Is Hamid Karzai a reliable partner in Afghanistan?

Military analysis.
April 5 2010 7:28 PM

Has Karzai Gone Crazy?

What matters is whether he's a reliable partner.

Hamid Karzai. Click image to expand.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai

What is to be done about Hamid Karzai? The short answer is: not much.

These past few years, since the revival of counterinsurgency doctrine, the U.S. military has learned much about "asymmetrical conflicts," in which an ostensibly powerful nation (e.g., the United States) finds itself outmaneuvered by considerably weaker adversaries (e.g., al-Qaida, the Taliban) who have figured out how to tap our vulnerabilities.

It seems that the president of Afghanistan has been learning his own lessons about how to play this game.

Karzai's regime—its sovereignty, budget, army, police, even his personal security—depends entirely on the United States, NATO, and a handful of other foreign allies.

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The Western powers have committed so much to the war because they see it as important to their security. Precisely because they have—and keep saying that they have—so much stake in Afghanistan, Karzai understands that he has much more leverage than the simple math might suggest.

It's like the old joke: If you owe the bank $1 million, the bank owns you; if you owe the bank $1 billion, you own the bank. We're the bank, and Karzai's the one in unfathomably deep debt, but he's calculating that we won't foreclose precisely because of this relationship (a politico-military equivalent of "too big to fail"), and he's probably right.

This may explain Karzai's latest string of eruptions. On April 1, he accused the West of trying to rig last fall's Afghan presidential elections (which, in fact, he had so blatantly rigged himself) and criticized the Western military coalition (which is all that's separating him from a rope and a lamp post) as invaders who are legitimizing the Taliban as a movement of "national resistance."

When it was clear that the objects of his attack were not amused, Karzai phoned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to apologize for any misunderstandings that his remarks might have caused. Then, over the weekend, he escalated the rhetoric. At a meeting with Afghan parliamentarians who had rejected a decree that would give Karzai the power to appoint all members of the currently independent Electoral Complaints Commission (and thus total power over elections, making him potentially president-for-life), he said, "If you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban."

He also assured a group of tribal elders in Kandahar that he would cancel NATO's military operations in the province—which have been (very carefully) planned for the summer and which form the foundation for President Barack Obama's new strategy—if they didn't want it to go ahead.

Some U.S. officials, who have grown accustomed to Karzai's tantrums over the years, say these latest outbursts are beyond the pale and raise troubling questions about the whole military mission.

The point of our counterinsurgency campaign is not so much to destroy the enemy but, rather, to protect the Afghan people—to provide them with security so that the Afghan government can deliver basic services and thus earn the people's trust and allegiance, luring them away from the Taliban and other insurgents.

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, put it in a memo last year, the war's focus must be on "the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population, by, with, and through the Afghan government." (Italics added.)

When McChrystal wrote that memo, the big concern was that the Karzai regime's pervasive corruption might undermine his legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people. If so, even the most brilliantly executed military campaign would fail to accomplish its political objectives, because it would be impossible to provide services "by, with, and through" a distrusted Afghan government.

However, Karzai's latest remarks raise a more alarming question still: Is it possible for Western governments to work by, with, and through an Afghan president who denounces them at every turn, even to the point of characterizing them as imperialist invaders, thus affirming the main talking point of the Taliban and al-Qaida?

The issue here is not Karzai's peevishness or ingratitude. The issue is whether, under the circumstances, a counterinsurgency campaign can work—whether we're wasting lives and money.

One key question, which U.S. officials are exploring, is whether this rupture with Karzai can be mended. Some officials cite a chronology of events that suggests we may have (unwittingly) sent him off the deep end and that, therefore, we might be able to calm him back down.

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