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Obama leads mounting tension between the US and Afghan government

Afghanistan’s government has sent a draft document to NATO asking for greater control of foreign troops on its soil. Following the Status of Forces Agreement between the US and Iraq, Afghanistan’s President, Karzai, requested a clear timeline of activities and presence for foreign troops in Afghanistan. This didn’t seem to go anywhere concrete at the time. However, Ynet has published an AP report that is a follow-up to the request, suggesting that Karzai wants clearer guidelines on NATO deployments in Afghanistan, including increased Afghan sovereignty on security issues.

Here’s a clipping: “The Afghan government has sent NATO headquarters a draft agreement that would give Afghanistan more control over future NATO deployments in the country – including the positioning of some US troops, officials said Tuesday.”

Undoubtedly, Karzai is also feeling pressure from the upcoming Presidential elections in his country, to take place in the second half of this year. NATO and US presence has grown increasingly unpopular with locals as civilian casualties mount from international forces’ air strikes, while the country has generally stalled economically.

Tensions have been mounting between the Karzai government on one side and the US and NATO on the other. The Obama administration in waiting (to take office today) has so far taken a hard stance against Karzai’s leadership and relations between the two administrations are going to start on a low. NATO chief, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, criticized Karzai in a Washington Post op-ed following similar criticism from Obama’s camp. Scheffer: “the basic problem in Afghanistan is not too much Taliban; it’s too little good governance.”

Karzai has challenged the West to change its strategy in Afghanistan, citing civilian deaths and failure at economic development are fueling the insurgency.

Karzai’s speech in Parliament was interrupted in Kabul by controlled explosions from a nearby US run military training facility. The noise of the explosions alarmed Kabul’s residents, highlighting the insecurity and fear that exists even in the capital city. A suicide car bomb had detonated in Kabul only a few days earlier, on 17 January, killing four Afghan civilians and one US soldier. A US forces spokesperson did not comment on why today’s controlled explosions, presumably part of a training exercise, were timed such that they coincided with Karzai’s Parliamentary speech opening the legislative body’s fourth session.

Prolonged US and NATO opposition to Karzai will seriously undermine his already fragile authority and hurt his chances at electoral victory. The Afghan state is heavily dependent on foreign funds for its basic functioning, giving particularly the US a lot of influence over Afghanistan’s internal politics. The connection between foreign funding and foreign influence have been a common theme in Afghanistan’s very troubled modern history. Former Indian diplomat and regular contributor to Asia Times, M.K. Bhadrakumar has a revealing article on this subject online.

Reuters identifies some differences between the Bush and Obama administrations’ stated objectives in Afghanistan.

Bush: “His declared goals were to defeat the Taliban, create a stable democracy and promote economic development, but he turned his attention quickly to Iraq before the task was done.”

Obama: “Asked in a Reuters interview last July what would constitute success in Afghanistan, Obama said: “I think our goals have to be very modest but they will still be very difficult to meet. We should want a functioning Afghan government that can maintain its own security and territorial integrity… Our highest priority is making sure that the Taliban and al Qaeda can’t continue to use that region from which to launch attacks around the world. If we have routed them and scattered them, that would be success.”

Afghan refugees have for decades been displaced by war. The border with Pakistan is one of the areas that is commonly traversed to escape violence. Fighting in Pakistan’s western region has forced a number of Afghans to flee, back into Afghanistan. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Nadir Farad told RFE/RL that “more than 2,000 families have returned to Afghanistan in recent months and are in urgent need of shelter. The UNHCR noted that many Pakistani families are also entering Afghanistan as refugees in an attempt to flee the violence.

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