up civilians, no? I also think it’s very likely that he’s jeopardizing his post presidential life though. After all he’s committing the cardinal sin of embarrassing Obama. But he seems like a shrewd person so I guess he’s got some insurance.

    I don’t understand Pakistan. I keep trying and I have a decent understanding of some of it, but the place simply baffles me.

  2. Frank33 says:

    Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires and it should be a graveyard of corrupt US Generals. General McChrystal, General Allen, General Petraeus and the Chairman of JCS General Dempsey have failed for twelve years. They promise at least ten more years of genocide against the Afghans, with US Troops being cannon fodder except for the troops who become expensive Contractors.

    While leading us to victory, General Allen had his morale raised by laisoning with the voluptuous Tampa Twins.

    Otherwise General Dempsey will punish the Afghans with a civil war. But Afghanistan has never been organized enough to have a functioning government or civil war. The General is worried about ungoverned space, ungoverned by multinational corporations. General Dempsey is also worried about the return of the Saudi Arabian, Al Qaeda affiliate.

    It has required trillions of dollars and robot murder with drones. But the upside is neverending war allows our military dictator Generals to impose a fascist regime that spies on citizens 24/7. A military coup may be the only way to overthrow the military dictatorship of General Dempsey.

    “Were it to become less stable, it would have impact on its neighbors,” Dempsey told reporters late Tuesday at this military base north of the capital. “All of us would be concerned about the possibility of ungoverned space producing safe havens for terrorism, so stability in the region is in our national interest.”

    He said it was important to leave Afghanistan with a functioning government and security forces that can prevent a “re-emergence of al-Qaida and affiliates.”…

    Karzai has also lashed out at the United States, accusing it of making threats. In an interview published Tuesday by the French daily Le Monde, Karzai said the U.S. was acting like a colonial power.

    Dempsey retorted: “It’s not a threat. I just simply think that in any negotiation you reach a point when you’ve made the requirements known. And militarily, by the way, those requirements are actually quite clear.”

  3. Don Bacon says:

    Karzai got it right — acting like a colonial power around the world exactly describes the US foreign policy approach in all its particulars.

    It applies of course to Afghanistan. I’ve commented upon it recently with some details here.

    It also applies to Iran. Obama, Saban Center:

    –But what I’ve consistently said is even as I don’t take any options off the table, what we do have to test is the possibility that we can resolve this issue diplomatically.
    –what we’ve done in exchange is kept all these sanctions in place
    –we’ve turned the spigot slightly and we’ve said, here’s maximum $7 billion out of the over $100 billion

    And it applies to China’s ADIZ, small compared to US and Japan:

    US Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday denounced the establishment of the Chinese ADIZ, saying, “The United States is deeply concerned about China’s announcement that they’ve established an ‘East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone.’”

    Also Ukraine:

    US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned his Ukrainian counterpart on Wednesday against using military forces against thousands protesting the country’s abandoning plans to join the European Union.

  4. Demian says:

    The phrase “world’s only superpower” rings hollow, considering that Russia constantly has to bail the United States out of jams it gets itself into. Also, I don’t think that anyone can deny that the Afghans were better off when they were under the influence of that other superpower, a situation that came to an end thanks to the United States giving aid to the Taliban freedom fighters.

  5. der says:

    Just a simple change of the subject and the characters the story’s the same. The one of Obama, Keith Alexander and the National Security State vs The Constitution, it’s citizens and the rest of the world. The elites who own the world have put ineffective and corrupt people in charge of the whole operation: Washington-Wall Street-West Point. We deserve better, the rich need to get us new managers.

    The toadies in congress need to grow Karzai balls. That’ll be the day

  6. C says:

    I would have described the question from Le Monde as highly leading rather than somewhat leading, but Karzai’s response shows that he realizes that for those in his country, the situation indeed resembles colonialism with the US as the colonial power. And the US is clearly using that colonial positioning as a very blunt instrument with which to attempt to control Afghanistan.

    If he does he has come a little late to this realization and has done little to help it. While U.S. policy, especially the house raids, has been disasterous in Afghanistan, Karzai is also making a belated turn to try and shore up his own position.

    As president Karzai has turned a blind eye to corruption on his watch and lately blamed much of it on the U.S. There is good evidence that he engaged in widespread electoral fraud to retain his position, and he has manged to enrich himself and his family substantially while decrying a lack of spending. He is no Jimminy Cricket.

  7. Don Bacon says:

    General Dempsey is falling back on the old, tired ‘safe haven” argument:

    “Were it to become less stable, it would have impact on its neighbors,” Dempsey told reporters late Tuesday at this military base north of the capital. “All of us would be concerned about the possibility of ungoverned space producing safe havens for terrorism, so stability in the region is in our national interest.”

    Just imagine, if the government shut down it would be a safe haven for terrorists!!

  8. TarheelDem says:

    Afghanistan is a landlocked country. Pakistan is moving to a position of letting US convoys go out but not go in. IMO the continuing drone war is a bargaining chip for two-way logistical transport. But Pakistani domestic politics might be closing that option.

    The idea that the US is the sole global superpower in 2013 is ludicrous. The Bush-Cheney administration hollowed out that mythology completely by putting it to the test.

    The US has the most expensive military in the world. That might mean less now than it did a hundred years ago.

    The Obama administration might not understand that, but its pragmatism is driving it to a more limited policy.

    My sense is that the US will fail to obtain an agreement that provides immunity from prosecution of US personnel. And that this will prompt an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan. My sense is that the frontline states sense this too and have collectively created a strategy for a domestic political soft landing for the Karzai regime out of fear that any other end game provides the excuse for US continuing to stay.

    The only forces likely to oppose that solution in the short-term are those whose strategy is to tie down and bleed the US in Afghanistan. The problem for the US is the number of US policy-makers who are suckers for this strategy because of their “peace with honor” win-at-all-costs mindset. I don’t think that Dempsey is one of them.

  9. Don Bacon says:

    The situations in Iran and Afghanistan are similar. Both countries, following different paths, are in situations where they need to shake off US domination.

    Leaders in both countries, Ruhani in Iran and Karzai in Afghanistan, the first just starting his term in office and the second ending his, have apparently decided to generate regional alliances in order to compensate for losses in US influence in their countries governance. President Karzai is in India this week and has visited Iran, Sharif to Kabul.

    The US, poor at diplomacy, which is always the only answer in today’s world, is becoming irrelevant.

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