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.