Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hamid Karzai

Afghanistan After Karzai

It’s hard to blame President Obama for telling Hamid Karzai that the U.S. is planning to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan unless Karzai’s successor as president finally signs the Bilateral Security Agreement that Karzai himself negotiated with the U.S. Obama did show a commendable willingness to extend the U.S. troop presence, only to be blindsided by Karzai’s maddening refusal to sign the accord–and by the president’s equally infuriating decision to release dozens of dangerous terrorists from prison.

The good news is that pretty much all of the major candidates running to succeed Karzai have indicated their support for the accord–as has the Loya Jirga that Karzai called to ratify the pact. Ordinary Afghans and especially those serving in the security forces know they need continued U.S. assistance to hold off the Taliban.

And if they needed any reminder of why outside aid is so important, the Taliban’s recent attack on an Afghan army base in volatile Kunar Province provides it. The attackers killed 21 soldiers, who are now being celebrated as “martyrs” across the country. Without a substantial American presence, expect such attacks to become more widespread and deadly, potentially leading to the fracturing of the Afghan security forces and an all-out civil war.

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It’s hard to blame President Obama for telling Hamid Karzai that the U.S. is planning to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan unless Karzai’s successor as president finally signs the Bilateral Security Agreement that Karzai himself negotiated with the U.S. Obama did show a commendable willingness to extend the U.S. troop presence, only to be blindsided by Karzai’s maddening refusal to sign the accord–and by the president’s equally infuriating decision to release dozens of dangerous terrorists from prison.

The good news is that pretty much all of the major candidates running to succeed Karzai have indicated their support for the accord–as has the Loya Jirga that Karzai called to ratify the pact. Ordinary Afghans and especially those serving in the security forces know they need continued U.S. assistance to hold off the Taliban.

And if they needed any reminder of why outside aid is so important, the Taliban’s recent attack on an Afghan army base in volatile Kunar Province provides it. The attackers killed 21 soldiers, who are now being celebrated as “martyrs” across the country. Without a substantial American presence, expect such attacks to become more widespread and deadly, potentially leading to the fracturing of the Afghan security forces and an all-out civil war.

But that presence needs to be more than token or symbolic. Sending just 3,000 troops–one of the four options the White House is reportedly considering–will do little to stabilize Afghanistan. If the U.S. offers only such a puny force, the odds go up that the next president of Afghanistan will take a pass–just as Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq took a pass in 2011 when White House leakers were suggesting the U.S. could keep fewer than 5,000 troops in his country.

To be enticing to the Afghans, a U.S. troop presence has to be large enough–at least 10,000 troops–to make a difference. Obama needs to be careful to get off on the right foot with Karzai’s successor by not making a troop offer that is insultingly and unrealistically small. Indeed, Obama would be well advised to dispel such suspicion now–and to make clear that America will not abandon Afghanistan–by announcing what size force he would like to keep post-2014, assuming the government of Afghanistan agrees.

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Karzai Pushing U.S. Out?

Hamid Karzai seems to be doing everything he can to drive the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

He is releasing dozens of dangerous detainees from custody–hardened Taliban who have killed American and Afghan troops and Afghan civilians–in spite of American pleas to keep them imprisoned.

He is also issuing hysterical denunciations of an American airstrike which caused some civilian casualties last week, with Karzai’s office exaggerating the number of casualties and not bothering to mention that the air strikes were called in to save Afghan troops who, with their U.S. advisers, were in danger of being overrun by Taliban fighters. Such denunciations are routine for Karzai, of course, but they are made more pernicious by the fact that his office seems to be faking evidence, including claiming that a photo of civilian casualties taken four years ago was actually taken last week.

All of which will only reinforce the tendency among most Americans to say, To hell with it—if the Afghans don’t want us there, why don’t we just leave?

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Hamid Karzai seems to be doing everything he can to drive the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

He is releasing dozens of dangerous detainees from custody–hardened Taliban who have killed American and Afghan troops and Afghan civilians–in spite of American pleas to keep them imprisoned.

He is also issuing hysterical denunciations of an American airstrike which caused some civilian casualties last week, with Karzai’s office exaggerating the number of casualties and not bothering to mention that the air strikes were called in to save Afghan troops who, with their U.S. advisers, were in danger of being overrun by Taliban fighters. Such denunciations are routine for Karzai, of course, but they are made more pernicious by the fact that his office seems to be faking evidence, including claiming that a photo of civilian casualties taken four years ago was actually taken last week.

All of which will only reinforce the tendency among most Americans to say, To hell with it—if the Afghans don’t want us there, why don’t we just leave?

In the first place, most Afghans do want us there. A continued U.S. presence was strongly endorsed by the Loya Jirga that Karzai convened and it has been endorsed by practically the entire Karzai cabinet. The issue isn’t the people of Afghanistan; it’s the behavior of Hamid Karzai, who is scheduled to leave office in April.

We can’t hold the future of our commitment in Afghanistan hostage to his whims because there are larger issues at stake. As the New York Times notes today, “The risk that President Obama may be forced to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year has set off concerns inside the American intelligence agencies that they could lose their air bases used for drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistan and for responding to a nuclear crisis in the region.” Those are valid concerns because drones such as the Predator and Reaper have relatively short ranges; they need to be based close to the areas where they operate and if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, it will have no other nearby air base from which to monitor Pakistan’s troubled frontier regions.

At this point, we need to simply ignore Karzai and try to develop a better relationship with whoever succeeds him. Because if we don’t stay in Afghanistan—and that means more than the 1,000 or 2,000 troops that Joe Biden is said to favor—there is a real danger of the country succumbing once again to the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies.

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Biden Still Wrong on Afghanistan

“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”  –Bob Gates on Joe Biden.

Biden is obviously determined to maintain his perfect batting average, to judge from this Wall Street Journal article, which reports: “Vice President Joe Biden has resumed a push to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops from Afghanistan at year’s end, arguing for a far-smaller presence than many military officers would like to see, said officials briefed on the discussions.”

Apparently Biden, who has previously argued for splitting up both Iraq and Afghanistan into multiple countries, would like to see no more than 2,000 to 3,000 troops left behind–which, as the Journal notes, quoting officials who know what they’re talking about, “would be so limited that a full pullout would make more military sense.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine how this handful of troops, presumably dedicated to terrorist hunting, could function if the country were collapsing around their ears.

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“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”  –Bob Gates on Joe Biden.

Biden is obviously determined to maintain his perfect batting average, to judge from this Wall Street Journal article, which reports: “Vice President Joe Biden has resumed a push to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops from Afghanistan at year’s end, arguing for a far-smaller presence than many military officers would like to see, said officials briefed on the discussions.”

Apparently Biden, who has previously argued for splitting up both Iraq and Afghanistan into multiple countries, would like to see no more than 2,000 to 3,000 troops left behind–which, as the Journal notes, quoting officials who know what they’re talking about, “would be so limited that a full pullout would make more military sense.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine how this handful of troops, presumably dedicated to terrorist hunting, could function if the country were collapsing around their ears.

Even the “zero option” is apparently back on the table, thanks in no small part to Hamid Karzai’s infuriating and self-defeating unwillingness to sign the very agreement he negotiated to maintain U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But if all goes well with Afghanistan’s election, Karzai won’t be president much longer. The U.S. would be crazy to hold hostage our long-term policy in Afghanistan and the region to his whims–or to Biden’s misguided policy prescriptions.

If the U.S. were to draw down to nothing, or almost nothing, in Afghanistan, the impact would be catastrophic, as described by International Crisis Group analyst Graeme Smith in this New York Times op-ed. He writes, ” an unraveling of the Afghan state can be avoided, but it will require the international community to stay involved.” Afghan forces still need, he notes, “more helicopters, as well as logistics, intelligence and medical support,” not to mention funding.

None of that will be forthcoming unless there is an American and NATO troop contingent robust enough to deliver it.

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A Method to Karzai’s Madness?

Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which has been laboriously negotiated with the Obama administration, is maddening–but it does come with a silver lining: Karzai’s foot-dragging is showing that there is widespread popular support for a continuing American troop presence and of course for the money that comes with it. There was a telling vignette at the loya jirga that Karzai called to endorse the agreement–and whose verdict he is so far ignoring. As Najib Sharifi, a Kabul-based analyst, notes:

Almost 40 minutes into Karzai’s speech, a female senator, Belqis Roshan, from Farah, a province which lies along the border with Iran, raised a banner covered with anti-BSA slogans that compared the signing of the agreement to committing Watan Feroshi, or treason.

What the senator had not judged was the response she received from other participants. Chants of “Death to slaves of Pakistan” and “Death to slaves of Iran” suddenly filled the hall, prompting even Karzai to laugh, something he has not done publically for years. He finally intervened, urging calm, and called on the jirga participants to not accuse those who opposed the BSA of being spies for neighboring countries.

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Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which has been laboriously negotiated with the Obama administration, is maddening–but it does come with a silver lining: Karzai’s foot-dragging is showing that there is widespread popular support for a continuing American troop presence and of course for the money that comes with it. There was a telling vignette at the loya jirga that Karzai called to endorse the agreement–and whose verdict he is so far ignoring. As Najib Sharifi, a Kabul-based analyst, notes:

Almost 40 minutes into Karzai’s speech, a female senator, Belqis Roshan, from Farah, a province which lies along the border with Iran, raised a banner covered with anti-BSA slogans that compared the signing of the agreement to committing Watan Feroshi, or treason.

What the senator had not judged was the response she received from other participants. Chants of “Death to slaves of Pakistan” and “Death to slaves of Iran” suddenly filled the hall, prompting even Karzai to laugh, something he has not done publically for years. He finally intervened, urging calm, and called on the jirga participants to not accuse those who opposed the BSA of being spies for neighboring countries.

How often do you hear those who oppose a U.S. military presence in their country being denounced as traitors? Especially in a Muslim country? Yet that is what is now happening in Afghanistan where everyone, it seems, except for the Taliban, is urging Karzai to get on with it and sign an agreement that will enable the government’s survival past 2014.

Why isn’t Karzai complying so far? Afghanistan, like other countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, is notorious for its conspiracy theories and Sharifi has a good one to explain Karzai’s actions:

By holding off on signing the agreement, he is generating further domestic support for the pact. In other words, he is effectively building public pressure against himself. Why? Because there is a historical stigma attached to any agreement that includes the establishment of foreign military bases in the country. While Afghans currently support the creation of these bases, with the country’s uncertain political future, Karzai is worried about his legacy and he does not want to be seen as the person who facilitated this development if the domestic sentiment changes. By increasing the public pressure, he is creating an environment that would allow him to sign the BSA, while claiming that he had no other choice but to yield to the public demand.

Far be it from me to predict or explain Karzai’s actions, but this actually seems like a compelling theory. I just hope that Sharifi is right that Karzai will soon end the charade and sign the BSA, because if he doesn’t the Obama administration can use that as an excuse to walk away, leaving Afghanistan–and U.S. interests in the region–in the lurch.

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The Commitment to Afghanistan

The success of American military commitments is usually in direct proportion to their longevity. Post-war Germany, Japan, and South Korea turned out to be big success stories in no small part because U.S. troops are still based there. Kosovo continues to progress for the same reason. Somalia, Haiti, Lebanon, and Iraq, among others, are still troubled because U.S. troops have departed. The same thing happened with Reconstruction–it failed largely because Washington pulled federal troops out of the South prematurely.

For this reason it is good news to see the U.S. and Afghanistan bridging their differences to reach agreement on an accord to keep U.S. forces there past 2014–if that is in fact what has happened. That is certainly what was hailed by the Obama administration yesterday, but today the erratic Hamid Karzai threw a predictable spanner into the works by saying at the opening of a Loya Jirga in Kabul that the agreement should not be signed until sometime next year, possibly by his successor.

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The success of American military commitments is usually in direct proportion to their longevity. Post-war Germany, Japan, and South Korea turned out to be big success stories in no small part because U.S. troops are still based there. Kosovo continues to progress for the same reason. Somalia, Haiti, Lebanon, and Iraq, among others, are still troubled because U.S. troops have departed. The same thing happened with Reconstruction–it failed largely because Washington pulled federal troops out of the South prematurely.

For this reason it is good news to see the U.S. and Afghanistan bridging their differences to reach agreement on an accord to keep U.S. forces there past 2014–if that is in fact what has happened. That is certainly what was hailed by the Obama administration yesterday, but today the erratic Hamid Karzai threw a predictable spanner into the works by saying at the opening of a Loya Jirga in Kabul that the agreement should not be signed until sometime next year, possibly by his successor.

Assuming the accord is actually signed and implemented, it will bolster Afghanistan’s prospects for the future and hurt the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies who are scheming to return to power. The Obama administration deserves credit for prolonging what is already an unpopular military commitment even if there is cause for concern about the size of the force the president is prepared to send. No decisions have been reached, but news accounts suggest that Obama is contemplating sending only 4,000 to 8,000 personnel to perform counter-terrorism and advisory work, and that none of the advisors will be deployed in the field where they could be most effective.

It is a mystery where this figure comes from since military commanders have recommended a bare minimum of 13,000 or so troops. For some reason Obama seems to think that a much smaller force can get the job done-just as he though a smaller force would suffice when he granted only 30,000 or so of the 40,000 troops that General Stanley McChrystal requested in 2009. (Obama also added a timeline for their deployment, which the military resisted and which hurt the chances of mission accomplishment even more.) Such minor differences in force size will in no way temper domestic political opposition to the mission, but they can have an impact on the prospects of mission success on the ground.

It’s hard to know why Obama is willing to take a courageous stand for a prolonged U.S. presence in Afghanistan yet refuses to send the right size force. But whatever the president’s reasoning, at least he has not adopted the “zero option” favored by his advisers. The decision to commit the U.S. to Afghanistan post 2014–assuming it holds up–at least gives that war-ravaged country a fighting chance to hold off the Taliban, Haqqanis, and other malignant actors.

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The Future of Afghanistan

Secretary of State John Kerry and President Hamid Karzai met in Kabul this past weekend and emerged to proclaim that they had reached an agreement “in principle” on a U.S.-Afghanistan security treaty that would allow U.S. troops to remain past 2014. Alas we have heard many times in the past that accords had been reached “in principle” only to break down over the details. We’ll have to wait and see if this tentative accord actually gets signed.

Even if it does, however, it will not remove the cloud hanging over Afghanistan’s future, because the accord Kerry and Karzai worked out will almost surely not specify the level of American involvement. Even assuming the “zero option” is really off the table (which I think is a premature conclusion at this point), it matters a great deal how many troops Obama chooses to maintain and how much money he chooses to spend on the Afghan National Security Forces.

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Secretary of State John Kerry and President Hamid Karzai met in Kabul this past weekend and emerged to proclaim that they had reached an agreement “in principle” on a U.S.-Afghanistan security treaty that would allow U.S. troops to remain past 2014. Alas we have heard many times in the past that accords had been reached “in principle” only to break down over the details. We’ll have to wait and see if this tentative accord actually gets signed.

Even if it does, however, it will not remove the cloud hanging over Afghanistan’s future, because the accord Kerry and Karzai worked out will almost surely not specify the level of American involvement. Even assuming the “zero option” is really off the table (which I think is a premature conclusion at this point), it matters a great deal how many troops Obama chooses to maintain and how much money he chooses to spend on the Afghan National Security Forces.

Before he stepped down at Central Command, Gen. Jim Mattis testified that it would be necessary to keep 13,600 US troops in Afghanistan post-2014 along with some 6,000 allied forces. That strikes me as a pretty barebones commitment, given the US need to station forces not only in Kabul but also in southern and eastern Afghanistan so as to continue Special Operations raids against Al Qaeda, Haqqani, and other terrorists.

Yet the leaks emanating from the White House suggest that Obama will dispatch fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops–perhaps many fewer. That, in turn, will have a ripple effect because the European commitment will be contingent on the size of the American commitment: the fewer American troops, the fewer NATO troops.

The Afghan security forces have shown they are capable of holding back the Taliban largely on their own this fighting season, but they are suffering heavy casualties, and they remain dependent on American forces for critical functions such as medical evacuation of wounded personnel. Without medevac on call–along with intelligence, logistics, and other support–there is a real risk that the Afghan forces will crumble under an unrelenting Taliban assault.

