WASHINGTON The West's ongoing failure to wipe out bases in neighbouring Pakistan, where jihadists fled after their 2001 defeat in Afghanistan, is to blame for the spreading extremist cancer now threatening both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday.
“The return of the Taliban is because we did not address the question of sanctuaries in time,” Mr. Karzai said in Washington on the eve of trilateral talks with U.S. President Barack Obama and Pakistan's new civilian President Asif Ali Zardari.
Mr. Karzai, who is fighting for his political life, was careful not to blame Pakistan for the massive surge in Taliban violence across southern and eastern Afghanistan, but the insurgents operate largely without interference from inside Pakistan.
“Unfortunately, today Pakistan is suffering with us massively as a consequence” of the failure to crush the Taliban, Mr. Karzai said.
The Afghan President is treading carefully, caught in a political minefield. The new U.S. administration has hedged its bets on backing Mr. Karzai in an election he faces in August. Mr. Obama has called the Afghan government corrupt and weak, all but echoing critics' accusations that the erudite and sophisticated politician backed from the beginning by the Bush administration is little more than the mayor of Kabul.
Mr. Karzai, meanwhile, has increasingly denounced Western air strikes (mostly but not entirely American) as unjustified and cavalier, blaming them for unnecessarily killing innocent civilians and blackening the U.S. reputation in Afghanistan.
If he is to hold onto the presidency, Mr. Karzai must retain both the backing of Washington and be seen as a proud and independent leader.
At the Brookings Institution, a leading Washington think tank, Tuesday, the Afghan President was pushing the long view; saying that in 10 or 15 years he expects Afghanistan will be “less of a burden, more of a partner.”
Yet with several Western countries, including Canada, vowing to quit combat operations in Afghanistan by 2011, the long view is increasingly dependant on Mr. Obama's new policies for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mr. Karzai wants Mr. Obama to match his promises of a military surge that will add tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and Marines – boosting the number of foreign troops to more than 100,000 – with a similar surge of civilian experts and development money. He said the “war against terror will succeed only if we fight it from a platform of higher morality,” adding that that meant “we must prove that we are better than the guys we are fighting against.”
But even as Mr. Karzai positions himself for re-election, including selecting as running mate a powerful former mujahedeen leader widely decried in the West as a warlord, Washington's focus is growing from Afghanistan to the far greater danger posed by Pakistan.
While Mr. Obama has tried to craft a new common policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the emerging reality is that the problems in Pakistan – with a shaky government, a nuclear arsenal, a track record of illicit proliferation and large sections of the country beyond the control of the government – are threatening to eclipse the problem in Afghanistan.
Washington's conundrum is that it can send tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan, but the heartland of the Islamic insurgency has shifted across the mountainous border into Pakistan. Aside from pinprick missile attacks launched from unmanned aircraft based in Afghanistan, there is little the United States can do militarily in Pakistan.
Mr. Obama meets with both the Afghan and Pakistan presidents Wednesday seeking to hammer out some sort of trilateral strategy that could avert the nightmare scenario of a Taliban or Islamic extremist triumph in either or both states.