Is Karzai Ditching the West for the Taliban?

Relations between Washington and Kabul have become more tense recently, after two public attacks by Afghan President Hamid Karzai against western involvement in his country.

Just what has got into the Afghan president? Why is he attacking US President Barack Obama so much, when, in fact, compared to George Bush, Obama has been more committed to Afghanistan, both financially and militarily? Is it possible that Karzai has already given up on the West? Has he decided to place his lot with regional countries such as Pakistan, and America's rivals such as Iran and the Chinese instead? After all, the US is scheduled to start pulling its troops out of Afghanistan from July 2011. The British and the Canadians also seem to be planning a withdrawal starting from 2011. And the recent offensive in Marja is already facing severe setbacks, little more than a month after it started.

These are all valid concerns. Even though the apparent target of Karzai's attack sits thousands of miles away, if we look closely we can see that his real target audience is within his borders. Karzai is trying to improve his image internally, especially with the Taliban.

How is he doing that? By attacking the West, which he blames for handing control of Afghanistan's electoral watchdog to the UN. He wants to transfer it to the Afghan government. He knows that this issue is popular with the Taliban, who have accused him of being a Western stooge.

But why should he care about the Taliban when they are attacking his own forces?

The reason is that one of Karzai's strategies, which he also made into a pre-election pledge, is that he sees negotiations with the Taliban as an ultimate winning strategy to bring peace. He eventually wants to bring them on to his side by coming to some sort of agreement.

The last Iraqi government did the same with Muqtada al-Sadr's forces. Nouri al-Maliki launched an all-out assault against the Mahdi army in March 2008. Once Sadr agreed to a ceasefire Maliki allowed his party to run for elections. In fact, if Maliki is asked to form the next Iraqi government, his State of Law alliance may well enter into a coalition government with Sadr's Iraqi National Alliance.

What puzzles some strategists about Karzai's behaviour is why now? Surely he would have a stronger negotiating position if he first waits for the Taliban to suffer heavy casualties from the new Nato assault and then approaches them for talks. That way he would stand a better chance of reaching an accord on his term.

To try and approach the Taliban by making himself look anti-American now while the Taliban are strong and he is politically and militarily weak -- as is currently the case -- could have the opposite effect.

What could be an important reason behind his timing is that Karzai feels Pakistan is undermining his efforts to start a rapprochement with the Afghan Taliban. This concern stems from the recent arrest of senior Taliban members by Pakistan.

At any other time, Karzai would have been happy about these arrests. He has been asking the Pakistani government for years to stop supporting his arch enemies.

However, things are now different. What the general public did not know about until recently is that the UN, with the presence of senior representatives of Karzai had been secretly meeting with the Taliban for more than a year. The meetings were held in Dubai, where the Taliban members flew in from the hideouts in Pakistan.

And then, all of a sudden, Pakistan recently started to arrest senior Afghan Taliban leaders. First was the deputy commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. He was arrested in Karachi on 17 February. By 4 March four other senior Taliban leaders were also arrested by the Pakistani government.

These arrests destroyed months of careful confidence building. Although the two sides had not started negotiating yet, these "talks about talks" were the most genuine home-produced Afghan strategy to solve the country's own problems between its own people -- without interference from any foreign government.

Pakistan's arrests of Afghan Taliban leaders put a stop to that, and now Karzai is in a rush to repair the damage, by launching verbal attacks against Americans. He seems so adamant that he is now even threatening the West that he himself would be compelled to bring the Taliban into his government if his wishes regarding the transfer of the country's electoral watchdog to the Afghan government are not met.

One factor likely to continue frustrating Karzai's efforts to find stability at home is the fact that the handle for the door of peace in Afghanistan is to be found in Pakistan. Some people believe that it can be retrieved with a compromise solution where both Afghan and Pakistani interests are included. Others believe that Pakistan has no interest in handing it over until all its conditions are met and Afghanistan becomes its subservient client state. There are far more people who believe the latter than the former. Judging by recent events, they seem to be right.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian.