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In Afghanistan, Bickering Hints At Deepening Rift

  • Abubakar Siddique

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in Kabul in May 2009

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in Kabul in May 2009

As the U.S. president sets the final pieces of his Afghan withdrawal plans into place, bickering among American and Afghan officials threatens to overshadow his big announcement.

On June 22, President Barack Obama is set to announce the number of troops slated for withdrawal from the conflict in Afghanistan. But it is a war of words between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and departing U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry that has grabbed the media's attention.

In a verbal spat that broke out over the weekend, Karzai and Eikenberry traded accusations of responsibility for failures in Afghanistan.

Addressing a youth gathering in Kabul on June 18, Karzai accused coalition forces of being in his country to "pursue their own goals." And he harshly questioned the use of their weapons and battle tactics.

"When their aircrafts bombard an area, our children are killed and our land is also destroyed because the bombs contain chemicals," he said. "They take away 100 times more profit from our country against the assistance they provide us with."

Eikenberry, speaking the next day, declared such comments hurtful and inappropriate.

"When Americans hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest, and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people...they are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here," he told Afghan university students in the western city of Herat on June 19.

Past Bitterness

Observers suggest that the public bickering is symptomatic of a relationship gone sour. While Kabul and Washington ostensibly agree on talking to the Taliban and a gradual military transition to complete Afghan control, they have to work out the details of how to go ahead with these processes.

Personal relationships between senior leaders of both sides are weighed down by past bitterness. This reality reveals itself as the framework of future relations between the two nations is being decided. Afghan public opinion is influenced by casualties suffered by Afghan civilians as a result of NATO bombings, which Karzai has repeatedly denounced.

Afghan lawmaker Gul Badshah Majidi says many of Karzai's complaints against the international forces ring true among Afghans. But Majidi suggests the Afghan leader would be better served by privately making such demands rather than airing them publicly.

Majidi says that the after years of denial and neglect, the international community in Afghanistan now clearly sees that peace in the country is threatened from outside.

He says Karzai's criticism of the West at a time when Pakistan is under intense international scrutiny won't help Kabul. Over the past 10 years Afghanistan has pointed its finger toward it eastern neighbor for sustaining an extremist insurgency by supporting and hosting Afghan extremist leaders.

Majidi adds that the emerging scenario in Afghanistan and the neighboring region demands a statesmanlike attitude from Karzai because his emotional outbursts against America will only help Kabul's enemies.

"I have said it repeatedly," Majidi says. "We need a Western, in particular an American, presence here. Their presence is necessary because of the disastrous policies of our neighbors during the past 30 years. If we don't have the foreign forces here and we continue to face the same challenges, our geographic integrity will be challenged. Their [sudden] departure will bring calamities to the Afghan people. Afghanistan will be divided into provinces with its people fighting each other."

Strong Exception

Afghan officials take strong exception to such negative prognoses.

Shaida Mohammad Abdali, Karzai's deputy national security adviser, says the Afghan leader's comments are sometimes misinterpreted. He says Karzai's recent statements merely warn of negative scenarios if genuine Afghan demands are not addressed.

Abdali says Karzai has pushed for the protection of Afghan civilians and respect for Afghan sovereignty. These, he claims, are natural prerequisites for any successful relationship with foreigners.

Abdali says that they have been pressing for such genuine demands for years in private conversations with Western leaders, but that their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. This, Abdali says, compelled the Afghan president to make his demands public.

To support his argument, Abdali cites a recent statement by outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who acknowledged that Washington didn't listen to Karzai "early enough" on significant issues such as civilian casualties.

"Such problems help propel negative perceptions among Afghans every day, which neither benefits us nor do they help our foreign friends," Abdali says. "We are sharing a boat and its sinking will hurt both sides."

'Clearly Unacceptable'

Thomas Ruttig, a former UN and European diplomat and the director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, says both governments have reservations and frustrations when it comes to Afghanistan.

"From the U.S. viewpoint, President Karzai's remarks have overstepped a threshold: being called occupiers and good for nothing is clearly unacceptable," he says.

But Ruttig says Karzai's recent comments reflect the frustration of many Afghans. They are particularly unhappy about being left out of the key decisions about their country, despite promises of an "Afghan-led" process.

"That creates a feeling of not being the masters in your own house," he says.

He says that both sides have to overcome their grievances.

"Such a blame game doesn't help anyone. There are two sides of the coin," he says. "The U.S. also has contributed to problems in Afghanistan. And Karzai and his government has also contributed to problems in Afghanistan. So they need to get together, forget emotions, and work on the things that are really important for Afghanistan."

Ruttig says that having good intentions and noble causes in mind are not enough for resolving the complicated problems in Afghanistan as NATO moves toward an exit in 2014.

"There are a lot of examples in history that the best intentions lead to bad results. And I think Afghanistan is just becoming a textbook example of that," he says.

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