U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry continued his globetrotting Monday with a surprise visit to Kabul, where the Taliban was, as always, at the top of the agenda. Upon arrival, the recently-installed diplomat sought to smooth tensions with President Hamid Karzai, who earlier this month went so far as to suggest that Americans and the extremist group share a desire to destabilize the young democracy.
Karzai, for his part, simply denied on Monday that he had suggested “collusion” was at play between the Taliban and the United States, which led a 2001 intervention into Afghanistan with the express wish of crushing the extremist group (and, for a time, had some success in driving it into hiding and isolation). These days, Americans (and Karzai, albeit with considerably less enthusiasm) have shifted course and now want to open up negotiations with the Taliban in hopes of achieving political reconciliation that might stabilize the government, a top priority in light of the pending withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Kerry and Karzai have worked together for years now, Kerry often serving as President Obama’s voice in the country while a senator, and their friendship is one of the few remaining links the White House has left to a regime that has begun to look ahead to its own political survival. Establishing some distance from the American occupiers seems like Karzai’s logical first step in shedding his image as an approved strongman of the West and fleshing out a new one as protector of Afghanistan’s national sovereignty, as well as a necessary bit of repositioning in order for Karzai and the Taliban to reach any kind of deal (a task made more urgent now that his political opponents are negotiating independently in a bid to outflank him). After all, though Karzai himself is expected to step aside and make room for a successor in elections next April, most outside observers expect there to be a candidate in the race that is clearly intended to attract his base and seek to maintain his legacy. Karzai would prefer that candidate to benefit from the association, rather than being tarred as the heir to a corrupt, Western-installed government. With mounting concern that the elections will be marred by ballot-stuffing and other irregularities that have plagued previous contests, Kerry nudged the president to ensure transparency. But Karzai promised only that the elections would be “free from all interference,” domestic or foreign — which presumably means international observers will be unwelcome.
Monday also heralded the transfer of control, from U.S. troops to the Afghans, of the Parwan prison at Bagram air base, a process that has been held up for months over a dispute about how to deal with hundreds of Taliban prisoners. Americans have expressed fear that imminent security threats might be liberated, though the Pentagon has indicated that some kind of compromise was hashed out (details remain murky). The prison flap nonetheless highlights the greatest danger to Afghan stability once foreign troops have left the country: that militants will come out of the woodwork and capsize a fragile democratic infrastructure. Kerry’s visit was intended in part to bolster Karzai’s hand, and to symbolize a continued commitment to the country even after the last helicopter has lifted off. But that one friendship will cement democracy in a nation plagued by violent extremism is difficult to envision. More likely, we have witnessed the last pow-wow between Kerry and Karzai before things take a more contentious turn.