COMING from a man who owes his job and probably his life to US and British military support, President Hamid Karzai’s stinging criticism of Nato’s performance in Afghanistan may seem a little hypocritical. But with western politicians and generals busily conspiring to declare the 12-year war a success before next year’s withdrawal, Karzai’s comments are a salutary reminder that all is far from well in Afghanistan - and that things could turn very messy, very soon.

Karzai’s main point - that Nato operations have caused “great suffering and loss of life” among the Afghan civilian population and have failed to secure the country - is difficult to dispute. It is one of those uncomfortable home truths that western leaders intent on justifying the human and material cost of the 2001 intervention, and on getting out on schedule, just do not want to hear. Time and time again, Karzai has angrily denounced military strikes that accidentally killed civilians, and complained that US forces override or ignore Afghan sovereignty.

After the most recent incident on Friday (Oct 4), Karzai weighed in again in person. “President Karzai strongly condemned the Nato air strike in which he says five civilians, including three students aged 10, 14 and 16, were killed in eastern Nangarhar province on Friday night,” a statement from Karzai’s palace said.

Civilian casualties are reportedly on the rise again after falling back. Figures collated by the Guardian suggest a total of 14,728 civilians have died in the past six years, though vastly more were killed by the Taliban than by Nato.

Rising losses among the nearly 350,000-strong Afghan army and police, and a desertion rate of about 50,000 a year, also support Karzai’s contention that control of large parts of the country remains tenuous. Nato generals are adamant they are on course for a smooth handover of security responsibilities by December next year. The top British commander in Afghanistan, Lt Gen John Lorimer, said in June the Afghan military was proving an “effective force” that was “going on the front foot” against the militants.

But last year about 10 times as many Afghan army and police were killed compared with Nato troops, and the figures this year are believed to be even higher. Some Afghan politicians and independent analysts believe another civil war is inevitable once Nato leaves and that, whatever western leaders say, the Kabul government will be powerless to prevent it.

Karzai’s outburst is the product of other frustrations, including his belief that the US engaged in “duplicitous” behaviour in attempting to engage Taliban elements in peace talks, ostensibly behind his back. Karzai says he wants an accommodation with the Taliban before he is obliged to stand down after April’s presidential poll - but understandably wants to do so on his terms, not Washington’s.

Karzai and the Obama administration are also at odds over post-2014 security arrangements, with no agreement yet on a renewed bilateral security agreement (BSA) or a continued non-combat Nato presence. One problem is that US policymakers and commentators differ over Afghanistan’s strategic importance. Some believe a stable, pro-western Pakistan is a more vital American interest - another irritant for Karzai, who has often clashed with Islamabad and alleges that Afghan militants operate with impunity from Pakistani bases.

Bad feeling in Washington about the Afghan president stems partly from the steep cost of supporting the Afghan economy and the endemic official corruption and drug-peddling that has damaged his government’s reputation. His frankness has frequently prompted a sharp US response. In 2009, Barack Obama reportedly called Karzai an ineffective and unreliable partner. And Washington Post journalist and author Bob Woodward, a White House insider, told CBS in 2010 that Karzai suffered mental health problems.

“Karzai is a diagnosed manic depressive, somebody who has mood swings. Sometimes it’s controlled, sometimes it’s not. If you just look at what he has said in public and on the record, you know, one moment he’s totally embracing us, the next moment he’s denouncing the United States,” Woodward said.

“Karzai seems determined to exit having left the equivalent of a poison pill to his successor,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “He has never been willing to come to grips with the military realities shaping the war. Almost every week he creates a new and unnecessary problem in US and Afghan relations, evidently on the assumption that the US has serious rather than marginal strategic interest in Afghanistan.”

Whatever the Americans say, Karzai’s latest broadside looks like the beginning of an increasingly problematic, dangerous countdown to April’s presidential election, which features no obvious successor and far too many unsettling echoes of the pre-2001 past. Among the candidates and their running mates are former warlords, including Ismail Khan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the man who invited Osama bin Laden to set up shop in Afghanistan in 1996.

By arrangement with The Guardian

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