Afghanistan’s historic struggles against British imperialism and Soviet invasion will have been in vain if the country succumbs to pressure from neighbouring Pakistan, Hamid Karzai has warned in an interview with the UK newspaper The Guardian. The former president of Afghanistan made his remarks at a time when his successor, Ashraf Ghani, has overturned the country’s traditionally hostile relationship with Pakistan in the hope of enlisting its help in brokering a peace deal with the Taliban.Several once-unthinkable concessions made to Pakistan in recent months have horrified Karzai (below) and many of the men who helped him rule for more than a decade.
“We want a friendly relationship but not to be under Pakistan’s thumb,” he said.It is a view many think Ghani cannot afford to ignore, given how many people agree with Karzai, a familiar and charismatic figure who remains in the thick of Afghan politics. The man who famously never took a holiday while in power rushed back early from a recent break in China to his new home and office complex in Kabul, a scaled-down version of the capital’s 19th-century presidential palace.
As well as maintaining many of the trappings of the head of state, he continues to behave like one, receiving a daily stream of officials, foreign ambassadors and tribal delegations from across the country.
Karzai rejected any suggestion he is at the centre of what one of his former colleagues describes as an emerging “pocket of opposition” to President Ghani (below).
“Yes, I have differences, but I will not say anything,” Karzai said. “I will keep mum, giving advice to President Ghani in private. I absolutely support this government.”
Despite professing loyalty, Karzai sharply criticised some of Ghani’s key innovations, such as the decision last month to send six army cadets to Pakistan for officer train. Karzai’s willingness to send men to India while spurning Pakistan enraged Pakistan’s generals, who believed the future leaders of the Afghan army were being indoctrinated by their mortal enemies.
“We should not send troops for training in any of the neighbouring countries, particularly when they are sending us suicide bombers in return,” Karzai said – a reference to the fact that the leadership of the Taliban, and much of the movement’s organisational and logistical muscle, is allowed to operate freely inside Pakistan.Last month, Pakistan’s former military ruler Pervez Musharraf admitted that his country’s intelligence agency had links with the Taliban because India and Pakistan were engaged in a “proxy war” in Afghanistan. It reflected the longstanding view of Pakistan’s strategic thinkers who have argued Afghanistan must not be allowed to become too friendly with arch-enemy India.
But subservience to any foreign power is something Karzai says Afghans will never submit to, even if resistance involves huge hardships. “I am a pacifist, I abhor violence – we would have been much better off if we had never fought against the Soviet Union,” he said referring to the epic insurgency by the Mujahideen in the 1980s. “But if we give up control over our own foreign policy then all the wars fought by Afghanistan against the British 100 years ago, and the Soviet Union, will be in vain,” he said.
Karzai’s associates spoke even more frankly about their anger at Ghani’s Pakistan policy. Rangin Dadfar Spanta, a former foreign minister and national security adviser who sat in on the Guardian’s meeting with Karzai, said the policy amounts to the humiliating “appeasement” of a hostile power who would never change its ways. He is alarmed by Ghani’s effort to keep India, the region’s superpower, at a distance. In a sign of Delhi’s displeasure, work has already stalled on some key Indian-backed development projects in Afghanistan, Spanta claimed. He and many others are amazed at what they see as Ghani’s one-sided willingness to militarily support Pakistan while getting very little in return.
Ghani has sent troops to eastern Afghanistan to battle the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group focused on attacking Pakistan, while the Afghan Taliban continue to enjoy security on the other side of the border. Pakistan has also been given access to TTP prisoners held in Afghanistan. One former senior member of the Karzai regime said he was shocked to learn Ghani held meetings with Rizwan Akhtar, Pakistan’s spy chief, without the presence of his opposite number, Afghanistan’s intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil.
The extraordinary series of recent meetings between Pakistan and Afghanistan’s civilian and military leaderships in both Islamabad and Kabul has stung Karzai, said one diplomat. Although he visited Islamabad 21 times during his tenure, brief periods of cordial relations soon collapsed into acrimony.
With public distrust, even hatred, of Pakistan running so deep, Ghani urgently needs to show his policy is bearing fruit. Making matters more pressing is the unhappiness of many of the country’s power brokers with the “national unity government” Ghani was compelled to form with his rival Abdullah Abdullah after last year’s botched presidential election, which was spoiled by massive electoral fraud.
The attempt to share power cut the number of jobs available to appease disgruntled backers of both men. Causing further annoyance is Ghani’s effort to exclude from power what one diplomat in Kabul calls “mafia business types” whom Karzai was always careful to keep close, even at the cost of government dysfunction and corruption.
“The mafia types are very unhappy with the way things are going and are moving towards Karzai and others,” the diplomat said. “Signs of progress on peace talks, or a blunting of the spring offensive, has become politically very important for Ghani.”
The president is banking on Pakistan using its influence over the Taliban to force insurgent representatives to hold official, face-to-face talks with the Afghan government that might ultimately lead to a political settlement and an end to the conflict over the next few years.
In the short term, government officials desperately hope the Taliban will agree ceasefires after violence that has seen civilians and members of the armed forces killed in record numbers.
Hopes of a breakthrough have risen amid the unprecedented series of meetings between Ghani and Pakistan’s army chief, who has assured the Afghan leader of a growing appetite within the Taliban for talks.
A secret, preliminary meeting between officials and the Taliban has already taken place to discuss where and when the first formal meeting might happen, according to a western diplomat in Islamabad.
But the public’s widespread yearning for peace is balanced with disquiet over Ghani’s tilt towards Pakistan. That is likely to grow if the Taliban continue their attacks.
“There could be a bloody summer, there will be fighting and there will be disappointments on the dialogue table from time to time,” predicted Omar Daudzai, one of the most influential officials of the Karzai era who served as chief of staff and interior minister.
Daudzai, a former ambassador to Islamabad, said he thought Ghani’s attempts to woo Pakistan were “courageous” but would ultimately fail to change the country’s behaviour. “He has taken controversial steps that his predecessor didn’t take, and now we have to wait to see whether the Pakistani side is sincere or not,” he said. “But I am far more sceptical than I ever was before about Pakistan’s sincerity.”
This report from Jon Boone in Kabul originally appeared in The Guardian newspaper