The Karzai Factor

The Afghan president just lost his best friend in the U.S. government. And he's not happy about it.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

McChrystal is out. Petraeus is in. And Karzai is Karzai.

With the sacking of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has lost a buddy, and he’s upset about it. You see, Karzai needs all the buddies he can get these days, having clashed with an impressively wide variety of U.S. and NATO officials during the conduct of the long, long Afghan war. Barack Obama, Richard Holbrooke, Karl Eikenberry — name an official and there’s been a spat. But General McChrystal was different. He went on trips around Afghanistan with Karzai to meet with tribal leaders (without the U.S. general and his formidable security blanket, those trips would have been too perilous for the Afghan president to undertake). McChrystal altered military tactics in an effort to cut down on civilian casualties, a long-time demand of Karzai’s whose realization boosted the president’s standing with his people. After years of complaints from Kabul, McChrystal finally came through.

Indeed, understanding why McChrystal was so welcome in Afghanistan means appreciating just how bad U.S. relations with Karzai have become. The first big deterioration took place in 2005, when Karzai went to Washington to ask then-President George W. Bush for more authority over the foreign forces on his sovereign soil. The request was denied — publicly and to Karzai’s humiliation, anger, and frustration. In the years since then, Karzai has grown more erratic and unpredictable to the point that some suggested he had gone mad, or was consuming some of the drugs made from Afghanistan’s major cash crop, the opium poppy. Karzai acknowledged fraud in the August presidential election but accused the United Nations of perpetrating it; he was annoyed by the taking down of key Taliban operatives in Pakistan, claiming it upset his own backdoor peace negotiations; he blustered in a private meeting that maybe he should join the Taliban; and when the recent loya jirga, or grand council, meeting in Kabul was attacked by Taliban rockets, Karzai suggested that the West was to blame.

Enter McChrystal, the first foreign commander to treat Karzai as the President, capital "P," of Afghanistan. And now the general is gone, hoisted by his own petard, as it were, in a fit of foolish candor with a Rolling Stone freelancer. McChrystal was summoned to the Oval Office and summarily sacked, and rightly so. Military and civilian leaders rarely see eye to eye, and each side constantly grouses about the stupidity or intransigence or one-dimensional thinking of the other — but not to Rolling Stone reporters. What McChrystal told Rolling Stone could simply not be tolerated in a democracy where the civilian side maintains absolute authority over the military; in that context, the general’s offhand remarks bordered on insurrection.

But that was of little matter to Karzai, who, as time goes by, seems to have less and less appreciation for the niceties of democracy. The Afghan president complained to Obama about McChrystal’s firing, arguing that the general was still the best man for the job. Then, in a bizarre turn, the president and his half-brother Wali held news conferences in Kabul and Kandahar, respectively, to voice their support for McChrystal, urging that he be returned to Afghanistan. Ahmed Wali Karzai is, of course, the strongman of Kandahar and reputedly has a finger in every pie in southern Afghanistan, including the robust drug trade. (For Karzai the president to cede half the media space to Karzai the strongman on such a major issue seems to have been a concession to Wali’s political power — which may be actually greater than the man in Kabul’s.)

Now comes Gen. David Petraeus, no stranger to Afghanistan. He and McChrystal formulated Obama’s Afghan strategy, such as it is — a strategy that led to the deployment of 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and the so-far failed efforts to pacify ("de-Talibanize") the southern part of Afghanistan. So far, Karzai has been gracious about the news, calling Petraeus a "trusted partner" in the ongoing struggle. Petraeus is much more of a polished politician than McChrystal, to be sure, and he will likely play well with others. But whether he will be Karzai’s new best friend is doubtful.

A good measure of Karzai’s erratic behavior stems from frustration over his powerlessness in his own country, the knowledge that implementation of the U.S. exit strategy will begin in a few months, and the widespread belief that Afghanistan is militarily unwinnable. Under such circumstances, a changing of the guard like this is roughly equivalent to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Karzai knows it — however much he may protest. He knows that for these last few moments before the deluge, he’ll have to go it without his buddy.

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