Three months into 2014, Afghanistan is fast hurtling into uncertainty with many Afghan watchers wondering what the situation will be once the US-led Nato troops on December 31 end their military occupation of the country which is strategically located between three key regions — South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia. Will the Taliban, which [...]


Sunday Times 2

Karzai seeks peace with Taliban, but he is no Chavez


Three months into 2014, Afghanistan is fast hurtling into uncertainty with many Afghan watchers wondering what the situation will be once the US-led Nato troops on December 31 end their military occupation of the country which is strategically located between three key regions — South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia.

Will the Taliban, which virtually rules the countryside, take control of the whole of Afghanistan?

No, says the confident Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressing a Colombo news conference on Thursday during his first state and third official visit to Sri Lanka. He was emphatic.

“No. The Taliban will not be back,” Karzai told the news conference which was also attended by his delegation members, many of whom did not sport the two-fists-long beard which the Taliban had imposed on men during their oppressive rule. The clean shaven men and the presence of women in the delegation were indicative of the liberal outlook of the President, who is being derided by Islamists and left groups as a US stooge.

“Our country will be peaceful, stable and those Taliban who are Afghans and who want to be in Afghanistan are welcome. They are our brothers. We will receive them with open arms and they will be encouraged to participate in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and lead a normal life, sending their children to school in their own country,” said Mr. Karzai who briefly supported the Taliban in the early days of their rule but distanced himself when they enforced their hardline policies.

Is he over-optimistic about peace with the Taliban? Does he think that everything will be normal in Afghanistan once US troops leave? But his optimism is apparently not shared by the Taliban, who killed 20 Afghan soldiers in eastern Kunar province on February 24, just hours before Karzai took a plane to Colombo, forcing him to postpone the visit.

There is no formal peace process on the table either, although in June last year the world saw some facilitation by Qatar to bring the Taliban, the United States and the Afghan government to the negotiation table. Within a month, the process collapsed when Taliban officials closed an office the Qatari government had let them run in Doha and went back to the mountainous terrains of Afghanistan.This came after Karzai protested to Qatar over the Taliban’s attempt to project themselves as the alternate government.

But with Mr. Karzai’s presidential days waning, he appears to be a different man – a man of peace who even challenges the US for the sake of peace. He has earned the wrath of the Barack Obama administration which wants him to sign a bilateral security arrangement (BSA) before US troop withdrawal is completed by December this year. The BSA will allow the US to maintain military bases and thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan even after the so-called troop withdrawal.

Karzai interacting with journalists in Colombo on Thursday. Pic by Susantha Liyanawatte

“I have put a condition on the BSA. A peace process should be launched first. In return for the bases for the United States, the Afghan people must see peace. They should see peace, progress, the fulfilment of their aspirations and the enjoyment of their rights. The biggest violator of the people’s rights is the condition of war against stability. We want to bring about a progressive society where human rights are respected. For this we need peace.

“In the absence of a peace process, I will not sign the BSA,” Mr. Karzai said adding that “we have some indications of the Taliban’s willingness to talk peace. We will talk peace and take the process forward.” Other reports said that Karzai refuses to sign the BSA because the US has not given him a guarantee that it will play a key role in the peace process and the US troops who will stay back after the December 31 drawdown deadline will stop night raids on Afghan homes.


Is Mr. Karzai’s change in stance or his new image as an Afghan Hugo Chavez related to the April 5 presidential election? He is barred by the constitution from contesting for a third term. But all indications are that he wants one of his confidants to be elected, probably former foreign minister Zalmai Rasoul, so that the same old policies can continue. But Mr. Karzai says he has no favourites and he will be a free man after next month’s elections to visit Sri Lanka as a tourist with his wife and children.

But Afghan watchers and critics believe that his sudden anti-US speeches are poll-related theatrics. With anti-US sentiments prevalent all over Afghanistan, the more one becomes anti-US, the more votes he will get, they say.

Karzai admitted at the media interaction in Colombo that the bases would be set up with the Americans signing the BSA with the new government.

In yet another move that drew US anger, Mr. Karzai last month released 65 hardcore Taliban prisoners from a jail once run by the US forces.

Continuing his ranting, two days before he arrived in Sri Lanka, Mr. Karzai told the Washington Post that the war in Afghanistan was not being fought with his country’s interest in mind. “Afghans died in a war that is not theirs,” he said.

The Sunday Times asked him why he took 12 long years to realise something which anti-war and anti-neocolonialist groups knew all along. When he responded he did not sound like the anti-US Chavez. He said he would be careful with his words.

This was his reply: “We realised it a long time back. But we want to be friendly with the rest of the world. We have strategic partnerships with many countries. We have signed such agreements with Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Italy, India and other countries. Similarly we also have a strategic partnership with the US. We want to engage them in the closest possible manner. We have close security arrangements. The only thing we ask in return is that such partnerships should bring peace to Afghanistan.

“You were referring to my remarks to the Washington Post where I asked whether the Americans and Nato are in Afghanistan for Afghanistan or for another purpose. US presidents and officials have announced that they are in Afghanistan to protect their security.They are for themselves, for their own security. We respect their security concerns because it is our belief that there should be peace and security for all countries. Similarly, we also expect them to respect our peace and security.”

To a question on the West’s double standards and its attempt to penalise Sri Lanka through the United Nations Human Rights Council process, he was equally circumspect with his words. He spoke of the importance of protecting human rights of all and said the Sri Lankan government was doing it.

He said peace in Sri Lanka would guarantee rights and the West should help “countries like ours to achieve peace and stability and … an environment where rights are guaranteed.”

He said that since he had already spoken much about the attitude of the West, he would not speak about it in Colombo.

With regard to the drone attacks, too, his response was not as forceful as it was during the Washington Post interview where he said he wished the five-year-old drone victim he met in a French-run hospital had been dead. She had no face — completely blown off from the chin up to the eyes – and no parents too. They died in the US drone attack. Avoiding such emotionally charged remarks, he told the Colombo news conference, “The loss of life (in drone attacks) is unfortunate and sad.”

Perhaps, the Colombo news conference was for a different audience with the message being the need for close cooperation between Afghanistan and Sri Lanka in various areas ranging from education to sports. (See box story).

But his country’s close relations with India have raised eyebrows in neighbouring Pakistan which is paying a heavy price because of the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s politicians and the media have accused India of fomenting trouble in Pakistan’s Baluchistan and other areas bordering Afghanistan. They also question the rationale for India to maintain a dozen consulate offices in Afghanistan.

But Mr. Karzai was defensive of India’s role in Afghanistan, though he dismissed the claim that India maintains a dozen consulate offices throughout Afghanistan. “India has been a tremendous friend of Afghanistan and given us more than 2 billion dollars in aid over the past four years. There is no truth in reports that India has a dozen consulate offices in Afghanistan. In addition to the embassy in Kabul, there are four Indian consulate offices – in Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif. Two of these are 60-years-old and the other two are 22-years-old. India is viewed very well in Afghanistan,” he said.

Four deals signedSri Lanka and Afghanistan signed four agreements during President Hamid Karzai’s state visit this week to Sri Lanka.

The agreements signed on Thursday relate to higher education for Afghan students in Sri Lanka, training for Afghan health sector workers, Sri Lanka’s assistance in developing Afghanistan’s sports, including cricket, and skilled jobs for Sri Lankans in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai told Thursday’s news conference that he had discussions with President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Sri Lanka’s assistance in skills development, capacity building and on accepting Afghan students on scholarships on Afghan government resources to study medical science, engineering, and other subjects.

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