Terms of Engagement


Is Hamid Karzai worth the fight in Afghanistan? We'd better learn the answer soon -- or give up the counterinsurgency game.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

It’s a bad moment for counterinsurgency strategy and its adherents. The surge that U.S. President Barack Obama ordered in Afghanistan appears to have sunk into a quagmire, one that critics of the policy foresaw at the time. Indeed, the polemic underneath Rolling Stone‘s profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal was that the "runaway general" had hornswoggled a gullible president into signing off on a hopeless mission. The author, freelance journalist Michael Hastings, described the adversary as "Afghan kids who pose no threat to the U.S. homeland" and compared the nation-building effort there to "trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock." Of course, if that’s so, then McChrystal probably should have been court-martialed rather than forcibly retired.

After reading the article, I compiled a document I called "COIN toss," listing the arguments for and against continuing the counterinsurgency effort. As someone who holds out some faint hope for the administration’s strategy, I was dismayed to see that while I came up with 10 reasons to abandon COIN (counterinsurgency), most based on observable failures of the strategy, I could think of only five reasons to keep it, most based on hope and scant signs of progress. The list of cons included: "Karzai is too corrupt," "Karzai doesn’t believe in it," "the Taliban is too strong," "Afghans hate the American presence," and "American troops won’t do it" (the one argument Hastings powerfully vindicated). The pros included "social and economic indicators are rising," "Afghans hate the Taliban," and "it’s too early." I don’t think we can call that a tie.

Still, at the bottom of each list I had written the great equalizer: On one side, "We can afford to lose," and on the other, "We can’t afford to lose." If U.S. and NATO troops really are facing kids who can’t see beyond their neighborhood, or even fundamentalists who will be satisfied by stripping away all vestiges of modernity from Afghanistan, then the war is simply unnecessary for Americans. Americans lived with Taliban control of Afghanistan in 1997, and ashamed though they might feel for having raised the hopes of the Afghan people only to abandon them, Americans would probably live with it again. Perhaps they would pay no graver cost in leaving Afghanistan than they did in pulling out of Vietnam in 1975.

But I doubt it. While communism was rapidly discrediting itself as a fighting faith in the 1970s, jihadism is a vibrant cause that would experience profound validation from a forced U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently wrote, the Afghan Taliban is "far better linked to Al Qa’ida and other international extremist groups" than it was only a few years ago; should they gain real power, "they are likely to become such a sanctuary and a symbol of victory that will empower similar extremists all over the world." This is not to say that a monolithic jihadism will spread outward from Afghanistan in a contemporary version of the domino theory, but rather that a Taliban victory there is likely to attract and inspire Islamist radicals everywhere.

That doesn’t mean the United States "can’t afford to lose," but rather that the costs of accepting failure could be very high. So it is imperative to ask whether the obstacles to success, however defined, can be overcome. Right now, as my note-to-self indicated, those obstacles seem overwhelming: Even those who argue for some version of "stay the course," like the New Yorker‘s George Packer, view the available alternatives as even worse than the apparently doomed counterinsurgency effort. It’s rapidly becoming intellectually embarrassing to profess any faith in the effort at all.

But let me try. The Rolling Stone article made a strong, if inadvertent, case that for all his many virtues, McChrystal was never the right man to carry out his own strategy. COIN doctrine requires a radical deference by military commanders to civilian goals, and to civilian leaders: You cannot, as advocates endlessly repeat, kill your way to victory. McChrystal’s now-notorious contempt for the silver-tongued, glad-handing, endlessly ambivalent senior White House officials he had to deal with was of a piece with his nonchalance toward the inevitably messy, time-consuming, and compromised political objectives of the war. This is the man who spoke of setting up "government in a box" in each new liberated district. That’s a blinkered view of governance, especially in a place like Afghanistan. McChrystal may be an enlightened soldier, but he’s still a soldier.

During the time I spent in Afghanistan this April, I watched the painstaking and often just painful effort of giving birth to local government, and to a social contract between citizen and state. It felt more like the flowering of a seed — at best — than the unpacking of a box. You could argue in fact, as a general rejoinder to COIN strategy, that the organic time scale of such a process is just too gradual to match any military timetable Americans will accept. The American and Afghan officials I spent time with didn’t think so. They thought that they could actually make a meaningful difference before mid-2011, when Obama’s drawdown of troops is scheduled to begin; but they did fear that their effort would be wasted unless the Afghan state committed itself to making local government work nationwide, by sending resources and by delegating authority to provincial and district officials.

But that’s going to require pushing Karzai to take governance seriously, or at least get out of the way so that local power brokers can do so. The civilian leaders to whom I talked understood that; I don’t know whether McChrystal’s team did. McChrystal earned Karzai’s regard by treating him with great deference, and he used that capital to induce the Afghan president to sign off on, or at least not directly oppose, NATO’s military operations. That was an important transaction, but it was a soldier’s transaction. There was no one to push, seduce, or bribe Karzai to, for example, replace some of his most corrupt and brutal allies in Kabul or the provinces, in part because Karzai learned to play off the military against civilian authorities.

In cashiering McChrystal, Obama said that Gen. David Petraeus will pursue the same policy as his predecessor. I hope that’s not true; I hope that when Petraeus undertakes his own review he’ll conclude that the military tail is wagging the civilian dog. U.S. and NATO troops continue to rely for security and logistical support on some of the most brutal and venal figures in Afghanistan, thus securing short-term advantage at the cost of deepening the alienation of the Afghan people. How can Karzai be pressed to move against corruption if U.S. forces are themselves reinforcing it? And Karzai must be pressed to release his death grip on political power, allowing parliament and the courts to exercise authority and accepting that power must be decentralized in a country with a long tradition of local autonomy. If ordinary Afghans are to take real risks to defend the state from the Taliban, then the government they directly experience has to be empowered — which is another reason why Karzai must first replace some of the worst actors at the local level.

Can Petraeus, whose dickering with members of Iraq’s Sunni Awakening movement shows a flair for negotiation, push Karzai to make concessions he apparently doesn’t believe in? That could be a Sisyphean effort. The only way to persuade Karzai to buy into NATO’s war is probably to agree to buy in to his, which is to say the effort to persuade Taliban commanders to put down their arms, join the government, and thus preserve Karzai’s own position. The carrot might have to be paired with a stick: If Karzai remains intransigent over the next six months or so, the United States will have to accept that the counterinsurgency effort cannot succeed and begin an earlier withdrawal of troops. Petraeus is probably the wrong man for such a messy, fluid, fragile deal. It’s the kind of bargain those mealy-mouthed politicians McChrystal and his team despised are so good at striking.

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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