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Afghan President Karzai's angry ultimatums have parallels in post-colonial Africa

After the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a US Army sergeant, Afghan President Karzai told the US to speed up withdrawal. Post-colonial experience from Africa suggests that US departure may not be pretty.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / March 15, 2012

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (r.) talks with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai during a visit to the Presidential Palace in Kabul on Thursday.

Scott Olson/Reuters

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It’s been a rough few weeks for the US-Afghan relationship.

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First, some NATO soldiers were found to have burned copies of the Islamic holy book, the Quran, in an open trash heap. That sparked riots that killed more than 30. Then, last week, a US Army sergeant went off his base in Kandahar Province and murdered 16 Afghan civilians.

Small surprise, then, that Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued the US military an ultimatum. Though very few believe Karzai when he says it’s time for the US to go, this may be the last straw for Afghanistan. The world has seen this type of thing before: There are strong parallels between Karzai's warnings and those of post-colonial leaders toward their European colonizers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

Meeting with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Kabul, Karzai reportedly told Mr. Panetta that US-led international forces should “be withdrawn from villages and relocated in their bases.”

“We’re ready to take over all security responsibilities now,” Karzai reportedly told Panetta, according to Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizi, as reported by Agence France-Presse. “We’d prefer that the process be completed in 2013, not 2014.”

So that’s it, then: a pull back from using military outposts in favor of larger bases, and a pullout by 2013.

Here’s the problem: Karzai has issued any number of “last warnings” over the years, and many Afghans agree that the thrill, if it ever existed, of such ultimatums is gone. Afghan observers note that Karzai has a penchant for making tough anti-American speeches for his own increasingly disenchanted Afghan domestic audience, and then dialing back those tough words later on in conversation with Western leaders.

Still, with relations deteriorating between Washington and Kabul, and with a declared withdrawal date of 2014, there is something about Karzai’s words that bears a tone of finality.

Old Afghan hands such as Monitor correspondent Tom Peter point to a string of Karzai statements that suggested this day would come.

  • In March 2011, Karzai appeared to fan the flames of local anger regarding the burning of Qurans by Florida preacher Terry Jones, calling the burning a “crime against a religion and entire Muslim umma [community]." Days later, protesters in Mazar-e-Sharif attacked a UN guesthouse and killed seven foreign aid workers there. 
  • In April 2011, after a NATO airstrike killed 14 civilians in Helmand Province, Karzai called the attack “murder” and his office issued what it called his “last warning to the US troops and US officials in this regard.” 
  • And in June 2011, Karzai told participants of a youth conference that US and NATO troops were “using our country.” “The nations of the world, which are here in our country are here for their own national interests,” he said at the conference, held in the Presidential Palace in Kabul.
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