A few U.S. troops are better than none, but unless Obama is willing to carry out the best advice of his generals and maintain a substantial American contingent after 2014, their usefulness will be limited. Unfortunately Obama hasn’t been much for taking military advice since he decided to accelerate the withdrawal of surge forces in Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 in contravention of Gen. David Petraeus’s recommendations.

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Heading for the Exits in Afghanistan

For months, U.S. military leaders have been quietly leaking word that the “zero option” was off the table and that the U.S. would keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan after 2014. That may be their view of what’s needed; it may even reflect what they’ve heard from their political masters. But it’s clearly not what the White House is thinking. If you want to know what President Obama and his aides are up to, read this Washington Post article:

During a testy video conference in June, President Obama drew a line in the sand for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If there was no agreement by Oct. 31 on the terms for keeping a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Obama warned him, the United States would withdraw all of its troops at the end of 2014.

With that deadline less than three weeks away and deep rifts persisting, the White House appears increasingly willing to abandon plans for a long-term, costly partnership with Afghanistan. Despite the Pentagon’s pleas for patience, much of the rest of the administration is fed up with Karzai and sees Afghanistan as a fading priority amid far more ominous threats elsewhere in the world.

Later on the article quotes a former deputy assistant defense secretary, David Sedney, who until May oversaw Afghanistan policy at the Department of Defense, saying, “It appears our attention to Afghanistan is drifting, and if we don’t do something soon, it may drift too far to recover.” The article ends with this:

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For months, U.S. military leaders have been quietly leaking word that the “zero option” was off the table and that the U.S. would keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan after 2014. That may be their view of what’s needed; it may even reflect what they’ve heard from their political masters. But it’s clearly not what the White House is thinking. If you want to know what President Obama and his aides are up to, read this Washington Post article:

During a testy video conference in June, President Obama drew a line in the sand for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If there was no agreement by Oct. 31 on the terms for keeping a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Obama warned him, the United States would withdraw all of its troops at the end of 2014.

With that deadline less than three weeks away and deep rifts persisting, the White House appears increasingly willing to abandon plans for a long-term, costly partnership with Afghanistan. Despite the Pentagon’s pleas for patience, much of the rest of the administration is fed up with Karzai and sees Afghanistan as a fading priority amid far more ominous threats elsewhere in the world.

Later on the article quotes a former deputy assistant defense secretary, David Sedney, who until May oversaw Afghanistan policy at the Department of Defense, saying, “It appears our attention to Afghanistan is drifting, and if we don’t do something soon, it may drift too far to recover.” The article ends with this:

One official noted that both Obama and Rice appear only marginally interested as attention has shifted to Syria and a growing al-Qaeda presence in Africa.

“If you look at the threat matrix,” this official said, “Afghanistan isn’t blinking the brightest. Why invest more billions and more lives?”

This lack of interest on the American side is at the crux of the current impasse, although Hamid Karzai has contributed his share to the current woes with statements blasting the U.S. and the West in intemperate terms. But, according to press reports, Karzai actually agreed to grant U.S. troops immunity under Afghan laws–the issue that scuppered an agreement with Iraq.

Apparently, if the reporting is to be believed, the big issue at the moment is his demand that the U.S. conclude a mutual-defense treaty with Afghanistan similar to those with major non-NATO allies. The Obama administration disingenuously claims this would mandate U.S. troops crossing into Pakistan. More plausibly, this would simply demand a long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s defense, within Afghanistan, which the administration doesn’t want to grant.

There is also disagreement over how much room for unilateral operations in Afghanistan U.S. Special Operations forces will retain in hunting down al-Qaeda and its ilk. Karzai wants the mission turned over to Afghan forces, which the U.S. is resisting, even though his demand could be finessed by putting Afghans in the lead with U.S. troops along as “advisers,” a practice becoming increasingly common today anyway.

It is possible these issues will be resolved by Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Kabul. But I am not terribly optimistic because I think significant elements of the administration, starting at the top, are looking for a way out of Afghanistan and they are using disputes with Karzai as an excuse. The president who once called Afghanistan the necessary war appears to be motivated now primarily by the necessity of disengagement, at least as he sees it.

The results for U.S. interests and for Afghanistan are likely to be dire, because if U.S. troops leave, so will our NATO allies. And the U.S. and its allies will be unlikely to continue pouring in the billions of dollars necessary to keep the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government functioning. That makes a collapse, of the kind that occurred after the Soviet withdrawal, much more likely–and with it a return of the Taliban and Haqqanis and their al-Qaeda allies.

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Obama’s Serial Ineptness

Barack Obama’s serial ineptness in foreign policy is not only continuing; it seems to be accelerating. The most recent example comes from a story in the New York Times in which we read this:

Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with President Hamid Karzai, President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no American troops there after next year, according to American and European officials.

Mr. Obama is committed to ending America’s military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and Obama administration officials have been negotiating with Afghan officials about leaving a small “residual force” behind. But his relationship with Mr. Karzai has been slowly unraveling, and reached a new low after an effort last month by the United States to begin peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

Mr. Karzai promptly repudiated the talks and ended negotiations with the United States over the long-term security deal that is needed to keep American forces in Afghanistan after 2014.

A videoconference between Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai designed to defuse the tensions ended badly, according to both American and Afghan officials with knowledge of it.

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Barack Obama’s serial ineptness in foreign policy is not only continuing; it seems to be accelerating. The most recent example comes from a story in the New York Times in which we read this:

Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with President Hamid Karzai, President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no American troops there after next year, according to American and European officials.

Mr. Obama is committed to ending America’s military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and Obama administration officials have been negotiating with Afghan officials about leaving a small “residual force” behind. But his relationship with Mr. Karzai has been slowly unraveling, and reached a new low after an effort last month by the United States to begin peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

Mr. Karzai promptly repudiated the talks and ended negotiations with the United States over the long-term security deal that is needed to keep American forces in Afghanistan after 2014.

A videoconference between Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai designed to defuse the tensions ended badly, according to both American and Afghan officials with knowledge of it.

Remind me again, but wasn’t one of the key selling points of Mr. Obama in 2008 that he would improve America’s relations in the world; that he would sit down with other leaders and reach agreements his predecessor did not; and that Afghanistan was the “good war” that America would prevail in under his inspired leadership?

Instead, America’s image in the world is worse than ever, the leaders of many other nations have sheer contempt for the president, and the Afghanistan war is in the process of being lost. Mr. Obama seems to think a retreat substitutes for a strategy and that a defeat is the same thing as a victory.

He’s wrong on both counts.

I realize President Karzai isn’t an easy individual to deal with. But that’s always been the case, yet relations have never been this chilly. And it seems as if it hasn’t quite dawned on Obama that a president doesn’t get to choose his interlocutors.

Afghanistan embodies the Obama approach to international relations in a single case study. The president’s approach to it has been confused, contradictory, inept, weak and unsuccessful. He is a (prickly) man who is simply overmatched by events and by other leaders. And in nation after nation, we’re seeing the bitter fruits of his artlessness and incompetence. 

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Karzai’s Conundrum and the “Zero Option”

Some analysts might deduce that White House aides are leaking word that “President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a ‘zero option’ that would leave no American troops there after next year” as a ploy to pressure Hamid Karzai to be more accommodating to the U.S. in negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement and in hoped-for negotiations with the Taliban. Not me. I take this president at his word. I believe the odds are growing that he will, in fact, pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 notwithstanding the likelihood that this will lead to a disaster, with the Taliban and their extremist allies (to include al-Qaeda) taking over, at a minimum, much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

But then the complete U.S. pullout from Iraq has already had disastrous consequences–violence in that country is at its highest level since 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq has again become a potent force, and Iranian influence is at an all-time high, with Prime Minister Maliki working hand-in-glove with Tehran to ferry supplies and support to the embattled Assad regime in Syria. If President Obama has any regrets about this foreseeable tragedy, he has never expressed them. Odds are that he’s simply happy U.S. troops are out of Iraq–he no doubt thinks that ending American military involvement in Iraq trumped all other considerations. So, too, in Afghanistan he appears entranced by his own rhetoric about the “tide of war” receding–and he would no doubt like to bring about an American pullout, even if the likely consequences will be dire.

