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Afghanistan; political outcome of 2008 - 7.2.2009
Andrei Serenko

Afghanistan; political outcome of 2008By Andrei Serenko, an expert at the Centre for Studying Contemporary Afghanistan

The basic content of the out gone 2008 is determined by two mutually linked political phenomena, crisis in the West’s “Afghan project” and crisis in the west breed “Karzai” political system (in all its elements, both systematic and extrasystematic). Last year showed that undoubtedly, reforms in Afghanistan were inevitable and as well as there were insufficient military, political, financial and expert resources for carrying out them. The search for resources and drafting a project of “new Afghan future” should become strategic tasks of both Kabul government and its allies, especially the US, the key sponsor of the “Afghan project”.

Achievements and failures of Hamid Karzai

Hamid Karzai remains to be the key figure in Afghan politics despite the fact that his popularity has been falling among the experts’ community and politicians in an outside Afghanistan. The reason here is not in personal sympathy or antipathy for the Afghan President. Hamid Karzai established the current state and political system, and modern Afghan, western and other politicians set themselves up towards Hamid Karzai. Consequently, the personal prospects of Hamid Karzai as well as the Afghan political system and all those who are involved in it depend significantly on the success or failure of correlation between them.

Undoubtedly, following are the Hamid Karzai’s successes in 2008:
  1. NATO’s April summit in Bucharest (during which Hamid Karzai could agree on significant increase in the foreign financial aid to modernize the Afghan National Army, ANA and win the approval of the western countries to increase the troops of the army and consequently, created preconditions for turning the ANA to a key element in state and political system of Afghanistan (in line with Turkish-style),
  2. Strengthening of political position of Hamid Karzai in northern Afghanistan (through the weakening of political influence of mojahead leaders and using skillfully the conflict between the leaders of various ethnic groups, especially in the Uzbek community, and differences between mojaheds and governors of northern provinces),
  3. Paralyzed state of the National Front of Afghanistan (The country’s largest opposition party that has failed to control the main protest groups ahead of the presidential election. Owing to efforts by the Hamid Karzai’s team the Afghan opposition evaluated from the format of a coalition embraced by united opposition to a format of an opposition of individual ambitions, which poses no threat to Hamid Karzai. As a whole this had weakened the political capabilities of the protesting elite and voters in the country.),
  4. The growth in popularity of Hamid Karzai among political elite of the neighbouring countries (This is directly linked with Hamid Karzai’s public condemnation of the air strikes by the US and NATO that had led to the death of a scores of civilians. Worsening situation of Pakistan – Afghanistan’s traditional enemy – can also be considered as a success of the policy pursued by Hamid Karzai. The incumbent Afghan President could ultimately include Pakistan to a region where international counter-terrorist operation is being carried out. Afghanistan has long been pressing for this. The launching of air strikes, “Waziristan Operation” started in August 2008 (the killing of commanders and political leaders of Taliban and al-Qaeda in the North and South Waziristan by the US air force and special forces) witnesses the shifting of fighting to the Pakistani territory from Afghan by western coalition.),
  5. Unconditional popularity of Hamid Karzai ahead of the presidential election is also an important political achievement of the Afghan leader. The other candidates for the presidency are now far behind and try to catch up the speed set by Hamid Karzai.
Among the political failures of the Afghan President are as follows:
  1. Sharp increase in the activity of Hamid Karzai’s enemies. (This concerns the revival of irreconcilable Islamists (Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic Party of Afghanistan led by Gulbuddin Hekmatiyar) and the growth in opposition sentiment towards the Afghan leader among several influential western politicians, especially British. Essentially, 2008 was marked with the prospects of creation of a new powerful international “anti-Karzai front” that embraced Taliban leaders and influential political groups in Islamabad, Riyadh and London. President Karzai could not disrupt the creation of the coalition and it could become his most dangerous enemy in few months),
  2. Hamid Karzai’s failure to crack down on corruption among bureaucrats and contain the expansion of Taliban and fight against drug trafficking (All this has tarnished the image of the Afghan President and his government in the western world and led to fall in his rating in the country. Most likely, the growth in unpopularity of Hamid Karzai (Lost of confidence in him in and outside the country) will be fatal for him).
Downfall of the National Front

The national Front of Afghanistan, NFA had remained as a key element in the opposition in Kabul last year. However, most likely, the previous year could be the last year when it was engaged in active politics. NFA disintegrated practically in 2008 and proved its inability to play the role of full-fledged opposition in national-scale and even in regional scale (in the north of the country). The NFA format did not allow its leaders to restrain their ambitions and nominate a single candidate for the coming presidential election. Moreover, judging by all, there will be no common candidate at all.

