The so-called "fighting season" is over and an Afghan leader's fancy can turn to antagonizing his American patrons for amusement over the cold winter months.
Sure, NATO soldiers, the bulk of them Americans, will be fighting and dying to protect his government in Kabul even as winter embraces Afghanistan, but President Hamid Karzai will probably get even more latitude than normal for airing his views. This is among his favorite times of year to lash out at the Western powers who have given so much so that he can lead Afghanistan. Last October, he said Afghanistan would back Pakistan if the US ever ended up going to war with Afghanistan's neighbor. In April 2010, he sought to blame the UN and the EU for Afghanistan electoral fraud.
This time, Mr. Karzai is unhappy about the International Crisis Group, probably the world's leading think tank when it comes to unbiased, factual reporting on conflict (full disclosure; I briefly worked on contract for ICG 12 years ago helping to write a report on religious wars in eastern Indonesia). The Brussels-based research organization receives much of its funding from the European Union and the US, but has established a reputation for independent analysis in its 17 years of work.
Earlier today, a Karzai spokesman said the government was investigating the ICG for possible legal action, complaining that "the ICG reports and activities have been politically motivated" and that "it is detrimental to Afghanistan's national interests and no country will allow such activities by a foreign organisation."
What has so upset Karzai, who returned to power in a fraud-riddled election in 2009 (Afghan elections in general are driven by vote-buying, intimidation, and stuffed ballot boxes)? Well, the ICG had the temerity to suggest in October that Afghanistan is an unstable place that could easily descend into widespread civil war again. As the first sentence of the ICG's executive summary had it: "Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014."
That is as uncontroversial a sentence about the current reality of Afghanistan as one could concoct. That the country is one of the most corrupt in the world, enabled by the billions of aid money and reconstruction spending that sloughed through Kabul over the past decade, is not an opinion. It's a fact. That Afghan government security forces have consistently failed at demonstrating they can operate on their own is likewise not open to interpretation; the Afghan National Army's operations rely on a $4 billion annual subsidy from the US, and the US military continues to run logistics for the Afghans.
The ICG also reported that "there are alarming signs Karzai hopes to stack the deck for a favoured proxy" before scheduled 2014 presidential elections, when Karzai will be term-limited out. The Afghan president might not like this being discussed, but fraud and vote-buying are practically the whole point of the Afghan electoral process.
While the State Department and other government-affiliated agencies like to talk about the wonders of Afghan voting, as if there's merit in the simple act itself, voting in the country has been largely drained of any democratic meaning since backroom deals between warlords and fraudulent counts are where the rubber hits the road.
So, the ICG is only telling the truth. But it now faces sanction for truth-telling, by the very man who the US installed as leader of Afghanistan at such great cost in blood and treasure. And that is the broader context.
Karzai has for years been able to tweak the nose of his US patrons with impunity, on the so-far correct assumption that the US would never withdraw support and risk possibly worse alternatives.
But the era when it was safe to assume that the dollars and the foreign soldiers would keep rolling no matter what he did is probably coming to a close. Whether Obama retains the presidency on Tuesday night or Mitt Romney replaces him, US troops are almost certainly heading for the exits in the next two years. The American people are weary of war, have already endured the Afghan one longer than any other in our history, and Osama bin Laden is dead.
The lack of Afghanistan discussion in the US presidential campaign was largely because there's little daylight between the two men's positions on the country.
So, Karzai can seek to stifle truth telling, to lash out at the biases of the tricksy foreigners that he's grown weary of relying on. But a train of change is coming to Afghanistan, whether he wants to see it or not.