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Some analysts might deduce that White House aides are leaking word that “President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a ‘zero option’ that would leave no American troops there after next year” as a ploy to pressure Hamid Karzai to be more accommodating to the U.S. in negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement and in hoped-for negotiations with the Taliban. Not me. I take this president at his word. I believe the odds are growing that he will, in fact, pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 notwithstanding the likelihood that this will lead to a disaster, with the Taliban and their extremist allies (to include al-Qaeda) taking over, at a minimum, much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

But then the complete U.S. pullout from Iraq has already had disastrous consequences–violence in that country is at its highest level since 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq has again become a potent force, and Iranian influence is at an all-time high, with Prime Minister Maliki working hand-in-glove with Tehran to ferry supplies and support to the embattled Assad regime in Syria. If President Obama has any regrets about this foreseeable tragedy, he has never expressed them. Odds are that he’s simply happy U.S. troops are out of Iraq–he no doubt thinks that ending American military involvement in Iraq trumped all other considerations. So, too, in Afghanistan he appears entranced by his own rhetoric about the “tide of war” receding–and he would no doubt like to bring about an American pullout, even if the likely consequences will be dire.

The latest excuse for this pull-out talk, ironically, is something eminently reasonable that Karzai has done. I am no defender of the Afghan president who is mercurial, often impossible to deal with, and complicit in massive corruption. But Karzai was justified to pull out of nascent “peace talks” with the Taliban, who have given every indication that they have little interest in peace and much interest in enhancing their international legitimacy by opening a quasi-embassy in Qatar. But Obama has his heart set on “peace talks” with the Taliban to provide cover for an American pullout, and he is said to be furious at Karzai for throwing sand into the gears of his grand scheme.

Karzai simply can’t win here: Either he agrees to talks that legitimate a faster American pullout–or he refuses to engage in this charade, thereby angering Obama, and spurring, you guessed it, a faster American pullout.

It is Obama’s right as commander in chief to decide he wants nothing more to do with Afghanistan. But if that is in fact the decision he has reached–or at least seriously mulling–perhaps he should explain first to himself and then to the American people, and specifically to the troops that he sent to fight and bleed there, why he once considered it a “necessary” war. Why did he more than triple America’s troop presence, knowing that a certain percentage of those he deployed would not come home unharmed and that some would not come home at all, and why did he pressure America’s allies to similarly step up their commitment–why did he do all this if he decides, in the end, to abandon Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban?

Perhaps there is a good explanation for why he is seriously contemplating aborting a war effort that still has a reasonable chance of success, and thereby making worthless the sacrifices of so many American service personnel and their Afghan allies. But pique at Karzai’s refusal to sit down with the Taliban–who are committed to reimposing their totalitarian rule and have given no indication of any interest in suing for peace or giving up their alliance with al-Qaeda–won’t cut it.

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The Taliban’s Real Goal in Doha

Well, that didn’t take long. Yesterday I predicted that peace negotiations with the Taliban would not make much progress. Today I woke up to the news that President Karzai had pulled out of the talks even before they had begun because he was concerned that the Taliban were opening a government in exile in Qatar, complete with a big banner proclaiming the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—the name the Taliban had used for their reviled and discredited state while in power. Karzai was so perturbed that he suspended Washington-Kabul negotiations on an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.

While suspending U.S.-Afghan talks was an overreaction he is sure to walk back in the days ahead, Karzai is right to be worried. The Taliban appear to be playing up the opening of negotiations to confer international legitimacy on themselves. As one news account noted:

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Well, that didn’t take long. Yesterday I predicted that peace negotiations with the Taliban would not make much progress. Today I woke up to the news that President Karzai had pulled out of the talks even before they had begun because he was concerned that the Taliban were opening a government in exile in Qatar, complete with a big banner proclaiming the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—the name the Taliban had used for their reviled and discredited state while in power. Karzai was so perturbed that he suspended Washington-Kabul negotiations on an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.

While suspending U.S.-Afghan talks was an overreaction he is sure to walk back in the days ahead, Karzai is right to be worried. The Taliban appear to be playing up the opening of negotiations to confer international legitimacy on themselves. As one news account noted:

Opening their Doha office with a lavish ceremony that included a ribbon-cutting and the playing of the Taliban anthem, insurgent officials said they intended to use the site to meet with representatives of the international community and the United Nations, interact with the news media, “improve relations with countries around the world” and, almost as an afterthought, meet “Afghans if there is a need.” They did not mention the Afghan government.

One suspects that the Taliban are far more interested in using these “peace talks” to enhance their credibility and standing than they are in actually negotiating any accord that would result in their disarmament. And why should they make any real concessions when President Obama has already promised that American combat troops will leave in less than 18 months? From the Taliban’s perspective, the advantage on the ground will shift in their favor once the Americans are gone.

Their only incentive to sign a deal is to ensure that the U.S. abandons Afghanistan completely after 2014—just as the U.S. abandoned South Vietnam after signing a deal with Hanoi in 1973—thereby making it easier for the insurgents to take over. Significantly, the Nixon administration excluded the Saigon government from negotiations over its fate. This time around, to its credit, the Obama administration has pledged to include Kabul in the peace talks. As a result, U.S. officials were scrambling yesterday to entice Karzai back into the talks by getting the Taliban to tamp down their gloating in Qatar.

Why bother? The odds of talks succeeding are remote. This is only an exercise in wishful thinking on the part of an administration that is determined to find a fig leaf to cover the departure of U.S. troops. As I’ve noted before, there is nothing inherently wrong with talking, but in this case proceeding with the talks when there is no sign of the Taliban making any significant concessions risks furthering the Taliban’s narrative that the U.S. is abandoning Afghanistan and that the Taliban are destined to take over once again.

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Karzai, Corruption, and CIA Bags of Cash

You’ve got to hand it to Hamid Karzai. He is nothing if not brazen. Other world leaders might be embarrassed if caught accepting bags of cash from the CIA. Not Karzai. Instead, he is bragging to reporters that the CIA money was “an easy source of petty cash” and reassuring anyone who will listen that he will continue on the CIA payroll.

The question is: What is the CIA getting for its (read: our) money? I am not opposed in principle to the CIA paying off the leaders of other countries; it has certainly done so before. If intelligently used, cash can be a valuable part of an influence operation; it can be a vital source of support for strong pro-American leaders such as Ramon Magsaysay, the president of the Philippines from 1953 to 1957.

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You’ve got to hand it to Hamid Karzai. He is nothing if not brazen. Other world leaders might be embarrassed if caught accepting bags of cash from the CIA. Not Karzai. Instead, he is bragging to reporters that the CIA money was “an easy source of petty cash” and reassuring anyone who will listen that he will continue on the CIA payroll.

The question is: What is the CIA getting for its (read: our) money? I am not opposed in principle to the CIA paying off the leaders of other countries; it has certainly done so before. If intelligently used, cash can be a valuable part of an influence operation; it can be a vital source of support for strong pro-American leaders such as Ramon Magsaysay, the president of the Philippines from 1953 to 1957.

The question in this case is whether the CIA has gotten value for its money. It is hard to know for sure because there is much we do not know about these payments, whose existence was first disclosed by the New York Times last week (while, coincidentally, I happened to be traveling in Afghanistan).

But in general I share the disquiet expressed by veteran Afghanistan watcher Sarah Chayes in this article and this one.

She argues that the payoffs “may well have enabled Karzai’s frequent and theatrical outbursts against U.S. officials and policies, not to mention his collusion with some of his country’s most corrupt and abusive officials. Such payoffs signal to Karzai — or other leaders like him — that he enjoys the unwavering support of the CIA, no matter what he does or says, and embolden him to thumb his nose at the United States whenever he feels like it.”

Particularly troubling is that, as Chayes notes, “the CIA’s bag man was Muhammad Zia Salehi,” the very same Karzai aide who “in July 2010 was arrested by U.S.-mentored Afghan police officers, on charges of influence peddling,” before being released at Karzai’s insistence.