The Front has become less attractive political organization after Prince Mustafa Zahir left the NFA to engage in politics independently, differences stirred up between ethnic leaders from Northern Provinces, the traditional supporters of the Front and its formal leader Burhanuddin Rabbani turned the NFA into a personal organization (consequently, all this has led to the growth in popularity of other opposition parties, for one, the National Union Supreme Council of Afghanistan).

Clearly, one of the results of 2008 is the growing demand for the formation of a new Afghan opposition that corresponds to the level of Afghan national issues rather than the level of ambitions of Afghan politicians. Most likely, it is impossible to form a new opposition in the country when the election campaign is underway and one can expect it only after the presidential election campaign (in short, by the end of 2009).

Taliban: between desperate bravery and bravery from desperateness

The movement of “fierce mullahs” stepped up its activity in Afghanistan in 2008. Clearly, the significant growth in military and political activity of Taliban is linked with not only with the revival of its structure but also with the determination to avert a decisive attack on the infrastructure of the irreconcilable armed opposition by American forces.

Following are the doubtless military and political success achieved by the Taliban movement in 2008:
  1. expansion of the zone of influence (in fact, in territorial-wise and time and political-wise). For one, obviously, Taliban exerts real influence on determining the dates of presidential and parliamentary elections and the activity of Taliban might lead to the postponement of the country’s elections or on the contrary, might be given a chance to be involved in them under the Karzai constitution,
  2. successful terrorist attacks in Kabul (among these were an attack on the tribune where Hamid Karzai was during a military parade in the Afghan capital to commemorate the victory of jihad and an explosion at the Indian embassy),
  3. convincing demonstration of Taliban’s new combat capabilities (This concerns first and foremost the capability of Taliban to paralyze NATO transit through the Khyber Pass.),
  4. strengthening of Taliban’s foreign political status (This is shown by separatist talks in Mecca in August and September 2008 and the appearance of unexpected allies of “fierce Mullahs” among British politicians who began to speak about the need for holding negotiations with Taliban and about sharing power with the Taliban leaders in Kabul.),
Among the failures of Taliban leasers in 2008 are:
  1. significant loss of commanders,
  2. growing threat to rear infrastructure of Taliban in Pakistan’s North and South Waziristan with the determination of the US to carry out not only aerial but also ground operation in the region, (Activity of Taliban militants and Islamabad’s resistance to foreign military presence have failed to avert possible large-scale cleansing in Waziristan.),
  3. Taliban’s failure to eliminate the quite effective CIA spy network in Waziristan (The successful precise air strikes by US air force that killed dozens of senior military and political leaders of Taliban and al-Qaeda show the effectiveness of the network.),
  4. Taliban’s inability to acquire air defence systems to fight against NATO air force,
  5. Outlined “conflict of generations” in Taliban (the most notable one is the conflict between the leader of Taliban mullah Omar and the leader of Pakistani Taliban Baitullah Mehsud), (The conflict of ages between the old leaders of Taliban and new commanders could be most dangerous for the movement of “fierce mullahs in the future.),
  6. Strain relations between the Taliban leadership and Pakistan, (Owing to the treat of American intrusion into the Pakistani territory Islamabad may agree on carrying out partial cleansing of Taliban and reformatting the movement “fierce mullahs” including the staff turnover of Taliban leaders.

“Waziristan Operation” is the key element of the new Afghan project

The US decision on the expansion of the area of the counterterrorist operation in Afghanistan by including Pakistani provinces of North and South Waziristan adopted in June was a one of the main results of 2008. Preparations for carrying out the operation are going on in full swing and should be ended by the invasion of the Pakistani territory by US forces in spring and summer this year.

“Waziristan operation” has become in principle the turning point of the protracted Afghan mission of NATO. Its political consequences could be far-reaching for both the western coalition and also the region.
  1. Firstly, NATO and the US have an opportunity to achieve a long anticipated military victory over the Taliban, which is impossible without destroying the rear infrastructure of Islamists. Air strikes by American drones in the second half of 2008 showed that the “fierce mullahs” who revived the combat capacity are not immortal and could easily die. If this trend will grow during the operation in Waziristan there is a real possibility of defeating Taliban, which politicians in Kabul and western countries have been considered as unachievable.
  2. Secondly, the recognition of North and South Waziristan as a part of the territory under counter terrorist operation by western forces means the wiping out of the border regime along the Durand Line, border between the two countries, which has never recognized by Afghanistan. This could be used in future as a revision of border affairs between Kabul and Islamabad as well as for drawing up new quasi-states, for one, the Pushtunistan project that could have an impact on geopolitical landscape in Central and South Asia. Clearly, new ties, which are being established by the officials from the US, Britain and other NATO member countries with the elders of Pushtu tribes along the Afghan-Pakistani border, may be used for the sake of realizing such projects.
USA and NATO: western “Afghan project” ceased to be a single one

