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Karzai in Washington

January 09, 2013

BY the time this article appears President Karzai will have arrived in Washington and possibly have had his first round of talks with President Obama and with a now recovered Secretary Hilary Clinton. What are the expectations from the visit that Karzai entertains and what are the contentious subjects that will dominate the discussions?

The most important point to my mind is that Karzai is convinced that only reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban can bring peace to Afghanistan. This will be the prism, which will determine his position on every issue to be discussed with Obama

Karzai knows that the 2014 date for withdrawal of all Nato troops is set in concrete and that long before December 2014 most Nato troops would have gone. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) alone will then be required to maintain security even though the American training mission estimates that only one out of 23 Afghan Army brigades is classified as capable of operating without external assistance.

He believes that Nato’s departure will facilitate an acceptable reconciliation. The government may then be seen to be negotiating from a position of comparative weakness, but all Afghans know that Najibullah’s forces were able to hold their own against the Mujahideen after the Soviet withdrawal for as long as the Afghan national forces continued to be financed by the Soviets, even though their level of preparedness was worse than that of the current ANSF

The financing of ANSF, due to reach its full strength of 352,000 by the first quarter of 2013, will need $6.5 billion annually and the Afghan exchequer will be able to contribute only $500 million a year towards this. The international community promised at the Chicago conference to provide some $3.6bn ($2bn of this from the US) towards this cost. But this will be enough only to maintain a force of 230,000 and that number will only be reached through attrition by 2017. So in addition to the pledges made in Chicago the US will be required to pay an additional $2.5bn annually for the 2015-2017 period.

Karzai has said that much of the corruption in Afghanistan has been fuelled by the manner in which Nato and America in particular have awarded contracts. He has a case to make. But he also knows that he has done little so far to meet the reform conditions laid down in the Tokyo Conference for providing economic assistance at $4bn a year for four years. This $4bn annually, even if it is all forthcoming, will not prevent a considerable economic slump in Afghanistan. But without it there would be a total collapse.

In these circumstances, Karzai’s criticism of the US notwithstanding, he will recognise that to maintain the level of aid he needs he must be prepared to accommodate American demands on immunity for the American troops that remain in Afghanistan after 2014 and to allow them the freedom of action that they will need for counterterrorism operations. This would mean free use of Afghan airspace to carry out drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas and special operations forces in Afghanistan against the remaining Al Qaeda operatives in that country.

He will probably welcome the movement of the Obama administration towards restricting this presence to 3,000-6,000 troops despite the US military’s demand for more because this may well be the sort of figure and the sort of mission that the Taliban would not regard as a bar to negotiation aimed at reconciliation. The Taliban know that there will be no meaningful negotiations at all unless they publicly renounce ties with the Al Qaeda and that Pakistan too will push them to make such a declaration. After that a minimal US presence aimed at the Al Qaeda and probably at the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan would perhaps be acceptable to the less hard-line members of the Taliban Shura and to Mullah Omar.

Within Afghanistan, the loyal opposition, whose support is essential for reconciliation, has also made it clear that they do want a residual American presence. Additionally, Karzai knows that in the absence of such a presence he will be hard put to prevent the growth of the sort of private militias that Commander Ismail, who used to style himself as the amir of Herat, is putting together.

Before leaving for Washington, Karzai organised a well-publicised release of prisoners whose custody had been transferred in accordance with the US-Afghan agreement to Afghanistan. Further releases are planned all with the objective of promoting prospects for reconciliation. Karzai will demand and the US will probably agree that all remaining Afghans currently held by the Americans also be handed over and released if Afghan law so requires.

Perhaps the most important demand from Karzai will be that President Obama should find a way to exercise his presidential power to overrule the provision in the defence authorisation bill passed by Congress, that prohibits the transfer of prisoners held in Guantanamo to another country. Despite Karzai’s reservations about talks with the Taliban by anyone other than the Karzai administration he knows that for the Taliban the proposed exchange of five Taliban, currently held in Guantanamo, for an American soldier the Taliban are holding is a prerequisite for serious negotiations on reconciliation.

Karzai is understandably anxious that the 2014 election to select his successor brings to the presidential office a man he can trust and a man who will not hound him and his family for the many misdoings (real and imagined) during his years in office. He has proposed fundamental changes in the election law that would make many potential candidates ineligible to contest the elections.

In brief this law if passed would disqualify anyone who has a disability, physical or psychological, anyone who can’t speak and write in Dari and Pushto, anyone who doesn’t have 10 years of work experience in the administration, anyone who doesn’t have a university degree, anyone who can’t pay one million Afghanis (the equivalent of $20,000), and anyone who can’t come up with 100,000 signatures cumulatively from at least 20 different provinces.

He has further proposed that there be no elections complaint commission to adjudicate election disputes this task being left to the Supreme Court, which comprises all Karzai nominees. The opposition is understandably opposed to these proposals Karzai believes that Nato members worked against him in the last election and probably fears they will do so again in 2014. But he cannot afford to antagonise them if he is genuinely for reconciliation and wants their support or at least neutral posture on his election law proposals. He will therefore have to adopt a more conciliatory approach not only on the residual military presence issue but also on other matters of interest to the Obama administration.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.