Whatever the CIA was buying with its money, the payments came at a heavy cost–namely, to undermine any hopes of curbing the rampant corruption which has done so much to dissipate confidence in the government and provide an opening to the Taliban. Like Chayes, I was part of a small group of outside advisers who urged General David Petraeus, when he was in Kabul, to make fighting corruption a bigger priority. Petraeus did put more resources into the effort, but it’s hard to escape the conviction that his efforts were undermined by the CIA which, pursuing its own foreign policy, has been paying off officials such as the late Ahmed Wali Karzai, a half-brother of the president who was a powerbroker in Kandahar, and the president himself.

No doubt the CIA has had good arguments for its payments. I’m sure it could cite intelligence and services provided by the Karzais and other recipients of its largess; Ahmed Wali Karzai, for example, ran a “strike force” of anti-Taliban fighters at the agency’s behest. But I am not sure that these benefits were ever adequately balanced against the heavy cost of, in effect, subsidizing corruption.

Such an accounting would be almost impossible to undertake because the CIA is so secretive about its efforts–I doubt that either the U.S. ambassador or the NATO commander in Kabul have ever been aware of the full range of its activities. The CIA station chief has always been a powerbroker in his own right, often the most important American in the country–at least from the perspective of senior Afghans who have become dependent on CIA subsidies.

In effect, the agency has been pursuing a cynical policy focused, as far as I can tell, on killing or capturing al-Qaeda leaders, even at the potential cost of harming Afghanistan’s long-term future, which depends on maintaining popular support for the government. The problem is, unless Afghanistan has a stable and legitimate government, the country will never be strong enough to keep out extremists from al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, and other extremist groups barring a massive presence of U.S. troops, which will not last much longer. The tragedy here is that the CIA’s short-term mindset may be undermining our long-run odds of success in Afghanistan.

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Karzai Needs the U.S. More Than the U.S. Needs Him

If the standard by which we judge policymakers is the same as for physicians–first, do no harm–than Chuck Hagel’s foray to Afghanistan, his first as defense secretary, was a success. There were no big achievements to boast of but also no major slip-ups. Hagel certainly gets points for the patience he displayed with Hamid Karzai, who was even more exasperating than usual.

In recent days the Afghan president has tried to push U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak Province, a Taliban-infested area near Kabul; tried to renege on the pledge he had made to give the U.S. veto authority over prisoner releases at the major detention facility in Parwan province; and even claimed that the U.S. secretly supported the Taliban to give us an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Hagel handled it all with equanimity, replying, when asked by the press about such issues, “it’s complicated”–which is the appropriate noncommittal reply when dealing with such a prickly ally.

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If the standard by which we judge policymakers is the same as for physicians–first, do no harm–than Chuck Hagel’s foray to Afghanistan, his first as defense secretary, was a success. There were no big achievements to boast of but also no major slip-ups. Hagel certainly gets points for the patience he displayed with Hamid Karzai, who was even more exasperating than usual.

In recent days the Afghan president has tried to push U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak Province, a Taliban-infested area near Kabul; tried to renege on the pledge he had made to give the U.S. veto authority over prisoner releases at the major detention facility in Parwan province; and even claimed that the U.S. secretly supported the Taliban to give us an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Hagel handled it all with equanimity, replying, when asked by the press about such issues, “it’s complicated”–which is the appropriate noncommittal reply when dealing with such a prickly ally.

Alissa Rubin, the New York Times‘s knowledgeable bureau chief in Kabul, is surely right that Karzai is trying to salvage his historical reputation–he is “desperately trying to shake his widely held image as an American lackey by appealing to nationalist sentiments and invoking Afghanistan’s sovereignty.”

The problem is that Karzai is paying attention only to Afghan popular opinion–or at least the version of popular opinion that reaches him in the palace where he spends his days–while ignoring American popular opinion and, more specifically, American political opinion.

Karzai seems to think that the U.S. needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs the U.S. He couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, the U.S. needs to use bases in Afghanistan to hunt down al-Qaeda and its ilk on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier–but the perceived need is less now than it was in the days when Osama bin Laden was still alive. Yet there has been no diminution in the need of Karzai–and his successor, whoever that will be–to have the U.S. continue buttressing his shaky security forces and to continue funding his government (which gets more than 90 percent of its funding from foreign aid).

Without considerable American assistance post-2014, odds are that Afghanistan will sink into a civil war and the Taliban will fight their way back into power. And yet there is little support in the United States–and especially in the administration itself–to continue providing such aid.

President Obama and Secretary Hagel are not viscerally committed to Afghanistan the way that President Bush was to Iraq. In fact, they are looking for an excuse to leave–or if not leave, then at least draw down our commitment as rapidly as possible. If he is not careful, Karzai will give the decision-makers in the White House the excuse they need to write off Afghanistan as ungovernable and unsalvageable.

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Implications and Lessons of Afghanistan Corruption

According to the United Nations, Afghans spent $3.9 billion on bribery in 2012. According to the Associated Press report:

The cost of corruption in Afghanistan rose sharply last year to $3.9 billion, and half of all Afghans bribed public officials for services, the U.N. said Thursday. The findings came despite repeated promises by President Hamid Karzai to clean up his government… Lemahieu added the problem leads “towards alienation, frustration and a disconnect to those who should be able to give you the service provided.” Fifty percent of the adult population had to pay at least one bribe to a public official in 2012, a 9 percent drop from 2009, according to the findings, which were based on interviews last year with 6,700 Afghan adults from across the country. Meanwhile, the total cost of bribes paid to public officials increased 40 percent to $3.9 billion. That amount was double the revenue collected by the government to provide services, said [Jean-Luc] Lemahieu, head of the UNODC [U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime].

That’s nearly as much as the $4.1 billion Afghan National Security Forces need on an annual basis. In other words, if Afghanistan did not suffer the corruption problem it now does, it would be able to fund its own security forces absent endless subsidies.

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According to the United Nations, Afghans spent $3.9 billion on bribery in 2012. According to the Associated Press report:

The cost of corruption in Afghanistan rose sharply last year to $3.9 billion, and half of all Afghans bribed public officials for services, the U.N. said Thursday. The findings came despite repeated promises by President Hamid Karzai to clean up his government… Lemahieu added the problem leads “towards alienation, frustration and a disconnect to those who should be able to give you the service provided.” Fifty percent of the adult population had to pay at least one bribe to a public official in 2012, a 9 percent drop from 2009, according to the findings, which were based on interviews last year with 6,700 Afghan adults from across the country. Meanwhile, the total cost of bribes paid to public officials increased 40 percent to $3.9 billion. That amount was double the revenue collected by the government to provide services, said [Jean-Luc] Lemahieu, head of the UNODC [U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime].

That’s nearly as much as the $4.1 billion Afghan National Security Forces need on an annual basis. In other words, if Afghanistan did not suffer the corruption problem it now does, it would be able to fund its own security forces absent endless subsidies.

After more than 12 years of war in Afghanstan, American patience has worn thin. President Obama has promised to withdraw U.S. forces “on schedule.” Many will undoubtedly applaud that decision, and some will question the wisdom of involving ourselves in Afghanistan in the first place. It is important to fill security vacuums lest al-Qaeda sink its roots in ungoverned areas. The real lesson Washington should learn is not whether the United States should have taken on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but rather whether we should have pumped so much money into Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Many progressives and realists say Pentagon spending is too high.

The real waste of money over the past decade in both Iraq and Afghanistan, however, has been USAID, which has very little to show for its efforts in other places. Plans that sound good on paper can be disastrous in real life, not only because they waste taxpayer money but also—as this corruption report would suggest—they catalyze corruption. Terrorism impacts a small number of people, but corruption is a cancer on a whole society. Perhaps the best way to contain corruption is to simply not flood countries with cash, no matter how well-meaning the motives of our diplomats and development advocates.

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Pakistan Should Fear U.S. Afghan Pullout

When U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan “on schedule,” Afghanistan will revert to civil war. White House and Pentagon officials may have convinced themselves that their transition mirrors that in Iraq, and that Iraq’s transition was a success, but to Afghans, the U.S. strategy is a cookie-cutter repeat of the Soviet withdrawal. We have the Afghan Local Police, and the Soviets had similar local militias. We hope that we can leave behind agents of influence in the government, and the Soviets tried the same tactic.