It was become clear that the Afghan project of the West ceased to be a single one. Clearly, differences between individual western countries over the prospects for future development of the Afghan project and conciliation Afghanistan have surfaced despite the fact that the US and its allies, NATO member countries, displayed readiness to increase financial aid to Kabul, step up activities aimed at rebuilding the Afghan national army and police and increase the number of troops in Afghanistan.
  1. On the one hand, the US continues to insist on the resumption of the war against Taliban till the final victory (by sending large contingents of additional troops and by holding talks with the elders of Pushtu tribes as potential allies in the fight against “fierce mullahs).
  2. On the other hand Britain’s “special opinion” was promoted in 2008: London politicians insist discussing the version of sharing power with Taliban in Kabul and rejection of the US strategy of 2001 oriented on exclusively defeating Taliban.
Clearly, the growing differences among western allies can be explained by the Americans’ announcement about their determination to realize the west’s Afghan mission exclusively by them (Washington’s decision to increase the American contingent in Afghanistan by 20-30 thousand servicemen and deploy them in the Helmand province, the zone of responsibility of the British expedition corps). Practically, this means the determination of the US to push away the western partners, who call in question the strategy, and reduce their share in the Afghan project. Most likely, Americans will stick to this strategy until the end of the “Waziristan Operation”.

Election in 2009: scenario of future Afghanistan

Active preparations for presidential and parliamentary elections by the Afghan elite and the international community, which is involved in Afghan affairs, started in 2008. Although it is quite important when the presidential election is held (Winner of the election largely depends on when the election is held.), the possible scenario of the developments in Afghanistan after the election of a new head of state is seems to be more important. Clearly, the main intrigue of the elections is the answer to the question whether Karzai’s course will be prolonged or there will be attempts to replace it. If the incumbent President’s course is replaced then what will be the strategy that will be presented to the Afghan society?

Concerning the post-Karzai strategy in Kabul and western capitals it must be said that two fundamental political temptations will be discussed:
  • Strategy of a “nation-wide leader”. Most likely, during the preparations for the presidential election western groups interested in Afghanistan and Afghan politicians will make attempts to find a figure that consolidate the entire Afghan society. According to our opinion, it is highly unlike that the project will be successful since the Afghan society is in a state of civil war (including its ethnic component, the conflict between elite of Pushtu tribes oriented to Taliban and Tajik and Uzbek elites in the north).
  • Strategy of a “new technical president”. This concerns the possible attempt to preserve the status of a “technical President” for the new head of the Afghanistan. In other words, the Karzai regime will be preserved but without Hamid Karzai himself. Clearly, this project is more realistic than the “nation-wide leader”, but will hardly be more successful: external decoration of the Karzai regime but in the sense non-Karzai regime will be disavowed shortly after the failure of the new “technical President” to fulfill the tasks that Hamid Karzai himself could not.
According to our opinion, there are three probable solutions to the situation linked with the possible post-Karzai election.
  • “Transit to Taliban”. This version is proved to be most realistic and practically the only one if the western participants who are involved in the Afghan political process draw a decision to handover power in the country gradually to Taliban with the aim of forming a coalition government where Taliban dominates. In short, this concerns the formation of an Afghan regime of soft-line Taliban. In this case new Afghan President (post-Karzai) should guarantee the procedure of handing over power.
  • “Revival of monarchy project”. In this case the election of a new President will be the starting point for the realization of course aimed at restoring monarchy in Afghanistan leaning on Prince Mustafa Zahir. However, this project has no prospects now: the popularity of monarchy project and the personality of the Prince Mustafa have been called in question by the Afghan public opinion.
  • “Military dictatorship”. The election of the new president is proved to be a prelude to the handing over power in Afghanistan into the hands of a military junta. This means the introduction of a hard-line regime, back tracking democratic procedures (including ban on opposition activity) and policy aimed at containing armed opposition more actively. However, according to our opinion, the given scenario is improbable since there is no strong and large army and the military reforms in Afghanistan are not expected to complete in the near future. The dictatorship project is impossible without a strong national army.
In these circumstances, the new presidential election in Afghanistan will lead to the realizations of only two possible political scenarios:
  1. preservation of the “Karzai” regime as a “technical presidency” (even in the absence of Hamid Karzai) under the absolute domination of the US in the Afghan political process,
  2. creation of a “transit political regime”, which is aimed at handing over the power gradually into the hands of weakened and compliant Taliban that is innovated with fresh members.

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