Remember the not-so-distant past when the word ‘corruption’ peppered every official US comment on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government? Yet the ‘C’ word has been conspicuously absent during Karzai’s feel good tour of Washington this week. President Obama claimed that the ‘perceived tensions’ were ‘simply overstated’ - this despite the fact that as recently as last month, Karzai reportedly told a group of Afghan lawmakers that he should quit the political process and join the Taliban. So why have recriminations and threats suddenly been replaced by smiles and handshakes? It has nothing to do with cleaning up corruption, that’s for sure. By all accounts, it’s still business as usual in Kabul and Karzai’s brother, an alleged drugs lord, is still living large in Kandahar. In my view, the Afghan President is being given the red carpet treatment not because of the ‘C’ word but because of the ‘D’ word – deadline.
President Obama hopes to begin withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan by July 2011. Abandoning Karzai so late in the game would undoubtedly push this deadline back, something which would not go down well with US voters at a time when Obama will be gearing up for re-election. (Unlike Britain, US campaigning starts more than a year before voters actually go to the polls).
Karzai knows this all too well and true to form, he is manipulating the situation to his advantage. As I’ve said in previous blogs, Karzai is an astute man who can run rings around his western counterparts. It boggles the mind how in a matter of weeks he’s refocused the Afghan debate away from corruption and toward issues which can only bolster him back home: limiting civilian causalities and reconciling with the Taliban.
Carrot or stick, Karzai will do what is best for Karzai. And like a hard done by political wife, Obama is so invested in the Afghan President he has no choice but to stand by his man. But does Britain have to stand by him as well? Don’t forget, that while Karzai is being showered with affection in Washington, an innocent and upstanding British commercial security manager, Bill Shaw, languishes in a notorious Kabul jail.
Unlike President Obama, the new British Prime Minister David Cameron has just come through an election and is therefore in an outstanding position to shake up foreign policy. I personally would like the new PM to withdraw British troops from Afghanistan immediately. I doubt that’s on the cards though, so I’ll settle for demanding Mr. Shaw’s immediate release.