Karzai Broadsides U.S. with Call to Scale Back Operations

Four key members in the Obama administration for Afghanistan walk together on July 19, 2010 during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Afghanistan. From left to right: U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, Hillary Clinton, and the top US general in Afghanistan David Petraeus. (Photo taken by the US Embassy in Afghanistan)

Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared on Saturday that he wants the United States to reduce military operations in Afghanistan. The statement occurred during an interview with the Washington Post. Karzai asserted that Afghans have had enough with the high visibility of American soldiers and their armored vehicles. He said, “The time has come to reduce military operations…to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan…to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life.”

President Karzai also voiced his usual criticism of the US-led “night raids” into Afghan homes in search of insurgents. These raids occur mainly in the Pashtun-dominated southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan where the insurgency is the strongest. Karzai believes that they infringe on the honor of Afghan families and put innocent civilians in harm’s way. At times, the raids have erroneously targeted innocent people, some of whom were shot and killed.

While Karzai’s concern for Afghan civilian life is admirable, his call for what evidently would be a substantial reduction in military operations is worrisome. The US military “footprint” lessened in Iraq only after the insurgency in that country was brought under control, and when the Iraqi security forces were able to take responsibility for their nation’s security.

Afghanistan remains in a state of war and its security forces are not yet able to provide for Afghanistan’s security independent of international security forces. For the US to significantly scale back its military operations in the south and east of Afghanistan –during a fierce insurgency- would be to cede those troubled territories to the Taliban. Is this really what President Karzai wants –to give half of the country or more to the Taliban?

There are a few possible explanations for Karzai’s call for a reduction in US military operations. For one, understanding Karzai’s opinion of US operations in Afghanistan may reveal something of how Karzai understands his role as the “President” of Afghanistan. For most people, to be the president of a country means to be the commander-in-chief, or the leading government executive of a state whose territory is under the control of a single government. However, it is not clear that Karzai views his presidency in such terms.

It should be remembered that Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador for Afghanistan, challenged Karzai’s competency as commander-in-chief in two private cables sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November 2009. In the cables, Eikenberry disagreed with the military’s rational for the troop surge (he thought it was a bad idea) in part because he did not think that Hamid Karzai was an “adequate strategic partner”. As Eikenberry stated, “Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development.”

Put simply, perhaps Karzai wants US troops to scale down their operations because he does not see himself as the commander-in-chief of all of Afghanistan. Rather he views himself as a “warlord,” one that is more powerful then Afghanistan’s other strongmen but one who is limited to ruling just the capital, Kabul. A limited presidential role would be in-line with Afghanistan’s history of weak central government. However, a weak Afghan central government that is beset by the Taliban and does not have sovereign control of its territory is an Afghanistan that is not in control of its destiny.

Moreover, it is known that Karzai does not think that the US and NATO can defeat the insurgency, so if the insurgents refuse to make peace then in Karzai’s thinking the insurgency will continue indefinitely. Under such conditions, Karzai may calculate that Kabul will remain his primary zone of influence in the long term, and Afghanistan’s other strongmen will support him so long as international money keeps flowing their way through security and trucking contracts, for instance.

Under such circumstances, it would be in Karzai’s interest to keep international forces in Afghanistan to help prop him up militarily and financially, but at the same time to discourage the US and NATO from waging a full blown campaign to crush the insurgency. This scenario might seem crazy to Western minds but in Afghanistan strategic thinking is calibrated for survival in a ruthless world.

A second explanation for Karzai’s call for a lighter US military footprint is that the Iranian government and/or the Taliban are influencing him. For example, it is known that the Iranian government is passing “bags of money” to President Karzai at least once or twice a year. If this money is not accounted for then it can be used at Karzai’s discretion for winning patronage support according to Afghan custom. Such money gives the Iranian government a powerful voice in the Karzai administration, and Karzai’s chief of staff and most trusted advisor, Umar Daudzai, is vehemently pro-Iranian, anti-American, and the recipient of a part of that Iranian money.

The Karzai government is also in contact with key Taliban leaders. Officially, these contacts are not accomplishing anything substantive yet, such as outlining a roadmap for peace. However, what if these talks are in fact progressing? General David Petraeus, the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, stated in mid-October that NATO is “facilitating” Taliban leaders in their efforts to travel to Kabul and speak with President Karzai.

It seems unlikely that such extraordinary overtures from all parties in the Afghan conflict were made with the goal of accomplishing nothing. That said, what if secretly Karzai is making concessions to the Taliban? What if he has agreed to pressure the US military to reduce their counterinsurgency efforts?

Whatever the case may be, it is clear that scaling back US military operations during a full-blown insurgency is not in the interest of Afghanistan, but it would benefit the Iranian government, the Taliban, and even Pakistan since the Afghan Taliban is the Pakistani government’s tool for influencing Afghanistan. That President Karzai would advocate a national security policy that explicitly benefits Iran, the Taliban, and Pakistan to the detriment of the Afghan people reeks of foreign influence.

A third explanation for Karzai’s call for a scaling back of US military operations is that Karzai is engaging in a political maneuver to deflect public attention away from the failings of his own administration. The insurgency is partly driven by the corruption within the Karzai government. People within Karzai’s administration, and Karzai himself, are even blocking anti-corruption efforts to prosecute governors and cabinet members that are suspected of corruption.

Karzai’s call for the US to reduce its military operations is simplistic and misleading. It appeals to the patriotism of the average Afghan without acknowledging the government’s own role in discouraging insurgents from laying down their arms. In addition, Karzai is inferring that the US is a significant factor driving the insurgency. (Karzai also blames the Pakistani government for sponsoring the Taliban.)

While it is true that the Taliban has revised post-September 11th history, or simply misunderstood it, this error does not change the facts. The US helped to depose the Taliban in Afghanistan because that government sponsored al Qaeda and refused to hand over its members to the international community after the September 11th attacks. In other words, the Taliban can repeat all it wants to that it is fighting in order to expel the foreign invader, but foreign troops are in Afghanistan because of the Taliban.

In fact, contrary to Karzai’s assertion that Afghans are weary of American and NATO troops, and contrary to the Taliban’s revision of history, Afghans in general remain supportive for the need of international forces in their country. The Asia Foundation’s 2010 Afghanistan survey released earlier this month still indicates that Afghans in general remain optimistic about the direction of their country. Their biggest concerns are insecurity, unemployment, and corruption, not the fact that foreign troops are in their country, although they are concerned with civilian casualties and do not like night raids.

If the Taliban really wants to see NATO troops leave Afghanistan, then it should contribute to the stability and prosperity of Afghanistan by stopping the fighting and helping the country to build a new and better government. Afterwards, international forces can begin their drawdown as they did in Iraq.

Time will tell what the real motive is behind President Karzai’s call for the US to scale back its military options in the middle the war. Perhaps if he does not repeat his call then the long-term impact of his Washington Post interview will be minimal. It was announced yesterday that President Karzai affirmed his support for the counterinsurgency campaign and even the night raids after a briefing from General Petraeus.