The Soviet-era dictator Najibullah managed to hold on to power for three years after the Red Army’s withdrawal, but that was only because of the Soviet ‘peace dividend’: The Soviet Union provided Najibullah with almost $3 billion a year and equipment it withdrew from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Only when the money ran out did Najibullah fall. The same will happen with Hamid Karzai. Even the most sobering World Bank reports regarding what the international community must do to keep Afghanistan afloat assume that Afghanistan will have a functioning mining industry, but insecurity and poor infrastructure have hampered even the Chinese, who do not care as much if they lose civilian contractors.

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When U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan “on schedule,” Afghanistan will revert to civil war. White House and Pentagon officials may have convinced themselves that their transition mirrors that in Iraq, and that Iraq’s transition was a success, but to Afghans, the U.S. strategy is a cookie-cutter repeat of the Soviet withdrawal. We have the Afghan Local Police, and the Soviets had similar local militias. We hope that we can leave behind agents of influence in the government, and the Soviets tried the same tactic.

The Soviet-era dictator Najibullah managed to hold on to power for three years after the Red Army’s withdrawal, but that was only because of the Soviet ‘peace dividend’: The Soviet Union provided Najibullah with almost $3 billion a year and equipment it withdrew from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Only when the money ran out did Najibullah fall. The same will happen with Hamid Karzai. Even the most sobering World Bank reports regarding what the international community must do to keep Afghanistan afloat assume that Afghanistan will have a functioning mining industry, but insecurity and poor infrastructure have hampered even the Chinese, who do not care as much if they lose civilian contractors.

So, as soon as the money dries up—and it will happen faster than Karzai realizes—the Afghanistan National Army will implode. While the Pentagon points to metrics of numbers trained, it does not speak as often about retention. Logistics, triage, and intelligence remain challenges absent U.S. oversight. And while the Afghans have fought ably against Taliban assaults in Kabul and the Afghan special forces are excellent, Afghans have never had an opportunity to prove what they can do (or cannot do) when they are running the Corps level alone. The fact that regional states have reactivated their residual links to warlords should be a sign no one in the White House should ignore.

When the chaos starts, it will be worse in some respects. Just as with the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s, the main victories will not be on the battlefield so much as the result of momentum, and so will catch the West by surprise. During the Soviet era and its aftermath, the fighting was limited to Afghanistan itself. The next round of civil war likely will not be. Pakistan should get ready: It will soon learn the meaning of blowback. There is no doubt that the Pakistanis will face blowback for their support of radicals and Taliban terrorism. The issue is not that various Taliban groups will take their fight into Pakistan. There, the Pakistanis will continue to contain the Taliban’s challenge largely to the tribal region. Rather, with the Americans gone, there will be no more restraint on the reconstituted Northern Alliance. Years ago, I had a conversation with one in a position to actually implement what he said: He argued that the only way to get the Pakistanis to stop interfering in Afghanistan was not to meet them at the diplomatic table or ply them with aid and incentives, but to respond in kind. If a bomb goes off in Kabul, he suggested, then one should go off in Lahore. And if an attack occurs in Jalalabad, then there should be two such attacks in Rawalpindi.

When, back in 1997, I was a teaching assistant for an American political history course at Yale University, I took a colleague’s suggestion and asked the students in my section what their earliest political memory was: The earliest any of the 18-21 year olds had? Michael Dukakis in 1988. Americans’ political memory seldom extends back more than a decade. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is longer. Many Afghans and Pakistanis remember that, throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, it was the Afghans who were the aggressors across the border, tearing down Pakistani flags and raising the banner of Pushtunistan. This time, history will repeat, but with far greater lethality against ordinary citizens. Perhaps Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence will rue the day they decided to send terrorists into Afghanistan.

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Afghanistan Withdrawal and Drone Strikes

The agreement announced today by President Obama and Afghan President Karzai to speed up the transition of U.S. troops from combat to an advisory role is largely symbolic, since our troops will not be prohibited from engaging in combat. But the desire of the president to pull out as quickly and completely as possible is palpable.

No doubt if he decides to leave only a token residual force behind, or none at all, he will claim that the U.S. can adequately disrupt and deter terrorist groups with the lightest of light footprints. But is that actually true? This Washington Post article reports, not surprisingly, that the CIA is planning its own downsizing in Afghanistan to go along with the military drawdown:

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The agreement announced today by President Obama and Afghan President Karzai to speed up the transition of U.S. troops from combat to an advisory role is largely symbolic, since our troops will not be prohibited from engaging in combat. But the desire of the president to pull out as quickly and completely as possible is palpable.

No doubt if he decides to leave only a token residual force behind, or none at all, he will claim that the U.S. can adequately disrupt and deter terrorist groups with the lightest of light footprints. But is that actually true? This Washington Post article reports, not surprisingly, that the CIA is planning its own downsizing in Afghanistan to go along with the military drawdown:

A former U.S. intelligence official with extensive experience in Afghanistan said the CIA has begun discussing plans to pare back its network of bases across the country to five from 15 or more because of the difficulty of providing security for its outposts after most U.S. forces have left….

“As the military pulls back, the agency has to pull back,” the former U.S. intelligence official said on the condition of anonymity, particularly from high-risk outposts along the country’s eastern border that have served as bases for running informant networks and gathering intelligence on al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in Pakistan.

Such a retrenchment could slow the process of identifying fresh targets for drone strikes, although the agency is expected to continue operating the remotely piloted planes from fortified bases, such as a landing strip in Jalalabad.

“Essentially we will become Fort Apache in Kabul and the major cities,” the former U.S. intelligence official said, describing a pared back CIA presence. Even if the drones continue to take off and land, the diminished presence in Khost and other locations could hamper “our ability to gather intelligence on where Zawahiri is and what al-Qaeda is doing in the North-West Frontier Province” of Pakistan, he said, referring to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the region now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Actually the situation could be even more grim than that because if we don’t make a substantial commitment to Afghanistan’s government post-2014, its willingness to allow us to continue any counter-terrorist missions is very much in doubt. As former U.S. ambassador to Kabul Ron Neumann notes in an op-ed:

A presence of 3,000 to 6,000 troops is a counterterrorist policy that gives up on serious support for the Afghan military and focuses on killing our enemies. It offers nothing to Afghans except endless killing and, hence, will face increasing Afghan rejection. Further, since our forces will need local allies for intelligence and logistical support, such a tiny presence is likely to further empower the very warlords who have done so much to foment corruption. If the Afghan state collapses without our support, our presence will be unsustainable. In sum, a counterterrorist strategy is superficially attractive but a bankrupt strategic choice.

Neumann is right. The withdrawal of almost all U.S. military forces from Afghanistan will have a disastrous impact on the ability of the CIA to gather intelligence on, and target, terrorists not only in Afghanistan but, crucially, in Pakistan too. This is a worrisome eventuality because Pakistan remains home to some of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, ranging from the Haqqani Network to the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, and others. If we lose our bases in Afghanistan, we will lose the ability to fight these groups–a signature initiative of this president who has elevated the role of drone strikes to unprecedented levels.

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Looking Beyond Talabani

Over at CNN, I speculate on what Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s incapacitation or death might mean for Iraq. Talabani was a colorful figure and, while the eulogies will be glowing, he certainly had a dark side. Talabani was pro-American to Americans, pro-Iranian to Iranians, and even pro-Turkish to the Turks. He had the opportunity to be a democrat, but as recently as 2009 was ordering Kurdish security forces to kill certain rivals in the upstart Gorran Party. Files that emerged from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party headquarters also show that Talabani often collaborated with the Iraqi leader prior to his overthrow, and that, according to Kurdish press and those with firsthand knowledge of the files, many close aides—including his former chief of staff—were at one time on Saddam’s payroll.

During the Kurdish Civil War (1994-1997), Talabani worked hand-in-hand with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Talabani’s case highlights how the Iran link is not limited to Iraqi Shi’ites: Qods Force commander Qasim Suleimani was a frequent visitor to Talabani’s Baghdad compound.

Whatever his faults and whatever happens next, one thing will be clear in hindsight: Talabani’s role as president was crucial in stitching together a broad-based Iraqi government. Personality matters, and Talabani’s gregarious and energetic personality helped. He could laugh at himself, and crack a joke to neutralize tension that threatened to boil over and consume all around him.

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Over at CNN, I speculate on what Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s incapacitation or death might mean for Iraq. Talabani was a colorful figure and, while the eulogies will be glowing, he certainly had a dark side. Talabani was pro-American to Americans, pro-Iranian to Iranians, and even pro-Turkish to the Turks. He had the opportunity to be a democrat, but as recently as 2009 was ordering Kurdish security forces to kill certain rivals in the upstart Gorran Party. Files that emerged from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party headquarters also show that Talabani often collaborated with the Iraqi leader prior to his overthrow, and that, according to Kurdish press and those with firsthand knowledge of the files, many close aides—including his former chief of staff—were at one time on Saddam’s payroll.

During the Kurdish Civil War (1994-1997), Talabani worked hand-in-hand with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Talabani’s case highlights how the Iran link is not limited to Iraqi Shi’ites: Qods Force commander Qasim Suleimani was a frequent visitor to Talabani’s Baghdad compound.

Whatever his faults and whatever happens next, one thing will be clear in hindsight: Talabani’s role as president was crucial in stitching together a broad-based Iraqi government. Personality matters, and Talabani’s gregarious and energetic personality helped. He could laugh at himself, and crack a joke to neutralize tension that threatened to boil over and consume all around him.

Herein lies the problem for U.S. policy: Rather than build a system that does not rely overwhelmingly on one or two individuals, too often U.S. diplomats and generals build policy around a personality. In Afghanistan, it is Hamid Karzai. In Pakistan, it was for too long General Kayani. In Iraq, it has been Jalal Talabani. In Egypt it is, unwisely, Mohamed Morsi. Stability might seem a noble goal in the short term, but the ultimate stability comes from constructing a system in which no man is indispensable. Some indispensable figures like Hamid Karzai will embrace corruption, calculating that they are immune from international accountability because diplomats can find no alternative.

The indispensable man often also maintains his position by ensuring that no competent rival emerges from the bureaucracy; the most able men are cut off at the knees. Karzai’s firing of Defense Minister Wardak falls into this category. Talabani spent his later years trying to undercut Barham Salih, the relatively young wunderkind who emerged from Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Let us hope Talabani recovers. But if he does not, the political chaos that might emerge should be a reminder that any system dependent on one man is not one upon which the United States can ever depend.

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Karzai Purges the Moderates

Afghan President Hamid Karzai acquiesced to the impeachment of both Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Besmillah Mohammadi. The Washington Post and New York Times dutifully reported the parliamentary allegations of corruption and passivity in the face of Pakistani provocations.

The reality is different. As my colleague Ahmad Majidyar pointed out, the “Afghan ministers’ impeachment is not a move against corruption; it’s a political game by some in the presidential palace.” Had the parliament been serious about corruption, then Karzai and many of his close allies, not to mention many of the parliamentarians voting for impeachment, would have been first on the chopping block.

The fact is that Wardak was probably the toughest, most independent, and competent minister in the cabinet. He was a close ally in the fight against the Taliban, and paid little heed to attempts by the Iranians and Pakistanis to buy him off. He was not a proponent of the Obama administration’s efforts to talk to the Taliban, but then again, hardly anyone is outside the White House and State Department.

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai acquiesced to the impeachment of both Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Besmillah Mohammadi. The Washington Post and New York Times dutifully reported the parliamentary allegations of corruption and passivity in the face of Pakistani provocations.

The reality is different. As my colleague Ahmad Majidyar pointed out, the “Afghan ministers’ impeachment is not a move against corruption; it’s a political game by some in the presidential palace.” Had the parliament been serious about corruption, then Karzai and many of his close allies, not to mention many of the parliamentarians voting for impeachment, would have been first on the chopping block.

The fact is that Wardak was probably the toughest, most independent, and competent minister in the cabinet. He was a close ally in the fight against the Taliban, and paid little heed to attempts by the Iranians and Pakistanis to buy him off. He was not a proponent of the Obama administration’s efforts to talk to the Taliban, but then again, hardly anyone is outside the White House and State Department.

The two ministers sacked represent the two most important portfolios as President Obama prepares for the draw down of U.S. forces and transition to full Afghan control. Much is now up-for-grabs. Karzai is not interested in democracy or Afghanistan’s future; he is interested in Karzai. If he chooses to appoint political flunkies to the post, any gains ISAF has made in recent months can come crashing down.

What we have just witnessed was not a triumph of democracy or accountability; rather, it was Karzai’s equivalent of the Saturday Night Massacre.

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Don’t Meddle in Afghanistan’s Election

A few days ago, Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon took to the pages of The Washington Post to argue that the United States should actively interfere in the next Afghan election to pick a winner. O’Hanlon writes:

Some may wish to avoid interfering in the elections of a sovereign nation, but Afghan reformers are calling out for help. When I visited Afghanistan in May, several suggested to me that the United States pick a winner so they could rally around him. Also, the international presence in Afghanistan will have enormous influence whether we acknowledge it or not. Supporting the Karzai government is actually a form of political intervention, as it gives the incumbent great resources, such as control of state-run media, to try to choose his successor. Moreover, with U.S. officials making decisions about how much money and how many troops to devote to Afghanistan’s long-term assistance, we have a right to say that the level of our support will be strongly influenced by the choices Afghans make — even if we will not (and should not) try to pick a winner… U.S. diplomats, ideally backed by other foreign missions in Kabul, including such key Muslim states as Turkey, Indonesia and Tanzania (which have impressive track records in fighting corruption and improving governance in recent years), should also be willing to say, publicly if necessary, which candidates would be unacceptable as president.

O’Hanlon is a serious scholar and a formidable strategic thinker. He is not an instant expert chasing after headlines; his ideas deserve to be taken seriously. In this case, however, he is not only wrong, but if the Obama administration and U.S. military followed his advice, the results would be counterproductive to the extreme.

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A few days ago, Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon took to the pages of The Washington Post to argue that the United States should actively interfere in the next Afghan election to pick a winner. O’Hanlon writes:

Some may wish to avoid interfering in the elections of a sovereign nation, but Afghan reformers are calling out for help. When I visited Afghanistan in May, several suggested to me that the United States pick a winner so they could rally around him. Also, the international presence in Afghanistan will have enormous influence whether we acknowledge it or not. Supporting the Karzai government is actually a form of political intervention, as it gives the incumbent great resources, such as control of state-run media, to try to choose his successor. Moreover, with U.S. officials making decisions about how much money and how many troops to devote to Afghanistan’s long-term assistance, we have a right to say that the level of our support will be strongly influenced by the choices Afghans make — even if we will not (and should not) try to pick a winner… U.S. diplomats, ideally backed by other foreign missions in Kabul, including such key Muslim states as Turkey, Indonesia and Tanzania (which have impressive track records in fighting corruption and improving governance in recent years), should also be willing to say, publicly if necessary, which candidates would be unacceptable as president.

O’Hanlon is a serious scholar and a formidable strategic thinker. He is not an instant expert chasing after headlines; his ideas deserve to be taken seriously. In this case, however, he is not only wrong, but if the Obama administration and U.S. military followed his advice, the results would be counterproductive to the extreme.

Let’s put aside that Tanzania doesn’t have an embassy in Afghanistan, and few Afghans care what Turkey thinks. We should also open to question the comments of those with whom O’Hanlon spoke during his recent trip to Afghanistan: The U.S. military’s horse-and-pony shows are much like grand juries: the bubble is controlled and so is the outcome, simply by controlling where the jurors can go and with which witnesses they can interact.

For very simple reasons, the idea of mucking about in the elections would backfire and benefit only Karzai, whom O’Hanlon is right to castigate as a malign influence.  He proposes Ashraf Ghani and Hanif Atmar, as suitable candidates deserving of U.S. backing. Both are talented people but very much unelectable. Picking either would be about as wise as betting on Jon Huntsman to get the nod at the Republican National Convention.

