Small Wars

This Week at War: It’s Karzai’s Show Now

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.


Note to the White House: You don’t own Karzai — he owns you

In the March 26 edition of this column, I warned that bargaining with the Taliban for a settlement in Afghanistan would open a fissure between Afghan and U.S. interests. But it should be clear that such a new fissure would join others that are already cracking up U.S.-Afghan relations. What the Obama team needs to determine is whether it can achieve its objectives in Afghanistan while its relations with President Hamid Karzai crumble.

On March 29, the New York Times described another crack in the foundation. According to the story, an angry Karzai, after having been de-invited to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House, invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul to deliver an anti-American speech at the presidential palace. Ahmadinejad’s speech occurred while Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting U.S. troops in the country.

The piece went on to discuss a lunch meeting at his palace during which Karzai declared that "the Americans are in Afghanistan because they want to dominate his country and the region." According to the article, Karzai asserted that he could reach a settlement with the Taliban but that U.S. officials are preventing that in order to prolong the war and their military presence in the region.

It is expected that Karzai, like any leaders in his position, would wish to demonstrate to his compatriots that he is not a mere crony of a foreign power. But Karzai wasn’t shy about delivering a similar message in a November 2009 interview with PBS’s Newshour, whose audience includes the Washington establishment: "[T]he West is not here primarily for the sake of Afghanistan. It is here to fight the war on terror…. We were being killed by al Qaeda and the terrorists before Sept. 11 for years, tortured and killed; our villages were destroyed, and we were living a miserable life. The West didn’t care nor did they ever come." It appears as if the Obama team should not count on receiving any gratitude from Karzai.

How can Karzai, the leader of an incredibly poor and dependent country, get away with antagonizing the U.S. government? He realized, perhaps before U.S. policymakers did, that the heightened U.S. commitment of prestige in Afghanistan means that the United States no longer has the option of either redefining its mission in a way that would exclude Karzai or of withholding large-scale support for Afghanistan’s institutions. With escalation, the U.S. government became dependent on Karzai and not vice versa.

What U.S. policymakers now need to contemplate is whether they can achieve their goals in Afghanistan while relations with Karzai and the government in Kabul deteriorate. The White House needs the American public, not to mention its soldiers, to believe in the Afghan mission. Publicly quarreling with and disparaging Karzai and his government can quickly shatter that belief. Similarly, Karzai’s open distrust of America’s motives is no doubt a boost to the Taliban’s recruiting.

U.S. officials think they have valid complaints about the performance of Karzai and his government. It must seem paradoxical to many of those officials that their leverage over Karzai declined with each increment of U.S. escalation. They’d better quickly accept that paradox if they wish to avoid a debacle.

The Afghan campaign is now about reputation, not terrorism

The March 29 suicide bombings on Moscow’s subway system, which killed 39 and injured more than 70, have left Russians wondering what their government will do in response. On April 1, President Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Dagestan with a five-point plan that promised a mixture of "sharp dagger blows," economic development, and the promotion of "morality and spiritual growth" in the North Caucasus region. After nearly two decades of various military campaigns in the region, Russia has pacified Chechnya and the North Caucasus as much as it ever will. But the terrorist attacks in Moscow and elsewhere show the limitations of the Chechen operations as exercises in counterterrorism. Russia’s brutal military campaigns in Chechnya may have done little to protect Russia from terrorism. Nonetheless, the wars demonstrated Russia’s willingness to forcefully defend its sovereignty, something it no doubt believed was a useful lesson for others to observe.

We can say the same about the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. As U.S. military forces press on with their campaign — next stop, Kandahar — police at home have had to deal with the likes of Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Hasan, attempted airline bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and Najibullah Zazi who recently pleaded guilty to plotting to attack the New York City subway system. None of these plots received material support from Afghanistan’s badlands. Similarly, even with the campaign in Afghanistan, thousands of police officers in the United States are still required to attend training on identifying and dismantling improvised explosive devices made from common household products. The 9/11 attacks had a connection (along with other places) to Afghanistan. The next terrorist attack on the United States very likely won’t — which may cause many to wonder why Afghanistan is getting so much costly attention.

If the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan isn’t really protecting the U.S. homeland from terrorism, what is its purpose? On March 28, President Barack Obama made a quick visit to Afghanistan, where he reminded soldiers that the U.S. mission there is "to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies…. We’re going to deny al Qaeda safe haven. We’re going to reverse the Taliban’s momentum. We’re going to strengthen the capacity of Afghan security forces and the Afghan government so that they can begin taking responsibility and gain confidence of the Afghan people."

Left unsaid is to what measurable standard or duration the U.S. government is to achieve those goals. Ultimately, Obama will attempt to make those judgments. But his answers have to be believed by not only the American public but by much of the rest of the world.

In this sense, the United States is fighting in Afghanistan not against terrorism but for its reputation, for its ability to convince the wider world that it is in control of its affairs and that its power can achieve challenging goals. But this means that the world audience, and not the U.S. president, will decide for itself whether it is convinced about the efficacy of American power.

As it did with the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, the world audience will decide whether the United States won or lost its war. That audience, and not Obama, will set the benchmarks for success, which the United States will be obliged to meet.

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