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.

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

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

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 Panetta that US-led international forces should “be withdrawn from villages and relocated in their bases.”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.

Mr. Obama, for his part, said this week that the US had no intention of staying any longer than necessary in Afghanistan, but in an interview with CBS affiliate KDKA, he added, “it's important for us to make sure that we get out in responsible way, so that we don't end up having to go back in ... but what we don't want to do is to do it in a way that is just a rush for the exits."

Afghanistan and Congo, Ghana parallels 

While Karzai may be playing domestic politics by voicing the growing Afghan exasperation over misdeeds by US forces, consider the similarity of his tone to these examples from some of Africa's first post-colonial leaders, which seriously complicated the ends of those relationships. There are also strong parallels between Karzai’s outbursts and those of post-colonial leaders toward their European colonizers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which seriously complicated the ends of those relationships.

Consider the barely veiled contempt of Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of the newly liberated Democratic Republic of Congo, in his liberation day speech. With the king of Belgium – Congo’s former colonial ruler – seated beside him, Mr. Lumumba said: “For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood.”

“We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being,” he continued as the Belgian king reportedly sat stone-faced, “for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.”

Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, in his liberation day speech of March 6, 1957, spent no time thanking his former British colonial masters for their time and effort in developing a 20th century Ghana.

For Nkrumah, physical liberation from British troops and administrators was only the first step. The real liberation would come when Ghanaians freed their minds from the belief that they needed the British to be present to make their country run.

From now on, today, we must change our attitudes and our minds. We must realize that from now on we are no longer a colonial but free and independent people. But also, as I pointed out, that also entails hard work. That new African is ready to fight his own battles and show that after all, the black man is capable of managing his own affairs.

If Karzai is following the similar anticolonial path of Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah, the US government should not be waiting for a “thank you.”



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