Having already made clear his intention to commit 30,000 new American troops to the war in Afghanistan, Barack Obama’s inauguration was seen by many in Afghanistan as an opportunity to re-evaluate their nation’s relationship with the United States.
On February 20, the same day as Barack Obama’s inauguration, Afghan President Hamid Karzai delivered a keynote speech in the Afghan parliament in which he criticized his international allies for what he called the promotion of corruption and the infliction of an excessive number of civilian casualties during military operations. While admitting corruption in his government, President Karzai stressed that corruption exists inside the international community in Afghanistan as well (BBC Persian, January 20). President Karzai said that Afghans cannot tolerate the killing of innocent civilians in American- and NATO-led counterterrorism operations: “Our international allies should understand that they have psychologically disturbed us a lot” (BBC Persian, January 20). The Afghan president was repeatedly critical of Coalition efforts during the final months of the Bush administration.
What makes the recent stance of Afghanistan’s president important is the timing, with the speech coming the same day as President Obama’s inauguration. A Kabul weekly claimed that Karzai’s address and his serious criticism of the United States was a reaction to negative comments on Afghanistan by now Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Eqtedar- e Milli [Kabul], January 24). An official who declined to be named told Jamestown that during his visit to Afghanistan, Biden asked President Karzai to end his criticism of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, warning that the United States might withdraw its support for Afghanistan if such criticisms continued through the mass media. Mr. Biden asked the Afghan president to deliver his viewpoints and criticisms through the diplomatic channels of the United States. Tensions between Washington and the Karzai administration continue, with speculation that the United States and its allies in Afghanistan are now looking for a replacement for Karzai.
Following the American criticisms of the Karzai regime, the Afghan media have generally come to the conclusion that the Obama administration is not ready to support President Karzai and his team. The attendance of four important Afghan politicians at President Obama’s inauguration has reinforced this perception. The four included former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, former interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, former foreign minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, and current Nangarhar governor Gul Agha Shirzai. Although Afghanistan government spokesmen claimed these persons were not officially invited to the inauguration, their very presence at the event has been a source of great debate inside Afghanistan, where it is widely believed that one of these four men will be the next president of Afghanistan with the support of the Obama administration.
A Kabul newspaper cited a lack of military cooperation as one of the reasons behind the growing rift between the United States and the Karzai administration:
“There are many factors behind the escalation of these problems and one of the main factors is the arbitrary military operations of the foreign forces. They do not observe the Islamic laws or the Afghan traditions. Every time they promise to coordinate their operations with the Afghan national army and police, but despite their promises they continue their arbitrary operations and they have spent seven years with such indifference and politics instead of making an effort” (Rah-e Nejat [Kabul], January 25).
A Dari-language newspaper suggested a basic incompatibility between Western and Islamic systems of governance was behind the rift:
“Over the past few years, Americans have been trying to impose their own, applied interpretation of some values such as human rights, free speech and democracy on Muslim nations and not allowing these nations to evaluate, amend and harmonize these interpretations with their national and Islamic values. We have obviously been witness to this soft attack on Afghanistan” (Cheragh [Kabul], January 28).
The Afghan president has also issued a warning to the international community about Afghanistan’s urgent need for warplanes, tanks, and other military equipment: “We need an air force and jets and we can’t wait for that. Our international allies should provide us with that. We can’t tolerate not having modern tanks and jet fighters. If you don’t provide that we will it get from other countries” (Radio Free Europe, January 26). While Karzai did not mention Russia by name, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has already responded positively to an Afghan request for assistance in arming Afghanistan’s military. An editorial in another Dari-language Afghan daily described the shift towards the once-hated Russians:
“The Afghan government leaders have realized now that the Afghan people do not have sensitivities against the Russians as in the past. The Afghan people now prefer Russians to Westerners given the West’s failure over the past seven years. It is clearly said by the people that at least the Russians [i.e. the Soviets] were acting in a magnanimous way in their economic and military support [in the 1980s] and our people were not poor” (Payman Daily, January 27).
The Taliban leadership also gave their expectations of the Obama presidency in a Pashto-language statement on the official Taliban website:
“[President Obama] should completely withdraw his forces from the two occupied countries of Afghanistan and Iraq and he should end support for Israel, which is against Islamic interests in the Middle East and in the entire world.
“Obama should have by now realized that increasing military forces and the logic of the use of force against the independent nations of the world have totally lost their meaning and no longer have any chance of being implemented anywhere…
“Today the American superpower is grappling with difficult economic and financial problems in addition to numerous security, political and military problems because of its arrogant and expansionist policies. These are the kind of problems that in the eighth decade of the last century caused the destruction of another arrogant [communist] empire from the face of the earth.
“Therefore, in order not to suffer the fate of the communist empire, it is essential for Obama to take steps which will have the message of peace and stability to the world and which will also protect his nation and administration from the danger of annihilation” (Sawt al-Jihad, January 26).
Understanding Afghans’ expectations of the Obama administration is key to understanding how Afghanistan’s relationship with the United States will develop over the next four years. These expectations include stabilizing Afghanistan, combating terrorism, and reducing Afghans’ concerns over the conduct of Coalition forces. Moreover, the forthcoming August 20 presidential elections in Afghanistan are the main hope of Afghans desiring change. Most Afghans are tired of the past seven years of conflict and are hopeful that President Obama will support a consensus candidate in Afghanistan.