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Opinion: Back to the Great Game | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Afghan president Hamid Karzai (C) inspects a guard of honor during Independence Day celebrations at the Defense Ministry compound in Kabul on August 19, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai)

With the publication of the official list of presidential candidates, a key element in President Barack Obama’s strategy of retreat from Afghanistan falls into place. The Obama plan, repeatedly announced in public, is to conclude the United States’ 13-year involvement in the country by the end of next year. The Afghan presidential election, scheduled for April 2014, is supposed to provide the political framework that would permit the US retreat to take place.

There are three problems with that strategy. The first is that the very announcement of the retreat has encouraged opponents of the new status quo, especially the Taliban, to reorganize and prepare for a fresh bid for power once the Americans have gone away.

The second problem is that with Americans scripting themselves out, whoever is elected president of Afghanistan would find it hard to exercise real power. At best, he would become yet another faction leader, backed by his tribe and/or ethnic community. Most experts agree that Afghanistan needs a few more years of American presence and commitment to complete the building of a new army and administration.

The United States’ premature retreat poses a third problem. It intensifies rivalry among regional powers, especially Iran, Pakistan and Russia, none of whom wish to see a democratic Afghanistan in their backyard. Iran has spent billions of dollars seeking influence in Afghanistan. In the past decade, Iran has been the second-biggest donor of aid to Afghanistan after the United States. In the same way they exploited Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, the mullahs hope to fill the gap taking shape in Afghanistan. Conscious of its deep unpopularity in Afghanistan, Russia is hanging on to Iranian tailcoats in a strategy for building a new anti-American bloc.

For its part, Pakistan is determined to secure a dominant position in Afghanistan in the context of its own struggle against India. To Pakistan, Afghanistan is the hinterland that provides strategic depth. Because of their regional fight against Iran, several Arab powers have decided to support Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan. In exchange, Pakistan could supply them with nuclear warheads when and if needed to counter a putative nuclear threat from Iran.

One irony in all this is that it was Washington that imposed the presidential system on Afghanistan where the absence of an effective administration and army renders the exercise of centralized executive authority problematic. For more than a decade, even the personal security of the Afghan president has been provided by American Special Forces.

Afghanistan was created as a buffer state to keep apart three rival empires of Russia, Britain and Iran in the contest of a regional rivalry that came to be known as “The Great Game.”

It has been a galaxy of tribal, ethnic and religious communities that coexisted under the loose authority of a monarch in Kabul. The Communists who seized power with the help of the Soviet Union in 1977 ignored that fact and tried to impose a centralized system. Their error dragged the Russians into an unwinnable war.

After the Soviet withdrawal, the Pakistanis and their Arab allies made a similar mistake when they created the Taliban and helped them seize Kabul. The result was years of war that ended with US intervention in 2002. When the Taliban were dislodged from Kabul, it would have been more realistic to help Afghans build a federal parliamentary system, with the presidency as a symbolic function. The Bush administration rejected that option because it assumed the US would remain in Afghanistan long enough to change that nation’s political culture. A similar strategy had worked in several places, notably West Germany, South Korea and Japan, where decades of US military and political presence helped forge a new democratic culture. Obama refused to provide the long-term commitment required but did nothing to persuade Afghans to develop a parliamentary system based on coalition and compromise. The US will be leaving Afghanistan with problems partly caused by the quirks of American politics.

None of the 12 candidates approved has the stature to bring Afghans together in the wake of the brutal American retreat. Five candidates enjoy a measure of name recognition. One is Abdul-Rasul Sayyaf, a former Mujahideen leader now backed by Pakistan but unacceptable to Tajik and Uzbek ethnic communities. Another is Dr. Abdullah Zamariani, a former aide to the legendary Mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Popular among Tajiks, Dr. Zamariani lacks a base among Pashtuns, who account for some 40 percent of the population. Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani has the profile of a statesman, but lacks the charisma to enthuse his Pashtun community. He has the added disadvantage of being perceived as too close to the United States, the abdicating power.

Iran is putting its money on Qutbuddin Hilal, a former leader of the Islamic Party in tactical alliance with the Taliban. Finally, there is Ghul Agha Sherzai, a former guerrilla commander and provincial governor known for driving to his office in a tank.

To complicate matters further, President Hamid Karzai has decided to play the nationalist card by dragging his foot over an agreement that would enable a token NATO force, mostly from the US, to remain in Afghanistan in the context of a joint training project. Karzai is also courting the mullahs of Tehran in the hope that Iranian support will help his faction retain the presidency. To hedge his bets, he is also saying nice things about the Taliban. The result is confusion all along the line.

Normally, having invested massive amounts of blood and treasure in liberating Afghanistan, the US should have a major influence in shaping the outcome of the election. But, under Obama, the US is not behaving like a normal power with a normal approach to foreign policy. Yesterday, Iraq, and tomorrow, Afghanistan, show that Obama specializes in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.