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Afghans Bemused by Karzai's Pakistan Comments

What exactly did President Karzai mean when he suggested his country would back Pakistan in a war with America?
By Khan Mohammad Danishju
  • President Hamed Karzai. (Photo: Don Dees/US Defense Department/Flickr)
    President Hamed Karzai. (Photo: Don Dees/US Defense Department/Flickr)

President of Afghanistan Hamed Karzai's remarks about siding with Pakistan if it ever went to war with the United States have caused no little surprise at home as well as abroad. 

"If conflict breaks out between Pakistan and the US, we will be beside with Pakistan," Karzai said in an interview shown on the privately owned Geo TV station in Pakistan on October 22.

His remarks caused some concern, especially since they followed closely on visits by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to both Islamabad and Kabul.

While in Islamabad, Clinton urged Pakistan to do more to curb insurgent groups that use the northwest of the country to mount attacks on targets in Afghanistan – exactly what Afghan leaders including Karzai have been calling for.

Many Afghans have long believed that sections of the leadership in Islamabad have covertly sponsored the Taleban and allied groups like the “Haqqani network” as a way of keeping Afghanistan in a constant state of turmoil, and also of preventing India from gaining ground there.

Aside from ongoing Taleban insurgent actions across the Afghan countryside, the Haqqani network has been blamed for urban attacks in Kabul in June and September, leading to many questions about why this group operates apparently unmolested out of Pakistan’s North Waziristan agency. (For more on this, see Afghans Sceptical of Pakistan's Will to Curb Insurgents.)

The furore caused by Karzai’s remarks led his office to quickly backtrack on the comments. Spokesman Amal Faizi said the president’s remarks had been distorted and were not a reference to US efforts to strike at insurgents based in Pakistan. In recent months, US forces have used unmanned drone aircraft to hit key militant leaders, and in May, special forces tracked down and killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the town of Abbottabad.

Instead, he said, Karzai meant that “if America attacks Pakistan, and if the Pakistani people come to Afghanistan and ask for help, it will be [our] moral responsibility to help them. The doors of Afghanistan will be open to them.”

Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Janan Musazai added greater clarity when he told reporters that the remarks had been taken out of context, given that only one clip a minute long was shown from an interview that lasted for nearly an hour.

The piece as aired was, he concluded, “not accurate or balanced”.

Afghan political analysts dismissed suggestions that Karzai’s remarks signal a change in foreign policy, and questioned the wisdom of making off-the-cuff remarks in such a fraught environment, with violence continuing inside Afghanistan and US-Pakistani relations at an all-time low.

Sayed Fazel Sancharaki, spokesman for the Afghan National Front, the main political opposition to Karzai’s administration, noted the recent strategic agreement signed with India, Pakistan’s old enemy, and suggested the president’s remarks were little more than confusing bluster.

“If this government did support Pakistan, then it would have reacted to the [US] drone attacks in Waziristan and other parts of Pakistan,” he said. “Afghanistan has never taken a stand that backs Pakistan. Remarks like these from Karzai can only leave the people of Afghanistan and the international community in a state of uncertainty.”

Regional affairs analyst Abdol Rashid Waziri said the president would do well to avoid appearing to take up positions that most Afghans would disagree with.

“Ninety-five per cent of the Afghan people do not view Pakistan with friendly eyes. They are doubtful about friendship with that country,” he said.

Like Sancharaki, Waziri argued that a statement about siding with Pakistan might have been intended to calm Islamabad’s fears that the strategic pact with India could lead to the threat of encirclement.

“The president was trying to make the Pakistani people understand that Afghanistan will never allow other countries to use it to interfere in Pakistan,” he explained. (For more on the implications of the agreement, see Afghans Welcome Pact With India.)

Political analyst Harun Mir said any statements that Afghan leaders made should always be carefully crafted so as to avoid the possibility that they might be misused or misquoted.

“The president should have made diplomatic, measured remarks so that no one would be able to misinterpret them,” he said. “The president’s discussions on Pakistani TV or other media outlets need to be very precise and calculated, because these media are monitored by the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence agency] which can extract all kinds of interpretations from such remarks.”

In reality, though, Pakistani officials would not have taken the remarks seriously, as they had their own agenda for Afghanistan anyway, Mir said. The same was true of Afghanistan’s western allies, for different reasons.

“Westerners are familiar with remarks of this kind from the Afghan president. They don’t take them seriously, because there have been several occasions where such comments have been made, and his spokesmen have later said they were incorrect or offered another interpretation for them” he said.

Afghan journalist Yaqub Komak agreed that the pattern of controversial statement followed by retraction was all too familiar. But he said it was wrong to charge ahead with controversial comments without taking the views and sensibilities of Afghans into account.

Kabul resident Id Mohammad was among the many Afghans who found the president’s quoted remarks offensive.

“I am certain that if one day Karzai asks the people of Afghanistan to come and stand beside Pakistan against some other country, there will be no one in favour except Karzai himself. But if he calls on the people to come and take a stand against Pakistan, even the women and girls of this country will be prepared to do so,” he said.

Another Kabuli, Hajji Daud, took a different view, arguing that Afghanistan was so weak and vulnerable to Pakistani pressure that a bit of duplicitous flattery was sometimes necessary.

“Even if such remarks aren’t sincere, it’s good for us to be smart. We need to keep in mind the best interests of our people and country at all times. If all it takes is a few words to make our enemy happy, why not say them and keep him on the hop?”

Khan Mohammad Danishju is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.