As Afghanistan seeks rapprochement with Pakistan and opens negotiations with the Taliban, AMIR HAIDARI observes rising tensions between former president Hamid Karzai and leaders of the National Unity Government.
As Afghanistan begins negotiations with the Taliban in Pakistan, lingering tensions have surfaced between former president Hamid Karzai and the leaders of the National Unity Government (NUG).
On 13 July, The Guardian reported that Karzai was rallying support to bring down President Mohammad Ghani’s government. Citing a senior western diplomat, The Guardian speculated that, should the government fall, Karzai would be the head of a new interim government, since he sees himself as the self-proclaimed father of the nation and someone with a considerable power base beyond Kabul—something Ghani lacks.
Karzai has denied forming an opposition or undermining the government, but his close links to tribal elders, regional power brokers, foreign diplomats and ambassadors are creating unease and tension in the government.
In an indirect reference to Karzai at a recent rally, the NUG’s chief executive officer, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, warned Karzai not to destabilise the government. Dr Abdullah said there were people who were conspiring to bring down the government, and warned that those who waited for it to fall also paved the way for the return of the Taliban, and for the Islamic State (ISIS).
Abdullah emphasised that nobody, except the insurgents, would benefit from the fall of the government, and attacked Karzai’s legacy, accusing the previous government of losing Afghanistan’s golden opportunity and, instead, transforming it into a nightmare in which the Afghan people were now suffering.
While the credibility of the perceived threat from Karzai is unclear, there certainly seems to be friction between the former president and his successors, Ghani and Abdullah. A key source of disagreement seems to be Ghani’s rapprochement with Pakistan and the Taliban.
While refraining from directly criticising Ghani’s government, Karzai has, beneath the surface, strongly criticised Ghani’s rapprochement with Pakistan. Karzai and his political allies see Ghani’s overtures to Pakistan and the Taliban as putting Afghanistan’s national security at risk. For Karzai, the Taliban is a tool of Pakistan’s foreign policy to dominate Afghanistan and harm Indian interests in the region.
Karzai’s former national security advisor Dr Rangin Dadfar Spanta recently confirmed, in a recent article, Karzai’s distrust of Pakistan, particularly when it comes to Pakistani promises. This can also explain Karzai’s strained relationship with the West, especially the United States.
In 2011, speaking to then US State Secretary Hillary Clinton after she said she had been assured by then Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvey Kayani that Pakistan wanted a united and stable Afghanistan, Karzai remarked:
This is nothing new. It’s been a while since we have been hearing these remarks from the Pakistani military establishment. Kayani have told me these things before but in action they have never stopped supporting the Taliban and they want to continue to control the peace process in Afghanistan. They think that a peace settlement in Afghanistan is against their interests.
Karzai is further quoted, in April 2011, as saying to the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, General John Allen, and US ambassador Ryan Crocker, that Pakistan is ‘the real enemy of the Afghan people and we are suffering daily casualties as a result of that’. He added: ‘The United States is not taking any actions against that country.’
In February 2010, in a separate meeting with Hillary Clinton, Karzai went even further, claiming Pakistan‘s very existence ‘is dependent on radical Islam, and using it as a tool against Afghanistan and India. This is a Pakistani war’.
Pivot towards Pakistan
Under President Ghani, however, the government has pivoted towards Pakistan, sending Afghan troops to be trained in Pakistan for the first time—something Karzai repeatedly refused to do—starting negotiations with the Taliban and, perhaps most controversially, signing a memorandum of understanding between the two country’s intelligence agencies.
A significant consequence of this shift in policy towards Pakistan has been to put Afghan-India relations on hold. Karzai and his former political allies regard these overtures to the Taliban and Pakistan as endangering Afghanistan’s sovereignty and virtually giving Pakistan the veto power in Afghanistan’s foreign policy. They consider Afghanistan’s strong relationship with India as one of their foreign policy legacy credentials.
Ghani has not helped himself by filling key governmental posts with members of his own ethnic group at the expense of others.
Domestically, this disagreement has implication for Ghani, since Karzai and his allies can give rise to anti-Pakistani sentiment in Afghanistan, and Ghani and Abdullah consider this as a threat to the stability of their government.
Ghani has not helped himself by filling key governmental posts with members of his own ethnic group at the expense of others—something that has serious implications for the national government. During his presidency, Karzai had a more ethnically balanced government.
Some Afghans have criticised Ghani’s recent government appointments as not being inclusive, and have accused him of breaking his election promises to develop Afghanistan’s human resources and make government appointments on merit. However, it seems those promises are not reflected in appointments to his Cabinet and other key governmental posts.
Ghani has used his presidential powers to promote people based on their personal relationship with him and on tribal links, preferring ethnic Pashtuns over other groups. This is particularly demonstrated in his appointments to the Office of Administrative Affairs and Council of Ministers Secretariat, a strong administrative governmental body. Of the 28 officials Ghani appointed in May, 23 are Pashtuns and include at least two of his relatives, while the remaining five are from other ethnic groups consisting of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.
Furthermore, of the four senior advisors he appointed recently, three are Pashtuns and only one is Tajik. The list of 19 specific-issue advisors Ghani appointed more recently also seems be based on personal relationships, connections, and perhaps ethnicity, rather than merit or educational qualifications.
While Karzai’s appointments were based on personal ties and connection, too, in terms of ethnic balance they were much more diverse and inclusive. Throughout his tenure, with all its shortcomings, Karzai surrounded himself with people from all ethnic groups, including Pashtuns.
Ghani’s inner circle, on the other hand, is exclusively Pashtun. Some see this as an attempt by Ghani to consolidate the power of Pashtuns and isolate other groups—moves that could further weaken the government as ordinary Afghans lose hope in Ghani, and could play into the hands of ethno-nationalist elements of other groups. Dividing along ethnic lines is something Afghanistan cannot afford right now.
A legacy of Karzai’s more ethnically balanced administration has been that Karzai himself is liked beyond his own tribe or ethnic group, while the NUG—and especially Ghani—has so far failed to gain the trust of other groups.
As a result of decade-long rule by patronage, Karzai has, in terms of ethnic-tribal power balancing, achieved strong tribal affiliations. Ghani perceives this as a threat. Although he has a strong tribal mindset, he does not have strong tribal affiliations, which is a concern for non-Pashtuns.
As a way forward, Karzai needs to give Ghani the opportunity to pursue his foreign policy initiatives with Pakistan and the Taliban, but Ghani needs to build a national consensus on this sensitive issue. Unless it is addressed, the current tension between the NUG leaders and Karzai will have a destabilising effect on Afghanistan as a whole.
President Ghani could use Karzai’s vast tribal affiliations to reach out to these groups in the provinces, where the vast majority of Afghans live and where local power is based, to build a national consensus on how to deal with the Taliban and Pakistan.
In the light of the recent rise of ISIS in Afghanistan, a resurgent Taliban, severe economic problems and declining foreign aid, favouring one ethnic group over others in key government appointments is the last thing Ghani should be doing at the moment. It is a step backward for Afghanistan; it polarises the country on ethnic lines, feeds into longstanding historical mistrusts, and further delegitimises the national government.
It is time for Ghani to show leadership by acknowledging Karzai’s strong power base, and to act on his key election promise of making the NUG more diverse and inclusive for all Afghans, who are becoming increasingly isolated by him.
President Ghani (left) needs the support of former president Hamid Karzai (centre) in his quest to strengthen the central government.