Karzai Criticizes New Front, Alleges Outside Backing

April 6, 2007

Karzai

Since the announcement of its formation in mid-March, the United National Front has generated a lot of buzz. Thanks to early reports on BBC Persian and a few non-media sources here and there, this blog was one of the first to pick the story, and try to make sense of its oddball composition and line-up. (Read previous posts Old Guard Lining Up… and Update on New Front… )

Now, returning from his trip to New Delhi where he secured Afghanistan’s membership into SAARC, president Karzai has joined the fray. BBC Persian reporter Marzia Adeel reports that while the press conference was nominally held to mark the president’s trip to India and the regional summit, most of the journalists peppered him with questions about the new political front that has decidedly postured itself at odds with Karzai’s policies.

Responding to questions about the new front, the president was quick to accuse it of enjoying the backing of Afghanistan’s neighbors through their respective embassies in Kabul. While the president did not name any names or offer any evidence to back his claims (save for saying that Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Security Directorate were investigating possible links), his comments are sure to bring the new group under scrutiny and perhaps even cost them politically. And for good reason: certain faces among the UNF’s leadership have well-established, time-tested, and undeniable links to regional stakeholders such as Iran, Pakistan, India, the Russian Federation, and some of the CIS nations.

The president also used some ‘spin’ in attacking one of UNF’s stated goals to instate gubernatorial elections for Afghanistan’s provinces, saying that such an arrangement would be tantamount to federalism (he did not explain how), and that that was not a route that the people of Afghanistan wanted to go down again (he did not say when they had done so before.) In regard to UNF’s other goal of changing the constitution in favor of a parliamentary system in Afghanistan, the president invoked the mandate of the people (an oft-invoked genie these days) in that their representatives voted in the constitutional Loyal Jirga in favor of a strong unitary and presidential form of government.

Furthermore the president choose the occasion to admit that members of his government have met with Taliban representatives and that he has had personal audiences with them. This is most certainly in response to another point on the UNF agenda, i.e. its stated willingness to negotiate with the Taliban. With the Taliban’s cycle of spring insurgency well underway and suicide bombings taking place at unprecedented frequency and proximity to the capital, UNF’s placatory moves could be seen as a more attractive alternative to the Karzai government’s failure to negotiate with the Taliban to curb violence.

So far so good. The president has done well in choosing to confront the reality of the new front and responding to their stated goals and criticisms of the government instead of ignoring it like he has been doing for the past couple of weeks. The cynical wheeler-dealers that constitute the new front bring to mind other such disastrous mass marriages of convenience during Afghanistan’s lost decade (1990s) i.e. the Islamabad and Mecca pacts. Then too leaders and figures who were sworn enemies of each other had come together by the force of circumstances and united by their common designs on the people of Afghanistan. Now, marginalized and confronted by new realities (read the frightening episode of “National Amnesty” debate where for a while it seemed likely that the bill would not go through and they would remain prone to accountability for their deeds) some of the very same figures have come together again. Lastly, the new group is aggressively promoting itself as a multi-ethnic and broadly representative grouping. In reality, this could be vacuous posturing as the UNF is not all that representative.

While the formation of new political parties is widely recognized as one of the most urgent needs of the political system in Afghanistan, the truth is that groups like UNF simply don’t cut it. Instead of such old-guard, top-down, wheeler-dealer line-ups, genuine efforts by civil society groups in Afghanistan should be encouraged.

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Will the French Follow Suit?

April 6, 2007

Vive La France

The recent abduction of two French aid workers and their three Afghan staff in Nimroz has surely vindicated the forecasters of doom who announced that the Mastrogiacomo deal marks the beginning of Taliban’s “open season” for foreigners. One can imagine all the gleeful “toldjya!” being thrown left and right.

The question now remains whether the French will resort to quid pro quo too. It seems like they would have to. The truth is that after the Mastrogiacomo case they are not left with many options. Entering a deal however will certainly deteriorate the situation and further steepen this slippery slope.

The Mastrogiacomo deal came under rather exceptional circumstances. With the Italian government just recovering from the collapse it had suffered largely because of its Afghan policy, it could ill afford to let Mastrogiacomo be held any longer with the Italian public holding its breath, or for that matter, be murdered at the hands of the Taliban. This is why it mustered all the pressure and influence it could bear on the Karzai administration to work out a negotiated release.

While French domestic politics are nothing like that of Italy’s, one can see how a protracted hostage situation could figure into the country’s upcoming presidential elections. Although the elections are still some time off, the candidates are already posturing on crucial issues of domestic and foreign policy. It is easy to see how in a frenzy to appeal to the electorate, candidates will embark on a race to the bottom where the release of the hostages at any price comes to be seen as the prized position to argue from. This can only spell further doom for expatriate aid workers and foreign journalists in Afghanistan.

For some time now the Taliban have shown that they are abandoning the brashness of their heyday and are becoming a media-savvy group with a keen eye to the evolving international environment. Mullah Dadullah and others have regularly cited happenings in international politics as evidence of their victories or as justification for their actions. It is likely that the selective targeting of foreign nationals from countries with rocky domestic politics is yet another such smart tactic.

On a related note, the fate of Mastrogiacomo’s Afghan fixer Ajmal Naqshbandi remains unknown. The “double-standarding” has provoked much anger and debate across Afghanistan, especially as the Italian journalist’s Afghan driver suffered a gruesome death. It is possible that the Taliban are holding Naqshbandi hoping for another, albeit less lucrative exchange of prisoners. With the new detainees, however, one fears that the Taliban may use the killing of one or two of the Afghan staff as a tool to coerce the French and Afghan governments into entering a deal. Let’s hope that will not be the case.