Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Another week, another shura for Afghanistan’s Karzai
Afghan President Hamid Karzai seems to be making a habit of going to shuras, or meeting of local elders, across the country in recent weeks. After attending shuras in Marjah, Tirin Kot and Kandahar over the past month and a half, Karzai flew to Kunduz in the north this past weekend for another meeting with tribal elders. The U.S. military took a group of journalists to the town to watch the Afghan leader in action, his presence at shuras being a part of a carefully choreographed “hearts and minds” campaign aimed at getting local support for NATO operations in the area.
That the security situation in Kunduz is of concern seemed apparent soon after we got off our military plane from Kabul. Greeted by our German military hosts, we were bundled into heavy flak jackets for a bumpy 5 minute ride at breakneck speed from the airfield to the provincial reconstruction team base. As we listened to the standard instructions on what to do during a rocket attack, we also learned the last time a rocket had hit the base was just the day before we arrived. Once seen as one of the safer parts of Afghanistan, Kunduz has emerged as a relatively new battlefront in the fight with the Taliban, who have made inroads into the area from their main strongholds in the south and the east.
At the Kunduz governor’s compound the next morning, the tight security net left no illusions about who was coming to town that day, even if Karzai’s visit had been kept a secret for security reasons. Guards frisked everyone, bags and equipment were put before sniffer dogs and then examined piece by piece. Once searched, tribal elders – some in bright green chapan coats, colourful turbans or traditional pakol hats – streamed in to the hall holding the shura. I marvelled at the quiet patience of the roughly 250 people assembled as we waited for Karzai to arrive. Finally, a clatter of helicopters overhead and then, in walked Karzai to a standing ovation and applause. A few minutes later, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, U.S. and NATO commander of forces in Afghanistan, made a much quieter entrance and took a seat in the front row with the audience, clearly leaving the show to the Afghan president.
There was no doubt Karzai was in his element at a gathering like this – joking, bantering and making promises to his captive audience. Presented with a black turban and chapan coat, Karzai warmly praised the colour of the coat. When a few children dressed in glittery pink and blue scarves and outfits walked through the aisles, Karzai interrupted his speech to tell the girls — “When I finish my speech, I’ll come to see you, little girls”. When a young man rose and made an impassioned plea for a university in the area, Karzai promised that would happen. As a litany of requests poured in — from more hospital beds to building roads – Karzai listened and nodded intently. When the shura was over, Karzai walked into the audience aisles, thronged by elders around him.
Back at the base, German troops waiting for Karzai to address them as promised didn’t have the same luck as the Kunduz elders. Rockets had landed near the base and the visit was cancelled at the last minute due to security reasons and a tight timetable. Audible boos went around among troops dutifully waiting by the helipad when the announcement was made. After starting with a flourish, the Karzai roadshow in Kunduz had abruptly ended.