Pitfalls of the Marja offensive
Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai has bent to strong American pressure to join the Marja city and Helmand Province offensives but his goal may be to keep the US and coalition forces in Afghanistan for a long time.
From the US viewpoint, the Marja offensive is the only course with a reasonable chance of creating the conditions for a Karzai administration take over, allowing the coalition to start exiting Afghanistan. This is because the two major cities of the country’s Pashtun regions, Marja and Kandahar, would be in coalition hands.
But Karzai is uncertain. His survival depends on continued American protection against the Taliban and others who see him as a collaborator of foreign invaders. He is a long-time ally of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaris from the North and West, who are bitter enemies of the Taliban in the South and East.
Marja, Kandahar and Helmand province are the historic heartland of the Pashtun territories of Afghanistan. But there are many kinds of Pashtuns and their internecine struggle for power in the region has become more intense. Fighting northerners or foreigners is secondary to their own wars.
The Taliban claim to be the area’s indigenous people but many other Afghan Pashtun see them as Pakistani communities spread over South and East Afghanistan. The origins of people speaking the Pashtun language are numerous depending on invaders and settlers, including an ancient Persian tribe, modern Persians, Greeks, Umayyad (Syria), Abbasid (Iraq), Shahiya (Central Asia), Mongol, and Timurid.
Alexander the Great probably founded Kandahar, which is Afghanistan’s second largest city. To this day, personal origins seem to matter more to the region’s people than a cohesive Pashtun ethnic identity despite a common language. In any case, speakers of Dari, a Persian derivative, are much more numerous than Pashtuns in Afghanistan.
For nearly two millennia, Kandahar was a trade hub regularly subdued by many foreign warlords. In 1994, it fell into the hands of the Taliban who later conquered Kabul but failed to snuff out resistance from a Northern Alliance of Tajiks and Uzbeks, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud. When the US took Kabul, the boots on the ground were from the Northern Alliance.
The Taliban had captured Kandahar from Gul Aga Sherzai, a local mujahidin warlord who fought Soviet occupation with help from the CIA. During the Soviet period, Hamid Karzai was a CIA asset helping the mujahidin. After October 2001, when the US navy started to shell Kandahar from the Gulf, Sherzai and Karzai used a private militia to push the Taliban out of the city.
The US invasion forced the Taliban to disperse into South and East Afghanistan and Pakistan but their hatred for Karzai is undimmed. He helped their mortal enemy Massoud and slipped into bed with Sherzai. He took over Afghanistan in collaboration with infidel foreigners. Before that, he and his father were strong supporters of the Afghan King Zahir Shah, also disdained by the Taliban as impious.
Now, the civil war in the Pashtun territories is between the Taliban and allies who see themselves as indigenous patriots and Karzai and his ilk as westernized Pashtun traitors allied to Northern intruders. They do not want ethnic balance in Kabul. They want preponderance of their kind of pro-Pakistani Pashtun. That is why they kill other Pashtuns and Muslims without hesitation.
If the new US counterinsurgency succeeds, carrying Marja and other cities forward to enough peace and prosperity to turn the locals against the Taliban is a long shot. This is because the Taliban are physically indistinguishable from others in the region. They may simply bury their weapons for a while to work from within to prevent success for a Karzai administration, even if by some miracle it were to become less corrupt.
The depth of this hatred for Karzai means that stability may not come until someone else administers the southern Pashtun territories. Since the Taliban cannot defeat NATO militarily to prevent a Karzai takeover, they can oust him only if their candidates win power through the democratic process.
Karzai’s credentials as a Pashtun are impeccable because he was born just a few miles from Kandahar. However, by Taliban standards he is a liberal influenced by such foreign thoughts as democracy and modern economic theory. Like many of Afghanistan’s elite, he studied in India where he saw democracy at work despite poverty.
Karzai fears that without prolonged NATO presence, his Taliban enemies will not allow him enough time to set the foundations of a modern state. He risks assassination at any time. So he will do whatever he can to prevent America from leaving until democracy is strong enough to reject the Taliban and its cohorts at the polls. That might take a few decades.