PERHAPS of all the bizarre and grim developments in Afghanistan over the last few days the one that takes the cake is President Hamid Karzai’s press conference on Saturday.
After holding Pakistan responsible for the border clashes on the Mohmand Agency-Nangarhar portion of the Pak-Afghan border, he called upon the Taliban to fight Afghanistan’s enemies rather than destroying their own country.
According to the English-language Afghanistan Times, the only newspaper to which I had access during my long weekend visit to Kabul, Karzai called upon the Taliban to stop killing Afghans and to turn their guns on “those who had been goading them on to violence in their own homeland”.
He left no one in any doubt that the enemy he was referring to was none other than Pakistan. This was the country he had called Afghanistan’s conjoined twin and the country to which his High Peace Council had proposed a blueprint for actions the authorities of the two states could take to promote reconciliation and bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
Karzai denied that the government had ordered the security forces to attack Pakistan — a contradiction of the instructions he had issued on April 14 to his defence, interior and foreign ministers to see to the removal of the Pakistani border gate, checkpoint and other installations recently built along the Durand Line and clearly a denial of the reality on the ground. He also said military confrontation served no purpose. But he did not choose to mention that the posts in question had been in existence for many years prior to the present flare-up, or that in deference to Afghan pleas the gate in question had been dismantled by Pakistan.
In the meanwhile, judging by the press coverage there has been a deliberate and well-orchestrated campaign to fan the flames against Pakistan. Such headlines as “Pakistan has set up post in Kunar”, “People praise Afghan forces bravery in defending Homeland”, “Protests rage against Pakistan”, “Anti-Pakistan protests staged in South”, “Senate backs Karzai’s stand on Durand Line” etc dominated the English-language press on Sunday and Monday.
Just what is Karzai seeking to achieve? There is some informed speculation on this in Kabul. It is said that for some time now Karzai has been wanting to remove Gul Agha Sherzai, the present governor of Nangarhar and a potential contender for the president’s office in the 2014 elections.
Some demonstrations against Sherzai on the ground of corruption etc had already been held but adding to these charges the failure to defend Afghan territory would certainly reduce any chance that he would continue to harbour presidential ambitions.
The New York Times story of a few days ago, revealing that the CIA had been providing bags of money to Karzai privately for many years shook the common Afghan. In his Saturday press conference, he confirmed, as he had done earlier during his European tour, that this money was received and maintained so that much of it was spent on looking after the wounded officers of the Afghan intelligence service. He went further, saying that he had met the CIA chief in Kabul earlier in the day and had secured confirmation that such payments would continue. He refused to disclose how much he had received, maintaining that the CIA chief to whom receipts of the amount spent had been sent regularly had asked that the total sum involved should not be disclosed.
This is a story that has sullied further the president’s reputation even though the NYT had stated that as far as its sources knew none of this money had gone into Karzai’s own pocket. Interestingly, his national security adviser and former foreign minister Rangin Dafdar Spanta rather than maintaining a discreet silence told the press that he was not aware of any such payments.
Another story, widely circulated in Kabul, recalls that the point man for receiving the money on Karzai’s behalf was Muhammad Zia Salehi. Salehi, an aide of Karzai, had been arrested in 2010 by the Afghan anti-corruption authorities on the basis of apparently indisputable evidence, obtained through an authorised wiretap, that he had demanded a payoff from those involved in the billion-dollar Kabul Bank scandal.
Even though Karzai had himself authorised the arrest he then ordered his release and proceeded to wind up the special prosecutor offices that had been set up to tackle corruption.
There is speculation that Karzai felt that public attention could be diverted from this story and the furore about his administration’s corruption only by creating a border issue.
There is also speculation that President Karzai is concerned about his place in history. He told Dalrymple, the author of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42, that Shah Shuja the much-reviled king the British brought to the Afghan throne, had not stressed his independence enough.
Apparently he had been touched to the quick by the Taliban press release in March, which said: “Everyone knows how Karzai was brought to Kabul and how he was seated on the defenceless throne of Shah Shuja.” Karzai made it clear, Dalrymple says, that in his own last year in office “he is going to act in such a way that he will never be remembered as anyone’s puppet”.
Setting all this speculation aside, the major concern among the Kabul elite is that this contrived contretemps with Pakistan has been concocted to provide a reason for postponing the presidential election scheduled for April 2014.
Whatever Karzai’s objectives, Pakistan must avoid, to the extent possible, being provoked by Afghan actions. Noting that Karzai is accusing Pakistan of moving into areas that according to the Durand Line lie in Afghanistan, we should get authentic maps of the Durand Line from our own archives or those of the British and place pillars along this line with or without Afghan cooperation.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.