Meeting with Karzai opponents highlights U.S. policy dispute

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 16, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Four members of the House of Representatives held talks last month in Europe with leaders of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities, including a former vice president, opposed to President Hamid Karzai and his U.S.-backed initiative to open political negotiations with the Taliban.

The delegation of three Republicans and one Democrat was organized by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who said he shares the minority leaders' objections to a deal with the Taliban, as well as their demand for changes to reduce Karzai's powers and allow greater provincial autonomy.

"None of the people of Afghanistan except for the crooks at the top are interested in a central government with all the power," Rohrabacher said in a telephone interview last week. "That's the model that we have been trying to force with our military . . . on the people of Afghanistan."

Several experts cautioned that the July 31 meeting in Berlin could fuel the distrust with which Karzai regards the U.S. because of tensions over issues like high-level official corruption and the extensive fraud that marred his re-election last year to a second five-year term.

"Karzai is prone to seeing conspiracies everywhere and he has been concerned that the United States would desert him before he deserted the United States," said Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "He could conceivably take any meeting like this as a back-channel effort to replace him."

That possibility doesn't appear to bother Rohrabacher.

"We hope that there is a message in this that Karzai had better understand that we are aware that there is adamant opposition to any proposal to bring the Taliban back into this government," said Rohrabacher, who's been involved with Afghanistan since the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.

In addition to Rohrabacher, the Berlin talks were attended by Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-Md. Several U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials also were present, Rohrabacher said.

Rohrabacher is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, while Hunter is on the Armed Services Committee, Gohmert is on the Judiciary Committee and Ruppersberger is on the Intelligence Committee.

The Afghans in Berlin "don't feel the United States is listening to them because of our relationship with Karzai," Ruppersberger said.

The State Department declined to comment, but a senior official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, said: "We don't have any particular concerns."

The meeting was held as Karzai pursues — with the blessings of the United States and its NATO allies and at the urging of Pakistan — an effort to open talks with the Taliban and allied groups on a political agreement to end the nearly nine-year war.

Karzai's national reconciliation initiative has ignited tensions with leaders of the Northern Alliance, the now-disbanded force of mostly minority Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras that drove the Taliban from power with the help of U.S. air power in 2001.

He's purged most former Northern Alliance leaders from top positions, leaving his inner circle dominated by Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group, who traditionally have governed Afghanistan. They also dominate the Taliban and live mostly in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara leaders, whose communities are mostly in central and northern Afghanistan and who battled the Taliban takeover in the 1990s, oppose a power-sharing deal. They fear that the minorities will be marginalized and that the Taliban will renege on any agreement and move to reimpose their harsh brand of Islamic rule.

"The current system has taken the shape of a dictatorship. We want more authority given to the provinces," Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq, one of the Afghans who met the House members, told McClatchy in Kabul.

Mohaqiq was joined in Berlin by Ahmad Zia Massoud, the brother of Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by two al Qaida operatives two days before Sept. 11, 2001. Ahmad Zia Massoud, a Tajik, served as the senior of two vice presidents during Karzai's first term.

Also with them were Mohaqiq's deputy, Hussain Ali Yasa, and Faizullah Zaki, a lawmaker and top aide to the notorious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former communist general who played key role in ousting the Taliban and allegedly allowed the murder of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners.

Rohrabacher's involvement with Afghanistan began during the Soviet occupation, when he served as a speechwriter for the late President Ronald Reagan. He entered the country with U.S.-backed rebels in 1988 after winning election to his first term, and then again during Taliban rule.

He said the only way to stabilize Afghanistan would be for the U.S. to withdraw its nearly 100,000 troops, back the minorities' demand for more autonomy and help them rebuild their own militias and take over the fight against the Taliban.

"We can beat the radicals in Afghanistan. We can't do it by trying to force people to accept a centralized government that is totally contrary to their culture," he said.

Ruppersberger said he told the Afghan leaders that they should strengthen their regions, in part through mobilizing voters and developing natural resources, which in some areas include extensive mineral deposits. However, he cautioned them that they should work within Afghanistan's "democratic structure," rather than try to oust Karzai from office.

"I kept saying, you've got the resources, you've got the numbers, you just have to organize them," Ruppersberger said.

Rohrabacher joined liberal Democrats in July in unsuccessfully opposing House approval of $33 billion in emergency funds to support the surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops being sent to Afghanistan under President Barack Obama's counterinsurgency strategy.

"I voted against it because I don't believe in sending troops to do something that can't be done," Rohrabacher said. "Wasting American lives on . . . sending them to accomplish a mission that no one can accomplish via the military is immoral. I'm not going send our troops off to have their legs turned into hamburger or their wives turned into widows if there is no chance that they are going to have a success in their mission and it's going to appreciably make our country safer."

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