KABUL — One week after the world hailed his inauguration, Barack Obama has undertaken an unprecedented charm offensive towards the Muslim world.
But one prominent Muslim leader, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has been conspicuously left out of the general bonhomie.
At the precise moment when Obama has sent his new Middle East envoy on a tour of the region and spoken directly to the Muslim world in an extraordinary interview with Al Arabiya television, Obama seems to be deliberately turning away from Karzai, according to longtime observers of the region and Western diplomats.
Karzai, who was hailed as a savior of Afghanistan by the administration of George W. Bush, is suddenly being painted as weak, corrupt and insulated in Kabul from the surging influence of the Taliban in the provinces.
With Obama signaling for months that he would turn a cold shoulder, Karzai has responded by reaching out to another regional player, Russia. That development, regional observers say, could pose distinct peril for the region. It also runs against the current of Afghan history in which so many leaders of the present government fought to free Afghanistan from the yoke of the former Soviet Union. It leaves some wondering if Karzai's posturing isn't more an act of desperation than a savvy political move.
Afghanistan and Russia are now engaged in what appear to be cordial and mutually beneficial negotiations to improve Afghanistan’s defense, at the same time shoring up Karzai’s increasingly shaky position and providing a counterweight to the United States’ domination of the region.
“If the United States will not help us, we will ask other countries for tanks and planes,” Karzai told a graduating class of military cadets in Kabul on Sunday.
The “other countries” remark was widely viewed as a reference to Russia.
Several factors are coming together to make 2009 potentially the most dangerous year Afghanistan has had since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001.
First, there is Obama’s well-intentioned but poorly thought out determination to beef up the the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, from 33,000 to more than 60,000. Very few Afghans look upon the proposed increase with anything other than dread. At NATO, which leads about 55,000 troops in the Afghanistan, officials are raising questions about the overall strategy of the proposed U.S. military buildup and whether it fits in with the stated NATO mission of fostering reconstruction.
“When Afghans look at Americans, they see killers,” said Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, a young journalist based in Mazar-e-Sharif. “They think more troops just mean more deaths.”
Last week’s raid in Laghman Province, just 60 kilometers from Kabul, did little to dispel this impression. U.S. Special Forces conducted an operation in Garoosh village, in the process killing at least 15 people. The U.S. military insists that all were combatants, including one woman who, they say, was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Local officials maintain with equal vigor that all but two were civilians.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, Afghans will chalk the fatalities up to U.S. recklessness, and react accordingly. The resulting anger will do little to advance stabilization, and much to strengthen the insurgency.
More and more often, Afghans are citing the presence of U.S. forces as part of the problem, rather than the solution. Without a radical re-think of their use, an increase in troops may well make things worse.
Second on the list of 2009 risk factors are Afghanistan’s presidential elections, which loom on the horizon like a swelling tsunami.
Given Afghanistan’s precarious security situation, a normal poll is all but impossible. The Taliban have warned that they will disrupt the process, which, considering how much of the country is under their de facto control, does not sound like the idle threat it proved to be during the last presidential vote, in 2004.
It is also far from certain who will be on the ballot.
Karzai is very much a wounded lion, and the contenders are circling. On inauguration day, as Karzai delivered a thundering anti-American oration to his parliament, four prospective rivals were sitting in Washington, waiting to meet with the new Leader of the Free World.
Much speculation is swirling around the quartet, comprising Nangahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and former foreign minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.
It is not yet clear whether the four are allies or competitors, but the term “Dream Team” has already been floated around the U.S. and Afghan capitals.
Karzai has said publicly that he intends to run again, but he is isolated and beginning to look desperate. Under the circumstances, his overtures towards Moscow smack of narrow self-interest, according to analysts.
“Karzai’s initiative could drive Afghanistan into a dangerous crisis,” said Ahmad Sayedi, a former Afghan diplomat. “This move is not strategic, it is tactical. It is crystal clear that Karzai wants to use (Russia) as a tool of pressure on Obama’s new administration, but this will simply not work.”
Afghans have long and not very rosy memories of Russia’s connection with their country.
“If we look back over history, the Russians have had a strong involvement here, and it always ended in betrayal,” said Habibullah Rafi, of Afghanistan’s Academy of Sciences. “If they get the chance, the Russians will act with greater vengeance, because they were defeated here once.”
Perhaps the biggest danger lies in the growing attempts of Afghanistan’s neighbors to exert their influence in the region. While the United States establishes an ever more powerful presence, countries such as Russia, Iran, and China will not sit idly by. In the current climate, Karzai’s clumsy attempts to bring the Russian bear into his corner could backfire quite badly.
“A new Great Game has begun,” said analyst Wahid Muzhda, who served as a civil servant during the Taliban regime. He was referring to the 19th-century strategic conflict between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia for supremacy in Central Asia.
History has shown that, once the world powers start facing off in Afghanistan’s inhospitable terrain, things seldom turn out well for any side.
More GlobalPost dispatches on Afghanistan: