Afghans wary of U.S. end game

By Alistair Scrutton – Analysis

KABUL (BestGrowthStock) – Away from all the probable pomp, ceremony and firm handshakes in President Hamid Karzai’s trip to Washington next week, many Afghans will be seeking a strong signal that the U.S. will not cut and run from its 9-year-old war.

More than anything, U.S. President Barack Obama’s deadline to start withdrawing troops by July 2011 after a surge this year has reminded many Afghans of how Washington effectively abandoned the country in 1989-90 after the Soviet army were forced to retreat.

That feeling has been exacerbated by a public spat between Obama and Karzai this year, troubles in a stepped-up U.S.-led offensive against the Taliban, as well as mutterings from the U.S. ambassador that the Afghan leader is not a reliable partner.

It is a sentiment that some say could further pressure Karzai to reach early peace deals with the Taliban, something that worries the United States as its prepares an offensive involving at least 23,000 NATO and Afghan troops in Kandahar.

“We have to have a commitment to ensuring strategic partnership,” said Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak. “There should be no faltering. This is exactly what the enemy expects — that the interest of the international community will wane.”

Washington has played down any deadline, saying they would withdraw troops only if conditions were right. Some Afghan experts see the deadline just as a way of Washington pressurizing Karzai to get his act together.

But the perception among Afghans is different.

“When you start talking about exit strategies, these deadlines, these are interpreted by Afghans in another way and encourage the other side. Enemies expect a repeat performance. It makes Afghans remind themselves of ’89, ’90,” Wardak added.

Karzai had helped provoke a rift with Washington after a string of anti-Western statements, including accusing the international community of corrupting the presidential election.

Washington, on the other hand, is increasingly critical of corruption in the Afghan government and the ability of authorities to help implement billions of dollars of aid.

BOTH NEED EACH OTHER?

Karzai knows he still needs the Americans, analysts say, if only to speed up a transition to fuller sovereignty and appease Afghans critical of U.S. forces after they mistakenly killed scores of civilians in recent years.

“The quicker we get enablers, the quicker the transition,” Wardak said, referring to NATO help for the Afghan national army ranging from transport to reconnaissance capabilities. “But the transition cannot be premature.”

At the same time, Obama wants to stop Afghanistan from becoming a political obstacle ahead of congressional elections in November when voter anxiety over high unemployment and a fragile economy is already expected to take a toll.

“One of his achievements from Washington would be to buy time with the United States,” said Daoud Sultanzoy, a lawmaker. “Afghanistan is becoming an increasingly hard sell.”

“The U.S. government may be patient for now, but what about the U.S. people, the European people?”

There is evidence that regional neighbors like India and Pakistan have already taken an end game for granted, and are juggling diplomatically to ensure influence in a post U.S. world.

Afghans too believe this will eventually happen.

“If Americans or NATO see that they can’t defeat the Taliban, they will run away as the Americans abandoned us after the Soviets departed and left us a legacy of war and bloodshed,” said Noor Mohammad, a government worker in Kandahar.

Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai, an Afghan analyst and politician, said Afghans were already preparing for an end game.

“On the local, mosque, village level, people are reaching out to the Taliban because they eventually believe the Americans will leave,” Ghani said. “And that is filtering up to the government.”

Karzai may be in for a hard time in Washington, especially among members of Congress. Little has been done, many observers say, to show improvements in governance as billions of dollars in aid flow. U.S. officials say the meet will focus on corruption.

Despite this, the Afghan leader hopes a good meeting will allow him to return home stronger politically to push for talks with the Taliban at a national peace assembly “jirga” planned from May. 29. The Taliban has so far dismissed Karzai’s efforts.

The U.S. administration remains wary of such overtures to the Taliban leadership. If anything is done at all, they would like it from a position of strength after the Kandahar offensive. But Karzai may see it as insurance for his political future.

“There is a danger Karzai will reach out prematurely to the Taliban,” said Sultanzoy.

So, many Afghan policy makers hope Washington will send out a strong message of support.

“We want him (Obama) to prove the partnership. If again they want to repeat the same mistake, next time they will pay triple,” said Shukria Barakzai, an independent lawmaker.

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(Editing by Jonathon Burch)

Afghans wary of U.S. end game