This Week at War: You Can’t Always Pick Your Afghan Friends

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

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Why would ‘American officials' expose their own intelligence source?

Why would ‘American officials’ expose their own intelligence source?

On Oct. 27, the New York Times reported that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of President Hamid Karzai and a major power broker in Kandahar, was a paid intelligence asset of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Times‘s sources for this allegation included "current and former American officials" including a former CIA officer and perhaps a senior U.S. military officer in Kabul. Karzai acknowledged aiding U.S. efforts but denied receiving any payments from the CIA.

The piece asserted that Karzai’s alleged connections to Afghanistan’s drug trade created deep frustrations with senior political and military officials in both the Obama and Bush administrations.

Did frustration and moral outrage with Karzai’s illicit activities lead U.S. officials to expose him as a paid CIA asset? It would certainly be understandable, for these officials may have a low opinion of him and perhaps by association his brother the president. But this collective outburst is folly and will make a nearly impossible task for the United States in Afghanistan only that much harder.

The U.S. officials who exposed Karzai are likely hoping that with his status now public, he will no longer be useful to the CIA. Perhaps they are hoping that the CIA will be too embarrassed to continue paying him. As the Times piece discusses, some officials believe that if the U.S. really wants better governance in Afghanistan, it must begin by getting rid of types like him. They have concluded that for a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy to succeed, clean Afghan governance needs to occur concurrently, not later. By continuing to work with the president’s brother, the CIA was not cooperating with this view. Those objecting to the CIA’s alleged connection with Karzai appear to have used the New York Times in an attempt to resolve this interagency dispute.

Regardless of which strategy President Obama chooses for Afghanistan, executing that strategy will require extensive cooperation with all levels of Afghan society. U.S. officials have to deal with Afghanistan society as it is, not as they wish it might be. With no history of a successful strong central government, and not much prospect of establishing it anytime soon, U.S. officials have to deal with local strongmen. If, perhaps like Ahmed Wali Karzai, the local strongman is both very powerful and equally unsavory, U.S. military, State Department, and CIA field officers will have to weigh the feasible alternatives, if any can be found. If there are no alternatives, U.S. officials will have to quietly decide whether the mission is worth the moral consequences.

By contrast, the very public exposure of Ahmed Wali Karzai revealed some U.S. officials to be petulant and self-destructive. As a result of his exposure, Karzai may now provide less help to the Americans and more help for the Taliban and the drug barons. The CIA had hoped to recruit other local strongmen or Taliban leaders into its employ. The prospects for that, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, must now be considerably lower. In fact, any measure of American reliability, so crucial for the success of a counterinsurgency campaign, has been damaged. And if some hoped that embarrassing the Karzai family would boost Abdullah Abdullah into the presidency, such an outcome would only boost the ferocity of Pashtun resistance.

A subtext of the New York Times story was the moral complexity of Afghan culture. But it is also a story of America’s culture, which simply may not be suited for military-social engineering campaigns such as that envisioned for Afghanistan.

U.S.-India military cooperation: some rare good news in Asia

Oct. 27 was the final day of Exercise Yudh Abyhas 2009, where a mechanized infantry battalion of the Indian Army hosted a similar unit from the U.S. Army for two weeks of combined training. The exercise concluded with a complex live-fire assault involving tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and helicopter-borne infantry. According to Lt. Gen. A.S. Sekhon of the Indian Army, this training exercise was the largest the Indian Army has ever done with a foreign army.

This was the fifth annual iteration of Exercise Yudh Abyhas. In previous years Indian soldiers have trained in Alaska and Hawaii while U.S. soldiers have trained at India’s counterinsurgency and jungle warfare school.

It is not only the U.S. Army that is developing a relationship with India. The U.S. and Indian air forces recently completed their fourth annual installment of Exercise Cope India. Malabar 2009, an annual U.S.-India naval training exercise, occurred in April, and added Japanese naval forces to the event. Previous Malabar exercises have involved U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups and U.S. Marine Corps amphibious assault forces.

Although hardly trouble-free, the rapid expansion in the defense relationship between the United States and India contrasts sharply with the troubled security relationships the U.S. has with China and Pakistan. After much pleading, this week the Chinese government finally sent Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, to meet with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It was the first meeting at this level the U.S. has had with China since 2006. Admiral Timothy Keating, the recently departed commander of U.S. Pacific Command, fared no better engaging with his Chinese counterparts. In an interview with the Financial Times, Keating remarked, "I don’t have their [senior Chinese military officials’] phone number. I can’t pick up the phone and wish them happy birthday. I don’t mean to be glib about it . . . [But] we don’t enjoy the sort of communication that I have with almost every other military leader in Asia.

The U.S. security relationship with Pakistan has its own troubles. According to the Pew Research Center, only 16 percent of Pakistanis surveyed have a favorable view of the United States and 13 percent have confidence in President Barack Obama. On Oct. 28 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Pakistan and received an angry reception over perceived U.S. infringements of Pakistan’s sovereignty and blame for the Taliban’s bombing campaign in Pakistan’s cities.

With little seeming to go right with Afghanistan, Pakistan, or China, U.S. policymakers should be pleased with warming U.S.-India defense ties. It is U.S. policy to support China’s peaceful and harmonious arrival as a major power. The U.S. is also trying to find a happy ending to its troubles in Afghanistan. But good intentions have little to do with good results. When pondering Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, the U.S.-India defense relationship is something both countries will take comfort in – and may someday need.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.
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