In London speech, will Karzai bite the hand that feeds him?

KABUL, Afghanistan — When 60 or more nations convene in London Thursday to discuss Afghanistan's future, the script calls for agreement on plans to split the Taliban insurgency, a process to reach an eventual political settlement, improvements in governance and the battle against corruption.

What everyone's bracing for is the unscripted — when Afghan President Hamid Karzai takes the podium.

"In the past, President Karzai has occasionally used public speeches to say things that seem pretty harsh to us," said one U.S. official in Kabul, who like others spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Karzai won't be begging for more from the U.S. and the more than 40 other nations who've sent forces and treasure to Afghanistan to prevent the Islamist insurgency from regaining power. He'll ask them to do less.

"We're not going to ask for more cash. We're going to ask the international community to end nighttime raids on Afghan homes, to stop arresting Afghans, to reduce and eliminate civilian casualties. We're going to ask them not to have Afghan prisoners taken," Karzai told Al Jazeera television early in the month.

Biting the hand that feeds him won't win him popularity with Westerners wary of sending their forces here, but a confrontational stance could add to his popular appeal in a country at war since 1979, that was twice abandoned by the U.S.

"With the international community, I don't have to have their favor. They are here for a purpose, which is the fight on terror . . . " he told Al Jazeera. However, Karzai acknowledged that seeking stability in Afghanistan is a common purpose of Afghans and the world community.

At least one Afghan commentator, Haroun Amir, director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy, thinks that Karzai "needs some rest."

"People in Afghanistan are asking: 'is this guy out of his mind?'," Amir told McClatchy.

The Afghan president seems most annoyed with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and other officials critical of his fraud-tainted re-election last summer, and the feeling seems to be mutual.

Eikenberry's standing could suffer still more after the leak of his secret Nov. 9 cable published Tuesday by the New York Times. Eikenberry said in the cable that Karzai is "not an adequate strategic partner," because he "continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden." He urged President Obama not to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops here, a stance that didn't endear him to the U.S. military or top officials in the State Department.

U.S. officials say Eikenberry and Karzai do show mutual respect and trust but acknowledged that there are "strains" in the relationship. Eikenberry will be attending the London meeting.

Rhetoric aside, there is accord in some key areas that should help shape this remote nation's future.

The most complex is dealing with the Taliban insurgency. A plan to reintegrate low and mid-level Taliban soldiers into Afghan life will be formally unveiled, which if it works could eventually cost Afghanistan's benefactors, led by the U.S., hundreds of millions of dollars.

The most controversial area is "reconciliation," shorthand for negotiating with the Taliban. Pakistan has offered to be a mediator in a power-sharing arrangement between the Karzai government and the Taliban. However, Pakistan also provides sanctuary to Afghan insurgents in its lawless tribal areas, from which they draw suicide bombers and fighters, and the ability to resupply forces in the field, and neither Karzai nor the Taliban, apparently, want to be beholden to Pakistan.

United Nations officials say Karzai is willing to bring Taliban into his cabinet and to appoint Taliban to district governorships provided they fulfill three tough conditions. They must abandon violence, accept the Afghan constitution — with its guarantees for women's rights — and break all ties with al Qaida.

For the moment only one serious advance toward peace talks will occur, and that is to end travel sanctions and freezing of assets for five former Taliban officials. Russia informed the U.N. Security Council Monday that it had agreed to lift the sanctions. They include Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, now living in Kabul.

The problem, from the government people respective, is that the Taliban leadership, who now have named shadow governors in nearly every province of the country, have no intention of talking.

The Afghan National Security Directorate, the country's premier intelligence agency, says the only thing that will drive the Taliban to talks is pressure by Pakistan. Pakistan should arrest the leadership . . . severely restrict the freedom of movement, and end their impunity, in order to bring that pressure to bear, a senior NDS official told McClatchy last week. He could not be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

There is no sign, however, that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency or its army is willing to do anything of the kind, according to U.N. officials and Western diplomats.

Karzai intends to take the lead in trying to woo Taliban of every level into supporting the government. He added a note of confusion, however, in a BBC interview last week when he said he favored "peace at any cost" — a phrase associated with Western governments' appeasement of Hitler the late 1930s.

Despite the Western perspective on the futility of talks with the Taliban, McClatchy reported this week that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar might be open to negotiations over a political settlement to the war.

Brigadier Sultan Amir Tarar, a former operative of Pakistan's premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, told McClatchy that he was sure Omar would talk because any bellicose bid to split the Taliban insurgency would fail, said Tarar, who knows Omar personally.

The London conference is expected to discuss and approve plans prepared in the past two months by Afghan experts on ending corruption, improving governance and coordinating international development programs.

The test will be in the implementations, however. "Papers are papers," one Western diplomat said.

(McClatchy special correspondent Saeed Shah in Islamabad contributed to this article.)


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