The problem is also in the principle. If the United States interferes in elections, it will affirm the worst beliefs of Afghans who interpreted the overbearing attitudes of the late Richard Holbrooke and Peter Galbraith as direct interference. Not only did their actions create a backlash among ordinary Afghans, but they also convinced Karzai and his supporters to do anything possible to rig the polls.

O’Hanlon is correct that Karzai is a disaster. We have seen this picture before, however, because whenever American policymakers concentrate more on supporting an individual than in building a system, the results are the same: The individual grows corrupt and power-hungry, cutting off rivals at the knees. Generals and diplomats, worried more about short-term metrics than long-term stability, fear anything that undercuts their partner, playing into the partners’ hands as he consolidates power.

What should the United States do? Frankly, anything may be too late. Our original sin was imposing a system on Afghanistan with so much power vested in the president. Not only was that system unnatural in Afghan affairs, but also throughout Afghan history, there is a direct correlation between insurgency and the speed of reform. More important, is President Obama’s timeline. No matter what the merits of an electoral plan, so long as an artificial timeline to withdraw hangs over Afghanistan, then American influence rests on quicksand. It’s not even clear that Afghanistan has the resources to hold elections, nor that donors are willing to pony up the several hundred million dollars to make it possible. Elections challenge security, but rather than surge troops into Afghanistan during elections, Obama plans to withdraw them.

If O’Hanlon wants to rally international partners—and avoiding the malign influence of both Iran and Pakistan will be difficult under such circumstances—then the pressure must be for an empowerment of the parliament and local officials at the expense of the president.

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Paying the Price in Afghanistan

Most officers, now deploying to Afghanistan often for their third or fourth time, are far more attuned to political developments and the problems facing that country than the politicians who are ordering them into battle. Based on my experience teaching classes to deploying officers before each unit departs, there is an overwhelming consensus that governance in Afghanistan is fatally flawed. While officers recognize that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is inimical to American security, few officers see how propping up Hamid Karzai’s corrupt plutocracy is a U.S. interest.

Alas, the problem that Karzai has become today is the direct result of a strategy that traded short-term gain for long-term ills. Without doubt, it was important that the United States unseat the Taliban. Simply put, the Taliban can never be a partner for peace and it should have no role in Afghanistan’s future; it must be eliminated. The Clinton administration had tried a negotiated solution with Taliban leaders; the same Taliban representatives with whom Obama’s team now engage promised any number of resolutions, but then as now always failed to deliver.

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Most officers, now deploying to Afghanistan often for their third or fourth time, are far more attuned to political developments and the problems facing that country than the politicians who are ordering them into battle. Based on my experience teaching classes to deploying officers before each unit departs, there is an overwhelming consensus that governance in Afghanistan is fatally flawed. While officers recognize that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is inimical to American security, few officers see how propping up Hamid Karzai’s corrupt plutocracy is a U.S. interest.

Alas, the problem that Karzai has become today is the direct result of a strategy that traded short-term gain for long-term ills. Without doubt, it was important that the United States unseat the Taliban. Simply put, the Taliban can never be a partner for peace and it should have no role in Afghanistan’s future; it must be eliminated. The Clinton administration had tried a negotiated solution with Taliban leaders; the same Taliban representatives with whom Obama’s team now engage promised any number of resolutions, but then as now always failed to deliver.

When Operation Enduring Freedom began, the problem was not just the Taliban but rather, more broadly, the warlords or, in diplomat-speak, “regional power brokers.” When Operation Enduring Freedom began, Afghanistan had been without an army or professional police force for years. Warlords ruled the country. The United States was not in a position to subdue every single warlord; Afghanistan was not logistically capable of handling the huge numbers of U.S. forces that would be necessary for such a mission; the country did not have the extensive networks of bases such as those Saddam Hussein had left behind in Iraq.

The strategy hatched by Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American on Condoleezza Rice’s National Security Council (and future ambassador to Afghanistan), was to co-opt as many Afghan warlords as possible by giving them posts in the new Afghan government, thereby removing them from their regional power base, all the while building up the new Afghan security forces. To enable this strategy to work, American officials needed a strong central government, with a president able to appoint not only ministers, but also governors and other regional officials.

Karzai certainly did not object to a strong presidency, and played along. He appointed Ismail Khan—a major Iranian-backed warlord from Herat—to be minister of energy. Notorious Afghan Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum became chief of staff to commander of the Afghan National Army, a largely ceremonial position.  The new Afghan government transferred Gul Agha Sherzai to be governor, first of Kandahar and then Nangarhar. Initially, the strategy paid off. By the time the warlords recognized their power had been surpassed by the national army, it was too late for them.

The payback, however, is now: The central government has become a major source of grievance. Karzai is mercurial and his family notoriously corrupt. If a basis of the U.S. counterinsurgency is to win hearts and minds at a local level, then Karzai and the centralized model implemented during the Bush years becomes the major problem. Afghan villagers and townsmen want leaders to whom they can turn who look like them, speak like them, and are representative of the population in the district in which they live. But, if the appointees and decisions are coming from above, then ultimately the only way to fight city hall is to fight the central government.

So what to do? The short-term strategy achieved its goal—the power of the warlords was undercut—but the bill is now coming due. Unless there is a concerted effort by all international partners to encourage a new loyal jirga to reconsider the structure of government, then Afghanistan is headed once again to chaos. Success will depend on empowering local officials beneath the banner of a loose central government. Alas, the United States has no standing now to rectify either problem, nor does Karzai have an interest in loosening the grip of his family. Obama’s timeline for withdrawal has undercut what little leverage American policymakers have.

The whole situation adds up to a frustrating mess for our soldiers, who are putting their lives on the line for a noble goal betrayed by a diplomatic fiction they all can see through. It is time our politicians treated our troops with the respect they deserve. They are willing to answer the call, but they must see that the problems so glaringly obvious in Afghanistan are being addressed rather than swept under the rug.

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Allen West’s Reckless Rhetoric

Republican Representative Allen West, a Tea Party favorite from Florida, weighed in on President Obama’s 10-year security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In the agreement, Obama pledged continued support to Afghanistan once NATO combat troops leave in 2014. “I look at what happened between President Obama and President Karzai as a 1930s, Chamberlain, Hitler moment,” Representative West told radio host Frank Gaffney. “There is not going to be peace in our time.”

I’m not quite sure what this analogy is supposed to prove. Is Karzai supposed to be Hitler? Whatever complaints one has with Karzai – and I have plenty of my own – he’s clearly no Hitler, and he doesn’t appear to have designs for world conquest.

As a general matter, the Chamberlain-Hitler-appeasement analogy is much overused and is often a sign of lazy thinking, as is the case here.

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Republican Representative Allen West, a Tea Party favorite from Florida, weighed in on President Obama’s 10-year security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In the agreement, Obama pledged continued support to Afghanistan once NATO combat troops leave in 2014. “I look at what happened between President Obama and President Karzai as a 1930s, Chamberlain, Hitler moment,” Representative West told radio host Frank Gaffney. “There is not going to be peace in our time.”

I’m not quite sure what this analogy is supposed to prove. Is Karzai supposed to be Hitler? Whatever complaints one has with Karzai – and I have plenty of my own – he’s clearly no Hitler, and he doesn’t appear to have designs for world conquest.

As a general matter, the Chamberlain-Hitler-appeasement analogy is much overused and is often a sign of lazy thinking, as is the case here.

Representative West, it’s probably worth pointing out, also recently told a town hall meeting that “there’s [sic] about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party who are members of the Communist Party,” referring to their membership in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. (West’s defense of his comments can be found here.)

This is not simply an unfortunate comment but an ugly one. Communism is associated with immense and even incomprehensible humor horror, from the estimated 65 million deaths under Mao in China; to the more than 20 million Russians who perished under Stalin and Lenin; to the almost two million Cambodians – comprising around one quarter of the entire population – who died under the Pol Pot regime. Communism has been responsible for forced labor, slavery, starvation, mass executions, and wholesale slaughter. Surely West must know this. And so for him to characterize his (very) liberal colleagues as Communists, and then to defend the claim, is a form of slander.

West would do himself, his party and his cause a world of good if he decided to jettison the corrosive and insulting rhetoric.

 

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