Friday, March 29, 2013

Is it Really Hamid Karzai Who is Confused?

Stephen Biddle and Michael O'Hanlon opine,
For most Americans, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s words and actions are difficult to understand and hard to accept. He often seems ungrateful for the efforts of U.S. troops, cavalier in his ideas of how to change the Afghan-NATO military campaign and irresolute in his commitment to the war effort. He has suggested that our troops stay out of Afghan villages even before Afghan forces are ready to handle security there. He has chastised NATO soldiers for occasional, and clearly unintentional, mistakes that led to civilian casualties. He has withheld a promise to give our troops legal immunity if they stay in his country beyond 2014. He has even equated the U.S. role in prolonging the war with that of the Taliban.

We are among those who wish Karzai would stop this behavior.
So far, nothing to explain Karzai's behavior, just a wish that it will stop. Insert obligatory 'wish' clip here:



Come on. It's not like Karzai's the new kid in town. He was selected to govern Afghanistan more than a decade ago. His predilections are well known and, at this point, even predictable. The authors explain,
Karzai is not, as some have claimed, crazy or a fool. He is confused.
Seriously, he was selected by the U.S. and put in charge of Afghanistan back in 2001. He's been presiding over as much of his country as the U.S. can control for more than a decade, he has access to local Afghans, the military, the CIA, U.S. political leaders, and... he's confused? If that's true, then he is fairly characterized as a fool. If he's no fool, it stands to reason that the people who are confounded by his actions are the ones best characterized as confused.
In his view, the world’s only superpower is surely able to defeat a ragtag force of Taliban guerrillas — if it really wanted to. In his view, the United States could surely force Pakistan to stop harboring Afghan Taliban insurgents — if it really wanted to. Yet Washington does neither. On the contrary, Karzai watches Americans look the other way while their logistical contracts are siphoned off to support the Taliban (albeit less so lately), and he sees Americans give billions of dollars in aid each year to their ostensible Pakistani tormentors. Karzai concludes that there must be some hidden reason for the apparent contradictions.
We could start by traveling back in time to 2002 or so, when people like Michael O'Hanlon were cautioning us that an invasion and occupation of Iraq would require a massive military force and many years to complete, then proceeded to cheerlead for military intervention. Somebody in the position of Hamid Karzai might look at the shift of attention and military resources from Afghanistan, the Taliban and the ungoverned regions of Pakistan, as evidence that the U.S. could have done more for Afghanistan and its immediate region but chose other priorities. The authors admit as much in their essay - while conveniently neglecting to mention O'Hanlon's own support for the Iraq war.

A president of a nation like Afghanistan might consider, "What happened to the last president of this nation, put in place by a foreign power, after that power's priorities changed," and be a bit... nervous. Particularly if he considers that during the last years of that president's rule, after withdrawal of the foreign power, the western world looked on and speculated, "How long can the Soviet puppet government last," with it eventually collapsing and being replaced by the Taliban, in early 2001 received significant U.S. financial support based upon their being anti-drug.

The message to Karzai, or anybody else in his position, is that they can only count on the U.S. to serve its own interests, and that once the U.S. withdraws they have to choose between staying in the country and trying to govern based upon their own political and military power, or getting out before another collapse. A lot of people in Karzai's administration seem focused on the latter approach - skim and loot as much money as possible, stash it overseas, and prepare for a very comfortable "life in exile". But if you give Karzai the benefit of the doubt, he is not so much trying to undermine the U.S. as he is trying to position himself to survive and govern once the U.S. withdraws - so again, if we're assuming Karzai is no fool, while we might prefer that he not engage in acts of self-preservation that conflict with U.S. goals for the region, and while we may prefer that he find other ways to prepare for the future, we should not find his actions to be confusing.

The authors concede that many of Karzai's "apparent contradictions are unintended byproducts of U.S. efforts to craft a nuanced policy". That is, a balance between the "limited" security interests of the U.S. in Afghanistan, vs. concerns about al-Qaeda. The authors don't mention that a stable Pakistan is considerably more important to the U.S. than a stable Afghanistan. By this point the authors are contradicting their earlier insinuation, that Karzai is inferring "hidden reason for the apparent contradictions" in U.S. policy, and are effectively admitting that the U.S. could do more to defeat Afghan guerrillas or to pressure Pakistan (or act unilaterally) to strike Taliban forces on the other side of the Pakistani border, but that the U.S. has other priorities.

In the author's words, Karzai "frequently elevate his domestic political interests above the needs of his alliance with the United States or of the war effort." That's not "confusion" - that's grasping the reality of the situation. To the extent that the authors are correct, that Karzai displays a level of emotional instability that is not helpful, it's reasonable to respond that his personality is no secret. Whether is outbursts are genuine or calculated, it's reasonable to infer that he does enough to advance U.S. interests to remain in power. The fact that he's engaging in actions that frustrate O'Hanlon and Biddle suggests that he wants to maintain that hold on power, rather than hopping onto the last helicopter out of Kabul when U.S. forces finally depart. Frankly, if you're concerned about the future of Afghanistan, you should be more concerned about a president who always bends to the will of the U.S., as odds are he's planning a future in exile and... if he's not, odds are you'll be dealing with his successor a very short time after U.S. forces withdraw.

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